Not About Top Chef New Orleans, Season 11

I intended to blog this season of Top Chef, the one that just started. I really did; I said I would back in August when I quit blogging Project Runway in the middle of a season, out of disgust (footnote: last Thursday, I realized I had no idea who had won PR. There was a good reason for that, seeing as the season wasn’t over yet, but that’s how disconnected I became once I stopped blogging).

But I can’t.

Primarily, it’s an issue of time. I’m taking three very enjoyable but work-intensive MOOCs through Coursera; that, plus the low level of blogging I’ve been doing for the past couple of months, has me slightly pressed for time already. The new BASS is dropping this week, and while I’m incredibly psyched, it means more time there, and I have an EdX Science & Cooking class starting this week, more time, plus a History of Philosophy course the week after… If I can tolerate three weeks of frenzy, I can get through it all, but it’s iffy.

If I were really psyched about Top Chef, as psyched as I am about BASS, I’d find a way to fit it in, of course. But I’m not. I’m sure there’s going to be some great stuff in there (sweet potato linguini, anyone?), but it’s going to be 90% seared scallops and braised short ribs and, because it’s in New Orleans, 37 varieties of gumbo. That’s fine – I’ll watch every week, and I’ll get caught up in the drama – but I’d rather blog the Cooking & Science course, which features guest lectures by superstars like Jose Andres and Harold McGee. Without drama.

And I’ll admit, I’ve still got a bad taste in my mouth from PR. It’s not fair to let that spread to Top Chef, which sometimes goes off the rails and is far more sponsor-driven than I’d like and does keep people around for reasons other than ability, but has still maintained a toehold in the sphere of integrity. I gave on Heidi Klum long ago, and she dragged Tim down into the fourth circle of hell with her, yet I still believe Tom Colicchio is a basically honorable guy. However: as they say, “It is what it is.” I’m unable to suspend disbelief at this time.

The limits of time force me to pick and choose. I’ll be watching every Wednesday, but I won’t be blogging. Maybe next time?

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Top Chef Seattle: Episode 17 – Finale (Finally)

ADDENDUM: Tom Colicchio appeared on UP With Chris Hayes on Saturday, 3/2/13, starting out with a couple of solo segments to talk about the release of the documentary he just produced on Hunger in America (“A Place At The Table“) then a broader discussion, on a full panel of four, about food politics and economics, school lunches (including shots from the S7 school lunch challenge), and the restaurant industry. I was impressed; he held his own along with the activists and policy wonks. The videos of the segments start here and should chain from there.

I was looking forward to this finale.

No matter what the outcome, I figured I’d be happy. It isn’t that I didn’t care who won; it was more like I wanted them both to win and kept going back and forth, but I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed (or outraged) either way. Unless, of course, someone made a horrible mistake and won anyway. But that didn’t happen.

I’m guessing the producers saw they were dealing with two likeable contestants with strong skills and low-drama styles. And panicked. No hissy-fits? No back-stabbing? No trash-talk? Just solid cooking with a few unusual accents and standard foods combined and presented in slightly different ways? What kind of finale would that be?

So they wrecked it.

I suppose it’s better than making a big deal out of a single serving of fish with bones in it, or ramping up some phony suspense about whether a dessert would set in time. Or featuring an extra leaf of arugula as a major flaw (love you, Paul!) only to have Tom backtrack in his blog the next day.

No, I take that back. It isn’t.

Ok, so I’m an old fart, and I’m resistant to change; I know these things. But it was nearly unwatchable. Oddly, I’d just left a comment for minxeats complaining about (among other things) the unwatchability of The Taste (all those flashing lights and dynamic camera angles obscured what was actually happening). So imagine my disappointment that TC decided to go that way as well.

It wasn’t unwatchable, but it was close.

For Starters:

Instead of the usual boring opening sequence, we have Padma playing Game Show Hostess. What I truly loved was that for the first ten seconds of her little spiel, her face was covered by the TV Parental Guidelines square. Hint: Producers, when you’re using a world-famous model, don’t put her in the upper left-hand corner for the opening.

iron chefWait: the kitchens, the judges, the audience, 160 diners (including the families of the two contenders and all nine former TC winners) are all visible in a huge open studio. It’s Kitchen Stadium. Did they knock-off Iron Chef America? Why would they do that? Just to show they could? Or to return Alton Brown’s smackdown?

We join things in progress: the chefs have already chosen their sous chefs (in whatever mysterious way: was it random draw or alternating choice? Why should we care what’s actually going on, let’s just look at the flashing lights and dark space and fast shoulder-cam pans and marvel at the confusing visual. ADDENDUM: Kristen’s post-show interview with TV Guide fills us in). Brooke has CJ, Stefan, and Kuniko; with Kristen are Lizzie, Sheldon, and Josh. I wonder again about Kristen’s ability to choose a team, and admire Brooke for not going for the last-eliminated, but focusing on who might have skills she can use. I love Sheldon, but Kristen does French; unless she’s going to be making breakfast, what good is Josh? But she was thinking about egos, or lack thereof. I guess that means they selected. So it tickles me that Stefan is on Brooke’s team.

I wonder if Brooke’s fears include stage fright. If so, she’s in for a rough night.

First Round:

I’m not sure what’s going on, but it seems they’re doing a First Course. Though Padma calls it Round One, without explaining how many rounds there will be (TC, The Mystery Version). Brooke warns CJ not to fry something; cut to CJ flaming pig ears (aha! Knew she’d work them in), drawing displeasure from Tom and Emeril, but no chiding from Brooke, who’s busy. Kristen frets that her comfort zone is cooking for ten, not 160, so she needs to stay calm and not throw up. Yep, not throwing up is good. Kristen expresses herself using bodily functions a lot. That might not be the best style for a chef.

Kristen serves Chicken Liver Mousse with Frisee, Mustard, Prune, Hazelnuts, and Pumpernickel. Emeril notes it’s not the first time she’s done chicken livers on TC, but he loves it; it’s simple and classic and very her. Tom likes the seasoning and balance. Gail thinks it’s perfect, velvety and airy, but the lettuce and croutons piled on top make it hard to find. Its a perfect metaphor for the finale.

Brooke finally gets to serve the Crispy Pig Ear Salad with Chicory, Six-Minute Egg, Apricot Jam, and Candied Kumquats that she developed over the break. Sounds kind of breakfasty, doesn’t it? Tom loves the flavor; the eggs and puree (presumably apricot?) worked together. Emeril loved the dish, but his cracklings were overcooked, thanks to CJ’s flambé technique while Padma’s were delicious and not burned at all. Hugh praises her knowledge of balance in salad dressing, which sounds like damning with faint praise (how many times have the judges scorned a salad as an offering) but he emphasizes how important it is. I think it’s the best-looking dish of the night.

Round One Vote:

Now we find out: each round will be voted immediately, and the first chef to win three rounds will win Top Chef. Sort of like the Super Bowl. For each round, first chef to win three votes wins the round. Which opens up all sorts of possibilities for manipulating the results to stretch things out and add suspense. It also cuts down on the discussion of the food, which Tom acknowledges in his blog. Sure they’d want to cut down on the descriptions of the food, since we’re viewers who can’t taste it and thus rely on the judges’ comments; they wouldn’t want to make it too easy for us. TC, Viewer Challenge Edition.

Kristen wins Round One with Hugh, Gail, and Emeril before Tom and Padma have a chance to chime in. Brooke admits there were execution errors. Be sure to thank CJ for the burned pig ears.

Round Two:

Brooke is using a wide spectrum of flavors. Kristen shouts out direction for a rub to Sheldon: “Four parts salt, one part sugar…” At least I think that’s what she said (yes, the recipe backs that up). She sees Brooke has a lot going on, but she wants to highlight, not cover up, the scallops, so she’s taking a simpler approach. Tom worries that Brooke wasn’t keeping a close enough eye on CJ last round, which resulted in burned pig ears. We hear from Brooke’s family, how she used to watch Galloping Gourmet when she was five years old. Hey, I watched it when it originally aired back in the 60s, back when the Galloping Gourmet still galloped, before he traded in his clarified butter and wine for a calorie chart and a Bible. Stefan is flirting with anything that moves, and on this set, that’s a lot of flirting.

Brooke prepares Seared Scallop with Salt Cod Puree, Speck, and Black Currant and Mustard Seed Vinaigrette. Tom likes the combination; it’s her style to make a version of a basic dish with one thing fighting for dominance, and the scallop is perfectly cooked. Gail wonders why she cooked the scallops so early in the process; she wanted to let them rest. Hugh loves the synergy and earthiness. Emeril’s always a fan of salt cod puree (aka brandade), and this drives it home.

Kristen makes a Citrus and Meyer Lemon-cured Scallop with Bitter Orange, Meyer Lemon and Apple. Tom’s pleased; it’s exactly what he expects from her, flavorful and delicious. Padma: “There’s nowhere to hide on this plate, well done.” Emeril also loves the simplicity.

Round Two Votes:

Gail and Emeril go for Brooke; Tom takes Kristen (people are beginning to talk), Padma ramps up the suspense with a vote for Kristen (forever putting to rest the debate on TWoP about whether or not Padma gets a vote), but Hugh breaks the tie in Brooke’s favor.

Round Three:

They have 34 minutes. Another complaint: no prep time. The first dish seemed to take a while – it had to, for braised pig ears – but everything else is fast food. Add to that the lack of information about whether that is indeed the case. It’s like the Elves are saying, “Just look at the flash and don’t worry your pretty little head about what’s actually going on.” Well, I’ll worry my not-so-pretty-little-head about anything I want, and I want more substance, less sizzle.

Brooke is making chicken wings, then worries this might be too playful: what if the judges don’t want to eat with their fingers? Kristen tells Sheldon all about super-umami bone marrow. Does Sheldon do bone marrow? Does he need to? There’s more family stuff, but that’s when I go get more tea.

Brooke plays with Vadouvan Fried Chicken with Sumac Yogurt-Tahini and Pickled Kohlrabi Fattoush. I thought someone had done vadouvan on this season already, but it looks like that was back in All-Stars E3. Unless I misspelled it. In any case it’s a French spin on curry powder. Fattoush is new to me: it’s a Lebanese bread salad. And sumac is not the same as poison sumac. Hugh was not expecting chicken wings. Brooke defends them as a redemption of her boneless, and flavorless, fried chicken in E12. Tom: I get why you’re doing it, though I’m still not sure why you’re doing it” which is maybe my favorite thing Tom has ever said. He’s also not sure about the salad working with the chicken wings.

Kristen brings out her Celery Root Puree with Bone Marrow, Mushrooms, Bitter Greens and Radishes. She does radishes a lot. Tom asks why the mushrooms were stewed which eliminates their roasty toasty goodness; she wanted the mushrooms as an undertone. Padma wishes something was something, but it wasn’t. Gail isn’t enthused, either.

Round Three Votes:

The judges must’ve been mighty displeased at eating chicken wings with their hands, because Kristen take it 1-2-3: Emeril, Tom (duh), Padma. How did that happen? Tom explains his reasoning, and the deeper failure behind Brooke’s dish, in his blog entry. I say, nonsense. We already know Padma doesn’t mind licking her fingers on camera. Or is it ok if she’s paid for it?

Round Four:

They’re tied 2-1 so Brooke needs to win to keep the game going. But since it’s 10:45 by the time they finish the commercial and start, I’m thinking this is the last round. When the voting starts at 10:55, it’s pretty much a sure thing. For the usual 10:40 interstitial, they feature the former winners giving advice. And they go out of their way to make Ilan look like a jerk. Not that it’s hard… Surprisingly, his advice does not include head-shaving. Kristen practiced this dish; Brooke is going Surf & Turf. And there’s a restaurant supply company getting a lot of product placement time.

Brooke serves Braised Pork Cheek and Red Snapper with Collard Green Slaw and Sorrel Puree. Hugh’s glad to see collards; Tom likes the combination. Emeril loves the sorrel, it perked everything up. Gail loved the play between pork and snapper, and the pomegranate gave it the juice it needed.

Kristen makes her Red Snapper with Leeks, Little Gem Lettuce, Tarragon, ad Uni-Shellfish Nage. Tom’s happy Gail likes the textures, but the leeks, served long and stringy, are hard to eat; they have to be cut. Hugh loved the braised leeks, and didn’t mind that he had to use his knife to cut them. For the record, little gem lettuce isn’t that much of a big deal.

Round Four Vote:

First, Tom asks Kristen about her comeback from elimination, then, at 10:52, we cut to commercial. Spoiler, Bravo. They also show a poll that Kristen is ahead of Brooke for Fan Favorite by 56 to 44, but this seems to be a different Fan Favorite than the important one that earns them money (which I’ll get to).

At 10:55, Gail votes for Kristen’s dish; it was a little more harmonious, and she loved the use of uni. Emeril also goes for Kristen. Brooke looks sad. Kristen looks nervous. And Tom gets to cast the final vote (of course; he is head judge, and you know they aren’t going to let Padma seem to elect the new Top Chef) for Kristen. And Hugh, well, he already got to do a tiebreaker.

In case you weren’t paying close enough attention: Kristen wins Top Chef. Both of them have red eyes and trembling voices in their after-interviews.

I’m happy. I was surprised to discover, during the show, that I was hoping Kristen would pull it off. But I wouldn’t have had any complaints at all about Brooke, either; she seems to know what she’s doing, she seems super-nice, and I admire how she did the boats and the helicopters and all the other crap all season long. She did a great job, and she came off well, and I have no doubt that’s going to serve her well in the future. Maybe not as well as $125,000, but if she wants to get investors together for a restaurant, I don’t think she’ll have any trouble finding them. And if she wants to go the media route, she’ll find herself welcome there, too.

The Unspeakable Andy Cohen Show

I don’t watch this show. I don’t even know the actual name of it. I barely watched it last night, just during The Daily Show commercials, but enough of interest happened to comment.

For instance: in spite of the poll put up during the closing segments of the episode, Sheldon won Fan Favorite and $10,000. Which is super-cool; he is incredibly likeable, and if he hadn’t had those stumbles over the last three episodes, it could’ve gone a different way. When asked on air by phone how he was going to spend the money, Sheldon said: “I’m going to pitch out my 2013 Product Placement Make Model”. Or something like that; Andy Cohen couldn’t manage a clear phone connection to Hawaii, because, well, beyond the shotski and a fondness for showcasing obnoxious housewives, the man’s talents are limited.

And a caller asked Kristen to say three nice things about Josie. Kristen had no trouble:
1. She’s got a wonderful spirit.
2. She’s a great alarm clock (“She woke me up every morning.”)
3. I’d eat her food. She can cook, TC wasn’t the right platform.

Next Week:

I do Calculus on Thursdays instead of recaps. Which is going to do wonders for my comprehension of derivatives and optimization.

If you really, truly haven’t had enough, you can read Francis Lam’s behind-the-scenes; as much as I liked Francis Lam as a TCM judge, it’s nowhere near as interesting or informative as the less-prestigious Nosh Pit article from July.

See you next season. I hear they’re casting already.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 16 – Almost-the-Finale

Sheldon spent his off-season in a cave

Sheldon spent his off-season in a cave

It’s time for that boring pre-finale episode, when we’re all sick of the season and just want it to be over already. Occasionally we get some wonderful surprises; last season’s Fire and Ice comes to mind. But… not this year.

Some will disagree, as Top Chef has stolen the concept of “home visits” from Project Runway (which probably means the Elves merely transplanted their own idea). Problem is: what makes the PR home visits work is Tim Gunn. Top Chef has no Tim Gunn (remember one of the first things Tom said back in Season 1: “I’m not a mentor, I’m a judge”). What they do have are two finalists with lovely families, and I suppose the producers just couldn’t resist the opportunity to show that off. Not to mention get a trip to Hawaii. For me, the most interesting nugget was that Brooke’s husband is a guy she originally hired as her sous chef. The Animal guys are sighing about What Might Have Been right now.

After ten minutes of cooing over children and watching Brooke and Sheldon in their native habitats – their restaurant kitchens – we get to the business of who won Last Chance Kitchen. I got my reality TV confused here: I was trying to figure out how the teaser from last week, the “We have something that needs discussion” in the Stew Room would fit in… except that was Tim, on Project Runway. Yes, I got Padma and Tim mixed up. Can you tell I’ve already moved on?

Turns out Kristen won LCK, to no one’s surprise. Seriously, did you think Bacon for Breakfast was going to win? And Lizzie was overlooked and underrated all season, but she never quite made magic. It had to be Kristen. CJ was just a placeholder.

Which brings us to the cooking part of our cooking competition, finally.

The Challenge:

The three chefs will be serving at Craft, Tom’s LA hangout. Each must make an app, an entrée and a dessert. Tom, Hugh, and Emeril do drive-bys during prep, to distract the chefs and get some footage. Tom expedites; boy, does he expedite, though Hugh assures us, post hoc, that he’s ” calmer with these chefs than he would normally be.” I like it when Tom goes into the kitchen for service; it’s a good opportunity for him, as a judge, to see them function in an actual restaurant setting, and I would think that’s important. It’s also fun to watch Tom in his native habitat.

Martin Yan and John Besh join the dining table. I’m truly embarrassed; in my notes I typed “John Boehner” instead of John Besh when I first saw him. Sorry, Chef, you didn’t deserve that. First I mix up Tom and Padma with Tim, now Besh and Boehner. Maybe I should set up a doctor’s appointment; this is getting alarming.

The Food:

Brooke is a little distracted by too many choices which seems to include everything but pig ears (she’d wished for them during her Home Visit, since her restaurant featured them that night). She isn’t sure exactly what she’s doing with her dishes when she starts. That seems to be her creative process, and it’s worked for her (fried chicken aside) pretty well so far. Hugh visits with her while she’s trying to figure out what to do, and he praises her creativity but warns her to clean the sweetbreads. She’s behind for most of the service; Tom’s constantly at her. But she gets the food out, and there are no disasters:

Crispy Veal Sweetbread Salad with Kumquat, Beets & Mustard: Padma loves the intensity; Yan thinks the beet is a stepchild; Hugh wishes the sweetbreads were cleaned better and weren’t cut as thin, as he misses that “milky softness” in the center. Someone’s gotta make a gif of that.

Braised Short Ribs, Parmesan Sauce, Nettle Puree & Squash Dumplings: Yan and Hugh are crazy about it; Emeril praises the nettle puree. Wait… nettles? Oh, I see, it’s a British tradition, I should’ve known. Especially with Noma turning weed cookery into the Next Big Thing.

Brown Butter Cake, Whipped Goat Cheese & Blackberry Sauce: Yan and Besh are crazy about it; Yan particularly likes the texture and balance the berries add, and makes a “yin and yan” pun.

Judges’ Comments at JT: Tom liked the sweetbreads, but Hugh wished she’d cleaned them more. Turns out she was cleaning them to order, which sounds bizarre to me, but I’ll admit my understanding of sweetbreads is, shall we say, limited. Or, more accurately, nonexistent. Tom: “You have to be prepped and ready to go.” Yeah, we got that from all the nagging you were doing during service. Her short ribs were delicious; Emeril loved the Parmesan sauce. Padma, who is feeling like she isn’t getting enough attention, turns up the bitch again: “Your sauces were great, I wanted to sweep up the sauce with Kristen’s tuna.” Was that really necessary? Brooke’s dessert earns high praise from Emeril, but Tom Was Not Impressed. It was nice, but it’s “not a restaurant dessert.” That’s because restaurants have pastry chefs. Making a delicious, well-made and balanced dessert that goes with the meal is the level they should be shooting for here, and she hit it. But I suppose they had to throw some kind of suspense into the mix, since Brooke’s food was clearly the best of the night.

Kristen wants to simplify, since her downfall has been overcomplicated dishes that can’t be executed properly. Well, that was her downfall once, when she wasn’t the actual cook, but ok. Tom visits her during prep and points out that may be why she did so well in LCK; the limited time forced simplicity. She agrees she didn’t have time to overthink. Whether she really did well in LCK or whether Tom just wanted her to win so he pushed her through, I don’t know, but I’m happy either way. She admits her dessert is an afterthought. Which is too bad, this is someone who made a cake in a tin foil pan to win a Quickfire. I question her taste in one-liners: “I’m sweating in places I didn’t know I could sweat” was ok, but “I peed in my pants a little” thanks to Tom’s frightening expediter persona may replace “I threw up in my mouth a little” as my least favorite disgusting tag line. Kristen, a little advice: no matter how the producers encourage you in that interview room, stick to food.

Chestnut Veloute, Duck Rillette & Brussels Sprouts: Good soup, but needs pickles. Pickles?

Seared Ahi Tuna with Veal Mustard Jus & Meyer Lemon Puree: Yan loves it, but Padma thinks the lemon curd is a little too harsh, and Besh got a little too much salt in one bite. He blames it on Tom.

Curry Chocolate with Cashews: The picture is really interesting, because there are leaves on top; ince recipes are not provided, I don’t really know what they are. Yan is surprised by the curry-chocolate combination, though Padma approves; Hugh thinks it’s not much of an idea; it’s a basic dessert.

Judges’ Table: They liked her soup, though Hugh felt it was one-note and safe. Well, yeah, that was her theme for the evening, keep it simple. Emeril liked the perfectly-cooked tuna, but the lemon was bitter. “I was going for bitter,” says Kristen. With some people, I’d call that bullshit, but not here, probably because I’m a Kristen fan. Tom: “The bitterness in puree didn’t work.” That’s making it clear. She laughs when they ask if she was happy about the dessert. “No, of course not, I gave you a bowl of chocolate.” Yeah, well, why’d you do that? Hugh calls it a badly thought out pot de crème. Emeril liked the flavor; it could be something, but it wasn’t tonight.

Sheldon knows Brooke has some high-falutin’ stuff in her arsenal, so to hone his skills he staged at the impossibly upscale Vintage Cave in Honolulu, a private club based on prehistoric cave art. He hears spot prawns speaking to him in the cooler, and they’re saying, “Pick me, I’m gonna make you win.” He found that really good weed he was wishing for on the glacier, didn’t he? “May the best man win, and you heard that right – the best man, not woman.” Sheldon, see what I said to Kristen above, about not letting the producers goad you into saying dumb things in your interviews? He’s never made dessert either. Well, not never, but it’s way out of his bailiwick. I’m getting a bad feeling about this.

Sashimi Spot Prawns, Court Bouillon, Radish & Asian Herbs: Emeril loves the radish and sea beans; Yan finds it delicate; Besh thinks it’s a difficult dish to pull off.

Roasted Quail, Pine Nut Puree, Garam Masala & Tangerine: Sheldon knows roasted quail with pine nut puree is out of his comfort zone, but he want to show he’s grown as a chef. Yan salutes the brave. Hugh isn’t crazy about the eau de Pine Nut hummus; it’s not Sheldon. Emeril wonders if he’s been brainwashed.

White Chocolate Mousse with Apple & Fennel: Padma loves the flavors, but Besh and Yan are distracted by the raw fennel.

Judges’ Table: Emeril loved his spot prawn, and Hugh was happy with a simple starter. But then the quail… Tom liked the seasoning but not the chalky pine nuts. “Did you roast the pine nuts?” Um, no, was I supposed to? It’s a replay of “They feed chum to the dogs.” He goes into the “I’ve grown” thing, but Emeril tells him there was nothing wrong with the Old Sheldon; he landed in the finale-before-the-finale, in fact (though his last three dishes failed). Hugh thought the quail was well-cooked, but not what they expect from him. A lot of this criticism could be read as, “You’re Asian, make Asian food” like they did with Hung, but I don’t think that’s the case here; I get the impression it just wasn’t a very good dish. He also gets spanked for using raw fennel in the dessert; it was an incomplete dish. Seems he made up the dish on the fly; he was saving his “real” dessert for the finale. Note to future contestants: have more than one dessert ready to go, please.

Tom joins the dining table and discusses his view from the kitchen, primarily that Brooke was in the weeds all night. We bid Besh and Yan adieu; only Emeril and Hugh get to stick around for Judges’ Table.

Top Chef is Not…

…a man. Sheldon’s out; I’m sorry, Menehune, I really like you, but you had a lot of trouble towards the end of this series. Fatigue? Maybe. I hope you win every award on the books and come back to TCM in a decade or so to show us all.

But this means the next Top Chef will be a woman; that “so far” Stephanie tossed in, way back in E7 was foreshadowing.

Based on what we were shown, they got it right. I’m a little surprised John Tesar and Stefan didn’t do better along the way, though I’m sure they’ll tell you (and I agree) it isn’t about who’s the best chef, it’s the best chef under these conditions. Kuniko could tell you that, too, if she wasn’t too busy opening new restaurants with David Myers. Anyway, I couldn’t be happier with this result: Brooke has been a star all season, and while Kristen stumbles once in a while, she’s also shone a lot; in fact, before RW, she and Brooke were trading off wins regularly. I’d have a hard time choosing between them. I think Brooke may have the upper hand, if only because Kristen has gotten tangled up in her complexity and now is also tripping over simplicity. But I’m sure of one thing: I’m going to be very happy with this season’s Top Chef.

Next Week:

Well, what do you think it is?

Addedum: It’s always exciting when worlds collide. On Saturday, March 2, Tom Colicchio will be the guest on UP with Chris Hayes, a weekend morning political panel show (it’s on MSNBC so it comes with strong liberal leanings). He’ll be talking about hunger, and promises to “make over the UP pastry plate.” For those who don’t know, UP has a plate of some of the biggest, unhealthiest goodies available plopped in the middle of the table every weekend. The plate is incredibly popular (it even has its own Twitter account) possibly because it’s so incongruous, sitting there amongst all those prescriptive liberals fretting about sugar and junk food. There’s even a bit of sport around seeing who, if anyone, dares to actually take a pastry on any particular day.

Yes, this is how I spend weekends from 8-10am. Then I spend from 10am-noon with Melissa Harris-Perry, who has fruit on her table. But she’s wonderful anyway.

I’ll post a link to Tom’s segment when it’s available (probably by that afternoon) in the Real Finale post.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 15 – Glacial Gourmand

As Dawn Breaks over Juneau:

Padma leaves the three remaining chefs a hand-written patchouli-scented note, with the warning, “Dress Warm.” And a zillion Grammar Nazis scream, “-ly! –ly!” Yes, I am one of them.

TC panoceanThey’re going to a glacier, which really looks like a mountain if you aren’t paying attention. A helicopter is required. And guess what – Brooke is afraid of helicopters, too. It’s all her fears combined: close spaces, lack of control. No water, though. Unless… but we won’t think about that. She’s in tears. “Can you wait five minutes until my Xanax kicks in?” she asks the pilot. Apparently it kicked in pretty good: she starts out hanging on to Josh’s arm and squeezing her eyes tightly shut, but by the time they arrive, she’s having a great time. And that, folks, is what modern chemistry can do for ya.

Speaking of modern chemistry, there’s Sheldon: “We’re landing on a glacier. There’s dogs everywhere. I’d die for some good reefer.” Given the chain of non-sequiturs, I think he’s already had some.

Continuing the theme of weird transportation (the Elves wanted to go with Planes, Trains & Automobiles, but it was already taken, so we got “Cruise Ships, Helicopters, and Dogsleds” instead. And if that doesn’t have quite the same ring, well, that’s television; it isn’t like they had the $30 mil budget of the movie), they travel by dogsled to an Iditarod training camp. Brooke isn’t afraid of dogsleds. Either that, or the Xanax is still in effect.

Quickfire:

Padma and Tom are waiting at the Iditarod camp with the challenge: cook anything you want, using whatever you find in the camp. Which happens to have a nice little kitchen outfitted with, I’m guessing, propane.

Brooke picks halibut as her protein, then sees Sheldon’s doing halibut too so she has to find a way to separate herself. Beets and currant jelly, that’s the ticket, for a panzanella salad with beet-and-currant vinaigrette. She’s a little worried because the pan seems to cool down quickly when she puts the fish in, but that’s a little Drama Red Herring. Seems there’s some arugula in there, because Tom loves it along with the crunch of the bread; Brooke wins. She deserves it after all they’ve put her through.

Josh is doing, guess what, breakfast. Corn cake, egg, smoked salmon, Canadian bacon, arugula, cheddar. He wanted to do the eggs over-easy but runs out of time so just scrambles them; he’s worried his textures are all “mush” but he gets to make a pun out of it so it’s all good. Padma: “It looks like a form of breakfast.” What it looks like is an Egg McMuffin. Tom doesn’t like the scrambled eggs; they weren’t mixed enough so the yolk and eggs were separate. That sounds like the next wd~50 craze to me. But it fails the QF.

Sheldon makes pan-roasted halibut with tomato sauce, sesame-fried bok choy, and pickled radish. Tom loves the perfectly-cooked fish but the sauce is salty and one-note.

Intermezzo:

Back in Juneau, Padma has another surprise: She can drive! And she proves it by driving the chefs to their next destination. Sheldon: “Padma gets chauffeured around all the time, I hope she can drive.” What, did they lock him in a room and not let him out until he came up with some good one-liners for his talking heads? Or is he still under the influence?

The surprise is Emeril and Roy Choi, who’s to blame for the plague of gourmet food trucks on our city streets, the 2010 version of Let’s Put On a Play in the Barn. He knows Brooke. I guess it’s a good sign that the judges know the contestants more and more; it shows the level of contestant has gone up. But it still seems a bit unfair, especially this late in the game. Then again, she’s up against a guy who makes fourteen breakfasts but has a baby on ep 15 on the day before Valentine’s Day during Sweeps Month… and a guy who rose from dishwasher to winning the award for Best New Chef given by the magazine Gail edits… so why not. It’s all about the food, right?

Emeril and Roy have made dinner for the chefs. Roy transfers all the spirits of his ancestors surrounding the whole existence into the rice as he washes it; I’m thinking they don’t teach that technique in culinary school. Roy came to chefdom later than most, at 25; he was a skull daddy, which, well, I’m not sure what that means, it seems to be a video game, is it also something more sinister? [Addendum: Thanks, MinxEats, for setting me straight in your recap: he said he was a “scumbag” not a “skulldaddy.” Now that makes sense.] He saw Emeril on TV, making short ribs braised in red wine, and it changed his life: “I wiped the snot from my eyes and researched culinary schools.” First of all… how did snot get in your eyes? Second, “researching culinary schools” doesn’t sound like something done by someone who’s hit a really nasty bottom. Last season Paul Qui told us he was dealing weed living with dog poop before he decided to move to Austin and be a cook. At least dealing weed is actually illegal. Asian chefs really have high standards, even for squalorous pasts. Emeril realized he wanted to be a chef while washing pots and pans in a Portuguese bakery.

Which brings us to…

Elimination Challenge:

No, they don’t have to reproduce the dishes Emeril and Roy just made, though I bet that was on everyone’s mind. What they must do is make a dish that represents the moment they first realized they wanted to be chefs. They’ll cook for the Governor and First Lady of Alaska at the Governor’s Mansion. Wolfie and Gail will join Emeril and Roy at the dining table. With Tom, of course, who’s seeing eagles everywhere. Padma’s wearing a beautiful off-the-shoulder blue dress at said dinner, and if you’re curious about how many people it takes to dress a Padma, Bravo has the video for you. Hint: double-stick tape isn’t illegal on TC. And Padma’s never sounded as intelligent and focused as when she’s discussing just how off-the-shoulder her off-the-shoulder should be.

And if you’ve been waiting with bated breath to find out about Joshua’s baby… his wife gives birth on air. No, of course she doesn’t, but she does Skype and share pictures of the newborn Georgia Valentine, which is a stripper name if I’ve ever heard one. I think they should’ve named her Breakfast.

Brooke has a hard time with this, because she knew she wanted to be a chef in the womb. She watched Julia Child instead of cartoons (hey, who didn’t), and her mom cooked a lot of chicken, so she’s got some idea about mom’s chicken and the more cheffy quail but isn’t quite sure how it’s going to work together. She decides she struggled because she had to pull it out of a deeper place – hey, stop, only one birth per episode, please. Whatever place she pulled it out of, her Braised Chicken and Grilled Quail with Carrot Barley and Pickled Veg is eaten with gusto. Silent gusto. “When the food’s good, everyone’s quiet,” says Tom. Um, not necessarily, sometimes it’s just shock, but this time it’s a good sign. Roy says it looks simple until you take it apart and see the layers of temperatures and textures; Brooke was a prodigy, and this is her style. See, that’s why it isn’t quite fair, especially at this late stage of the game, to have someone who knows what her style is and not that of the other chefs. It’s a little too much like advocacy, which, as much as I like Brooke (and she’s right up there for the win; we better get a female TC this season), it makes me uncomfortable. Wolfie thinks the quail breast is overcooked, and Roy beats him with a Skull Daddy to shut him up. No, that didn’t happen either.

Josh decides his defining moment was the first time he tasted foie gras, which is a strange thing for a guy who’s all about bacon and country food and breakfast. Maybe he’ll make fois gras breakfast with bacon. I think he just saw the foie gras and figured he’d do something upscale this time, and made up a story to go with it. Then there’s something that seems more authentic: he was trying to make weight for his wrestling team, riding a stationary bike in a sauna, reading Gourmet Magazine, which makes every bulimic in the country laugh with recognition. He can’t decide on a foie gras preparation, or maybe he thinks he’ll get bonus points for serving three times as much, so he ends up with Foie Gras Three Ways: Torchon, Pan-Seared, and Profiterole; with Cornbread Puree. For those who are a little confused by those terms, no worries, that’s what I’m here for: a torchon is similar to a terrine, or a kind of liver pudding. It takes three days to make. But Josh makes it in one, just because. Alas, it doesn’t set, so he puts it in the freezer to get it to solidify a little. And a profiterole is a cream puff. This one just happens to be stuffed with foie gras. He tells the table about his internship at Alma, where he learned about torchon. Tom, of course, has been there, and is looking forward to comparing versions (or something like that, I didn’t quite catch the dialogue), which gives Josh a little uh-oh. And the torchon is the problem; besides not being set, Gail found it veiny, and it wasn’t cooked through. And the Governor wants something he can chew on. Oh, my.

Sheldon grew up with food, unlike the rest of us who were fed intravenously. He’s playing with a beautiful pink-and-blue snapper, and Tom warns him to keep in mind that so many times, fish is plated too soon and ends up overcooked. This becomes Sheldon’s earworm: “don’t cook the fish too soon, don’t cook the fish too soon.” It cooks fine, but his dashi reduces too much and is salty, and now there’s no time to fix it. Oopsie. Tom uses his blog to absolve himself of any responsibility; he said “Don’t cook the fish too early,” not “over-reduce the broth.” He adds baby veg, spot prawns, but the damage is in the sauce: the fish is perfectly cooked, the prawns are great, but the broth is just oversalted.

Judges’ Table:

They stay in the mansion, for the most elegant JT ever.

Brooke is so obviously the winner they don’t even try to wring any suspense out if it.

Josh gets scolded for thinking it’s possible to make torchon in a day. Tom: “This has nothing to do with how good you are, it can’t be done.” They mourn over Sheldon‘s oversalty sauce. Wolfie: “How can you cook fish so perfectly then screw up the broth?”

But in the end, it comes down to this: Josh’s wife had her baby, they got their TV moment, and Sheldon still has his F&W award, so Josh is out. I’m not arguing; it could’ve gone either way. It’s been Brooke all the way.

“Watch out for this menehune,” says Sheldon. We’ll do that. I love you, man, I do, but come on, since RW, this menehune has been making one major mistake after another.

Next Week:

Part 1 of the Finale, which I finally think I understand: Brooke and Sheldon will go against the winner of the combined LCK/Fan Favorite matchup, which better be Kristen. Because here’s my dream of the final-finale: Kristen gets stuck with Josie as sous chef, and tells her to go sit down under a tree far, far away.

Last Chance Kitchen:

Spoiler: you won’t find out who won. That isn’t my editorial decision; it’s how Bravo wants it.

It’s a three-way at Craft LA: Kristen, Josh (who’s wearing his FT 33 Pastry Chef jacket, so this is filmed at some point after the regular season), and the winner of the most recent Fan Favorite poll, Lizzie. Turns out she’s more popular than CJ. The assignment is to make a great plate of food in 30 minutes using anything in the kitchen.

Josh takes venison, figuring it’s different. He tells Tom he’s doing venison with a coriander, brown sugar, and black pepper cure, kale, and shaved raw carrots. Tom asks, logically, why he’s doing a cure with only 30 minutes; hey, come on, he just went home for trying to compress a process that couldn’t be compressed. Turns out it’s really a rub, but he calls it a quick-cure. He wishes he’d cooked it a little more, but once it’s cut you can’t put it back in the oven (many Chopped chefs have learned that the hard way) so he’a little worried, but “sometimes a mistake is also a victory.” And sometimes it’s just a mistake.

Kristen sees semolina, so goes for orecchiette with brown butter, pomegranate, apple, citrus beurre blanc, and fresh figs. Tom’s dubious about making pasta in 30 minute, but Kristen’s completely confident about time. Tom notices she seemed to be editing as she went along, and she was: she added the pomegranates at the last minute because she wanted something crunchy but didn’t want to use bread.

Lizzie likes the looks of the black cod, so cooks it in paper with vinegar and pepper, which mellow each other out in the cooking process to create a lovely sauce. Tom notices she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

Tom gives a little parable: often at a restaurant, you see a special dish. One dish that stood out as not special in this trio was Josh’s venison; it was too rare. Bye, Josh. Hey, you have your baby and your new job, go make some Candied Bacon Sticky Buns, which I have to say sound terrific.

Which leaves us with Lizzie and Kristen. Tom was dubious about the pasta, but they both pulled it off. The orecchiette had that perfect hint of chewiness, and it was inventive but not over the top. Lizzie’s fish was cooked perfectly and the cabbage was beautiful.

And the winner is…

I really hate Bravo sometimes.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 14 – Kings of Alaska

Cover art for Kathy Doogan's "Simply Sourdough"

Cover art for Kathy Doogan’s “Simply Sourdough”

Hey, Elves – here’s a tip: at this point, you’ve got only four chefs left. You need to have something else to fill in where there used to be 16 chefs.

Lots of detailed, interesting cooking would be great: maybe a cool artistic challenge like the Evil Queen or Fire/Ice, maybe some interesting ingredients or techniques like dumplings soups or desserts from obscure corners of the world, or even a treatise on the chili pepper and which to use when. If not, then some of that cool stuff about making knives by hand, or more Nathan Myhrvold, or, if you really can’t come up with anything, a great guest – Dita von Teese was surprisingly clever on TCM, those kids at the glass garden were fun for a celeb couple, and at least Pike’s Place had some interesting products, even if the food was awful.

It’s been a great season so far; it’s no time to drop the ball. Because this, this was just boring.

With lots of time to fill and nothing interesting to fill it with, we hear a lot about Josh’s pregnant wife (including, in the category of TMI, her dilation status) and have a second round of Lizzie’s tears for her father. I sympathize with both of them, I really do. I’m not heartless. It’s kind of interesting that Josh is on this show while his wife is giving birth to their first child. But a centimeter-by-centimeter countdown, well, no. And I lost my father years ago, I know how I was afterwards, I was teary and explained it to someone almost every day until my husband-at-the-time gently reminded me, after I again said “I just lost my father” that I’d lost my father two years prior. So I get it. Fresh grief is tough. But replaying it over and over isn’t good TV, it’s crass exploitation.

Then we come to Sheldon’s efforts to keep his package nice and warm. I wonder what the producers had to tell him to coax him to say that on camera. Do you have to make everyone on Bravo as tawdry as your disgusting clutch of Housewives?

I also don’t understand your import of a Southern chef into an Alaska challenge. Hugh calls him a “wunderkind of Appalachian food lore” and while I’m not sure what that means, I’m betting it’s an improvement over the state of Josh’s wife’s cervix. And why use a tacky Crab Shack which, right down to the alluringly-clad young lady on the sign, is a duplicate of every tacky Crab/Clam/Lobster Shack in every two-bit coastal city in America, just so the chefs can work in less-than-four-star-conditions with Alaskan King Crab (and I’m no snob, I can appreciate that a tacky place can serve terrific food, but really, how can you mess up king crab?). And the salmon bake, well, there was salmon, and there were people were wearing down jackets and hats. And bears waiting for leftovers. But it all just sat there on the screen, going nowhere.

The sourdough bread had more possibilities, and you kinda sorta went there with Padma giving her 4th-grade-level lecture and the chefs’ comments while they were working on it overnight. But couldn’t you have found a sourdough connoisseur somewhere in Alaska to talk about it, with more than one sentence, with love? Emeril got close, with his story about one of his chefs taking the “mother” home from the restaurant before Katrina and feeding it in a closet until they could re-open a couple of months later. That’s great stuff, right there. I still remember a story in Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential about “the mother.” But you just grazed the edge.

Come on, guys, I know, these are just filler episodes ’til we see who Kristen’s going up against in the finals, but put some effort into it.

But you know something? Now that I’m writing this all out – there was some cool stuff in this episode (I mean, come on, bears). Just not enough of it.

Quickfire:

Sean Brock, temporarily transplanted from Charleston and Nashville, joins Padma at the tacky Crab Shack as guest judge. Josh idolizes him for his modernization of Southern food. Maybe I’m a heathen, and we’re all supposed to know who he is on sight. But I thought Padma said “Husky” and there just happened to be a Charlestown in Alaska.

The assignment is to make, guess what, king crab.

Sheldon, of course, never worked with Alaskan King Crab in Hawaii. Hell, even Spam is expensive there. But he works it. He makes a miso soup with the brains and innards, and for the asparagus, uses smoking pine needles like they do at Noma (did CJ teach him that?) which Sean notices and applauds. Padma thinks the broth of his soup is nice and a little thick. Sheldon wins $5000 for using the whole crab. Guts pay off.

Brooke wants to highlight the buttery, briny delicateness of crab, but she has to dress it up a little so goes for King Crab, Sweet Corn, and Leek Salad on Toast with Dungeness Crab Butter. Sean still thinks it’s too simple, so he doesn’t want to like it, but dang, it was good. Top two.

Lizzie makes a Crab Frittata with Cherry Tomato, Garlic Oil, and Fried Capers. Padma notices the capers weren’t soaked; Sean thinks there were just too many, too many flavors in general, losing the crab. Oh, and by the way, it was overcooked. Yikes. Bottom Two.

Josh wants to do Country Boy food for the Southern Boy chef, so he pulls out Butter Poached King Crab with Succotash and Bacon. He knows his butter sauce is breaking, but hey, there’s no time to do anything else, which is the challenge of the QF – you have to get it right first time. Unfortunately, Sean is a Succotash Snob (which is so cool I want to be one, too) and thinks the bacon was unnecessary and covered the taste of the crab. Yes! Finally, someone called him on using bacon – and it wasn’t even someone who knew he’d used it in every dish. Bottom Two.

Elimination Challenge:

Padma announces: “Two of Alaska’s oldest traditions are fish and bread.” Then she tells about the prospectors travelling with sourdough starter, which someone probably got off this website. The remaining four chefs have to make a dish including salmon, which they’ll get right off the boat, and sourdough, which they’ll begin overnight using a famous 30-year-old starter someone has provided. Ok, I admit: I’m a big fan of bread of any kind, but I don’t quite get the fuss over sourdough. It always seemed like far more trouble than it’s worth. And this mother stuff borders on fetishism.

The winner gets a trip to Costa Rica. Hugh and Emeril will join Sean at the salmon bake, along with 200 Alaskans and a couple of bears and cubs climbing trees. Tom will make a joke about his bear fan club. I’m wondering if these are stunt bears, because no one seems to mind them hanging around smelling the fish.

Brooke has baked a few times, but she isn’t sure about sourdough. When Tom walks through the kitchen, he asks her if she expected to come this far. Hey, Tom? That’s kind of, oh, I don’t know, condescending? Then he questions her decision to poach the fish to order. That gives her pause, but she likes it because it’s a delicate way to serve, and she doesn’t really have the time now to change her mind. Turns out, she knew what she was doing. Her Sockeye Salmon and Seafood Broth with Mustard Seed Caviar and Dill Sourdough is great. Tom likes the acid and the mustard seed, though Hugh thinks the seeds kind of broke down into a gooey mess. Emeril loves the bread, and Gail likes the use of dill.

Josh makes a loaf of black olive sourdough to use as croutons, and a loaf of traditional sourdough to thicken his Roasted Garlic Sourdough Soup with Sockeye Salmon and Black Olive Croutons. As Tom strolls by to see how things are going, he asks if there’s any news on the baby front, and that’s when we find out about dilation and contractions. Tom wonders if that’s inspiring or distracting: both, says Josh. I know I’m distracted. But you know, it’s a rule of TV: when you’re looking for ratings, do a wedding or a baby. They had the baby this season, so they left out Wedding Wars. His dish is another matter. The salmon is good, and the soup has tons of flavor, but it overpowered the salmon. Gail appreciates that he pushed himself.

Sheldon uses two kinds of salmon: sockeye and chum. When I hear “chum” I think Jaws. Shark bait. But maybe it’s not the same for salmon. Unfortunately for Sheldon, it is: Padma shows a bit too much delight when telling him it’s what the locals feed the dogs. I prefer Hugh’s blog comment: “It took someone who loves Spam to realize that we should be eating the primary ingredient of catfood.” And even though he’s never made pea soup before, he goes for it. Tom thinks that’s funny, because just the day before he’d been wishing for some pea soup and salmon. Apparently I’m the only one who never realized salmon and pea soup go together. Then again, I don’t think much about pea soup. When I hear pea soup, I think The Exorcist. And I’m a little nervous that I’m thinking in 70s movies, believe me. At any rate, the Green Tea and Chive Sourdough with Smoked Salmon and Pea Soup is a mixed bag. Padma isn’t crazy about the combo of green tea and chives, though she likes them individually; Gail’s fish is raw in the center, but has a smokey flavor. Sean didn’t like the way Sheldon was grinding down on the fish with his tongs; it was disrespectful. Hugh puts pea soup in the good-tasting-healthy-baby-food category.

Lizzie forgot about the slider disaster at Pike’s Place so she makes salmon sliders. Citrus and Beet Glazed Salmon Sliders with Poppy Seed Butter and Pickles served on the grilled sourdough rolls she made. They’re crazy about the bread; she got a terrific crust on the rolls. The glaze doesn’t come through, though; Tom doesn’t understand why she didn’t marinate it, and it’s, guess what, underseasoned.

Judges’ Table

Lizzie is surprised her salmon underseasoned; it tasted fine to her. Aha, she didn’t taste it put together with the roll and other stuff. You can’t win for losing on this show, at least when it comes to salt.

Sheldon finds out his dog food fish was pretty tasty, but Sean didn’t like the bitter flavor from the smoke.

Josh gets props from Emeril because Emeril’s made of garlic, but Hugh thinks the salmon got lost and Gail and Tom are worried about the balance.

Brooke needs to be in charge of her demeanor, says Hugh. What? This is like Tom and the arugula on Paul’s dish last time, isn’t it? Seems Brooke was a bit apprehensive as the judges walked up to her station because she wasn’t quite in the groove yet, and the fish was slightly overcooked.

To no one’s surprise, Brooke wins. Seems the locals all agreed, as well. “I’m dying to go to Costa Rica,” she says. I don’t know if that’s because a producer is poking her with a sharp stick to get her to be enthusiastic about this product-placement prize, or if she’s always wanted to learn more about Fair Trade coffee – or if she’s just cold.

And the Loser Is…

The judges debate. Tom doesn’t think any of them are thinking about the next step, really working through the dishes. Josh’s problem is balance; Sean wants Lizzie’s slider to scream, instead of whisper, salmon and sourdough, but Gail gives her props for technique; Padma points out Sheldon had issues with both the bread and the fish, though Hugh loves that he created a world of bitterness.

So of course Lizzie’s out. I say something’s fishy – Sheldon’s Food & Wine award is serving him a little too well. As Padma said, both his fish and his bread had problems, and Lizzie’s bread was the best of the bunch. But that’s what happens when you don’t give Tom enough salt.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Sheldon, and I have no doubt he’s a really good cook, with a very interesting focus. And I think Lizzie’s consistently been a little off, just not in step with the usual contestants – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, by the way, but it didn’t play well here. I just think someone’s been cooking the books for Sheldon for a few weeks now.

Next Week:

Helicopters. Huskies. Roy Choi. Feeding the Governor of Alaska, who, thank god, is not that governor. Or I’d have to skip an episode. There are some things I just will not do.
And the Continuing Saga of Josh’s wife. Question: How many episodes can you milk a baby for? Elves: How many you need?

Last Chance Kitchen:

Lizzie explains to camera her salmon wasn’t good because she was feeling sad about her father and it came out in the food. Apparently grief likes its food underseasoned. She’s not surprised to see Kristen.

The challenge is, of course, fish, since that’s where Lizzie had trouble. Twist: they’re cooking over campfires. Grates and pans are provided, and Kristen is glad so see the grates swivel so there’s some way to control temperature.

Lizzie is out to redeem her salmon with a simple but elegant fish stew. She cooks how she’s feeling, so that’s why her baked potato early on was so good. Or something. She goes for Poached Salmon Stew with Fennel, Leek, Hungarian Paprika, and Sweet Pepper Flakes, for a little hot and a little sweet. Wasn’t that the name of Padma’s cookbook?

Kristen screwed up butchering the salmon a few weeks ago so she’s going to prove she can butcher cod. She too is going for stew, and giving it Asian flavors, to prove she can do different types of cuisines “which is important if I’m going to be Top Chef.” I love that an Asian-American chef has to prove she can make Asian cuisine, not just French. Hung must be smiling somewhere. She makes Cod with Coconut Broth, Clam Juice, Lime, Chili-marinated Tomato, Corn, and Petite Herbs.

Kristen’s worried that Tom’s eating a lot more of Lizzie’s dish. Lizzie also served bread with her soup. I’m worried, too. I like Lizzie, but I like Kristen more.

Tom calls both dishes restaurant quality. Kristen kept the coconut milk from getting too sweet, the chili oil and lime added great flavors. Lizzie would’ve won with her salmon dish, not been eliminated; she’s demonstrated she can cook fish. But one dish had flavors more developed and more round, so Kristen wins.

Kristen has muted confidence perfected. Blowhards, pay attention: this is how it’s done.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 13 – Chefs at Sea

Did anyone else think things felt lighter, happier, more companionable, in the kitchen this episode? Too bad it didn’t translate into the food.

Padma pays a surprise visit to the chefs while they’re still in the Stew Room picking the last shreds of flesh from Josie’s dead body. Metaphorically, that is. Brooke seems almost embarrassed to be caught. But it’s good news – maybe: Pack your bags for a cruise to Alaska.

Time for a look into the contestant’s personal lives. Stefan’s parents dumped him on the Army when he was a kid. Seriously, the way he tells it, it’s like the way parents used to take their kids in for tonsillectomies: “We’re going for a ride… oh, look at the green uniforms, here, try one on… bye!” Lizzie sailed on the QE2. And Brooke has a fear of boats.

Quickfire:

Padma and Curtis Stone meet the chefs in the ship’s kitchen. Curtis looks like he’s growing out a crew cut. Awkwardly. Their mission, should they decide to accept it (and they have little choice) is to cook a one-bite wonder for two hundred guests featuring… iceberg lettuce. Get it? Cruise? Iceberg? Oh, those Elves, they are so funny. Hey, Brooke, want some Xanax? In her talking heads, she’s got her hair in loose braids, and she looks completely adorable.

It doesn’t help that iceberg lettuce is the most boring lettuce, and that’s in the universe of lettuce which isn’t exactly high-excitement to begin with. Add the no-flame kitchen, and only 2 hours to compose 200 plates, and it’s your standard QF crazy.

Sheldon wants to treat all ingredients with respect, even boring iceberg lettuce. Sheldon, I love ya, man, but when you call something “boring,” that is not treating it with respect, ok? Even though it is boring. He goes for a Vietnamese Lettuce Wrap with Pork, Shrimp, and Pickled Iceberg Hearts, to give it different layers of crunch. Padma says it’s got lots of flavor; Curtis wonders if it’s too much for one bite. Apparently not, since Sheldon wins for elevating the ingredient, complex flavors, and beautiful texture. He’ll get an advantage in the next elimination challenge, because the cruise line wasn’t about to fork over more money for a prize, and there is no Iceberg Lettuce company.

Stefan loves iceberg lettuce. Remember what Padma said about him being a bullshitter? Because no one, NO ONE loves iceberg lettuce. He treats it like cabbage and turns out Braised Iceberg Lettuce, Pastrami, Fingerling Potato and Blue Cheese Sauce. Padma lets a “very nice” escape her lips; Curtis likes the intense flavor.

Brooke thinks BLT except with scallop instead of tomato. Her Iceberg Wrap with Bacon, Scallop, Caramelized Onion and Crispy Quinoa doesn’t look the way she wanted, but the taste is there. Delicate Padma doesn’t want to put it all in her mouth. “It’s a two-biter, I suppose,” says Brooke. Ok, girls, enough.

Lizzie shoos Stefan away from her space. He’s like weeds, I guess, if you don’t cut them back they just take over. She wants to serve something eaten with a fork, which I think is not the challenge, but who knows. And she wants to make the lettuce stand out. She ends up as Iceberg Salad with Crispy Bacon, Shallots, and Anchovy Vinaigrette, which sounds like… a pretty routine salad. I got a more interesting salad when I was in the hospital a few years ago, though it was served in a Styrofoam cup. Curtis asks if a little salad is something she’d serve in a restaurant; perhaps. Perhaps not.

Josh uses the oft-scorned wedge salad as an inspiration for his Iceberg Roll with Apple Cider Vinaigrette, Bacon Jam, and Blue Cheese. That’s a lettuce roll stuffed with… lettuce. Padma says he elevated a classic dish. Curtis thinks he played it safe, but it was good. And he walks like a chef. New Song: “Walk Like a Chef-test-ant.” I think he walks like John Wayne right after getting off a horse. But he is from Oklahoma.

More personal stuff. While resting up for dinner, Sheldon and Lizzie get manicures; Josh interviews, “Where I come from, men don’t get manicures.” He probably thinks the wink is cute. Stefan got laid for the first time on a cruise. Lizzie’s dad, a fisherman, died recently. And this is the due date for Josh’s baby, but he hasn’t talked to his wife. Producer! Get a producer over there with a phone for pete’s sake!

They have a lovely dinner onboard, served in strange containers. All I can think of is how pissy Gordon Ramsey got on the original British Kitchen Nightmares when someone served a shrimp cocktail in a martini glass and served flatbread on a hanger. It looks cool. Is the food good? Probably not to chefs, but to people who take cruises, it’s probably amazing. At the chef’s table there’s much teasing and comparing the number of wins. It’s all fun ’til somebody puts an eye out, and Josh puts Brooke’s eye out with a jab about fried chicken. But the banter stops when Padma comes over. They don’t know if they’ve got to make a late supper menu with the leftovers on their table, or what. But something’s coming.

Elimination Challenge:

Tomorrow night, they’ll be doing dinner service. They must turn a classic dish on its head, and what’s more of a classic cruise dish than … surf & turf. Curtis: “Surf & Turf has a bad rap. Be innovative. Let the food served tonight take you down a different path.” I’m learning so much from Top Chef. First, that Chicken Cordon Bleu is déclassé, and now I discover, so is Surf & Turf. But Mark Bittman just had a spread about Surf & Turf in The New York Times Magazine (interesting timing… he is a Friend of TC) so maybe it’s making a comeback. Curtis is the guest judge, and it’s Hugh’s turn to rotate in. And Padma displays impressive cleavage as she seats herself at the dining table. Impressive even for Padma.

Sheldon has the advantage of picking his protein first, and making it off-limits to the other chefs. He takes his time looking at all the possibilities, then picks lobster tail and beef tenderloin, which seems kind of a stupid choice. I’m hoping he has some kind of crazy spin to put on it, because that’s pretty standard S&T. I happen to love standard S&T, but it’s not gonna fly with the judges, who specifically asked for them to stand S&T on its head. This dawns on Sheldon later, as he realizes his dish of Korean BBQ Filet Mignon and Tempura Lobster with Sesame Cabbage, Kimchi, and Teriyake Sauce is pretty straightforward. He did want a redemption of his failed roller derby tempura, though. But here’s the problem: as Josh learned earlier, when you try to redeem a past failure, you’re supposed to correct the mistake. He himself calls it soggy and uninspired, and the judges agree. Hugh wonders why people think tempura is a good idea at all, and the sauce isn’t great either. Tom makes a feeble attempt to praise the kimchi and the presentation, but it’s a failed dish.

Josh is a little worried because he doesn’t do whimsical, fun, creative food. We know, Josh, we know: you do bacon, you do breakfast. He picks scallops and pork belly. And he gets a whimsical, creative idea: scallop noodles, made from ground scallops mixed with gelatin. He doesn’t know how to do it, but how hard can it be? Pretty hard, turns out. He can’t form noodles out of the goop. The resulting mess reminds him of scrambled egg whites, so hey, suddenly he’s serving Scrambled Scallops with Braised Pork Belly and Bacon. For some reason he feels a need to explain to the judges how the scallops ended up scrambled; I’m not sure that was a wise choice. Tom likes the sea flavor; it packs a good punch. Padma thinks the turf overpowers the surf. Hugh’s impressed that a traditionalist like Josh took such a leap of faith. I’m impressed the safety net worked out as well as it did. Curtis is also pleasantly surprised. Tom explains a couple of ways he could’ve made scallop noodles on his blog.

Lizzie impresses everyone by ripping a baby pig limb from limb. She’s also got scallops, and she, too, has a failure to redeem, from her less-than-fresh E9 scallops. Her scallops are fine, but somehow the steamer she’s using turns off so the cabbage of her Cabbage Stuffed with Suckling Pig and Scallops with Mustard Sour Cream and Pickled Apples and Shallots isn’t fully cooked. Tom finds it chewy and hard to eat, but loves the pickles and overall enjoys it; later he says it needed another element to bring it all together, and it was one-note. Curtis thinks the scallops are overpowered by the rest.

Brooke takes frog legs and mussels. This raises an interesting question: are amphibians surf, or turf? They’re usually treated like chicken. They breathe air. I call them turf. But she’s not sure. It’s different, at least. She’s stressed because her dish takes seven steps to plate. But she gets the Mussels and Frog Legs with Celery Root and Fennel Puree, Papadums, and Shallot Chutney done. Curtis is impressed with the inventiveness. Tom likes the flavors; frogs aren’t usually that earthy, but she made them earthy. The only problem is the greasy papadums.

Stefan thinks S&T seems old, but he’s super-creative. Really? Not that I’ve seen. He’s got a broad array of solid skills and knowledge, but I haven’t seen a surfeit of creativity. He picks eel and pork belly. Did everyone else also flash back on his E5 Quickfire when he nailed the head of the eel to the cutting board to peel it? Like I said, a broad array of solid skills. One of his skills, it seems, is crisping pork belly hard enough to crack your teeth on. He can’t help it if he likes his pork crunchy; that’s the way they do it in Germany. When the judges first taste his Braised Pork Belly with Beer Sauce and Parsnip and Eel Ravioli, they each in turn stop. “Oh,” says Tom. “Oh,” says Padma. Everyone goes “Oh.” That could mean anything. It could mean oversalting. Undersalting. Bitterness. Spice. Bland. But here, it means “Do you have a dentist on this ship?” Curtis loves the crunch; seems in Britain they do their pork German-style. Hugh takes the obligatory swipe at British dental health, but I didn’t quite follow. He also couldn’t taste anything but parsnip in the ravioli.

Judges’ Table:

Everyone’s invited. Top and Bottom have no meaning at this point.

Brooke gets a lot of credit for being out of the box.

Sheldon admits he was uninspired; the ingredients didn’t speak to him. So Tom asks the obvious question: why did you pick ingredients that didn’t speak to you? Because he thought those were the ingredients he could execute. Hmmm, not so much. Curtis says a couple of things on the plate were almost inedible, like the cold, soggy tempura and the sauce with no spice. Aww, Sheldon, you’re so sweet, why, man, why?

Josh impressed them all with his invention of scrambled scallops. Curtis found the flavor and texture fabulous. Hugh liked the pork belly, and thought the scallop was a little strange but made a nice creaminess around the pork. Tom thinks he may be the first person to ever scramble scallops, and given their ubiquity on TC, that’s saying a lot.

Stefan got Padma all excited – see, she remembers his “deft hand” from S5 – but nobody tasted eel. Tom saw a huge layer of grease floating on top of the sauce. He starts in on all the excuses, and Hugh reminds him: the objective is to conceptualize dishes that work. That’s the trick to TC in a nutshell: what will you be able to do with the ingredients and conditions foisted on you? Tom complains about the hard skin; Curtis chimes in with his acceptance of crispy skinned pork, but he could hear Tom chewing… ewww.

Lizzie had a great idea, but it fell apart. Hugh loved the ambition. Curtis liked the dish more than the others – maybe undercooked cabbage is traditional with the hard pork in Britain – and found the presentation beautiful.

Verdict:

Brooke wins for imagination. She gets a Caribbean vacation for two. TC is determined to beat the fear of boats out of her. For all the times it was mentioned, it didn’t seem to be an issue. She was looking out the window of the boat over the ocean, for pete’s sake, and she didn’t look that scared. Then again, being on a giant cruise ship is sort of like being in an office building. Unless it sinks.

Josh and Lizzie are sent to the Stew Room and safety. Which means it’s between Stefan and Sheldon.

Stefan’s out, much to my surprise. I think they relied on history for this one. Tom even pointed out, during the private conclave, that Sheldon had presented great S&T all season (including this very QF). It sure sounded like his dish was worse. On his blog, Tom presents some additional information. I like Sheldon, and I’m glad to see him stay, so I’m not going to argue. But I wouldn’t have argued if it’d gone the other way. I just would’ve been sadder.

Next Week:

Fish. Huskies. Bears. Josh’s wife is dilated and having contractions. TMI.

Last Chance Kitchen:

Stefan vs. Kristen

“Of course, it’s Wifey!” Stefan says. Kristen puts it in perspective: she and Stefan are competitive with each other, they have this flirtatious relationship, and it’d be entertaining to beat him. Stefan: “Kristen’s a fantastic chef. Kristen is like me ten years ago. She’s young, she has energy.” Tom: “Is this divorce time?”

Tom points out that Stefan’s been on the bottom four times, which is one-third of the challenges. Thank you for pointing that out, Tom, because you’d never get that impression from listening to Stefan. “You’ve been on the bottom, but these are bottom-of-the-barrel ingredients: Offal.” Kristen’s fine with that; she’s cooked offal before, and she knows to pick the ingredient she can successfully cook in a half hour. Stefan seems less sanguine, but later gets his bullshit back and says he’s worked with all the offered ingredients: tripe, tongue, liver, heart, no problem.

There’s some teasing, a riff about aprons (“You look so handsome now;” “You look beautiful as well”) to the point where they seem to be auditioning for their own foodie show, or maybe a guest shot on The Chew. They even kiss when they finish cooking. This is my favorite kind of competition: where both of them are confident in their own abilities, and comfortable enough with each other to do some jesting but don’t feel the need to trash-talk.

Kristen uses chicken livers, which to me are just barely offal. She works with flavors she likes, and she’s confident. But when she sees Stefan’s dish, she’s a little worried; her dish is cold, his is steaming, very warming, and it’s a chilly morning in Alaska. Maybe she miscalculated. Tom tastes her Chicken Livers with Garlic-Mustard Caramel, Pickled Fruit, Toasted Croutons and Herbed Salad; he likes the balance, the controlled sweetness of the caramel, the nice herbaceous notes, and the perfectly cooked chicken livers.

Stefan uses all the ingredients with dumplings in Beuscherl of innards with cream sauce, tripe, hearts, a bread gallette, chicken liver and parsley salad. Tom’s impressed that he was able to prepare these ingredients in such a short time; the dumplings were a perfect golden brown, the chicken liver was perfectly seared, and he got good offal flavor, which is a great culinary oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one.

Tom likes both dishes, but in the end, one was a little more balanced, and Kristen wins. Yes! “Who gets the house?” asks Tom. Nah, Stefan knows who has the money; maybe they’re not getting divorced.

His last words are really nice: “She got kicked off in an unfair way with Josie, so she deserves it.” Either he really is somewhere a nice guy… or he really does know who’s got the money. Or he knows, too, who’s still got the eight restaurants that just got thirteen weeks of free promotion.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 12 – Wolfgang Clucks

"Top Dog Chef" sketch from Saturday Night Live

“Top Dog Chef” sketch from Saturday Night Live

How many chefs does it take to make fried chicken? Six: one to make fried chicken, and five others to f*ck it up.

But first: If you haven’t seen the SNL spoof of Top Chef, go watch it now. They got everything pitch perfect – the talking heads, the inane excuses, the patterned way of naming dishes, Padma Leash-me, Tom Colllie-chio, guest judge Mario Bark-Talio with the orange clogs on his paws.

Back to the actual Top Chef, which starts with Josie crying because she gets the feeling everyone thinks she should’ve been the one to go. Lizzie, her roommate, manages not to scream at her. “It’s a little awkward.” Now, it’d be easy to take my potshots here, to just point out that everyone DOES feel she should’ve gone home and leave it at that, but let’s not forget this is a manipulated situation. It’s not Josie’s fault she wasn’t sent home last week; the judges made the only decision they could have. However, Josie was in Restaurant Wars only because the judges didn’t send her home for her dry, flavorless pork the week before or her heavy, non-raspberry-tasting, long-delayed Raspberry Roll or the rock-in-salty-broth she served at Pike’s Place (no, I’m not counting the raw turkey, she had immunity that week). She’s this season’s Robin. I’m not sure why the producers think it’s necessary to keep one contestant past his/her sell-by date, but they do it every season, though with Robin and Josie it seemed like a far bigger divide. Both of them got progressively more uncomfortable as the astonishment went on (“You mean she’s still here?”). It isn’t drama; it’s stupid. It’s not fair to the viewers, it’s not fair to the eliminated contestants, and it’s not even fair to Josie, who looks more incompetent every week, whether she accepts that or not. But she ends up crying for the camera at extreme close-up range, so it’s all good, right?

Quickfire:

Katsuya Uechi joins Padma (I can’t decide if I love her dress, or hate it, but it reminds me of Project Runway, which probably isn’t good) for a 30-minute sushi challenge. His advice: “Don’t touch too much, don’t mix up too many ingredients. Think how you make people who eat, happy.” No more immunity, but the winner gets $5,000.

Stefan is miffed that he hasn’t won anything yet. Now he has writer’s block. Chef’s block? He makes Yellowtail with Grilled Shiitake and Raw Lobster with Seaweed and Unagi. Katsuya likes the combination; Stefan finally wins something so he can shut up now. “It took me 27 challenges,” he says. He is funny sometimes, but he’s still a blowhard.

Brooke eats sushi three times a week, so she’s all set. Katsuya likes the clean “green” taste of her Octopus with Yuzu and Grated Wasabi, but her knife work wasn’t up to his standards. Second Place.

Lizzie had sushi ten years ago, after she got back from Japan. Wait… you had sushi in South Africa after you got back from Japan? She recognizes that it’s an art; it’s just not her art. She presents boiled lobster with microgreens, pickled ginger, and broth. Maybe she figures, they loved that she made charcuterie into soup, so now she’ll turn sushi into soup. Something is tempura’d on the side – maybe more lobster? Katsuya is so sweet: “Just a little suggestion: if you put a little rice underneath, that would be good, too.” She served sushi without rice? “Sushi” literally means “rice.” The tempura was chewy as well. And you can’t pour hot soup over cold fish, it makes it fishier. Bottom two.

Josh doesn’t crave sushi the way he craves bacon. So he makes bacon sushi. Stefan calls it a breakfast sandwich. It’s neither bacon sushi nor a breakfast sandwich, of course, it’s Tempura Bacon, Omelette, Salmon Belly, and Yuzu Kosho Aioli. It does look like sushi, more than you’d expect from the description. Katsuya likes the combination, but the bacon was too greasy. Bottom two.

Sheldon thinks everyone’s looking to him on this one since he does Asian food, but he doesn’t do sushi. He tries Hamachi Sashimi with Fresh Ponzu, Mitsuba (aka Japanese parsley) and lemon charcoal, a brilliant idea for using up your lemon rinds after you squeeze the juice out: burn them, grind them up, and call it a condiment; it lends lemon flavor and earthiness. Katsuya finds the burned lemon interesting; Sheldon’s honored he noticed the technique. But it doesn’t get him a mention.

Josie gives a mini-lecture about the dangers of touching fish while making sushi since it warms the temperature. I don’t know if that’s a real thing or not – maybe that’s what Katsuya was talking about when he warned them not to touch too much – but I don’t feel like being lectured by Josie about anything. That’s what happens, producers, when you keep someone on past their prime. You teed her up for us, so I’m gonna take the swing. She’s making New England clam chowder. Hey, that’s what she said, it’s inspired by clam chowder,with bacon and yuzu vinaigrette. Halibut, bacon, yuzu, what kind of clam chowder is this? “I love sushi, I’ve gone so far as to have sushi parties where we served sushi on naked women.” Talk about warming the fish. She seems to think this will amaze everyone with her daring, but it’s called Nyotaimori and it was in the 1993 film Rising Sun. I’m willing to bet a serious sushi chef wouldn’t be bothered; it’s strictly for those who need to obscure their inferior sushi. She makes Halibut with Yuzu and Bacon Aioli but it needs more punch. Maybe she should’ve served it off her naked body. How can anything made with yuzu and bacon need more punch?

Elimination Challenge:

Enter Tom with David Chang, a chef so hot he got a 16-episode PBS series exploring his mind. Momofuko is the word of the day. So what will the chefs be cooking? Pan-Asian? Noodles?

How about… fried chicken?

See, all these big deals are coming into town for dinner with Tom, and the contestants will be cooking for them. Big deals like Michelle Bernstein, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal and Son of a Gun, plus standbys Wolfie and Emeril. And Tom wants fried chicken. The winner gets a year’s supply of product placement wine – 365 bottles, in case you’re wondering what might be considered a year’s supply of wine.

On the drive to the lakefront house, Josie won’t tell Stefan the secret blend of flours she uses for her fried chicken. “Do you think I’m going to steal your dish?” he says. So she asks him how to say “Kiss my ass” in German. “Ich gehe nach Hause,” he says. Now, I don’t know German, but from listening to and singing some German music, I recognized the word “Hause” so I was curious if that was similar to the word for “Kiss” or “Ass.” Turns out, neither; he ‘fesses he taught her to say, “I’m going home next.” For the record, “Kiss my Ass,” per the Google translator, would be “Leck mich am Arsch.”

The dining table featuring all those high-powered chefs is unusually cheerful, with lots of joking around and camaraderie. But for viewers like me, it was tense: will this be the one? And if it is, what will happen in Last Chance Kitchen? The producers themselves have made this The Josie Show. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot more fun to watch later on.

Cock-a-doodle-Do’s:

Josh is thrilled; fried chicken is more his thing, and he’s got his grandpa’s recipe. He injects it with brine since there’s not enough time to brine it the usual way, and smokes it as well, then, well, fries it. He makes fried chicken. This may seem obvious, but wait, you’ll see it wasn’t obvious to everyone. He presents it as Smoked Fried Chicken with Hot Sauce and Blue Cheese, but he had the judges at “Fried.” Michelle loves the smoke; Tom says it’s not that crispy, but it’s deliciously flavored.

Sheldon goes two ways: umami, and Momofuku, or, more accurately, Umami Drumsticks and Thighs, Wings with Usukuchi and Grape Seed Oil. Alas, his oil starts out too hot, so his first batch of wings burn, meaning someone isn’t getting any Momofuku wings. Emeril loves his leg; it’s delicious, but he didn’t get any wings because Tom ate them all (no, no, protests Tom, he shared his wing with Michelle). David points out that kindergarten adage, “You must bring enough for everyone.” But Wolfie holds up a leg bone eaten clean: “Look at this.” Go ahead, Wolfie, show off your bone. The point is, the legs were great fried chicken.

Lizzie again is out of luck; she’s more of a grilled chicken sort of girl. She bones the breasts, marinates them in black pepper and coriander, and makes a slaw out of napa cabbage and pickled peaches. Vinnie thinks the “cutlet” as Padma calls it is moist and delicious, but Tom doesn’t think she understands fried chicken. When Vinnie finds out the chefs were given whole chickens, he changes his mind: “And she gave us the breast? That’s just wrong.” They love the slaw, though.

Cock-a-doodle-Don’ts:

Josie is all about Southern fried chicken, her grandmother was a white Georgia woman, it’s in her blood, this is how she did it down South. Josh points out that South Florida isn’t really the South (he’s right; I grew up in South Florida. There were some Southerners there back in the 60s and 70s, but the population has boomed since then and it’s not with Southerners. Once you get out of the Panhandle, it’s not really “The South” any more, it’s everyone from New York, New England, and Ohio who’s retired to South Florida. Plus, of course, the huge percent of the population that’s of Caribbean descent. Dade and Broward County are among the most reliably Democratic counties in the country, and there ain’t nothin’ Southern about a Democratic county). But reality isn’t something Josie worries about, she just says what sounds good at the moment, like “I could go home for not making traditional fried chicken, but I have to cook from the heart.” Wait… I thought Southern Fried Chicken was in your blood? Isn’t the blood getting to your heart? She plans fried chicken two ways, wings with daikon and southern fried with biscuits (she gets credit for thinking of biscuits, which no one else did), but, guess what! runs out of time; scratch the wings, scratch the biscuits. “Time management seems to be my Achille’s Heel,” she says, in a startling moment of actual insight, but then she’s back on track: she makes the best fried chicken ever. When her oil isn’t hot enough, she decides the fryer isn’t working and uses Lizzie’s fryer for the second batch. It doesn’t seem to matter; what she presents as Southern Fried Spiced Chicken with Black Garlic, Cayenne, Thyme, Hot Sauce, and Daikon Salad (to be fair, she does use buttermilk for the coating) is greasy, leaving a pool of oil on the banana leaf she puts under it. Wolfie picks up a leg and stares at it. Jon says, “She tries to sell southern style on a banana leaf, we’d run her out of there, send her up to New England.” Wolfie says it’s oily. Greasy. The skin is flabby. I feel disgusted just typing words like that. And there’s no spice, says Jon. How, again, did she make something with all those pungent and spicy ingredients that has no spice? Michelle (who, by the way, sent Josie home in S3): “I just put it down.” This is who you sent Kristen home for, Tom. You eat every bite of that goddam greasy mess, and then you eat the banana leaf she served it on. You deserve it.

Brooke has a bad day. She plans to put crispy fried skin in the breading itself (I guess it gets crushed to a powder?), and Josh teases her about her “weird bastardized version” of fried chicken. But as things develop, she doesn’t have time to fry the skin; without that element, she has no fried-skin flavor, it’s just boring breaded chicken breast. On top of that, her chicken is done too early, so she has to keep it warm in the oven and give it a quick re-fry at service time. It’s now a really bad day. A least she used dukkah, an Egyptian mix of nuts, seeds, and spices, to do something to it. But she knows her Dukkah-Crusted Chicken Breast with Wilted Escarole and Tomato Salad isn’t right. Wolfie is again shocked someone used boned chicken breast for fried chicken. “What is the name of this show – Top Chef? I wouldn’t even call it The Apprentice, and that’s taken already.” Then we have the karma-of-the-day: Padma sweetly asks, “Do you remember Jon and Vinny?” When she was exec at Zax, they interviewed with her for a job. Guess who she rejected. Given the dish she served, Jon is glad he didn’t get the job. Yep, in the dictionary under “Bad Day” it says, “See Brooke.”

Stefan makes the usual double entendres about breasts and thighs because no one’s ever heard those before. He ain’t doin’ no fried chicken, he’s doing Chicken Cordon Bleu with Garlic Aioli and Lemon, stuffed with cheese from France and ham from Germany and served with mashed potatoes, because that’s how Europeans eat chicken. “I have the Bleus,” says Emeril, “the Chicken Cordon Bleus.” Vinny wishes the chef would at least put his ass on the line, do something interesting.

Since the guests are having a good time, and the judges all want to get plastered, they send the chefs home for the night and postpone Judges’ Table for the next day. This leads to a touching scene between Stefan and his replacement wife, Brooke (you didn’t think he was going to let Kristen’s getting sent home leave him without female companionship, did you?) in which she frets about her poor performance. Sheldon plays the ukulele. He’s pretty good, too. Then we finally get a look at a hint of humanity under Stefan’s bluster: he gets teary after calling his mom, who’s had Parkinson’s for 18 years.

At the risk of promoting crass commercialization… I saw the ad for the frozen dinner they made out of Kristen’s Poached Chicken Breast and Carrot Puree with Garlic and Tofu Emulsion, Dumplings, and Pickled Peas from E9. No tofu. No miso. 300 calories and 23% of your daily sodium intake. Tom must be proud. Nah, probably just a little richer.

Judges’ Table:

Who Wins:

Josh: David credits him with a clever take on tradition. Josh credits his grandfather’s recipe and the paper bag he used for dredging.

Sheldon: Tom says it was great but there wasn’t enough; Wolfie thought maybe Top Chef didn’t allow them enough money to buy enough chicken. Emeril defends him; what was there was really good fried chicken.

Lizzie: Wolfie allows as how the crust was crispy, but it wasn’t what he thinks of as fried chicken. Tom liked the slaw.

Josh wins. Obviously – he was the only one who made a completely good dish.

Who Goes Home:

Brooke: Padma asks why she boned the chicken. Brooke says time was a factor; that’s interesting, because if she’d left it bone-in, she might’ve had time to fry the skin the way she wanted. Tom thinks the fatal mistake was cutting it up; Wolfie blames her overthinking, trying to impress them.

Josie: She blames the fryer; then she says she didn’t have enough time. David tells her about the pool of grease on the banana leaf. Tom points out that, since this happens a lot, she must be wasting time. Josie insists she had a piece, and Lizzie had a piece, and they both thought it was delicious. Tom lets her have it: “So we – David Chang, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Tom Shook, Vinny Dotolo, we have no idea what we’re talking about.” She seems to realize she’s out of excuses. “That’s not what I’m saying.” Then what are you saying? But we don’t see that part. I wish we did. Yes, they’re hard on her, but Josie is incredibly stubborn in believing in her own infallibility.

Stefan: He grew up in Germany so he didn’t have any fried chicken there. Wolfie lectures him about the fine tradition of fried chicken in Austria (except Stefan was raised in Germany, and he’s actually Finnish). Tom can’t get why he made cordon bleu when the idea was fried chicken; cordon bleu isn’t a twist, it’s what you get at bad banquets. Confession: and from home cooks who don’t realize it’s déclassé. Emeril points out the main problem is that it wasn’t even good cordon bleu. As they head back to the Stew Room, Padma mutters to Tom, “He’s such a bullshitter.” At least I think that’s what she said; it was bleeped.

The judges debate amongst themselves. David’s perplexed by Stefan’s choice of cordon bleu. Padma can’t believe anyone made cordon bleu: “When was the last time anyone here had cordon bleu?” “Two flights ago,” says Emeril. I have to admit, I had no idea chefs sneer like this at cordon bleu. I’m embarrassed. Padma wants to send Stefan home just for lying to them about not knowing anything about fried chicken. David thinks Brooke’s flavorless chicken was the losing dish. But everyone else is clearly overwhelmed by the grease Josie served: Emeril couldn’t eat it, Woflie had one bite and that was enough, and Tom calls it greasy and nasty. Padma says it was actual fried chicken, and flavorful.

Josie is out. The long national nightmare is over. Almost… there’s still LCK…

Next Week:

Cooking on a slow boat to Alaska.

Last Chance Kitchen:

Kristen vs. Josie

I was really tired last night – I’d had a bad day myself, including an unpleasant medical test, a carbon-monoxide alarm, and a busted phone – but I had to watch LCK.

Josie knows Kristen is pissed, so she has to bring her A-game. Since her issues were consistency and time management, their assignment is to make ten – count ’em, ten – identical servings of a salmon dish for Tom and the Peanut Gallery to enjoy.

They go to Pike Place for whole salmon, and play Catch-the-Fish (which would be more fun if we didn’t know that they use stunt fish, as revealed by Anders Millers during the Pike’s Place episode. I wonder how many takes it took before they could show them both catching their fish. It seems the ritual includes kissing the fish after you’ve caught it. Or maybe that was a Top Chef idea.

Neither of them have an easy time filleting the salmon, though Josie insists anyone can do it. “Watching you both butcher that fish is painful,” says Tom. Apparently, since salmon is a soft fish, you’re not supposed to lift it up as you cut, but just slip the knife in.

Kristen sees pineapple and decides to pickle it; she wants to crisp the skin but keep the top relatively rare, finished with crème fraiche, olive oil and microherbs. She plays along with the peanut gallery a little. Tom asks what she’s up to; when she mentions raisins, Tom’s eyebrows go up. I’m not sure what the problem is with raisins. I like raisins. Are they like cheese, verboten with fish? Then we find out: they didn’t have time to plump up so they’re in their usual shriveled state. Apparently this is unacceptable in high-end cuisine. Tom thinks it’s a beautiful dish, cooked consistently, uniformly plated, but the raisins weren’t properly plumped. “Bad…really bad… I won’t do that mistake again,” interviews Kristen.

Josie ain’t playing with no peanut gallery. CJ asks what she’s making: “Salmon,” she says. Now, I have to say, when I’m reading and someone comes along and asks, “What are you reading?” I shut them up with “A book,” but this abrupt turnaround from The Josie Show may be a sign something is getting through to her, and she’s focusing on the task at hand. She’s a little more forthcoming with Tom when he asks: fennel pollen seasoned butter-basted salmon served with tarragon vinaigrette. Micah asks if she’s cooking with soul. Yeah, baby. There’s the Josie show. The fennel wafts over to the peanut gallery, getting mouths watering. She’s shocked when she has a whole ten minutes to cook her fish; she might just pull this off. But, being Josie, she finds a way to pull defeat from the jaws of victory: she counts her final plates and she’s only got nine. Nine? She counts again. Wait, there were ten pieces of fish… one is on the floor. Now, I know things get hectic in a restaurant kitchen, and even more so in a TC kitchen, where time’s always ticking, but how can you not notice you dropped a piece of fish on the floor? She has to cut another piece of fish and cook it in the seconds remaining. She gets it done, but who knows how done. Tom likes the fennel pollen, especially how it perfumed the entire room, the flavors were great, and the fish was cooked consistently… overcooked consistently. “Not many people can do anything in 30 minutes. I don’t think the salmon was overcooked overcooked, but maybe I should’ve just seared one side” interviews Josie.

And the winner is… Kristen. You knew it all along, right? I mean, they couldn’t do that to us. Sure they could, but they didn’t. Tom even had the Peanut Gallery as witnesses (though John, playing diplomat, claimed they each had strengths and weaknesses).

Kristen’s surprised; it wasn’t really up to her standards. Tom tells her not to be so hard on herself over one little bit, which is kind of amusing, given that’s the standard TC interview: “One tiny mistake now and it’s all over.”

See the difference in their reactions? Kristen accepts what’s wrong about her dish and decides not to repeat the mistake; Josie reminds herself how awesome she is and denies anything’s wrong. That’s why Kristen works with people like Barbara Lynch and Guy Martin, and Josie is serving sushi off nude women.

But the long national nightmare is, I declare, over. Sure, someone could come along and knock Kristen out of LCK, but someone could do that if she’d stayed in the regular competition, so it’s all up to her from here on out. And that victory must’ve been pretty sweet.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 11 – Restaurant Wars

Queen Dido Falls upon the Sword of Aeneas

Queen Dido Falls upon the Sword of Aeneas

I’ve come to hate Restaurant Wars, because someone usually gets screwed. Except, when I really look at past seasons, that isn’t really the case.

Only once before has there been a true heartbreaker: S3, when Tre was eliminated and it seemed that conniving CJ had something to do with that. I can’t remember exactly what he did – something about apple bread pudding – but that’s where CJ started to feel slimy. I wasn’t happy with S4 when Dale Talde went home instead of Lisa, but that was more a matter of not liking Lisa than liking Dale. Nor, to a much lesser degree, was I happy with S5, which saw Radhika cut while Jamie massacred fish, but that’s where Carla Hall started to grow on me and she stayed in even though her ice cream melted. In those cases, the eliminated were the execs. In other cases, the execs of the losing restaurants fared better, such as in S1 when LeeAnn stayed while Miguel was knifed, and S6 which saw Laurine (who?) out instead of Jennifer, who was starting her funk around then. And sometimes I really didn’t care, like in S7, S8 (All-Stars), and S9. So there really is no pattern.

But there’s the inherent problem with RW: the nominal leaders can’t really be in charge. They have limited choices of who to hire (sometimes no choice at all, though Kristen’s problems started here at the end of last week), they can’t rely on raises or promotions to incentivise effort for those who need that sort of thing, or threaten to fire anyone in any way that has consequences (though Hugh blogs, “It would be the best TC ever if, while playing the role of Exec Chef, someone fired the other chefs” and I think the optimum time for that would’ve been here and now), and most crucially, they are in the end running a team of people they’re competing with.

I’d seen the previews. I was ready to have my heart broken.

Prep:

No Quickfire; it’s all Elimination Challenge this episode. Danny Meyer and Emeril are the judges.

They tour the space, and notice there are no kitchens; they’ll have to create kitchens in the outdoor courtyards. Sheldon takes a side, and Kristen, bless her little assertive heart, tells him not so fast, she wants to check out that side and see if she wants to fight for it. Doesn’t take her long to figure she’s fine with the other side.

Sheldon: Urbano (Filipino cuisine)

Sheldon’s excited about showcasing Filipino cuisine. Josh is concerned because neither he nor Stefan knows anything about Filipino cuisine.

Sheldon goes to the Asian market (where a stock clerk knows exactly where the dried mung beans are; clerks in my store can’t tell me where toilet paper is, let alone dried mung beans) and sends Stefan to the flower shop (Hugh Acheson tweets: “Stefan has found the crazy laughing flower lady in Aisle 8!” and “With his hat and his backpack [Sheldon] kind of looks like a Hawaiian Where’s Waldo character, but easily found.” I love it when Hugh live-tweets Top Chef. I don’t know if he gets paid extra for it, but he should).

Kristen: Atelier Kwan (Modern French)

Kristen is going to take French flavors and turn them upside down, an idea she had when she was 5 years old watching French cooking shows. Now wait, what 5-year-old watches French cooking shows, and just what French cooking shows are those in what must’ve been 2000? Josie asks if she’s bringing any Korean influence; nope. Brooke feels like they’ve all had some acquaintance with French cuisine so they should be able to handle things.

Kristen isn’t looking forward to an afternoon with Josie, so she sends her to the restaurant supply store with Brooke, which is kind of hilarious. Brooke: “They type of restaurant we’re opening takes a little more… class?” They set up the kitchen so Kristen can touch every dish that goes out, which sounds awful (David Rees at Grub Street is going to have fun with that) but it’s Chefspeak for control freak with an overtone of “I don’t trust some of these people.” Josie goes off to roast bones for her stock. Some time later, Kristen asks if she’s still using the oven, only to find she isn’t roasting the bones, she’s doing mis en place and she’ll get to the bones tomorrow; “I don’t rush things.” Yeah, we know, we know. Lizzie, in the meantime, is roasting bones for her stock, because, well, she’s actually participating.

Overnight:

More consult about service. Brooke’s concerned about the initial rush of customers. Josie wants to pre-plate, but Kristen isn’t hearing it, and Josie gets a little peeved: “She cooks a la minute at her restaurant every night, that’s how she does it, but this is a hundred people.” I think that’s called “catering,” and it’s why caterers tend to be looked down on by restaurant chefs. Josie isn’t getting any love from the girls, so she goes over to the boys to complain more about how wrong Kristen is. “As a line cook I know how to get it done but we’re going to be working hard, I’m not the exec, I have to step back.” Nobody speaks, but after she leaves, Josh seems to agree with her (“If they cook the fish to order they’re going to go down”), but I’m not sure if he’s agreeing with the principle or with the idea of Josie cooking 100 plates in a short time, given her exasperating slowness at the berry festival and the last challenge.

Day of opening:

Sheldon

He invokes the menehune spirit again (and this time explains they’re little Hawaiian warriors who “get stuff done bigger than their stature”). He recruits the dishwasher to help with prep. Stefan’s Front of House since he’s Mr. Restaurant, but he suddenly realizes, minutes before service, that he doesn’t really know what the dishes are. Sheldon calls out a one-sentence description as Sheldon’s walking out to greet their customers.

Kristen

Brooke has, with her husband, opened four restaurants, so she’s FOH. By the way, I didn’t realize until I read Gail’s blog that Kristen’s a sous chef, not an exec, in real life. Josie gets behind, surprise surprise, and suddenly, a half hour before service, asks where the gelatin for the broth is. Kristen is stunned. It’s that look you get when, on April 17, when your ditzy cousin says, “So, hey, am I supposed to mail this envelope you gave me addressed to the IRS?” Kirsten changes her plans and tells her to add cream. Then it’s the foamer she doesn’t test in time, because, like she said before, she doesn’t rush, especially when someone else’s butt is on the line. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate sabotage or if she’s honestly that lackadaisical about cooking. Kristen is doing a pretty good job of keeping herself in check (at least in the kitchen; in her interview, she says, “I’d prefer a dishwasher instead of Josie” which is kind of mean, though not totally uncalled for) but Josie isn’t pleased: “I’m sensing a little bit of attitude, I’m not blind.” Josie makes clueless an art form. Kristen: “I had a vision and now it’s all f*d up.”

Showtime. Brooke’s a little dismayed to see the judges; she’d hoped they’d be at the second seating and they’d have a little time to get in the groove, but no such luck. And it’s on such happenstance, perhaps, that our destinies turn.

Service:

Atelier Kwan:

Emeril’s impressed with the room they set up in 48 hours. Danny likes the graphics on the menu. I like that he appreciates such thing. During service, some customers ask Brooke if they can see the kitchen, so she gives little tours, which is probably not something Kristen really needs right now.

I was wondering last week where the name came from; the Atelier makes sense, of course (a high-end artist’s studio) but the Kwan? Hugh offers an explanation I appreciate though it doesn’t help much: “Atelier Crenn is an amazing SF restaurant that must have inspired this choice. Must have.” Dominique Crenn, chef of that amazing restaurant, only lasted until Round 4 of NIC2, the one that Jose Garces won, which is how competitive cooking shows go.

Charcuterie” – Rabbit, Pickled Turnips and Yellow Beets in Chicken and Rabbit Broth (Lizzie). Danny was expecting a rillettes, but it’s not; Gail’s happy about that. Emeril and Tom like it a lot.

Bouillabaisse” – Halibut, Dungeness Crab, Bay Scallops with Shellfish Broth (Josie): There’s a noticeable delay in service, so Danny provides a little anecdote: when restaurant critics showed up, he’d make sure the tables around them were having a great time. Eventually the food comes. Padma finds the crab tasty; Emeril’s halibut is overcooked but his scallop is raw. Gail doesn’t have the foam the others have. Tom: “Something happened back there, this wasn’t done correctly.” A guest – presumably a chef (they’re all over the place, including Thierry) but I don’t know which one – says it’s great conception but the execution’s off. Josie: “If we’d plated ahead of time like I’d suggested we would’ve had more free hands.” For the record, post-show, Josie tweeted: “For clarification Chef, I suggested pre-plating the cheese & dessert course not the fish.” That would’ve almost made sense… but was there space to put 200 plates? And why was Josh talking about fish the night before?

Beef Bourguignon” – Braised Short Ribs, Garlic Puree, Mushrooms and Carrots (Kristen): Padma loves the tender, tasty beef, but Tom wonders where the Bourguignon is; Gail misses the wineyness. Tom: “If you’re going to reinterpret, you can’t do something that’s too close or we’re missing the sauce; they didn’t take it far enough.”

Baked Gougere, St. Agur Blue Cheese, Roasted Radish and Stone Fruit Compote, Sticky Sweet Pine Nuts (Brooke): Emeril’s not getting the sticky, it’s hard to eat; Danny’s worried about losing a filling. Tom notes it’s a classic and it works.

Almond Cake Macaron with Coconut Custard and Caramel Buttercream (Kristen): Danny loves it, but Gail’s disappointed that it’s nothing like the billed macaron: “If I could come back as any single item in the culinary lexicon, I’d come back as a macaron.”

Hits: the charcuterie and the beef. The main problem seems to be that it wasn’t clear that the items were takeoffs on the terms used in the menu, so they were expecting actual bouillabaisse and bourguignon and macarons. That’s a conceptual flaw. Turns out, the bouillabaisse was worse than I realized (or was exaggerated in hindsight), but I wouldn’t know that for a while.

Urbano:

Hugh tweeted: “Is Stefan wearing a velour blue suit? He’s like the Finn-Deutsch Leisure Suit Larry.” That’s just the beginning of the Stefan narrative. At least he’s learned the name of the restaurant, which he stumbled over during the first seating. He started pouring booze for people to keep them happy, and seems he kept them too happy: they wouldn’t leave. So now he’s trying to get them to leave so he can bring in the second seating, and especially the judges. He runs seven restaurants; you’d think he’d know how professionals handle this. Again Danny makes an astute observation about the menu: the “o” of “Urbano” is smaller than the other letters: “That means, look out for a little twist.” I like this guy; if I said anything snide about him last week, I take it back. Anyone who interprets typography is ok in my book.

Kilawen” – Yellowtail with Cilantry, Spicy Chili and White Soy Sauces (Stefan): Emeril loves it; Danny likes the interchange between the acid and sour, and Gail appreciates the beautiful contrast. Kilawen, by the way, is Filipino ceviche.

Balut” – Poached Egg, Duck Confit and Foie Gras Mousse (Josh): Authentic balut is duck fetus, somehow a common Filipino street food, but this isn’t. Stefan plops it down with a cursory “The infamous egg balut” and waltzes off, leaving them to ponder his meaning. Gail finds it strange that Stefan would just assume they know all about the infamous egg from the Philipines – Danny: “He let his chef down” – but loves the dish. Padma says it’s executed beautifully, but Tom’s not as enthusiastic: “There’s nothing remotely tasty about this dish.”

Miki” – Prawns, Tapioca Roll with Achiote (Sheldon): Stefan isn’t even around to explain this dish. Tom loves the tapioca. Padma finally gets Stefan’s attention, at which point he sneers at them for not knowing it’s Filipino chicken noodle soup but doesn’t explain it, in that way the insecure have of establishing their superiority by making you feel like it’s your fault for asking. The judges are taken aback. “I feel like I was just scolded,” says Tom. Gail: “We were made to feel like idiots” (The therapist voice inside me says: You are the only one who can make you feel like anything”). Emeril: “The way he made us feel is worse than the bouillabaisse” which is my first inkling of how bad the bouillabaisse was.

Adobo” – Pork Bely with Mung Bean Puree and Pea Shoot Salad (Sheldon): After some practice in the kitchen, Stefan finally stops saying “Adobe.” Danny loves the sour flavors and can’t stop eating it; Tom calls it the best dish he’s had all day.

Halo-Halo” – Coconut Sorbet, Avocado Mousse, Carmelized Banana (Josh): Gail’s happy; she appreciates the timing required to get it right, and Emeril loves that the coconut isn’t too sweet.

Overall, they did very much the same thing Kristen’s team did – presented classic dishes in a very different way – but I’m thinking most of the dishes were closer to the original models. The balut was the most different, but balut probably isn’t like beef Bourguignon or macarons with an immediate expectation of a particular thing, even for the judges’ world-wide palates. So it was much more successful. The dark spot was the service, and Tom invokes something he learned from Danny: “You go for the food, but you return for the hospitality.” Nobody’s sure they’d return to Sheldon’s restaurant, in spite of the excellent food.

But we all know, nobody’s going home for bad service when there’s a bad dish, and a flawed concept, on the other side.

Judges’ Table

Everyone’s invited.

Atelier Kwan

Gail explains that the components of the beef stew were cooked beautifully, but it didn’t have the acid or wine of Bourguignon; Tom tells them he liked the dish, but by calling it Bourguignon they set them up for something that didn’t happen. “Hindsight’s a bitch,” says Kristen. “Yeah, she’s not very nice,” agrees Gail. Everyone knows where this is headed. You can tell; there’s a pall in the room. Emeril compliments Brooke’s service and Lizzie’s charcuterie.

Then the crux of the matter: Josie and the bouillabaisse. Gail says it had enormous flavor but she got no broth, and no one else got enough broth (or, more accurately, sauce). Josie, who keeps squawking about her background as a team player on a professional sports team, plants both hands firmly on Kristen’s back to push her under that damn bus: Kristen helped her plate, she would’ve served it with more broth but it wasn’t her concept. “Bite my tongue, bite my tongue” whispers Kristen. She has incredible self-control. She doesn’t explain the gelatin didn’t get in because Josie kept saying she’d do this and do that and simply wasn’t done in time to add it; she just admits she told her to leave out the gelatin and add cream instead. Josie, giving one final shove like every good teammate does, and says she would’ve stuck to the original idea. Gail tries to find a way to make it right: it’s her dish, she’s on the line, there has to be some level of collaboration, not just doing what she’s told when she thinks it’s wrong. Tom chimes in with the insight of the night: “Or maybe you were hoping that was the case.”

I don’t think Josie’s anywhere near the level of any of the chefs in this competition, in terms of cooking skills, personality, or character, but I just don’t see her being that conniving. I don’t think she’s up to it. But he alternative is staggering incompetence beyond even what I’d supposed – what was she doing when she said she was roasting the bones the first time? The second time? Yes, she’s shown over and over that she’s unable to keep to a timeline, but that was a concrete task, was it really that far beyond her?

Urbano

Tom liked the concept since it’s not a common one, but they were all blown away with disappointment at how Stefan handled the room from start to finish. “Yes, it’s poor service,” says Stefan. “I’m a chef, not a server.” And again, I’m stunned at the lack of pride. Doesn’t anyone feel like they need to do a good job because they need to do a good job? Or is it ok because Stefan knows very well he’s not going home for front of house, especially when Tom praises his Kilawen. Sheldon gets major props for the best dish of the night, his adobo. Padma asks Josh if he ever had balut before; he hadn’t, and Tom says it didn’t read Filipino at all, but it was good for what it was.

Urbano wins, to no one’s surprise. I’m very happy for Sheldon; he’s a sweetie, he had a good idea, and he did a good job. But in my heart I say goodbye to Kristen; there’s no other way this can play out. And I’m kind of sorry that Sheldon’s win, which is cause for delight and celebration, is overshadowed by the loss to come. But that’s the world of Top Chef: it’s never who wins, but who loses, that’s talked about the next day.

The Cut

Right off the top, Lizzie and Brooke are safe; their dishes were good to great, and Brooke carried FOH very well. Tom asks what happened to the bouillabaisse sauce. Kristen is silent. Josie: “I didn’t know where anything was.” Because everyone else was totally familiar with the kitchen, right? Kristen is the model of everything I’d like to ever be under duress: “I take responsibility. It was my dish and I saw it last.” The hell with TV shows, this is honor. The most she’ll say: “I made some execution errors and so did some other people.” I wanna be like Kristen when I grow up (just in case it isn’t clear, I’ve got 30 years on her).

Back in the Stew Room, Josie says something about being an easy target. Oh, don’t go looking for sympathy. Yes, you’re an easy target because you’ve shown grand incompetence throughout. You’re the reason I’m hoping Kuniko continues to hold on via Save-A-Chef. Now you’re the reason Kristen’s going to Last Chance Kitchen to run into the buzzsaw that is CJ. You’ve served raw turkey, you’ve been unable to keep up with live service twice, and now you’re unable to roast bones when that’s all you have to do. Lizzie got her bones roasted, what’s your excuse? Don’t you dare play the “pity me” card. Look at Kristen: that’s how someone with class handles it.

The judges do their discussion. Tom talks about the issue of execution, but also of concept: it wasn’t clear to diners that the dishes were going to be spins on the originals, so expectations were set up and not met. That’s a major flaw, and that’s what really puts the nail in Kristen’s coffin, I think. They also think she overreached for the time and setup; she had a lovely concept in her head but couldn’t get it out to the others. Gail, bless her, takes the other approach: Why let Josie get away without accepting responsibility? “We’ve been down this road before, she keeps skating through.” Which is true. Padma, on the other hand, points out it’s Kristen’s ultimate responsibility. Tom looks miserable. I feel miserable.

Kristen’s out. Now everyone’s miserable. Judging from the Twitterverse, no one is ever going to watch TC again. Except, of course, for next time. It was the only thing they could do and still claim some shred of integrity. To be Top Chef instead of the Lifetime Project Runway. Except: what’s Josie still doing there in the first place? She should’ve been out two weeks ago, and last week. Could it be drama? I’m betting there’s gonna be some drama in the overnight at Olive 8. And I almost (almost) feel sorry for Josie, who is now replacing the combined ogres of Ilan, Heather, and Sarah (whose name I actually had to look up) as Most Hated Contestant Ever. It’s a TV show, people, chill. Kristen won $45,000, she’s earned tremendous admiration, and even if she never gets beyond CJ, that’s still a good run.

Tom notes that Josie looks more shocked than Kristen. Stefan’s pretty shocked, too. “I love you,” Kristen says to him as they hug. Really? Really???

Kristen: “I understand people want to save their own asses, I get it, but I’m going home with my integrity, without backstabbing. I did too much with the complexity of the menu, and I’m really irritated that things couldn’t be perfect.”

Josie: “Most of the chefs think I took a low road.” Y’think?

Which one do you want to be when you grow up? Which one do you want your kids to be?

[Addendum: On that awful post-show I never remember the name of with that Bravo guy who seems to think he’s the outrageous and gay Johnny Carson but isn’t, Kristen and Padma talk on the phone, and there’s love all around. Padma makes it clear she’d rather eat Kristen’s food, but felt there was no other way to go. Which doesn’t quite answer the question of why Josie was still there in the first place, given her performance last week and the week before, because that’s all about the drama.]

Next Week:

I missed this on the first airing (I just wasn’t paying attention), but it seems Josh makes bacon sushi and Brooke can’t fry chicken. Tom’s name for the new Wolfgang Puck chain of fried chicken restaurants: Wolfgang Cluck. Not that funny, Tom. You can do better. Can’t you?

Last Chance Kitchen

Kristen vs. CJ:

Tom tells them, “You’re probably two of the best chefs here.” So… what are they doing in LCK? It’s pretty much an admission that Top Chef isn’t about who’s the best chef. Tom even mutters to the Peanut Gallery during the cooking: “Kristen’s made some good dishes but she hasn’t done that well in the Quickfires,” (he’s right; she’s only won once, with her E7 foil-baked cake) just to ratchet up the tension a little more.

They get to make their own challenge: they alternately determine four factors of the challenge: time, protein, technique, and cuisine, from a set of choices, then both have to execute a dish meeting the same four factors. That’s a pretty good concept.

CJ: Time (30 minutes) since he’s been doing well at these 30-minute things.
Kristen: Red Snapper (for Redemption Bouillabaisse)
CJ: Smoking Gun (figuring he’s more familiar with it than Kristen)
Kristen: French (what else)

Kristen wants another chance at bouillabaisse. Interesting, even when it’s not explicitly part of the challenge, it ends up being “fix what you did wrong.” We learn something about Kristen: like Stephanie Izard, she swears. A lot. “MF-ing” seems to be her curse of choice (though technically I think it’s an obscenity, not a curse). She has to scale the MF-ing fish. She doesn’t know how the MF-ing smoke gun works (“Oh, it’s like lighting a bong” – I love you, Kristen). It’d be hilarious to watch if my fingernails weren’t digging into my palms. Tom comes over to check out her progress: she says, “Hi Gotta Go” and runs off for something, so Tom moves over to CJ’s table only to have him pull the same thing (CJ knows a good schtick when he sees it), then when she returns: “Sorry, no disrespect.” Damn, she’s good, she’s super-focused but manages to acknowledge politeness at the same time. She worries she’s put too much saffron into her Bouillabaisse of Snapper, Crème Fraiche, Smoked Butter, Shaved Fennel and French breakfast radishes. I had no idea there was such a thing as a French breakfast radish (I’m not a radish person) but there is; leave it to the French to eat radishes for breakfast and create a specific cultivar for that purpose. Tom verifies there’s too much saffron, and of course the fumet isn’t as developed as it would be with a longer time limit (which makes it a less-than-wise choice, perhaps, for a dish to make in 30 minutes), but it’s a redemption of the bouillabaisse.

CJ doesn’t care for straight French food (insert your ideas for gay French food here) so he always looks for a creative outlet, seeing as the people who created Western cuisine aren’t up to his standards. He smokes cream for pureed potatoes, which surprises Tom. He picked the Smoking Gun because he gambled Kristen wouldn’t be familiar with it, and he’s tickled that he was right. He makes Brown Butter Snapper with Creamed Morels, Smoked Pureed Potatoes with Herbs de Provence, and Ratatouille with Squash, Onion, Tomato Juice and Garlic. Tom was dubious about the potato puree, but it was smooth and rich, the fish was nicely cooked, and the brown butter added the French touch. Overall, the dish was a little dry.

Kristen wins. I’m not sure if she really wins, or if Tom just decides she wins because he’d rather look at her than CJ and there’s no way he’s letting her slip through the cracks.

Crossing fingers she keeps it up. Just wait ’til Josie comes through LCK.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 10 – Battle Before the War

Before the Skirmish Before the Battle Before the War:

Josh is happy John’s gone. Stefan, on the other hand, is sadly smoking a cigarette on the balcony, wishing John were here. Josie’s yelling, “Asians represent!” for no apparent reason and then interviews that since they’re the final eight, “to underestimate anyone is stupid.” I don’t think anyone’s underestimating Josie.

The Skirmish Before The Battle Before The War, aka Quickfire:

Wolfgang Puck gives the challenge: make a dish that highlights ginger in 15 minutes. And there’s some product-placement stuff you don’t need to know about. No prize this time – the product placement isn’t that good, the product isn’t required – but the winner does get immunity.

Brooke is star-struck. They must have it rationed out so every time Wolfie comes on set, another chef is starstruck with a cute anecdote. Brooke’s anecdote: she spent her 17th birthday at Spago. Presumably as a customer, since there’s nothing in her bio about having worked there. She goes for clean Vietnamese flavor with Ginger-Caramel Squid with Fresh Lime and Chili Powder. All I can think of is butterscotch scallops, but Wolfie thinks it’s creative and the sweetness works. Brooke wins. She gets immunity.

Stefan goes for Ahi Tuna with Lemongrass and Ginger Vinaigrette and chats in German with Wolfie about growing up in Munich (“I can turn on the charm sometimes” – ok, though there are those who don’t associate the German language with charm, not to mention there was a time in recent history when Austrians weren’t particularly fond of Germans) and ends up in the Top Three because it’s delicate and not overpowering, simple California cuisine. And maybe because Stefan speaks German.

Lizzie is worried about the neon sign on her head that says “I was in the bottom last week.” She loves the combination of watermelon and ginger (that does sound cool) so comes up with Watermelon and Ginger Soup with Fresh Mint. I don’t understand things like “watermelon soup.” Isn’t it just squished watermelon? But it works: Wolfie finds it a well-balanced cold soup for a hot summer day. Top Three.

Sheldon hears “ginger” and “15 minutes” and thinks stir fry, so going on instinct he makes Wok-Fried Ginger Skirt Steak with Ginger and Oranges. At first Wolfie likes the flavor though he wishes for more sweetness, but once he thinks about it, he’s not impressed; it’s pedestrian Chinese food from a cheap restaurant. Sheldon’s appropriately chagrined at having made beef stir-fry for Wolfgang Puck. Bottom Two.

Josh goes for dessert: White Chocolate Ginger Soup with Peaches and Tarragon. Wolfie says he showed restraint with the ginger; too much restraint, maybe, because the underwhelmingness of it all lands him in the Bottom Two.

Micah decides: the single biggest enemy of a chef is time. He makes Ginger Shrimp Salad with Radish, Plum, Ponzu Vinaigrette and Fried Crispy Ginger. Padma likes the plum. No prize, though.

Kristen uses the pressure of a foam canister not to make foam but to pressure-infuse veggies with ginger for Fennel-Ginger Salad with Brie and Tomatoes. Wolfie appreciates the new use of the foam canister but not enough for a mention.

Josie runs across the kitchen and Josh tackles her. I think it was even an accident. “If you want a hug, just ask,” he says; “I was a professional football player, I can take a few hits.” If she weren’t a former professional football player, and if Josh weren’t a big guy, they’d both be on the floor, so I guess they’re even. She makes Seared Scallop with Ginger-Honey Yogurt and Miso-Ginger Sauce; Wolfie says the scallops are cooked perfectly. But no mention.

The Actual Battle Before the War (finally): aka Elimination Challenge:

Enter Danny Meyer subject of the documentary The Restaurateur, author of Setting the Table, and early-on business partner of Tom Colicchio. It’s time for Restaurant Wars, but they’ve changed it up a little: everyone will prepare a dish that embodies the concept of the restaurant they’d like to create. Two winners will become the competing execs next week in the actual Restaurant Wars episode. They’ll be serving 200 guests at Bite of Seattle, the local food festival. Some of the eliminated chefs will serve as sous chefs. Danny advises them to create the concept and the dish from the heart, “because you can’t fake soul.” Wolfie’s advice: “If you don’t believe in your own concept, no one else will believe it.” And, as we’ll see, sometimes no one will believe it even if you do. Exit Wolfie; he isn’t part of the festivities the next day; it’s Padma, Gail, Tom and Danny. Maybe he found a booth he liked more?

In the Overnight, Sheldon gets a cake for his 30th birthday and a phone call with his daughter. A few seasons ago, that would’ve been the kiss of death, but the producers now understand that fans pick up on clues like those. They still throw them in for those who haven’t noticed that all the curses have been broken, that birthdays and phone calls home are no longer harbingers of doom. Not necessarily, anyway.

There’s something I found very interesting about the visuals. Above is the official poster for the 2012 Bite of Seattle; notice the prominent placement of the sponsor. However, the posters in all Top Chef shots (behind Kristen and Josie) are unencumbered by such crass commercialism, as they either are not at the official event, or they’ve scrubbed the images since no one’s paying for those seven letters (or Comcast doesn’t want to have anything to do with Top Chef).

Service:

Josh creates Bistro George, named after his father, a steak-and-potatoes sort of guy who died three years ago. He makes Seared Eye of Ribeye with Cauliflower Puree and Mushroom Red Wine Sauce and a Parsley Pistou. Gail likes it; Danny likes the seasoning on the mushrooms but wishes there were more on the steak. Is this where Tom picked up his underseasoning phobia?

Lizzie went to Northeastern Italy last year, where Italian food meets Austria and Hungary and Croatia, so that’s her focus at Mia Filino (which means “My Trickle/Spin/Trail” depending on which translator you use). Her dish is Mustard Green Canederli with Fonduta (Italian fondue) and Crispy Speck. I’ve never heard of canederli, which turn out to be knödel, Tyrolean dumplings made with stale bread dampened with milk and speck (a smoked ham-like product I have heard of before). I’m not sure this is the dish I’d make to impress the judges. And it doesn’t really work; it’s heavy and dense. Gail says the fonduta looks like a slice of American cheese was laid over it. That can’t be good.

Sheldon calls his modern Filipino restaurant Urbano as a tribute to his grandfather; he remembers tasting his sinigang when he was a kid. So he elevates that dish to Sour Tamarind Soup with Pork Belly, Shrimp, and Snapper. He picks Chrissy for his sous since she knows Filipino food. Danny says the flavor makes you sit up straight “in a good way,” and Padma loves the authenticity: “Traditionally, this isn’t a pretty dish to look at, but he managed to keep it authentic and make it elegant which is his concept.”

Stefan grabs Carla as sous because she’s super fast and her butt is cute. He’s being charming again, isn’t he. His restaurant concept started out Thai, but ended up Bangkok via Munich, which reminds me of Guy Fieri’s Tex Wasabi thing only less appealing. He goes into a nonsensical spiel about “You don’t want to call it a pizzeria, you call it a trattoria so you can make pasta and other things…” How’d Italy sneak in there? He turns on the charm yet again when Tom walks through during prep: “Every quickfire I’ve got sloppy seconds.” Which is true if by “every time” he means twice (E3, E6) out of eight times (two and a half (E7) if you squint). Face it, Stefan, you haven’t won anything yet. He brings in the nitro for the lollipops he’s been making for the past decade. Then he sprays innocent bystander (and chef) Brian Canlis with whatever’s in his blender. That’s the second blender accident this season; is there a gremlin in the equipment room? I can hear the Elves now: “Wouldn’t it be fun if…” He trots out his Thai Lobster Bisque with Shrimp Dumpings, Potatoes and Radishes AND (that’s how it’s typeset on the recipe entry, all caps) Bavarian Cream Mango Lollipop. Padma takes one look at the lollipop: “Is this the same thing as the S5 finale?” See, Stefan, you think girls are dumb, you think you can put one over on them, but you can’t. “Different sticks,” he explains. Gail likes the coconut milk and broth of the soup, but wishes there were some herbs; she just gets Thai, no Munich (the Bavarian cream, maybe?). Danny doesn’t think the lollipop holds up to the soup, so his last impression makes him forget how good the soup was. Tom’s ok with the fusion, but not the execution.

Josie goes Home 305 to Miami, which for her is all about Cuban flavors, and she’s all about making people comfortable in her home. She puts on the Josie show again, and just like the Berry Festival in E7, there’s a long wait at her station while she makes inane comments. “You can’t get closer to my heart than this,” she calls out, and Tom prompts, “Hopefully we’ll get closer to the plate.” If her shtick was good, the distraction technique might work, but it’s repetitive and nonsensical; this isn’t Food Network Star, and frankly, this patter isn’t even good enough for them. There’s a bus driver here in Portland who’s the same way, he’s playing the Catskills as he drives past the stop. Her Puerco Asado, Black Bean Chorizo Croquette, Pickles and Mojo Sauce doesn’t improve things; the pork is dry and flavorless, and the croquette is soggy.

Micah lost 25 pounds on a Raw diet, so he’s going Raw. You know why you lose weight on a raw diet? Because nothing’s worth eating. He was all set for surf & turf, but the market didn’t have any tenderloin so he gets sashimi grade seafood instead. All kinds of seafood. What kind of market is this, with no tenderloin but lots of squid and hamachi? Is that typical of Asian markets, or did the producers run in and hide the tenderloin back with the good scallops from last week? Tom wonders if raw food is a good idea, but Micah assures him that the ladies in Beverly Hills watching their weight love it, which earns a wonderfully skeptical look. He slices up raw salmon, snapper, hamachi, squid, scallop, and mackerel, tops it with Yuzu Dressing and throws some mizuna and shiso down with some other veg, looks like radishes, maybe some cabbage. Tom complains there’s no presentation, it’s just layered on (I think it’s kind of pretty, actually, though I don’t particularly want to eat it – I don’t do raw except for cookie dough) and it should’ve been cut to order instead of the day before, which seems to me a no-brainer; doesn’t it dry out? Gail likes the egg yolk in the vinaigrette, but it isn’t enough. Danny: “We already have a construct for raw fish: really good sushi. This doesn’t add anything.” It does seem like a lightweight dish, in terms of skill as well as calories.

Kristen gives us a story: a year and a half ago her relationship ended, and she was forced to move out and she tried to start over. Wait… that’s your story? You need to do better than that, everyone’s got that sob story. Go back to the abandoned-Korean-orphan thing. On walkthrough Tom reminds her she’s made $35,000 so far, which is a helluva good way to start over, by the way. Her Atelier Kwan is contemporary French with a twist, not a bistro; she likes things a little more formal. Do you know what an Onsen Egg is? You probably do, but you don’t realize it – it’s that slow-poached egg, held at about 63 degrees for an hour and a half, that Wylie Dufresne and the other modernists have been doing with their immersion circulators, but the Japanese were doing it in hot springs a long time ago. I love Top Chef, I learn so much. There must be a difference or someone would’ve mentioned this before, I’m sure. In any case, everyone loves her Onsen Egg with Camembert Mustard Sauce and Buttered Radishes. Danny loves the poached radish, while Gail and Tom adore the perfect egg, and Gail appreciates that right now with everyone going “rustic” it’s cool that she’s interested in a little formality. See, that’s what slack buys you – with pretty much anyone else, they would’ve insisted that formality is out of fashion. With Kristen, they praise her for bucking the tide. I’m not complaining – I love me some Kristen, she’s my pick to win – but I’m just sayin’.

Brooke goes Unkosher – modern Jewish without all the Kashrut fuss, sort of like a ham sandwich on challah. There’s a restaurant named Traif right on the outside edge of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, run by a Jewish chef, featuring a pig in its logo. It was supposed to be controversial because of the location, but it didn’t work out that way. The publicity got some people in the door, anyway (he doesn’t do “Jewish” food, it’s just your standard yummy-stuff restaurant), and it’s still there, so he’s doing something right. The idea of taking a Jewish dish and twisting it by ditching the kosher requirements seems unfair, somehow. “Jewish” food, if there is such a thing (probably referring to 20th century Ashkenazi in New York; there are other Jews in the world) evolved to bring flavor, texture, and variety within the dietary restrictions. Brooke’s version is playing tennis without a net. The laws of Kashrut, for the Orthodox and even some of those not so Orthodox, are like the Catholic sacraments, they aren’t just cute little customs; to a large degree, it was the dietary laws that separated the ancient Hebrews from their neighbors and helped prevent assimilation during 2000 years of diaspora. Still… I do love challah, and there’s nothing like a pile of Black Forest ham and a nice thick slice of Jarlsberg. That isn’t on Brooke’s menu, though. She serves Matzo Ball Soup with Duck Confit and Toasted Rye Black Bread. There’s nothing traif there (presumably the duck, as well as the cooking vessels, aren’t kosher-certified, and there’s milk in the bread, but pretty much any modern Jew would be fine with it; hell, most modern Jews would be fine with the Challah ham sandwich from what I’ve seen), but God gets her for it anyway: Gail proclaims the matzo ball “offensive to my people.” Tom wishes she’d made the matzo ball out of the rye bread. I was wondering why she didn’t end up in the bottom, then I realized – she has immunity.

Judges’ Table:

Top Three:

Sheldon – Danny loved the soup; the sourness set him up for the next bite. Tom likes that everything had a place and a purpose. I wish he’d explain that some day; I have a vague idea, but I’m never sure exactly what it means.

Kristen – Everyone loved it. Tom thinks there’s nothing better than cheese and a runny egg.

Josh – Gail has no trouble imagining the neighborhood restaurant he pitched. Tom liked the sear on the meat. I thought Danny had a problem with the seasoning, but nothing’s said, or at least, aired.

Winners: Kristen and Sheldon. Sheldon’s happy: “Padma gave me $10,000 for my birthday.”

Now they get to pick their RW sous chefs from the others – before they know who’s eliminated. So someone’s going to be down one chef. Ooh, that’s mean. But it’s really the only way to fairly determine who that will be – as long as the judges don’t know the picks and adjust their elimination strategy, heh heh. Danny advises them to pick someone they can teach to execute their food. The winner will get a car. Another car? Really earning their product placement, aren’t they.

Kristen picks Brooke, Lizzie, and, inexplicably, Josie (instead of Micah).

Sheldon picks Josh because they worked together well in the past, Stefan, and ends up with Micah.

What do they have against Micah? Per the Wiki Chart, his numbers are better than, or at least equal to, Josie’s, Stefan’s, or Josh’s. Is he making a pain in the ass of himself when the cameras are off? He had a bad week, asshole-wise, back a few, but it seemed like he turned it around. In any event, it ends up as guys against girls, which always plays well.

Bottom Three: “It’s a wide gap between top and bottom” – Tom Colicchio

Micah: Padma asks if he was happy with his dish; yes, he was. Gail (who looks great, by the way, I love the dress she’s wearing; Gail doesn’t get enough credit for her spiffiness, everyone’s always drooling over Padma, so shout-out, Gail) didn’t appreciate that the fish was all together in one piece, possibly a function of being cut the night before, though it was layered just before service. He pulls out the “they didn’t have tenderloin” card, which, well, you know how they react to that. Tom would’ve rather have had one fish perfectly sliced than a pu-pu platter of fish.

Lizzie: She explains her Northern Italian concept yet again. Tom points out execution flaws: the dumplings weren’t cooked enough. Danny breaks it to her: they were heavy and gummy.

Josie: Padma asks how she thinks she did, and what a surprise, she thinks she did fine, she got lots of good feedback. Danny: “I put my fork into the pork, and the pork fought back.” Ouch. Gail brings in the bland greasiness. Tom chews her out for putting on a show and forgetting about basics, like putting a crispy bean cake under the vinegar so it got all mushed out. Josie: “On the outside I’m hard as a rock, on the inside I’m a crying little baby. I think I’m going home this time.” All of America thinks so, too.

Micah is out. Wait… Micah?

Twitter lights up the night sky.

Now that I’ve had time to look at this more closely, I can see some rationale for this bizarre decision. He didn’t really make anything. He sliced some fish (Kuniko actually sliced the fish) and even that, he did ahead of time. He made some dressing. He shredded some veg. What did he do while the others were roasting meats and making sauces and veggies and lollipops and breads and soups and 90-minute eggs? I have no doubt it was a bad dish, and a low-effort one, but I wonder how much was annoyance with the Raw Food movement (something chefs can’t be that crazy about), how much was making sure it wasn’t Kristen’s RW team who was down a chef, and how much was wanting to keep Josie around for some RW drama. This is the first time I’ve wondered about such machinations this season.

Next Week:

The War. You know, the War this episode was a prequel to.

Last Chance Kitchen: Micah vs CJ

One of my favorite aspects of LCK is figuring out how Tom is going to rub the most recently eliminated chef’s nose in the failure. Tonight, you know it’s going to be Raw.

Beef. Lamb. Duck. Beef heart. No cooking. Go.

CJ knows duck skin doesn’t scream tartare but he can make it work: he freezes it in LN, grinds it up, and pickles it. In the Peanut Gallery, John worries the freezing and grinding will mess up the texture. Hey, when you’re contemplating eating raw duck skin, the texture is the least of your worries. He’s also doing beef heart, which is only slightly less gross but it was Chris Cosentino’s Love Letter to his Wife in the finale of TC4, and he won, so hey, why not. Maybe CJ is trying to out-gut the Guts Guy. He admits it’s conceptually weird: “But it’s gonna be sick.” That’s not the best description to use for food, y’know. Bart in the PG says Tom looks worried; nah, he’s fine with the beef heart, and he doesn’t think the duck skin will make it to the plate. It does, though, and Tom eats Beef Heart Tartare with Chili, Pickled Duck skin and Tomato Water drizzled with lemon and olive oil.

Micah starts with bison loin – wait, now where did the bison come from? I thought the tenderloin was beef, was that a misstatement, or was there bison somewhere else? He has trouble getting the bison to slice thinly since it’s warm. He wants land and sea so he makes tartare out of the duck breast and adds a shallot; he thinks it’s got sweet, salt, and zing. In the PG John thinks the shallot is going to overwhelm everything (hey, John, you know what? You had your shot, you couldn’t cut it, shut up). CJ thinks the plate looks like a huge mount of meat, which it does: “It might impress some people,” which continues to move CJ even further into the Dick Zone. But Micah’s happy; he can see all the flavor notes on the plate. Tom asks if he meant to leave the fat on the bison carpaccio (he did; because it’s such a lean meat, it needed the fat) and tastes his Bison Carpaccio and Duck Tartare with Quail Egg Yolk, Pickled Carrots and Chili, and Arugula. And raw bison fat. I’ll never be a gourmet.

Tom likes both dishes; they understood how to handle the lean meats, and he found the pickled duck fat interesting in a good way, but wishes CJ had used something else to bind it more. Still, it was nicely cut and the flavors worked well. Micah also gave a big punch of flavor, with the yuzu and soy, but at the end he was left with raw shallot. It was, however, inventive and bold.

CJ wins (note to myself: if Tom ever shares a table with me, feed him pickled raw duck fat). In fact, it’s one of the best dishes he’s done. And Micah takes his place in the Peanut Gallery for next week.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 9 – Past Suppers

Menehune

Menehune

Get ready for an episode loaded with lots of cool stuff. With a whiney-sucky-baby-fit spiraling into delusion towards the end.

Open on Sheldon preparing for the day by sharpening his knife on a whetstone (this is known as foreshadowing. No, not foreplay – foreshadowing) and breathing in the spirit of Menehune: Hawaiian warriors ready for battle no matter what is set before them. The sites I checked make them sound more like the Hawaiian version of leprechauns with a penchant for building, but I’m not about to argue with a guy who never left Hawaii until he went to work at Disneyland.

Quickfire:

Master Bladesmith Bob Kramer waits with Padma to deliver the challenge. He makes knives. Himself. “His knives cost $500…” Padma says, and I’m thinking, that isn’t so bad, I once briefly considered spending $125 for a knife, when she finishes the sentence: “…an inch.” Which makes for a $4000 knife. Whoa. There’s a terrific video on the Bravo website showing how he makes them. They’re pretty cool; you can see all the layers of metal on the blade. He shows the chefs how a proper knife cuts through a 1″ hemp rope in one slice (while Padma tries to figure out if she can smoke the piece that falls to the floor). Sheldon wants to hug him. I kinda do, too.

It’s a Skills Challenge quickfire, with three rounds, and it sounds like a complicated setup but it makes perfect sense once you see it in action. The important rule: if anyone gets the slightest nick from the knife at any time, they’re immediately DQ’d. The winner gets immunity and a Bob Kramer custom knife. Sheldon: “I always wanted a $4000 knife.” I think I’d be afraid to touch it. This computer didn’t cost that much and I was afraid to use it for a couple of days.

Round 1: Sharpen

They draw knives – dull knives – for teams of three, then sharpen those knives on a whetstone something like the one Sheldon was using just that morning (see, I told you, foreshadowing, and nothing at all to do with foreplay) until the knives are sharp enough to slice through a piece of paper.

Green Team (Brooke, Stefan, Lizzie): They’re the slowest, so they’re out.

Red Team (John, Kristen, Josie): John calls check before Kristen’s ready – “it’s paper, not cement” – so she’s extra-pleased when he fails the test, but they eventually all get the paper sliced and go on to round 2.

Blue Team (Josh, Sheldon, Micah): They get it done without any drama. At least none that gets aired.

Round 2: Tourne Potatoes

Tourne (cut to a football shape with seven sides) fifty potatoes per team. I can’t find anything definitive on why seven sides. Probably because it’s harder than six or eight.

Red Team (John, Kristen, Josie): John: “I came up in French restaurants, I tourned every day, but with a paring knife.” While that sounds like an excuse, it does seem to be the standard way to approach the task, and I’m not sure if they switched it up to make it more difficult or if someone was asleep at the switch when they designed the challenge. Josie gets a nick (Hugh tweets: “The medic makes sure. She is asked what her name is and she looks at her headband.” I love Hugh’s tweets) so she’s DQ’d. John and Kristen can’t keep up, and they’re out. John’s annoyed they lost by two potatoes. They probably lost by more than that, but he’s warming up the whine machine for what will be an extended performance.

Blue Team (Josh, Sheldon, Micah): Micah hates tournes. He notices Sheldon isn’t doing so well (“They look like poop logs”) but he notices John is really zipping along: “That old bastard knows everything.” Old bastards usually do. That’s how they got to be old bastards. Despite Sheldon’s constipated efforts, they get it done and move on to the final round.

Round Three: Rabbits

The Blue team members now become competitors and race to break down two rabbits and french the racks. Or maybe break down one rabbit and french the two racks. I can barely french lamb, let alone something with ribs the size of darning needles. But that’s why I’m not a chef.

Josh is having issues with the frenching, since the bones are so tiny. Fail.

Sheldon never broke down a rabbit before. Josh advises him it’s exactly like breaking down a cat, but somehow that doesn’t help much. Fail.

Micah: “For some reason breaking down bunnies is a sad moment for me.” Wait, wasn’t he the villain just a couple of episodes ago? All of a sudden, last week and this, he got so cute. Winner. He picks out his $4000 knife.

Sheldon’s disappointed. “That knife is pure sexiness.” Scary thing is: he’s right.

Hey, that was really fun!

Elimination Challenge:

And we go down Memory Lane: what do you think when you hear, “Pea Puree?” Ok, everybody (except Lizzie, it seems) knows that one – how about, “Ecuadorian line cooks?”

The chefs must create a healthier version of a dish associated with a memorable moment from past seasons, which is a nice way to do a retrospective without a boring Flashback Reel. Padma chirps: “The winning dish will inspire a new Product-Placement frozen dinner.” I bet that hits the spot with these guys. But the $15,000 prize goes over better. Boy, are they spoiled – in the early days, nobody got anything until the very end. Two hundred “superfans” (the sound guy’s cousins, someone Tom picked off the street last week, the hunky busboy Padma took a shine to at the Space Needle) are on hand to serve as customers.

Padma plants a little teaser – something about the current season’s memorable moment being held for later – but everyone forgets about that right away, including me.

And the Masters are at the Table: Chris Cosentino, who won TCM4. Jonathan Waxman, TCM1 & 2. Wylie Dufresne, TCM2. And Wolfgang Puck, who’s just there because it’s his turn (Hugh tweets: “They won’t let me and Wolfgang and I judge on the same show cause of the incident between LiLo and I at Spago in ’93”).

They serve the judges in order of their assigned seasons, in clusters of three.

Josie: S1 –Tiffani Faison’s roast chicken and root veg from the first Restaurant Wars; Dave Martin’s “I’m not your bitch, bitch.” Josie allows as she’s had a few of those moments: “Sometimes you just have to let people know, I’m not your bitch, bitch.” Someone – Brooke? – says, “I love you, Josie.” She pretty much recreates the dish without much change other than steaming the root veg. Wylie finds the chicken nicely roasted, but the skin could be crunchier; Waxman isn’t impressed, it’s a dish you could get at any standard restaurant, fine, but not exciting.

Stefan: S2 – Betty Frasier’s winning Bada Bing Betty’s Tuscan Portabello Melt with Smokin’Fire Roasted Red Pepper Soup from the firehouse challenge; hey, don’t laugh, it got her on the TGI Friday’s menu. The clip is Betty ripping Marcel a new one. Josie: “They’re like two people who love each other and don’t know how to say it so they rip each other’s eyes out.” I’m beginning to feel sorry for Josie, who seems to have a very skewed view of the world. Stefan phones it in, using spelt bread to make it healthier, but he adds some olive oil and butter because it has to taste good, after all… “It may not be the healthiest thing on earth but I’ll get away with it.” When he sees the table, he has second thoughts: “I can’t believe I’m serving grilled cheese to these guys.” Yeah, that’s what happens when you don’t bother to show up. And this is one of those dishes that’d be really fun to recreate. But that’ll have to wait for someone more recreative. Cosentino notices the richness and fat content; “Greasy is what it is,” says Wylie. Chris likes the soup, though.

John: S3, Howie Kleinberg’s Mushroom Risotto, the stuff that glopped around. The clip is from a different episode, though, the one where he didn’t finish in time and called out Bourdain on the Ecuadorian line cooks [Addendum: I got my Howie Risottos mixed up; it wasn’t the gloppy one, it was the one from the Bourdain ep where the frogs’ legs didn’t make it to the plate. Many thanks to MoHub for the correction]. This is where John breaks out (or the producers edit in) the Jimmy Sears confessional: “I hired Anthony Bourdain and introduced him to Eric Ripert and the rest is history.” Well, for them. For John, it’s history, all right. He knows about the Curse of the Risotto, he’s gonna ride it out. But he can’t find a decent pot with a flat bottom to properly cook his Umami Risotto with Chicken, Salmon Roe, Burdock Root, and Carrot Emulsion. It sounds amazing, but Padma isn’t a fan; Wylie and Waxman both point out some of the rice grains are mushy and some aren’t cooked. Tom: “If you don’t cook the rice right, it doesn’t matter what’s in there.” Words to live by. Risotto, 1; John, 0.

Sheldon: S4, Zoi’s underseasoned Carpaccio and Mushroom Salad that could’ve been Spike’s butternut squash soup. And the fight that resulted. Angry Dale. Jennifer. Oh, yes. I don’t remember the carpaccio, but I remember the fireworks. What if Spike had been sent home instead? It was that close. Funny how things sometimes turn on a dime. Sheldon’s Beef Carpaccio, with Poi, Mushroom and Mizuna salad, and silken tofu foam is another of those things that sounds amazing but falls short. Chris thinks the meat looks like a mess, like it was put through a grinder; Wylie likes the idea of substituting tofu, but it has no flavor.

Lizzie: S5, Jamie’s scallops and Fabio’s immortal line, “It’s Top Chef not Top Scallop.” Stefan points out Jamie was his S5 girlfriend. I can picture Jamie watching somewhere, screaming, “Like Hell!” Lizzie trots out her resume which includes a spell with TCM3 Traci Des Jardins at Jardiniere, but apparently she wasn’t in charge of seafood selection: she buys less than fresh scallops. As she’s cooking, she notices they’re leaking liquid (ewwww) so they don’t sear. I kept wondering why she didn’t know they were less-than-great at the store; isn’t that what chefs do, find good ingredients? She was, of course, committed to a scallop dish, through no fault of her own. Tom has some thoughts on this on his Bravo blog. Fact is, buying nasty scallops trumps nearly everything. Everyone at the table is smelling them. They do that as a matter of course – there’s nothing like seeing Wylie Dufresne with a scallop stuck up his nose – but the film really emphasizes it. Wolfie: “The quality of the scallop is dubious. What is the word in English?” Everyone else: “Dubious.” Very dubious. I suppose if they were actually rancid they would’ve been pulled.

Josh: S6, Michael Voltaggio’s braised pork belly from the Air Force Base challenge. Josh knows he’s had some “issues” with pork in this competition – like every time he’s done pork, he’s been in the bottom – so he’s out for redemption. He uses tenderloin instead of belly to lighten it up, and finally hits a pitch: his Soy-Glazed Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Smoked Cashew Puree and Heirloom Peaches works. Padma recalls that MVolt got a standing ovation for this dish; Tom recalls Padma got a standing ovation for her jumpsuit, but she denies it. For the record, she did not wear a jumpsuit. She wore a leopard minidress. Do you suppose Tom spends a lot of time imagining Padma in a jumpsuit?

Brooke: S7, Alex’s Pea Puree. You knew it was coming. It was actually a salmon dish, but all anyone remembers is the pea puree. Lizzie hasn’t heard the legend, so Brooke recounts it, with an ambiguous ending (which Tom goes to great pains to address in his blog: Alex did not steal the pea puree. Nobody believes him, but it’s nice of him to stand up for the guy. She’s intimidated by following in the aprons of such notable chefs – don’t worry, Brooke, Alex Reznik wasn’t all that notable. Then she has her Lucy Caboosey moment: she “went through a heavier period” which isn’t quite as gross as it sounds. She wasn’t hemorrhaging, just a little chubbers. So she knows about lightening up: for her Smoked Salmon and Forbidden Black Rice with English Pea and Parsnip Puree the parsnips eliminate the puree’s butter and cream. That’s a really good idea; I love parsnips, I love peas, I might try that. Padma likes the looks of it. Good dish.

Kristen: S8, Carla Hall’s Chicken Pot Pie with pea salt. Kristen remembers Carla’s joy and passion for everything. Yeah, so do I, and I couldn’t watch that awful Chew show because that joy and passion seemed to get dampened down for a mainstream audience. Made me sad. Kristen has a tough job: not only was this a great dish, but pot pie is inherently unhealthy, with pie crust and velouté. But she’s all over it, with modifications and portion control. Instead of crust, we’ve got tiny dumplings, and instead of velouté, there’s a tofu emulsion. And there’s miso and herbs instead of butter or cream. Wow. It’s not really a pot pie, but the Poached Chicken Breast and Carrot Puree with Garlic and Tofu emulsion (and pickled peas; no pea salt) flummoxes Waxman (his word): “it’s a great version of what I thought would be pot pie.” The only flaw is that Cosentino doesn’t have a sauce on his plate. Oops. That’s a big deal in Chopped.

Micah: S9, Heather Terhune and Beverly Kim’s ill-fated Five Spice Duck Breast. Micah: “They weren’t working as a team, I have to make it sing in harmony.” They replay the bus-throwing at JT; Hugh tweets: “OMG Heather vs Bev. The one way war. Bev just cried the entire time. I wanted to arm her.” Please, Hugh, this is how we end up with fourth-grade teachers carrying guns. Escalation is not the answer. So Micah focuses on making a bad dish work instead of transforming it, producing pretty much the same Five-Spiced Duck Breast with Miso Polenta and Pickled Cherries. So he added miso to the polenta? Tom likes the duck and the cherries, but Waxman decides miso and polenta is a Bad Idea. Wolfie wonders why he didn’t do something else, like grated corn, instead of polenta.

Judges’ Table:

Padma calls out Josh, John, Kristen, Lizzie, and Brooke. Those of us at home realize these have to be the top and bottom (John and Lizzie were disasters, Kristen was a star) but the rest have no idea what’s going on.

The Good Guys:

Brooke – Wolfie liked her salmon; it was cooked perfectly, and the light smoking worked well.
Kristen – Tom loved the homey flavors without a homey presentation; Waxman recognized his grandma’s chicken pot pie.
Josh – Tom found it well put-together, and Cosentino liked the balance.

Kristen wins – you go, girl! That’s three!

Imitation as Insult:

John: Cosentino points out the problems with the rice, and John goes into defensive high gear: he’s not making excuses, it really was the pot’s fault. He pretty much slanders the kitchen they’re working in by saying they had no level pots at all. Wolfie isn’t buying it: you can excuse it any way you want, but you don’t serve crap to your customers. Then Josh, sitting pretty from his high placement, gets into the act, and gives testimony as to the suitability of his pots and availability of others. Why, Josh, why? Tacky, man. This isn’t throwing someone under the bus to save yourself, it’s opportunism. And ineffective, since the judges know all the tricks.

Lizzie: she doesn’t even defend herself, and ends up with her hands over her face when Wolfie tells her the sauce was gray and unappetizing. Tom’s surprised, because she’s been very thoughtful all along. Me, too – I just gave her a shoutout last week for being a stealth ninja, in the top four times and never in the bottom, so now she does this? Lizzie, how could you? I was positive she was out; they weren’t going to send John home, even with his scuzzy attitude.

But wait, there’s more…

Padma holds up a Tablet: “Remember this?”

I didn’t. But, in a truly well-executed twist, here’s where the Season 10 Memorable Moment mentioned in the brief comes into play: Cook-off.

The Good Guys go back to the Stew Room to fill everyone in. Stefan’s excitement over Kristen’s win is far more subdued this time than it was in E4 or E7, maybe because he’s beginning to realize she can outcook him. Or maybe because he’s still worrying that he’s in the bottom.

Cook-Off

Lizzie and John must recreate the dreadful Pork Burger that took down CJ and Tyler. Battle Pickle! It’s not clear to me if they have to recreate the actual dish, or if they redo the challenge to use spicy pickles, which would give them more room. They both do burgers, but neither does pork. Shrug.

John goes into full-blown asshole mode. It’s really astonishing, he’s been capable of some really nice gestures along the way, but he’s like a trapped animal who’ll chew of his own arm – or Lizzie’s – to escape. He sees the whole cook-off as unfair, since he was the victim of inadequate equipment and Lizzie served foul food. He could, if he were a bad guy, take the pickles under his arm and refuse to give Lizzie any and she’d go home, and he wants a lot of credit for not doing that (Hugh tweets, “I could have taken my pickles and gone home. But I didn’t. I shared the pickles.” Ambassador John Tesar from Planet Iamsurly”). Somehow he seems to think he owns those pickles. He doesn’t realize Lizzie could do the same thing. He asks if he can take some of the dill on her station, and takes all of it except one tiny frond. He keeps leaving her oven door open, then complains that she’s pushing him around when she keeps asking him to close the door. Oh, he’s really pulling out all the asshole stops. If he wanted to get people cheering for his elimination, mission accomplished. He makes a harissa lamb burger with a fried egg on naan with a pickle-tomato salad and dill aioli. Wolfie asks if he found the right pan; two points, Wolfie. He wants more moistness in the burger, but Chris thinks it’s super-flavorful, though he questions the use of a fried egg on a light dish.

Lizzie gets chicken breast, and focuses on keeping it moist. “Hey, dude, where’s my dill?” Coming from her, it’s hilarious. She’s piqued, wants to “beat his bum.” So does all of America, Lizzie, we’re counting on you. She comes up with a chicken burger with goat cheese ricotta and herb salad. Wolfie likes the flavor and moistness, but wishes for a “wisp” of salt; Chris finds the salad refreshing, and likes the mix of dairy.

The Final Final Result:

Tom sees two nice dishes without a lot to criticize, but in the end… Wolfie and Cosentino both like Lizzie’s dish better, and John is out. Good girl, Lizzie. I’m still surprised they sent him home, I’d though he was a shoo-in for the finals.

He kisses Lizzie and leaves peaceably, but interviews, “I got the shaft today. I endured every challenge. I endured childish behavior.” And again he reveals the Pickle Ploy he had the decency not to use. My take: John is delusional.

This season, on the other hand, rocks.

A little extra on the BravoTV website: Padma takes the chef to lunch at Nathan Myrhold’s Modernist Cuisine Lab, where he shows them how to make pea butter (to go with Carla’s pea salt) and other peculiarities. Not just food stuff, either – he has a laser that shoots mosquitoes out of the air. Padma: “I always wanted to take the chefs out… I look at you guys, and I think, they need a massage.” I wish they’d aired this, it’s great.

Next week:

Danny Meyer, culinary juggernaut and Tom’s former business partner. Intimidation all around. Gail is offended by an anti-Semitic matzo ball. And another twist: now Restaurant Wars requires an audition.

Last Chance Kitchen

CJ vs John. It’s hard to decide which self-important jerk I’d rather see go out.

CJ’s ready for his fifth win; John’s still stewing about pots and pickles. Tom tells them to go shopping: “Show me what you do best.” They can make anything they want. You know something’s coming. John gets lobster, CJ scallops and foie.

It’s kind of anticlimactic, actually: the Peanut Gallery enters, bringing with them old pots and pans. Tom says they got them at garage sales for a total of $3.50. They don’t look that bad to me, except for the rusty one, but you should see my pots. John isn’t pleased. “Is this because I complained about the pots?” Of course it is, darlin’. Suddenly, he doesn’t care about pots, it’s all about the food. CJ doesn’t care either, at least not until the handle of his pan breaks off. The main problem is that neither of them can get stuff – scallops, foie gras – to sear well. CJ goofs, and puts in more chili oil than he intended.

John makes: Corn Velouté and Succotash with Roasted Lobster and Seared Foie Gras. Tom asks, “How was the equipment?” “Excellent,” says John. At least he’s educable. But Tom isn’t done. “It wasn’t excellent, but did it get in the way?” John says no. Under some circumstances, I’d feel sorry for him, because you know whatever he says is going to be wrong. But Tom just tastes the dish; he finds the foie gras salty (“and you can ask Bart, I like salt” – ooh, Tom goes snarky all around) and the dish a little heavy, but flavors are fine.

CJ makes: Seared (sort of) Diver’s Scallop, Foie Gras Dashi, Mango and Caviar. Tom thinks it’s a little too much heat, and not enough subtle dashi flavor.

Tom agrees that pans matter; it was evident neither could get a good sear due to the cheap pans.

CJ wins.

By a narrow margin, I’m relieved. It’s a time proximity thing; if John hadn’t just made a fool of himself for the past hour, it could’ve gone the other way for me.

Great episode. Elves, whatever you’re using for inspiration this season, keep using it.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 8 – Jalapeño Business

We start off with Stefan complaining about Josie, but it’s ok, that’s how it is in the restaurant business, no one cares if you call them an @**hole. That pretty much sets the tone for the episode. You thought last week was The Josie Show? Just wait.

Quickfire

The chefs find a note waiting for them, a la Tyra, directing them to Taylor Shellfish Farms where they have free range of the oyster beds. Micah reminisces: his father was a pastor in a church that kept kosher (maybe Seventh Day Adventist I stand corrected – his Bravo bio clearly identifies his father as “orthodox Catholic,” so I’m thinking it’s the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America) so he didn’t have shellfish until culinary school. Given how he’s pouring raw oyster down his gullet out there on the mud, ol’ Dad must be proud. josieJosie gets stuck in the mud. First Brooke tries to help, then Stefan and poor Micah, who gets kneed in the balls and knocked on his ass for his trouble, but Josie keeps getting stuck. Considering how things go later on, maybe they should’ve left her there. We also see some baby pics of Bart in his chef-father’s arms; Dad didn’t want him to be a chef because it’s such a hard life, but he knew by age 11 where he’d be. Sheldon’s got his own worries: they don’t have oysters in Hawaii unless they’re flown in.

Back in the kitchen, Padma and Emeril give them the details: five will make a hot oyster dish, five a cold. Emeril recites an Ode to the Delicate Oyster, Which Can’t Bear Overcooking. I think he had tears in his eyes. The prize is $5,000. Brooke wants it; sure, she has a car, but no cash. Hey, girl, don’t go getting greedy. Twenty-five minutes on the clock, and – go:

Micah is thrilled to be cooking for Emeril, his childhood hero: “This is how Moses felt meeting God.” (Hugh live-tweeted during the episode: “Micah is Moses, Emeril is God. Not my idea, that’s all Micah.“) He goes spicy: Crispy Fried Oysters with Arugula Salad, Hot Sauce and Lemon and a little slice of Serrano Chili on top. Emeril credits him with taking a risk, and a successful one: the seasoning was great, not overpowering, and made his mouth pop. Micah wins. He’s a single father with two daughters, money is good. And his first win is sweet, too.

Brooke makes Oysters with Salsa Verde, Cilantro, Horseradish, and Red Chili. She has some trouble shucking, blames the brittle shells. Emeril picks a few shells out of his mouth, but loves the beautiful flavors that don’t take away from the oyster. Top three. But no recipe.

Lizzie juices currants through a sieve, adds some red wine vinegar and calls it Oysters with Crushed Currant Juice and Crushed Pink Peppercorn. Emeril takes one look at the bright red color and freaks, but tastes it and changes his mind: he likes the final drizzle of olive oil, and Padma agrees the red currant worked. Top Three. But no recipe.

Bart uses champagne. “It’s risky in a short time, but I always push it.” Padma asks about the roasting: he put the Oysters with Champage, Butter and Cream under the broiler for a short while. Does that mean they’re over/undercooked? Emeril allows how champagne and oysters are a difficult match; the richness of the butter cut through the champagne and it got lost, the oyster didn’t come through. Bottom Three. There is a recipe, but the Finder is playing tricks again and it won’t display from the URL; search for “Bart.”

Josie is still Rockin’ Roll from last week, so she uses Spanish chorizo for a Spanish Rockefeller: Wood-Roasted Oysters with Chorizo and Cilantro Cream. Her sauce breaks. Emeril comments that the chorizo was not overpowering, but she should’ve strained the oysters because the liquor looked separated. She knows better than to say “Oh, no, it was my sauce that broke.” Bottom Three, either way.

John grew up on Long Island and his father was a bankr but he’s still got shellfish in his blood. He gives a lesson on tides (they go in, they go out), and decides to throw some names around: he’s going to combine NOLA legends Brennan’s and Drago’s, but instead of the heavy cheese they use, he’ll whip up a light parmesan and garlic foam. I know nothing about oysters – I think they’re disgusting – but his Oysters Poached in Garlic Butter with Swiss Chard and Garlic-Parmesan Foam sounds pretty good to me. Padma even approves of the foam. But Emeril isn’t that impressed: there’s no pop, nothing to wake up his mouth. Bottom Three. John’s surprised; he thought it was a good dish.

Josh raves on and on about how wonderful it is to harvest his own fresh seafood, but he’s an Oklahoma pig boy, and admits he doesn’t do a lot of shucking when Emeril starts picking shells out of his mouth. But his Oysters with Pickled Cucumbers, White Soy, Cilantro, and Red Chili can’t be too bad, since he’s in the safe zone. The Recipe Finder is playing tricks again, but it is there.

Sheldon wanted to do a hot dish but only cold aprons were left by the time he got to them. He does Oysters with Chilled Old Bay Broth and Ginger-Scallion Pesto; Emeril likes the ginger. You know the recipe drill by now.

Stefan smokes his oysters: no risk, no win. Emeril appreciates the crunch of his Smoked Oysters with Potato Vinaigrette and Flash Frozen Salt. I think he’s making up the Flash Frozen Salt thing. And I’m dubious about the Potato Vinaigrette. Emeril allows as it has a nice crunch, but that’s all. You didn’t want this recipe anyway, did you?

Kristen goes for Oysters with Caramelized Honey-Tomato Broth, Celery Leaves, and Chili; Emeril likes the celery leaf.

Elimination Challenge:

Enter The Rat City Roller Girls. Yes, there is a Roller Derby in Seattle, and yes, those are their names (with a couple of variations to keep the food theme going). Josie’s psyched; she used to be a professional football player, and she has the trading card to prove it. Lizzie, on the other hand, didn’t know people still roller skated. They do, they just don’t admit it in public. The chefs divide themselves into teams of two: Stefan grabs Kristen, duh. John asks “Brookie” to pair with him; she’s a little dubious but game (“our personalities don’t mesh, but I know to take him with a grain of salt”); Bart ends up stuck with Josie because no one else wants her: “I’m a team player so I go for it.” You know what happens to team players, right?

Each pair of chefs must cook for a Roller Derby Wrap Party the next day, making a dish that goes with the name of the skater they pick. Emeril tells them to go bold and brash; the skaters say they don’t want fussy food, but they don’t want concession stand stuff, either. And for a special treat, tonight they go to the Roller Derby for inspiration. Now, there are few things I’d rather do than go to a roller derby (like, say, stick pins under my fingernails). I’m guessing the chefs were supposed to skate, but visions of insurance claims kept that from happening. Lizzie was originally worried they were going to cook on roller skates; that would’ve been last season, may it burn in hell.

But we do get to watch Padma skate; apparently it’s something she did in her wild and foolish youth. Tom looks embarrassed and worried. Emeril’s enjoying himself thoroughly. Stefan drools. He admits, “I purchased Season 9 just to cut out clips of her.” That’s about all Season 9 was good for. By the way, Emeril’s skater name would be Bam Bam. You knew that was coming, right?

The overnight is one of the most bizarre non-food events in TC History. I usually skim over these, but this one was painful and hilarious all in one, and I think some of the interplay has an effect on the next day’s food. We have Josie playing Superfan. It’s a roller derby, why not? But with this crowd, who hates her to begin with, she’s more out of place than Julia Roberts at the polo match. “I feel like I’ve come to the roller derby with my parents.” I’m no Josie fan, but this is Groupthink, and it’s just mean. She responds with a little defensive teasing: “Boring, boring, you people are so boring,” as she leaves, knocking over a beer in the process. I’ve been on both sides: the enthusiastic participant surrounded by duds, and the embarrassed member of a group with one very loud member. But I don’t see anything inappropriate about her enthusiasm: it’s a sporting event, a rough-and-tumble sporting event at that, not a golf match or a harp recital.

Back at the farm, she flops on the couch and John puts a blanket over her, draping it primarily on her head. She says thank you anyway. Then everyone else sits in the adjoining room and complains about her. She insulted someone. Micah insists, “Nothing important came out of that mouth tonight.” That wakes the slumbering Josie, and she lets Micah have it (rough quotes):

“You’re insulted I called you a name? Boring isn’t a name. “Asshole” is a name. “Douchebag” is a name. This tree right here, you don’t want to bark up. This right here, she knows who she is. You’re hiding in a closet.” Exit Josie.

Josh: “What just happened?

Josie, to Bart (who has to cook with her tomorrow so has a vested interest in her sanity), in another room: “Namaste, bitches, Namaste.”

Ok, I’m no Josie fan, and she’s definitely gone around the bend, but 1) they brought that on themselves, and 2) that “Namaste, bitches” line is the finest thing I’ve ever heard. I want that on a t-shirt. Fortunately, I have lots of choices; apparently it’s something that’s been going around aggressive yoga types for a while, and even appeared in the remake of 90210 in February 2011. But I can’t find where it came from originally. Any ideas? It’s not even in the Urban Dictionary. If I weren’t planning on being disposed of in the nearest dumpster, I’d want that on my tombstone.

Back to cooking:

Who Were High Scorers:

Micah and Lizzie: Jalapeño Business

Micah, as QF winner, gets to pick his skater first, and he goes for the hot stuff, with his fingers paying the price. Lizzie worries that their Crab-Stuffed Jalapeño with Avocado Cream, Onion and Pepper Relish (sorry, no recipe, but Tom gives some pointers below) might be a little hot, but nope. Hugh finds it “better than I thought.” Tom’s also surprised that it’s “actually good,” nice and crispy, with great flavor. Japalpeno Business herself calls it elevated party food.

John and Brooke: Kutta Rump (aka Kutta Betch)

John’s first date was in a roller rink, which is kind of sad. Mine was in a bowling alley. That’s the way things were back then. Brooke reminds him of his daughter, whom his wife “took away” at one year of age. He kind of leaves out the whole drugs and booze thing that might’ve resulted in a judge awarding custody that way, but he claims to have overcome a lot of “self-inflicted ridiculousness” and still misses his daughter. If she’s Brooke’s age, can’t he contact her? Or has the damage been done? That’d make an interesting story. I wonder if she’s watching this show. In any event, they “kutta rump” of beef, for Thai Beef with Lobster Jasmine Rice and Thai Slaw; he tells the skaters, “It’s Thai cole slaw, it’s fun in a bowl.” Padma likes the smell of it; Hugh thinks the flavors meld well, with nice acid; it’s definitely bold.

Who Got Clocked:

Sheldon and Josh: Tempura Tantrum

Josh isn’t too happy when Sheldon picks Tempura Tantrum, but figures the Hawaiian must’ve made it a few thousand times so leaves him to handle the tempura and focuses on the other stuff. Sheldon advises the judges to use the skewer to have a little tantrum on the plate, messing up the sauces and garnishes. Tempura Tantrum herself likes their Tempura Yuzu Curd with Shiso, Fresno Chili, Sweet Potato and Vanilla just fine, but she’s the only one. Emeril sees a great idea that failed in the execution: the tempura isn’t fried enough, probably because they were using a small fryer that couldn’t maintain the oil temperature. Hugh thinks everything else like the fluid gels is fine, but the tempura itself failed.

Josie and Bart: Teriyaki Terror

Bart’s doing everything he can to keep Josie calm, which, well, you know that’s not gonna end well; look what happened to Josh and John in the Artisan challenge, when neither of them wanted to tell the other, “That’s a bad idea.” But Bart, he’s Belgian, you know, and “We don’t go head to head, we’re civilized.” Hence the thing about being conquered every other week. Josie’s Puerto Rican, Filipino, and Italian, so she’s a fan of aggressive spice; Bart’s interpretation of bold is a little different, and he’s worried about overspicing. Josie’s worried about the rice Bart’s making; the texture’s off, and it needs more seasoning, but for whatever reason, be it appearing cooperative of passive aggression, she says nothing while he can still do something about it (or she notes the deficiencies after the judges have had their say but in time for her interview). Their Steak Teriyaki with Forbidden Rice, Beet Blood and Green Papaya Salad strikes Teriyaki Terror as too “earthy.” Tom has some complaints about the skewering of the beef, Padma finds the rice overcooked, and Emeril hate the texture and the seasoning of the rice.

And Who Got Around The Rink In One Piece:

Stefan and Kristen:

I don’t understand their dish. They keep calling it “Inside Out Chicken” but it’s really Corn Puree, Chicken Liver, and a Sunny-Side Up Egg. I’m not sure what that has to do with inside out, or with shredding for that matter, but nobody else seems to notice. Emeril thinks that while the egg is a little overdone, the corn pudding is delicious, and Eddie Shredder likes the idea and the dish. Tom thinks they missed a couple of opportunities: it would’ve been nice if they’d shredded a roast chicken and added it to the dish.

Judges’ Table:

Brooke and John win. Brooke: “Winning doesn’t suck. At the end of the day our personalities really do mesh well.” John: “I finally won, but it would’ve been sweeter if I’d won alone.” I don’t suppose it occurs to you that maybe you won because of Brooke? Who, by the way, has now won for the second time?

And for the loss, we have:

Bart and Josie: Tom asks about the seasoning on the beets and rice. Josie thought the rice lacked flavor and was more like risotto in texture, but the beets were hot so maybe when combined they’d work. Tom flips into Angry Daddy: “How often do you have to hear it, if you have something bland and something seasoned, when you put them together it comes out bland.” Bart did add seasoning, but Josie didn’t taste it, so Tom scolds her for not following up, and points out Bart has been hit with underseasoning before. Hugh calls it “beet espuma syrup on top of really boring porridge.” Live tweet: Espuma syrup sounds like a weird term evoking both aspiration and failure. Nailed it. Did he use the word “aspiration” on purpose? On TCM3 he claimed he wasn’t good at science, but that’s some pretty high-level punning there, spanning areas of study.

Sheldon an Josh: Tom liked the concept, but the execution fell apart. Josh claims it was creative and bold, and Sheldon clings to the “risky” card. Tom ask, “Why do you think you’re here?” Josh: “It had to be the tempura,” which sounds pretty snide, but he’s right. Josh doesn’t know from tempura, so it was Sheldon’s bailiwick, but he throws in all the pressure they were under to get the food out, which never works. It’s interesting he’s fighting for it, since it isn’t his ass on the line; that’s kind of a positive thing. Then he steps in it. “This isn’t a CJ thing…” (Uh oh. Any time you preface something with “This isn’t,” that means it is) “…but isn’t a crab-stuffed jalapeño pretty much concession-style food?” Yeah, that was exactly like CJ, throwing someone who isn’t there under the bus, except this is even worse, since the crab-stuffed jalapeño was in the top. Tom explains how to elevate concession-style crab-stuffed jalapeño: 1) the used fresh, not canned, peppers, properly skinned and deseeded; 2) they used good cheese; 3) they fried it perfectly. Richard Blais live tweets: Never try to call out Colicchio. It’s like a heckler with a great comedian… It’s gonna backfire on you.

Back in the Stew Room, Sheldon knows it was his part of the dish that failed. And Josie, having missed the whole teamwork idea, doesn’t want to go home for someone else’s mistakes, because she’s perfectly capable of making terrible food all on her own, thank you. See? I still haven’t forgiven her for that turkey. But I’m sad, because the two team members I’d like to see stay, Sheldon and Bart, are the ones who are obviously on the line here.

Bart’s out. He’s a little perturbed. “I’ve had my own restaurant for years, mobody sends my food back for underseasoning, but Josie talks to the judges and this is it… Maybe I should’ve stepped out of my comfort zone a little.” No, Bart, I think your civilized Belgian comfort zone is just fine; you just cater to a different palate.

The Standings:

I’ve been assuming all along Bart knew what he was doing and would eventually get his bearings, but the numbers show a different story: he had one QF win, no EC wins or highs, and was Low twice. Where’d I get the idea he was good at this? I also was surprised to realize John hadn’t won any ECs before this. So I took a look at the numbers using the handy-dandy Wiki chart, to see if I’d misled myself about anyone else:

Standings
Chef QF Wins EC Wins EC High EC Low
Kristen 1 2 1 0
Brooke 1 2 1 2
John 2 1 2 2
Lizzie 0 0 4 0
Sheldon 2 0 3 2
Micah 1 0 1 2
Stefan 0 0 2 2
Joshua 0 0 1 4
Josie 1 0 0 4

I’ve been overlooking Lizzie; she hasn’t won anything, but she’s been strong. Sheldon’s been hanging in there, too. On the other hand, Stefan needs to get over himself. And Josie and Josh just need to get out of town.

Next Week:

Wylie Dufresne and Chris Cosentino show up; someone has to duplicate Carla Hall’s chicken pot pie. Good luck with that. And don’t forget the pea salt.

Last Chance Kitchen:

Bart vs CJ: for the first time, I have some hope that CJ might go down (that was before I checked the numbers).
cj ogling
Teriyaki Terror, Bart’s nemesis, skates in with a cloched platter. CJ ogles her, the camera following his leer: “I wasn’t expecting to see a woman with a platter and an amazing ass. Her buttocks were amazing. Like two parma hams fighting for control.” Tell me someone wrote that line for him. Because I’m already sick enough of CJ, I don’t need more reason to dislike him. Tyler keeps trying to say “Teriyaki Terror” and keeps actually saying “Teriyaki Terri.” He just can’t help it. Poor Tyler. First, he finds out he can’t cook, and now he finds out he can’t talk.

The challenge: seasoning. Bart’s sick of hearing about his underseasoning: “I know my job, I know how to season, I know how to run a restaurant, I underseasoned a little, ok, can we not keep going over it?” Oh, but Bart, it’s so much fun. The assignment is to cook a perfectly seasoned dish featuring… chicken breast. Tom: “Here’s your blank canvas. It’s your chance to be bold, and make it amazing.” Thirty minutes.

CJ: Marinated Chicken with Mushroom reduction, Greek Yogurt with Bonito Flakes, over Roasted Lettuce, Lemon and Tarragon. Tom likes the clean flavors, and the smokiness of the bonito flakes. The tarragon looked excessive, but wasn’t.

Bart: He puts out black salt to remind himself to salt everything. Carla keeps yelling “More salt, more salt,” then Tom warns him not to make it too salty. Thanks, guys. He’s thinking bold, so he adds a speculoos cookie. This makes me incredibly sad. Oh, Bart, it’s a culture thing. Maybe in Belgium, a speculoos cookie is bold. Here, bold means chili peppers, not cookies. He ends up with pan-roasted chicken over carrots, with Greek yogurt, tutti frutti tea, and speculoos dust. Tom says, “There’s a lot going on,” as he approaches, which makes me nervous.

Decision:

CJ wins. Damn. Tom likes Bart’s, but thinks the flavors would go better with venison; it was a little too much with chicken. Too much, Bart, not too bold.

I think it’s hilarious that Kuniko’s ahead of Danyele 86-14 in the Save A Chef poll. But kind of sad, too.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 7 – Foiled Again

Kader Attia: "Ghost" (2008). Now that's how you get creative with foil.

Kader Attia: “Ghost” (2008). Now that’s how you get creative with foil.

What do Stephanie Izard, aluminum foil, and berries have in common? Absolutely nothing – but the producers don’t let that get in their way.

Quickfire:

Stephanie Izard, chef/owner of Girl & The Goat, and only female Top Chef winner (“so far,” murmurs Stephanie, bless her heart), teams up with Padma to spring the latest nightmare on a group of tired, nervous competitors who only want to get their $150,000 and go home.

Everything in the pantry is covered in product-placement foil. Bottles that might be oil (or vinegar or soy sauce), round things that might be lemons (or peaches or pizza dough), phallic things that might be cucumbers (or zucchini or eggplant), square things that might be salmon (or steak or cheese). It’s probably not all that bad, really, since they’ve got some idea of what’s in the pantry from previous challenges. And there’s minimal whining about who got what, so I’m guessing it wasn’t all that. The rule is, take all you want, but once you open it, you must use it in your dish.

Oh, and by the way: foil is the only cooking vessel allowed. This added little jab is pretty unnecessary. Maybe some day they’ll have the courage to forego theatrics. The good news is: they don’t force Stephanie to sing the praises of the specific product-placement brand; she just has to give a little speech about the many uses of foil. Like that’s news to people.

Kristen wants to make a sponge cake, so she’s looking for cake things. I’d love to hear that thought process. No cooking vessels, possibly unusual ingredients, so you go for cake? Is that because it doesn’t require searing or boiling, and pretty much any flavor can be made to work once you get the structural ingredients down? Are the essentials most recognizable? It seems incredibly risky to me (and to Danyele, who proclaims it the ballsiest thing she’s ever heard of), and that’s what she’s going for, something not expected. It works out: the Almond and Chocolate Sponge Cake is moist with a nice texture and good flavors; for that, and for using the foil most creatively, Kristen wins and gets immunity.

Sheldon thought he was getting fish but it’s scallops. The only way he makes scallops is seared, but that isn’t possible, so he smokes them, for Lemongrass Smoked Scallops with Tomato and Shallot Salad, using the foil as a makeshift smoker, which is pretty clever. Stephanie loves them, and he’s in the top half.

Danyele can deal with the cannellini beans and bacon, but the tomatillo surprises her. She’s feeling inferior because her foil pot doesn’t have handles, and other people made handles on their foil pots. Shut up and cook! And she does; her Cannellini Bean Stew with Bacon, Asiago Cheese and Tomatillo works. Stephanie’s particularly taken with the grilled tomatillo, so what Danyele thought was a liability turned into an asset. Maybe she should aim for bad food more often. Top half.

Stefan is relieved he got salmon and not goat balls. Don’t go on Chopped, Stefan, whatever you do. He serves Hot Smoked Salmon with German Potato Salad and a glass of champagne. He says something about east-meets-west to include the “Asian flavors” he pulled, but the only thing in the recipe is soy sauce. Stephanie likes the champagne. Top half.

Bart is really excited with the fun and games, he’s having a blast, but then, he’s Belgian, of course he is. He heard the thing about being creative with foil, so he shapes foil on his head to make a pot into which he places food that will be eaten by other people. Because he’s the Beer Knight, he makes Beer-Poached Cod with Butter Beer Sauce. He proudly shows Stephanie the strainer he made out of foil; she has that, “Oh, that’s nice” look you give to people who are probably crazy. The fish is cooked perfectly. Who knows, maybe hair is a spice. Top half.

Josie: Left on the cutting room floor. Her dish, Lemon Grass Prawns with Sweet Potato Ginger Salsa and Golden Cherry Vinaigrette, was good enough to put her in the Top half.

Brooke picks up something round and silver and muses: “What are the chances this is a lemon?” Maybe not; there’s no lemon listed in her recipe for Bacon-Roasted Yams and Red Onions with Bacon Apple Salad. “Did you cook the onion?” asks Padma, waving sulfur fumes from her mouth; shades of Scott Conant, whose hatred of raw red onion on Chopped is world-famous. Or at least Facebook-famous. Brooke says she cooked half of it; I’m not sure if that’s deliberate, to include two types of onion flavors, or if it was a mistake. Stephanie’s complaint, however, is underseasoning, in spite of the bacon. Bottom half.

Micah has bread, and has the divine inspiration to make panzanella: “It just came to me, it’s almost like a gift, I can’t describe it.” That’s ok, Hugh Acheson can (Hugh’s blog this week is particularly snarky): bread to panzanella isn’t exactly a leap. The problem is, the lamb is too rare for Padma (and if I may call on Hugh again: “Padma is not a rare meat lover, but when you get to EC, bring on the rare to MR cause the rest of us like that and can outvote her.” But Stephanie agrees, the lamb was too rare. Bottom half.

Josh makes Roasted Chicken with Potatoes, Poblano, Tomatillo and Carrots. Stephanie likes the heat of the poblano, but felt it was a little uninspired. Bottom half.

John thinks he’s got a pot of herbs, but it’s a pineapple. “What am I going to do with a pineapple?” Why do chefs hate pineapple? What he does with a pineapple is, he makes Beef Egg Drop Soup with Braised Pineapple. Stephanie likes the pineapple and beef together. But not that much; Bottom half.

Lizzie: Also left on the cutting room floor. Bottom half.

Elimination Challenge:

It’s Berry Festival time at Remlinger Farms. This means they’ll be cooking with berries. I know I’m in a bad mood when Micah says he’s happy to cook with these bundles of joy and I want to smack him. Micah got on my bad side in the QF. He’s gonna have to work to get off.

Now the rationale for creating a Top and Bottom half in the QF becomes apparent: Except for Kristen, who has immunity, the chefs will compete head-to-head in pairs, with the top five picking their opponent from the bottom five; one from each pair will be up for the win, and one will be up for immunity. Kristen will cook unopposed, and can still win. They blindly choose the specific berries the dish must highlight, and will cater the outdoor event for 150 people. The prize is $10,000. Stephanie will be guest judge, and Gail is back.

Raspberries: Josie picks Lizzie.

Lizzie is highly offended that Josie thinks she’ll be easy to beat: she’s cooked for Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela – twice! Hey, Lizzie, chill: the Obamas love Spike’s burgers, and he’s still an ass. She wants to highlight the femininity of the raspberry. It’s feminine, see, because it’s not robust. Ok, Lizzie, that’s one. It’d be two, except you cooked for Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela (twice!). She makes a Raspberry Steamed Cabbage Roll with Heritage Pork and Bacon Strips (recipe missing). Everyone loves it. See, that’s what you do when someone disses you. By the way: Heritage Pork means “This Isn’t The Other White Meat.” Or, maybe it’s like “Artisan,” and it is whatever someone says it is. She’s the Winning Half.

Josie gets confused and thinks she’s on Next Food Network Star, so she puts on a Rock ‘n’ Roll show. She hears “raspberry,” she thinks Rock ‘n’ Raspberry Roll, a play on a California roll with raspberry instead of avocado: sockeye salmon, Dungeness crab, raspberry aioli, raspberry wasabi. At her booth, she revs up the energy and shows her stuff, until Padma tells her to keep cooking. Gail whispers to Tom, “Is she high?” Gail likes that she used raspberry in so many ways (which I don’t quite get: she made two raspberry condiments) but she still doesn’t taste raspberry. Tom thinks she’s more concerned with the show than with the food, and the mayo weighs down what should be a light, fresh summer roll. She says she was playing catch-up, entertaining people while she made the rolls. Maybe if she’d focused on her food, she wouldn’t have been behind in the first place. Tom sounds disgusted with her, something he seems to reserve only for those he no longer respects. She’s the Losing Half.

Strawberry: Sheldon picks Micah

Sheldon thinks the light and refreshing strawberry would go well with the saltiness of ahi, so he comes up with an Ahi Summer Roll of Ahi Poke, Strawberries, and Sweet Chili Sauce. Stephanie at first thought the sauce had a strange consistency, but the radish made it work. Gail likes how well he highlighted the strawberry. Winning Half.

Micah has two daughters. He knew he wanted to name them something culinary, but Cinnamon and Cayenne would’ve sounded like stripper names, so his wife picked Sage and he picked Saffron. Because those aren’t stripper names at all. Micah is too young to remember that the extremely dignified and not at all strippery Barbara Bain played Cinnamon Carter, lady superspy, on the Mission: Impossible TV series in the 60s. He makes strawberry marinated fried chicken with a strawberry bacon buttermilk biscuit. Gail: “It’s good, considering.” Considering? That’s the standard now? He admits Sheldon’s flavors popped more than his did, that he hoped the freeze-dried strawberries would make the biscuits “pop,” and Tom conduct a tutorial on popping flavors. Another Tomlesson ensues when Micah says he thought he had a good concept; “But did you execute it correctly?” I love it when Tom goes all didactic. Gail gives up the pretense, and admits the biscuit was dense and had no strawberry flavor. Stephanie: “Why not make something strawberry?” Because that would be too simple. Losing Half.

Blueberries: Danyele picks Josh to get an Oklahoma-Texas thing going on.

Josh makes Goat Cheese Mousse with Blueberry Compote with Thai basil and a cracker crust. Tom likes what he did with the blueberries, but wishes there was more; Gail thinks it’s balanced and delicate, but wants a little crunch. Winning Half.

Danyele gets stressed over space, and yells out, “Over your head dickhead!” I’m not sure why, or to whom, but it amused me. She makes a Chicken Pine Nut Terrine with Blueberry Mostarda on a croustade. It seems the crunch missing in Josh’s dish ended up here; there’s some tooth-cracking going on. Worse, the thin slice of terrine is rubbery and flavorless; Padma likens it to lunch meat. Ouch. Tom tells her she gets halfway there with her concept, but then she stops. Stephanie tells her one of the truisms she learned in S4: cook croustade to order. Losing Half.

Gooseberries: Stefan picks John because they’re the two oldest competitors. I respect the choice. He didn’t pick low-hanging fruit.

Stefan uses Kristen as a pillow in the overnight. She doesn’t seem to mind at all. You know, Kristen is one of those people I like so much, and I’m hoping she’s going to be one of the finalists, but girl, what are you thinking. Do you think it was lost on Stefan that the guy who hooked up in S5 ended up winning, while the girl he hooked up with went home? Maybe she’s playing him as much as he’s playing her. That’d be fun. After all, she’s won 2 challenges, and he’s won… zero. But I don’t think he’s here to win the game. He wants to make sashimi but Sheldon’s just snared the last of the fresh tuna, so he gets a frozen saku block and makes Cali Crudo with Radishes, Gooseberries, and Spiced Vinaigrette. Gail loves the spice and the crunch, but doesn’t get any gooseberry. Tom agrees; it’s a good dish, but he wants more gooseberry. Winning Half.

John puts a neon sign on his head reading “Stefan is Using Frozen Tuna” before it’s even in the cart, and doesn’t take it off the whole time. “I just love getting into his head,” he interviews. But later, he says it isn’t that it’s frozen, it’s that it isn’t sustainable. I guess the brush with Rick Moody reminded him there’s nothing like a soapbox to beat someone up with. But he isn’t saying “It isn’t sustainable” he’s saying “It’s frozen.” It’s hard to make a political point if you complain about something else. It is, however, a way to backtrack the whole bus routine and pretending it’s a noble pursuit. He doesn’t do himself any favors with his White Gazpacho with Spanish Chorizo, Gooseberries, and Sweet Grapes; everyone finds the soup to be good (contrary to Stefan’s claim that “I wouldn’t flush my poop with it”), but the chorizo unpleasantly overpowering. Seeing his Frozen Fish sign isn’t working (Gail comments on this in her blog), he tries the “I’m Not Making Any Excuses But Here’s My Excuse: The Kitchen Was Crazy” card. Tom outright laughs at him. But he faces up to it in the end: when he returns to the Stew Room, he admits, “I got my ass whooped.” Losing Half.

Blackberries: Bart picks Brooke; she’s flattered, because she’s last to be picked, which means no one wants to go up against her. Yeah, that tends to happen when you win both halves of the previous episode.

Brooke wants to keep her streak going. Except: she was just on the bottom half of the QF; I’d say her winning streak has been broken. Her Spicy Smoked Chocolate Pudding with Blackberry Tapioca and an Earl Grey Marshmallow (the girl made her own marshmallow, though it’s more like a meringue) is “totally smart” per Stephanie; they love it. Winning Half.

Bart, no longer basking in the giddiness of the foil, gets into a fight with John over who-gets-to-use-the-blender. His Blackberry Soup with Salmon and Rhubarb Yogurt half works; they all love the soup, but Tom thinks the salmon is bland (I’ll say it is, it’s invisible in the recipe). Stephanie doesn’t think he needs the salmon at all (maybe that’s why). He explains he had to choose between crab and salmon, and he picked wrong. Losing Half.

Tayberry: Kristen solo.

Kristen gives us some personal background: she was abandoned at birth in Seoul, and by age 4 months was adopted and living in Michigan. If she wins the $10,000 prize for the episode, she’ll go to Korea for the first time since birth, to see where she’s from. The way Top Chef has run, long-time viewers start to worry when the moving personal stories come up; they used to be a precursor to elimination. But the Elves realized we’d caught on several seasons ago and switched it up. Most of us still get the same “uh-oh” when someone calls home or brings out the baby pictures. The way thing are going this season, it looks like the opposite: last week, it was Brooke who showed off the good-luck lizard her son gave her. When she gets tayberries, she immediately thinks “goat’s milk.” I’d like to hear more about that reasoning, but no such luck. Her Matcha Goat Milk Custard with Tayberries Macerated in Olive Oil is a huge hit. Tom loves the texture and restrained sweetness of the custard; Stephanie’s crazy about the use of olive oil. For those of us who have never heard of it before, matcha is a Japanese green tea.

Judges’ Table:

John, Bart, Danyele, Micah and Josie are called out first; it’s clear any group including Josie is the Bottom Group. Discussion included above for each chef. They’re sent back to stew some more, and to send out the Top Group: Brooke, Stefan, Josh, Lizzie, Sheldon, and Kristen. There’s no discussion at all, merely an announcement.

Decisions:

Kristen wins, giving her a sweep of the episode. Stefan blows her a kiss. As they walk back into the Stew Room to send out the Bottom Group again (damn, those guys are getting jerked around, adding insult to injury), Stefan announces it was “wifey” who won. Kristen, I’m counting on you, girl: watch your back.

Danyele is eliminated, and I’m shocked. I thought it was Josie for sure. Tom’s blog isn’t up yet, so I don’t know what to say; Gail’s blog makes it clear there wasn’t an element between them that worked, so I guess it could’ve gone either way. I still think Josie’s shenanigans should’ve come into play, if the dishes were equal. Then again, I still haven’t forgiven her for the turkey.

Back in Stew, Josie picks a bizarre fight with Stefan (apparently, only one person at a time is allowed to have a conversation; either that, or they were both vying for camera time, and he stepped on her moment); from the previews, it looks like another enmity has formed. I’m ready for Josie to go home.

Honorable Mention:

So much recapping is about snark: Let us pause to give props to Stephanie. I know Richard felt he gave away S4 – and I’m a Blais fan myself – but fact is, she’s done incredibly well since, and is a credit to the show. She also handled herself with grace and humor on this episode when faced with such things as raw lamb and a foil strainer; her comments were precise and made sense.

Next Week:

Josie continues her decline. But they have to do a roller derby, so I can’t really blame her.

Last Chance Kitchen:

Danyele vs CJ:

Since Danyele lost because her terrine tasted like lunch meat (gotta rub it in; she visibly winces), the challenge is: make a sandwich with lunch meat. In 20 minutes. But they get to go shopping, which is unusual for LCK. They have to. It’s the only way to turn it into a product placement spot for the car.

CJ is out of sorts; sandwiches aren’t his thing. He figures a baguette, ham, butter, that’s a sandwich. So he works with that and moves towards a bahn mi, which he oddly pronounces “bone-mi,” by making celery and daikon radish butter, throwing in fish sauce, cilantro, apple, and radicchio. Tom thinks his “Vietnamese-inspired” Ham-Butter Sandwich has too much bread, and though the flavors were good, he wanted more daikon and pickled peppers like a real bahn mi. In other words, he wanted a bahn mi, not a Vietnamese-inspired Ham Sandwich.

Danyele: She eats a turkey sandwich every day – sometimes multiple times a day! – so she’s ready for this. She’s glad to make something she really loves, instead of some dish that doesn’t represent her like lunchmeat terrine. Tyler, over in the Peanut Gallery, hears of her plans: “Turkey, avocado, bacon, really?” he sneers. Hey, bud, she outlasted you, didn’t she? It’s bad enough Chrissy (first out, Hawaiian, remember?) is wearing a “Big Ceej” t-shirt and everyone’s cheering for CJ, do you have to harass her, too, just because he beat you? “I’ll eat it if no one else will,” she says. Tom pipes up, “I have to eat it.” Ouch. Not a fan of turkey sandwiches, I’m gathering. I am – a turkey sandwich is a beautiful thing – but they have to be made with actual turkey, not the slimy deli crap. She mashes up the avocado with olive oil and smears it an inch thick on the bread, and pickles some red onion. Her turkey sandwich has the opposite problem of CJ’s: there’s too much meat, the bread’s breaking apart, and the avocado is oozing out. He does another tutorial on how to put the lettuce on the outside to keep the avocado in. “Tom is a hater,” says Danyele. You understand that turkey sandwiches are on his menu, right?

This is the first LCK in which neither dish has been particularly good. CJ stays in, Danyele leaves, taking her sandwich with her. And now she’s going to cheer for CJ, too, so the next person coming through the door can feel all alone, too. Where’s a sociologist when you need one.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 6 – Even the Famous Come Home

Chihuli Garden and Glass

Open on Brooke in tears over CJ’s departure. Or maybe because she and Stefan almost went home instead. She has a plastic lizard her kid gave her for good luck, which is probably supposed to make us go “awww.” John’s worried he’ll never be able to offer grits at his restaurant, and Stefan advises Josh, who failed at his specialty pork, that “Divine Swine” might no longer be the best name for his restaurant. Josh takes that with surprisingly good humor, considering how he’s exploded over less in past weeks. Josh and Stefan are buddies, even though Josh thought Stefan was “a little douchey” during his season. Everyone gets cut different amounts of slack.

Quickfire:

John wonders who the older woman is with Padma; maybe Martha Stewart’s mother? This seems like a bizarre connection to me, but what do I know. Turns out it’s Marilyn Haggerty, the 85-year-old North Dakota reporter whose restaurant review of her town’s brand-new Olive Garden went viral. She didn’t know what that meant. She wasn’t sure what blogging was, either, but it maybe sounded dirty, so she wasn’t too concerned about these blogger people making fun of her for appreciating a tacky chain restaurant. Hey, at 85, she writes 5 columns a week, she can pretty much say what she wants as far as I’m concerned. Anthony Bourdain seems to feel the same way: he wants to write a book with her. Or a book about her. Or he’s going to put some of her columns in a book he’s writing. Depends on who you listen to.

The challenge is to make a sweet and savory holiday dish based on the chefs’ own heritage. Marilyn talks about her own family favorite, Danish Aebleskiver (pancake balls), which, incredibly enough, I first heard of on Food Network Star earlier this year. See, you never know where you’re going to pick up something new. Because this is Top Chef, they throw in a completely unnecessary product placement requirement (a sugar substitute); then they go way too far and make the chefs all share one knife. They all figure out how to use spatulas, pizza cutters, graters, and scissors instead of actual knives, so it’s a big so what. That’ll learn ya, producers: the challenge was a cool idea, why complicate things with nonsense?

The real challenge, for those of us watching Top Chef on a meta-level, is not – repeat, NOT – to authentically represent one’s cultural heritage, but rather to figure out what an 85-year-old woman from North Dakota who thinks The Olive Garden is pretty cool (and just recently had a whirlwind tour of New York top-flight restaurants) would like.

Brooke decides safe is better than bad, so does a play on plain old American Apple Pie with cheddar and comes up with Apple Crostata with Cheddar, Candied Pine Nuts, and Apple Salad slathered with a yogurt sauce. I’m not sure the cheddar and yogurt pass the requirement to include a savory component, but I’m not the judge. Padma says it tastes very homey. Brooke’s worried about that: in a room full of chefs, she doesn’t think “homey” is a compliment. But it is when Marilyn says it: she took the basics to another degree, and wins because it feels like going home. If Brooke didn’t have such an honest face, I’d think she knew exactly what she was doing and is putting us all on.

Josh stops adjusting his mustache long enough to make Johnnycakes with Bacon, Cheddar, Spicy Compound Butter, and a Sous Vide Egg. Johnnnycakes (cornbread pancakes) remind him of his wife and kids, which is kind of awful, really. He tells Marilyn in his family the men cook breakfast on Christmas; she likes that. She likes his dish, too; top three.

Stefan stops helping Josh adjust his mustache (just what is going on between those guys?) long enough to hound Lizzie for the knife and make Smoked Salmon Tartare with Potato Latkes in honor of his Jewish ex-wife’s grandmother. Make that, ex-wives. Um, maybe: he married the same woman twice, because, you know, one bad marriage just wasn’t fun enough. Here’s the thing: my father did the same thing. At the opposite ends of his life, though. Marilyn likes the latkes; top three.

Micah has his choice of heritage, being Mexibro… or Blaxican… he can’t decide if he’s Black and Mexican or Mexican and Black. He makes Pineapple and Pork Tamales with Charred Tomato and Tomatillo Salsa and Fried Plantain, then worries first because Josie is also making a tamale, and second that Marilyn won’t know what it is. She doesn’t – “You’ve made something unusual…I’ve not seen it before” – then calls it a taco. Because those Mexican foods all look alike, you know. Hey, North Dakota is a long way from the Southwest, in more ways than one. He’s in the bottom two; it’s inventive but a bit on the dry side. Maybe you should’ve made a better tamale, Micah, because Josie didn’t do so bad with hers.

Bart figures if he has to make Belgian food without a knife in 30 minutes, he might as well make Belgian Waffles with Celery Three Ways, Apple Purée, Chicken, ad Prosciutto. “So chicken and waffles is a traditional Belgian dish?” asks a doe-eyed Padma. Marilyn finds too many things to judge; bottom two.

Sheldon has a lot of heritage to pick from – one of the advantages of living in Hawaii – and ends up with Filipino lumpia, a variation on egg rolls. Padma calls it very sophisticated.

Danyele was adopted, so she’s just making the Bread Pudding her mom used to make with leftover Christmas ham, with raisins, and pecans. No comment.

Lizzie is used Christmas spent around the pool, seeing as she’s from South Africa. She makes lamb bobotie, a variation on shepherd’s pie, with apricots.

Eliza comes from a family that fries together; her family lovingly called her “chunky” when she was a kid, so she makes the Hush Puppies Two Ways that got her that way: one with Shrimp and Sweet Potato, one with Sausage and Corn. Yep, that’ll do it. My sister called me Crisco: “Fat in the Can.” We’d give her sponges and Bon Ami for Christmas, because she was a bit of a clean freak. Ah, warm family memories. Marilyn likes the mild sweetness. But not as much as she likes other stuff.

Josie is Puerto Rican, Italian, and Filipino, so she makes a Mexican Tamale with Habanero Masa, Mangos, Papaya, and Cilantro Cream, plus a tostone for crunch. “Nice combination of tastes,” says Marilyn. Just… not quite nice enough. But see, Micah? It’s not the tamale, it’s the twist. Or something.

John is another adoptee, but he found out his birth parents were Irish and Italian and served port wine even to the kids for Christmas, which Marilyn is all for. He makes Bondino of Parmesan Reggiano, figs and apricots in port wine and caramel, which is a really cool way to get booze into the kiddies. Only trouble is, seems there’s no such dish as “a bondino” outside of his own mind. Go ahead, google it, if you find something let me know. It looks like a custard. The recipe seems like a custard. I’m calling it custard.

Marilyn has had all the non-North Dakota food she can take for one day, so she exits to warm applause.

Elimination Challenge:

Bring on the celebrities I’ve never heard of. Some actor types named Anna Faris and Chris Pratt, who are apparently married and expecting their first child (who was born in August, so no apparently about it). For celebrities, they actually comport themselves quite well: they’re funny (they do a riff on one of the hookup shows), and have normal family and friends around instead of bimbos and fools. As celebrity party challenges go, this is one of the best.

The chefs come into it by creating a dish each for a buffet-style Welcome Home party. They get a few minutes to talk to the couple about their likes and dislikes: Pacific Northwest seafood like salmon and Dungeness crab, lots of game (he’s a hunter who eats his kills, with tales to tell of eating raw squirrel hearts to prove it), nice Norwegian-German meat and potatoes type things. They claim to be pretty adventurous, culinarily speaking (and I guess the squirrel backs that up). But no hummus. None. I love these people. These are my kinds of celebrities. No vegan or raw food crap, no caviar or foie gras. And they hate hummus, which is as far as I’m concerned the whole reason for the discord in the Middle East. When that’s your culinary birthright, you’re going to be cranky.

The party’s at Chihuly Garden and Glass which is… I don’t really understand, it’s a garden with glass, a glass house, an exhibition hall, and a café with one of those menus without plebian things like dollar signs and decimal points so you’re not really absorbing that a burger costs $16.00. But it’s truly beautiful. Top Chef has a history with Chihuly glass; remember Robin trying to make the Bellagio glass flowers out of sugar candy in TC6? Wait, that sent her home…oh. Well, maybe it’ll go better this time. I keep wondering how they keep visitors from breaking things. Or, for that matter, birds and squirrels. Not to mention rain and hail. I guess the glass is pretty sturdy.

And here we are, only on Episode 6 with a dozen chefs still in, and they bring out the car. The car challenge already? Gee, what’ve you got for next week? I still remember Marcel on All-Stars, noting he came in second in S2 and never got a nickel. Yeah, but he got rug burns, and managed to build a career on them.

The guest judge is Rick Moonen, who makes an entrance after John talks about making the clam chowder he learned while working for him. Rick doesn’t seem to be one of the thousands of chefs John has alienated along the way. I’m beginning to wonder if this whole Most Hated Chef in Dallas thing is purely a marketing gimmick.

Top Notch Cuisine:

Kristen‘s passion is pasta, which is fun to say. She fulfills her longing to run her hands through flour and egg by making Delice de Bourgogne Tortelloni garnished with dried apricots and leafy sprouty things. For the record, Delice de Bourgogne is a French triple-cream cheese made extra-special by a dose of Penicilium Candidum, just like its cousins Brie and Camembert. Yum. The stuff is 75% fat. Gail was dubious about the apricots, but they end up working perfectly with the creamy cheese. As well they might; I became addicted to a dip made with cream cheese and apricots (and a hit of spice) a few years ago. Rick calls it a perfect bite.

John credits “a wise old man” with teaching him the base of his Seafood Chowder with Cockles, Manila Clams, Crab, Mussels, Sockeye Salmon, and… well, that’s half the ocean, what more do you want. Rick calls it a hug from the ocean; Padma finds every component beautifully cooked, especially the salmon skin.

Brooke feels a little inspired, coming off her QF win, so she aims for the bleachers with Lamb-Stuffed Squid on Black Rice with Coconut Milk. Tom’s impressed: she had immunity, she could’ve laid back but she went for it, which is the real purpose and opportunity of immunity. Anna and Chris are crazy about it, too.

Sheldon makes what he has when he goes home: Braised Pork Belly with Seared Scallop and Rice Congee. In case you’ve forgotten what we learned during the oh-so-forgettable S7 finale in Singapore, congee is Asian comfort food. Or gruel, depending on who you ask. Anna loves the sweetness of the pork belly, and finds every bite a surprise.

Middle of the Road:

Bart makes Elk with Cherry-Beer sauce and mushroom couscous. It’s fun watching the BeerKnight work hops into his dishes. Padma thinks the meat is beautifully done; Rick says it’s tender and delicious, a well-balanced plate, but it could use a touch more salt.

Stefan goes German. German Gulash, to be exact, mit zie Dumplings und Sour Cream and a little Marjoram Bread. Anna: “This is what a pregnant woman craves.” Padma says it’s rich, which probably means adding another half hour on the treadmill. Back behind the induction burners, Kristen tastes it unenthusiastically. “I’m going to divorce you,” says Stefan. Is he leaving her for Josh?

Lizzie stays in the Pacific Northwest with her Crusted King Salmon with Radish and Beet Salad. Gail wants more sear, more caramelization. Anna wants more seasoning.

Josie goes for Malbec-Braised Short Ribs and Pork Belly over Polenta with Sous Vide Cippolini Onions and Figs. To me, Malbec sounds like one of those awful vegetable proteins like seitan and tempeh, but that doesn’t makes sense, since you don’t braise things in proteins. Turns out it’s a wine. I’m not up on wine (let’s see, there’s red, and white, right?) so looked it up, and Malbec is an Argentinian red wine. Rick doesn’t think there’s enough contrast; Padma wants more brightness and tartness.

Bottom Notch Chow:

Eliza tries the game angle, but her Elk Ribeye, served with Elk Sausage Polenta, Spiced Carrots, and a Huckleberry Port Sauce, is chewy so she slices it thin to tenderize it. Not a good move. Tom is ok with the meat, but the rest is bland, and the carrots, well: “I don’t get it, what happened?” Gail wishes for a hit of acid (don’t we all); Rick finds the meat grainy.

Danyele got the thinnest cut of boar chops; now she’s afraid they’ll overcook when seared. Sure enough, when she tries it, they’re shoes. She was mentored by Stephan Pyles, the “legendary Founding Father of Southwest Cuisine” (take that, Bobby Flay), and wants to live up to it. Chris ratchets up the pressure a little more when he tells her he loves wild boar. “I hope I don’t disappoint,” she says. “So do I,” he warns with a mock menacing glare. But, alas, she does. Her Pan-Roasted Wild Boar with Hoppin’ John (a Southern dish of black-eyed peas and rice often served on New Year’s Day) and Tomato-Bacon Marmalade doesn’t work. Tom finds the thin chops lack the texture expected of boar. Gail finds it bland and cooked unevenly. Anna wishes for more seasoning. Chris does admire the tomato-bacon jam, but come on, who wouldn’t. Just saying “tomato bacon marmalade” makes my mouth water. Rick thinks she was uncomfortable. So, what, she needs better shoes? Maybe boar chop shoes?

Josh is determined to redeem his reputation as a pig man. Unfortunately, the Roasted Pork Shoulder and Grilled Corn Purée with Succotash and Fennel-Apple Salad ain’t gonna do it. Chris tries: “It might not be great, but there’s a lot of it.” Anna wishes the pork was more seasoned. I’m beginning to understand why Josh closed his Divine Swine restaurant and transplanted to a Dallas pastry chef position. Maybe he can try TCJD, but if he fails at that, will he have to shift to seafood?

Micah does Pork Short Ribs with Celery Root Purée, Grilled Apples, and Celery Leaf Salad. All these dishes sound great, so it’s the execution that’s failing. He knows the celery root isn’t as creamy as it should be, so he adds milk. “Too much cream,” says Tom. Oopsie. Rick feels some of the components didn’t quite add up. Pork, celery, apples, it takes skill for that to not add up.

Judges’ Table

John, Kristen, Brooke, and Sheldon are the top contenders. John gets props from former boss Rick for making celebratory soul food that maintained the integrity of every ingredient (just like he taught him to do). Gail asks Kristen how she knew the apricots would work; Tom realizes it makes sense, and lauds her for thinking of it. Brooke gets into a riff about fear, how she’s been holding back so no one would yell at her, and now just cooked; Tom tells her, “If this is the way you cook, no one’s going to yell at you.” Sheldon talks up being under the influence of many ethnicities.

Brooke wins in a unanimous decision; she’s genuinely excited. It’s nice to see someone nice get goofy with delight; I don’t think it’s happened since Carla in TCAS Episode 6 when Marcel shot her down once he realized he was in the bottom. I hope she carries this forward; it’d be nice to have two women consistently doing well.

Eliza, Danyele, Josh, and Micah line up for the beat-down. Tom emphasizes they weren’t bad dishes, but they all had quality issues. Micah‘s celery root was grainy; Tom found the ingredients out of proportion. Padma tells Josh he needs to stop saying he’s a pork man; the ratio of pork to everything else on the plate was out of whack, and Rick complains about underseasoning. Tom questions Eliza about the thin slice of the elk, then complains about dry, undercooked, flavorless carrots. “Thank you for your feedback, this has been a wonderfully humbling experience.” Oh, just wait, dear, there’s plenty more where that came from. Danyele gets credit for fantastic relish, but the boar was overcooked. Padma notices she’s scared, and she can’t explain why she’s so stressed out, why she can’t cook in this competition the way she cooks in her home kitchen. Tom’s advice: “Cook your food. Don’t get psyched out, don’t second-guess yourself.” Still, she worries she’s not cut out for this competition thing. That happens to a lot of good cooks on this show. Unfortunately, it also happens to mediocre chefs who aren’t experienced enough to cope with small variations.

Eliza’s out. Eliza approaches the panel but declines to shake hands, as she’s coming down with a cold: “So I’m going to give you each a nod.” I appreciate the courtesy behind the idea, but, yeah, it’s just weird. She’s disappointed, of course; she thought she’d do better. I’m a bit surprised myself; I expected Josh to be out. Tom explains this decision in more detail in his blog; it was the carrots that did it. I just read his book, Think Like a Chef, and he devotes a lot of space to veggies, and I’m glad he doesn’t consider them a throwaway part of the plate. Still, Josh is a pork guy who’s fluffed pork twice now. But this works for me: now I don’t have to figure out which one is Brooke and which one is Eliza. All I have to do now is figure out who the woman who always turns out to be Lizzie is. It’d help if she actually did something memorable.

Last Chance Kitchen:

Eliza joins CJ and Tyler for a three-way while the others watch. The ingredients are pickles and carrots, come back to haunt them all.

Eliza was hoping to never see carrots again, but here they are. She does a Brown Butter Carrot Mash with Crusted Scallops and Corn/Pickle/Bacon/Mushroom Succotash. “Tell me you like the carrots, that’s all I care about,” she pants. “Carrots are good,” Tom says noncommittally. “Oh, good, I’m going to go now.” Tom doesn’t smile. Hey, she’s trying, it isn’t her fault her sense of humor is on a par with her cooking abilities. Come on, she’s relieved she made mashed carrots? I could make mashed carrots. They’d probably be good, too. Tom doesn’t understand why she used white wine with the bacon in the succotash, but the scallops are perfectly cooked. But the succotash does her in. It’s always something. Bye.

Tyler makes a deconstructed ceviche, using the carrots grilled and in raw ribbons, marinating the veg in pickle juice, and adding shrimp with cumin. “It’s probably too simple,” he tells Tom, determined to shoot himself in the foot. I love Tyler. I’ve finally discovered someone who can outstrip me in the self-destruction department. I don’t particularly want to watch him cook, though. Tom liked the use of pickle juice, but the shrimp was underseasoned. Not good enough. “Take the ‘l’ out of Lover ’cause it’s Over,” he says. Didn’t he say that before? Or was that a preview?

CJ is just so happy he doesn’t have to work with anyone inferior to him, he could just about shit. So could I, preferably on his head. Wow, hostility. But he’s such a jerk this season: he tells Tyler, “In case you want to redo our burger there’s crumpets over there.” CJ, darling, the burger was your idea. But he knows who’s susceptible to needling. He gets to work charring pickles, cleaning, smoking, and cooking the trout, puréeing the carrot tops into a sauce, juicing the carrots. I’ll give him that a lot of work went into his Pan-roasted Rainbow Trout with Carrot Purée and Charred Pickles, but the fish is overcooked. No matter; he used simple ingredients in the most interesting way, and wins. CJ’s direction is unwavering. Oh, goody. I’m beginning to hate Last Chance Kitchen. How come it isn’t all going my way like last time?

But wait, there is good news: Kuniko was Saved! No, this has nothing to do with Jesus; she now joins Tyler and Eliza in the Save a Chef thing. I think. After six episodes, I still don’t understand Last Chance Kitchen or its cousin Save a Chef. Did Congress design this process?

Next Week:

John tries to throw Stefan under the bus with some frozen tuna, but it’s probably not anywhere near as dramatic as all that. And how to cook when everything in the kitchen is wrapped in tin foil. *

*Yes, I know, these days all tin foil is really aluminum foil, except on Top Chef where it’s Product Placement Wrap.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 5 – Pike Place Pickle

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The unequivocal winner of the night is… Hugh Acheson.

I have to offer an apology to Hugh. Back in Episode 1, I kinda picked on him for being off his game (“What’s wrong with him tonight?”) when he made some lame comments about armor and big salads. I haven’t been feeling Hugh so far this season. But I am now. Welcome back, Snarkmaster.

As for the chefs:

“And then there were fourteen.” You aren’t going to say that every week, are you?
Stefan: “Chrissy who? Carla who? Bye, see you later, next in line.” Mr. Charm.
Tyler: “Being in the top don’t mean shit. Kuniko was on top, one day, gone the next. Carla was top one day, gone the next.” Tyler, you do realize, you didn’t actually win last week, right?

But Stefan does have a real problem: it’s his 40th birthday. And there was this TC5 Birthday Curse…

Quickfire

Padma is wearing striped pants with large beige back pockets; when seen from the back, it looks like she’s wearing Joshua’s assless chaps from last week’s PRAS. But this is the first time I’ve noticed Padma’s clothes this season, and that’s a good sign.

She welcomes the chefs to Pike Place Market and introduces guest judge Chef Daisley Gordon who runs a few joints there. In self-selected teams of two, they have one hour to make “breakfast on a stick” for 50 market workers using ingredient supplied by Daisley and cookware from the market vendor; both members of the winning team will get immunity.

Bart and Sheldon talk about making sandwiches with lots of hand gestures like neither of them realizes the other speaks English. Bart tries to bulldoze John out of his way on the way to grab a panini press, then falls down and worries, “I hope I didn’t break it” before punching his hand through it while inserting the plates. It got going, but died; Sheldon hopes there’s enough residual heat to finish their Green Forest Breakfast Sandwich: eggs, cheese, pancetta, bacon, and spinach. I thought maybe that was an actual thing, but I guess it’s Bart’s play on Black Forest, a sort of Belgian “screw you” to Germany. Daisley likes the clever combination of ingredients, it’s well-executed, and easy to eat off a stick. In spite of the Keystone Kops start, they’re the winners.

Josh and John end up together; it almost looks like John picked Josh, but they seem to think they were leftovers. Josh didn’t exactly make an effort to find anyone, so I don’t see what he’s bellyaching about. I’m a little suspicious (there’s nothing like competitive reality tv to turn me into a raving conspiracy theorist to rival the Birthers): John may be keeping his enemies closer. Josh suggests a take on a breakfast tortilla, and John’s fine with that. Padma likes the flavor of their Chilaquiles made of Tortilla, Salsa, Quail Egg, and Avocado-Heirloom Tomato Relish (I’d never heard of these before; apparently they’re sort of like breakfast nachos). Padma likes the flavor; Daisley likes the seasoning, and appreciates the riff on the mini-taco. They’re in second place, and John’s happy they managed to work well together. Maybe he’s just trying to get along? He’s a fascinating character, and I suspect (he brings out the suspecting in me) he knows it.

Brooke and Stefan know each other in LA; she knows he can be abrasive sometimes, but he’s all heart. I guess he just hides it well. He gets his panties in a bunch (his phrasing) because there’s too many people, but Padma shows up and wishes him a happy birthday and all is well. Their Croque Monsieur (which is really more of a Monte Cristo, since it’s made French-toast style) with roasted figs goes over well. But not well enough for a Top mention.

Micah and Kristen are the youngest, so they “click,” says Micah. Micah suggests a sweet/savory Waffle made with bacon, cinnamon, and blackberry and covered with pecan maple syrup and boysenberry-strawberry jam and melon and damn do I want some. Kristen nixes the first attempt as too dense, and they try again; she ponders whether her perfectionism is a blessing or a curse. Maybe she should have pondered sweet/savory waffles instead; Padma and Daisley move on without comment.

CJ and Tyler make an odd pair. Tyler takes the cooperative approach: CJ seems passionate about doing a Salmon and Cream Cheese Crepe, sort of a WASP-y play on lox on bagels, with avocado, arugula and tarragon, so why not. CJ takes the ridicule approach: something about being like a coach with his eyes bulging, I don’t quite see what he’s talking about but that’s CJ. Padma’s surprised it stays together on the stick, but no one comments on the taste. CJ calls after them as they move along: “We really want this win.” “I know,” murmurs a tactful Padma, omitting the “well you’re not gonna get it, nyah nyah” part.

Eliza and Josie have clashing styles. I’m not sure why, since neither of them seems to know what they’re doing in spite of overflowing confidence in their abilities. Eliza cites the summer she spent following Widespread Panic around the country selling vegan sushi out of a van as evidence of her superiority. Now, that sounds like a youthful indiscretion one would try to live down as an adult, but she seems to think it’s the culinary equivalent of inventing Facebook. She notes Josie is a chef used to being right, someone who thinks “it’s the way I do it so that’s why it’s right.” Seems to work for dumplings; for turkeys, not so much. Nor does it seem to work for Ricotta, Raspberry and Sausage Pancakes with jalapeno maple syrup. First, Padma’s falls off her stick before she can get it to her mouth. Then she observes it looks like a layer cake, and given the Foodie Fear of Sweet, that can’t be good. Daisley calls it a breakfast/dessert combo, and Josie says, “Yeah,” figuring, if that’s how he wants to think of it fine. But dessert at breakfast is not a good thing, as we all know. He found it much too sweet (told ya), and difficult to eat. They’re in the Bottom Two. I’m thinking that jalapeno maple syrup might be something I’d like to have anyway.

Danyele and Lizzie (I never know who Lizzie is until she speaks and her accent gives her away) find the dairy supplies depleted by the time they get to the pantry, so Lizzie thinks European breakfast: Summer Berries with Crispy Pancetta. In other words, take fruit from farmstand, slice pancetta, skewer, serve. A Sandra Lee breakfast. No, it isn’t that simple: they toss the blackberries in honey and the strawberries in cracked pepper. Sounds delicious, actually – Daisley praises the berries – but it’s not really cooking, and too late it occurs to Lizzie that it’s not very substantial and they should’ve made some kind of fritters (now that would be cool – fritters on a stick. Why didn’t anyone do that? No deep fryers?). Daisley says exactly that – they didn’t produce much in an hour. Bottom two.

Elimination Challenge:

They’ll stay in their teams, which makes just about everyone nervous. To summarize: Lizzie isn’t sure she knows Danyele well enough to cook intimately with her; Eliza is worried that she and Josie aren’t truly listening to each other; Josie is not enjoying this at all but she’s going to do her chefly duty, it’ll be over soon; Tyler finds CJ’s idea too simple but he’s a veteran so he’s in trust; John knows Josh is just barely tolerating him so is trying not to explode the wrath within; Josh is going along with anything John says just so they don’t start butting heads. I think these people need marriage counseling more than they need cooking.

Too bad, too, because it’s another really nice challenge: take a randomly drawn specialty ingredient, and make a lunch dish to highlight it. Time is short – an hour to shop, an hour to cook – but at least they get to cook in Daisley’s restaurant, which is a step up from electric griddles and hot plates. They’ll be feeding the very artisans – this is the word of the day: artisan, noun, the upscale and all-inclusive form for those who make high-priced chic versions of plain old stuff you’d normally just buy at the supermarket – who produce the ingredients (as well as Hugh-Gail-Padma-Tom). Lest my blogging license be suspended for high snide and sarcasamry, the products sound pretty amazing. There’s a reason this stuff sells.

Stefan and Brooke draw Rose Petal Jelly from Dale Nelson’s Woodring Orchards. Brooke: “It’s sweet, it’s floral, it’s a game changer.” Stefan: “It’s what women in the 1500s put on them to smell good.” I had rose water iced tea a few years back; once you get over the surprise that you’re drinking roses, it’s fine. I wouldn’t go out of my way to have it again, but it’s not repellent, and it’s kind of a fun variation on the usual avocados, salmon, and shellfish. Then again, I don’t have to cook with it on TV. They come up with a variation of a dish Stefan makes in his restaurant, Rose Petal Glazed Muscovy Duck with braised cabbage and cherry salad. The problem with making a dish you serve at your restaurant is, if it’s terrible, you’ve just shown potential customers how crappy this dish might be if they order it. Somehow the dish both loses the rose and overuses it: Gail gets sweet without rose, Tom needs some insulin, and Hugh needs a hacksaw for his tough duck.

Tyler and CJ end up with spicy pickles, compliments of Parker’s Pickles which is really part of Woodring Orchards which is actually a subset of Woodring Northwest – wow, an artisanal conglomerate. “I’ve got a great idea,” says Tyler, “you go first.” Aww, Tyler, that’s not the way to do it. CJ wants to make a pork burger with pickles on top, because, although he knows there’s a million dishes he can make with pickles, he can hear Tom bitching, “All you had to do was make a burger, nothing goes better with pickles than burgers.” (I suspect that interview was shot after the conclusion of the episode, for reasons which will become clear, if they aren’t already). Tyler was thinking potato oyster chowder with a pickle fritter – you know, actual cooking – but hey, CJ’s the veteran, so he lets CJ steamroll ahead with the burger idea. Too late, he wonders if they underthought. They put the burger on a crumpet for who knows why, because that’s what’s in the market, because they think it makes it less ordinary, whatever. It’s still a burger, or, more precisely, Pork Crumpet Burger with spicy dill pickles. Not even any fries, slaw, or salad? No, but lardo and pancetta, because fat is what wins. And sometimes it does, but not this time. Dale wishes it’d been more of a slider, with a less doughey bun. Hugh is less tactful: the bottom bun is spongy and gross. Tom’s stunned at the lack of originality involved in putting specialty pickle slices on a burger. Should’ve stuck to your guns, Tyler.

John and Josh find themselves with a bag of Uncle Woody’s Truffle Salt Popcorn courtesy of Cara Davis-Jensen who either is Uncle Woody or has an Uncle Woody, neither of which I wish to contemplate further as she seems quite nice and perfectly normal. John talks pork and truffle popcorn grits; Josh is a pig guy, after all. But he’s a pig guy in that he’ll barbecue a pig out back for a few days, and John wants him to slice and cook individual tenderloin medallions, which doesn’t really sound right to him, but he does it anyway in an effort to get along. John doesn’t like how he’s doing the pork anyway, which is ballsy since that’s how he told him to do it, but seems he expected a quick hard sear, but he’s afraid of Exploding Josh so he doesn’t say anything. Josh can tell the grits are way too thick, but John says they’re ok and he’s not going to start butting heads now. It’s much better to butt heads in the Stew Room when it’s too late to do anything about it, see. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the idea of dumping popcorn into grits and calling it a dish. So’s Hugh, having had the disadvantage of actually eating said dish: “I’ve made grits all my life, and the grits suck.” Cara: “I would’ve liked to have seen them add some other flavors besides just the truffle.” Tom: “The meat’s screwed up and the sauce is a gloppy mess.” Daisley: “It’s not imaginative use of the popcorn.” I don’t know about that; I’d never think of it.

Kirsten and Micah are lucky to be dealt an ingredient one of them has worked with before: cheese curds. The Best Cheese Curds in Seattle, in fact, at least they were in 2010. Is there a lot of competition for Best Cheese Curds in Seattle? I’m pretty boring when it comes to cheese; I don’t want to think about words like “curds.” I definitely don’t want to eat them. They go with Cheese Curds Three Ways (in béchamel, raw, and fried) which seems a good approach to me, who doesn’t want anything to do with this dish, but the people who are sophisticated enough for words like curds don’t think so: too many components, the cheese guy thought only the fried curds stood out, and poor Padma was faced with a brown nugget she couldn’t identify.

Lizzie and Danyele luck out with coconut curry chocolate via Debra Music of Theo Chocolate (regular readers may be wondering why is it I usually avoid product placements in posts and scorn the products, but here I am not only including them but finding the websites and providing links? Well, these product placements have something to do with the challenge. And they’re kind of cool. Too cool for me, but I could be tempted to up my cool tolerance for some of this stuff. Especially chocolate). Lizzie had an idea for “snapper or fish” – did she just say fish? With chocolate? I get the coconut curry link, but chocolate? – but Danyele says they have to do a dessert so she – say it with me – goes along rather than argue; they haven’t found their rhythm yet. I wonder what the producers think of all this cooperation, after such a promising hint of blood spillage to come a couple of weeks ago. Anyway, back to the Coconut Curry Chocolate Mousse Tart with Orange Tea Syrup: Debra is dismayed to see other chocolate incorporated into the dish that’s supposed to feature her chocolate; Tom doesn’t like how it’s assembled (there’s a hard disc on top so something squirts out when he tries to cut it, giggle); Gail finds the flavors overpowering.

Josie and Eliza aren’t really collaborating well, and the cardamom bitters, courtesy of bartender and bitters entrepreneur Miles Thomas, aren’t helping. Josie doesn’t want to get too aggressive with the cardamom; it should be an accent, like a pearl necklace, at which point America falls over laughing. At least those of us with a hidden twelve-year-old. There’s a discussion of who gets the clams and who gets the juice, which would mean nothing if the pearl necklace didn’t already have my mind in the gutter. Eliza wants to make Josie happy. But Josie isn’t happy with the pistou, but she just crosses her fingers which must be a technique she learned at the Art Institute’s Culinary Program. They end up with Curry Cardamom Broth with Manila Clams and Seared White King Salmon and Bok Choy, which should be great but 1) the broth is salty, 2) Gail gets a rock, and 3) Padma gets sand. Miles is sad that his cardamom bitters are muted by the salty broth; Hugh doesn’t hear it singing. He’s just lucky he doesn’t hear Gail screaming as she breaks a tooth on the rock.

Sheldon and Bart have immunity, so who cares, but they still have to do something with Anders Miller’s salmon candy. Sheldon’s perplexed; it’s sort of like salmon bacon, and they don’t have anything like this in Hawaii. Hey, Sheldon, they don’t have apples or cows in Hawaii either, buck up. I love ya, man, but this shtick is getting old; you’re beginning to sound like Ippy from FNS. Bart wants to balance the sweet with cucumber (for freshness) and rhubarb (for acidity) which sounds like a plan. The process for their Candied Salmon with Sweet-and-Sour Salad is complicated: rilletes of ground up salmon candy mixed with sour cream on top of quick sugar-cured salmon sashimi, with some kind of powdered salmon bacon cubes on top. No one chokes on it- Anders likes the rillettes – but it wasn’t much of a showcase for the salmon candy. Tom wanted more; Hugh didn’t see any salmon candy celebration going on; Gail missed the texture of the salmon candy that makes it so special. There’s also something about throwing stunt fish. This actually makes sense if you check out their website.

Indigestif:

If you’re a regular reader, you may have noted I haven’t included the usual “top” and “bottom” notes for the Elimination Challenge. There’s a reason for that. The discussion at the table after the meal is grim. Gail didn’t see a lot of finesse. Padma apologizes to the artisans: “Really, they’re actual chefs, they’ve served really good food this season so far, they just really screwed up the ingredients you’ve invented and made with your own little hands. Or at least your own little outprocessors.” Tom has no favorite: they were all bad.

Consider this tweet that went out about this time:

Brian Fairbanks ‏@BrianFair
BREAKING: #topchef eliminates all these contestants, goes dark
Retweeted by hugh acheson

No, it’s not quite that dramatic, but Tom goes back to the chefs cowering in the back and tells them nobody’s winning, he’s sure as hell not giving $10,000 to anyone when they had to apologize to the diners, the food was bad, there was no imagination, a lack of technique, and what’s wrong with you guys, step up, take a risk, you can always get back in through Last Chance Kitchen. Oh, yeah, like that’s the way to win Top Chef.

The losing team will go home. Both people.

Since I don’t believe the producers are nimble enough to handle this kind of curve ball, I’m assuming this was the plan, unannounced, all along. So those who figured they’d let someone else screw up and be able to deny responsibility for the faulty component will have to find another plan.

Stefan: “It’s the birthday curse.”
CJ: “No one feels safe.”
John: “Josh has been on the bottom a couple of times and I don’t want to go home because of him.”
Brooke: “I’m doing this for my family.” Yes, because reality tv is the best way to care for your family.
John: “I’ve never been this uncomfortable before. Ever.” That’s because you were stoned.
Tyler: “I guess if it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go.” An attitude he may have picked up in AA. But Josh takes offense. Josh is weird, y’know? I didn’t think he was at first, but he is. He’s just looking for a fight. Tyler apologizes, which annoys me. I know all about fear of conflict and deference, but he has a right to his feelings. No wonder he drank.

Next for our entertainment, Stefan tries to teach Josh about Last Chance Kitchen, using pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one. “I saw it, I know how it works.” Josh muses: “We click. We’re both on the arrogant a—— side, but both pretty likeable.” Um, Josh? Not so much, no. Stefan at least is funny when viewed from a distance. Until someone gets an eye out.

Judges’ Table:

Tom tries to figure out what went wrong. And it is strange. They’ve worked in teams all along, this is the first total meltdown. The ingredients were unusual, but based on pretty standard flavors. Gail points out it was just a global disappointment: the food wasn’t well made, and it didn’t taste good.

Bring on the excuses, and warm up the bus:

Josh and John: Tom asks why he’d cook pork that way, and the best Josh can come up with is, “John told me to do it this way. Not to throw anyone under the bus or anything.” Uh-huh. And he knew the grits were bad, but he didn’t want to create friction, so he did what he was told and kept quiet. Tom scorns the complacency and advises them to fight to make the dish better (and provide drama). Gail notes there was no artistry or presentation. Tom says it looked like something served by someone who hates cooking. Ouch.

Stefan and Brooke: the tough duck doesn’t get much attention since everyone’s trying to convince Stefan the cabbage was too sweet, and he keeps insisting he kept adding vinegar to it. Hugh offers wisdom: if it’s too sweet and you add stuff and it’s still too sweet, you still have to fix it. And this immortal thought: “If you get too much rose petal, it feels like you’re eating someone’s grandmother.”

CJ and Tyler: CJ didn’t want to take away from the integrity of the pickle. Oh, so that’s where CJ’s integrity went! Tom wonders why they didn’t think of all the things to be made with a pickle, and CJ tells his “I heard your voice” story. He gets a laugh, but it was still a crappy burger. Gail tells them Top Chef wants them to be creative. Tyler says he was thinking lunch. “I like a creative lunch, too,” says Gail. Where’ve you been all season, Gail?

Then the moment you’ve been waiting for, whether you know it or not. As the chefs leave Judges’ Table, Padma calls out, “CJ, did you want to say something?” Yes, he did. The dessert was diabolical. It was a catastrophe. Horrible. Hugh: “Uh oh, ’cause youre burger was even worse.” WHAM! Five points, Hugh. I’ll never doubt you again.

The judges deliberate, and that CJ would bring up another dish, a dish not even under consideration, isn’t lost on them. “That’s the mentality,” says Tom. I really don’t get it, was he thinking they’d say, “Oh yeah, that was terrible, CJ’s right, let’s send them home instead.”

And Hugh isn’t done hitting them out of the park. When it comes to the rose petal jelly: “If you get too much rose petal, it feels like you’re eating someone’s grandmother.” Another two points.

Trouble is, each judge had his or her own least favorite dish. For Hugh, it was the burger. Tom hated the pork and grits, Padma the duck dish. So it’s all up to Gail. Could it be any sweeter?

CJ and Tyler are out. I’m sorry for Tyler, though I don’t think this is his venue. But I’m relieved CJ is gone. If this cooking thing doesn’t work out, he could make a fortune selling used cars.

I loved this episode. I wish the food had been better, but there were interesting ingredients and ideas and lots of laughs. And no nastiness. I promise, it is possible to tell someone there’s a better way to cook pork, or grits, or cabbage, or bitters, without being a jerk; these chefs need to learn how. And they need to learn how to listen when someone has a better idea. But then again, it wouldn’t be Top Chef. The knife isn’t their logo for nothin’.

Next Week:

Bring on the actors I’ve never heard of. But Rick Moody (oops… make that Moonen… I didn’t realize I’d made this typo until I read David Rees’ Grub Street recap of the next week and he referenced Moody, at which point I thought, Oh, no, I think I did the same thing last week. I know who Rick Moonen is, I promise. He’s the Sustainable Fish guy. I read his book Without a Doubt but I still get farmed salmon because it’s half the price. And I feel bad about that. But not bad enough to pay $15/lb for salmon) shows up, and it seems John used to work for him. And Gail takes a hit of acid.

Last Chance Kitchen:

CJ and Tyler join Kuniko in LCK.

CJ and Tyler will be working as a team again, since that was one of the many ways they failed last time. “True chef means you have to be a leader, you have to work as a team. Welcome to your nightmare all over again.” Hysterical laughter from Tyler, who at this point is wondering if he’s ever going to get out from under CJ’s thumb. And since they were so critical of the dessert in the Elimination Challenge, they have to make a dessert.

Kuniko‘s all by herself. She calls her dish Frozen Banana with fruit compote, lemon curd and brown sugar syrup. “A lot going on in here,” says Tom: pink peppercorns, tea, olive oil. It’s good – he’s a fan of savory desserts – but he doesn’t like it plated in a bowl; it eats like a big soup. Kuniko thinks it’s a “personal choice” – (!) – and allows everything in one bite without missing something. Like maybe for sloppy eaters.

Tyler and CJ: Team or no team, CJ’s clearly in charge, and he decides it’s time to bring out the hay ice cream. They stock hay in the Last Chance Kitchen? It’s a dish from Noma, and it seems hay is catching on. If you’re wondering how to make Hay Ice Cream: 1) Toast hay in oven. 2) Steep hay in cream. 3) Strain. 4) Blend. 5) Liquid nitrogen. Voila, Hay ice cream. And where do you get hay? Geez, do I have to figure out everything? Tyler Oh-Are-You-Still-Here makes an oven-roasted-cherry fritter to go with it, but that’s just a formality. CJ makes a sauce with some cherries, and adds some arugula and chocolate to the plate. Tyler’s freaked by the arugula. Oh, ok, the hay ice cream, no problem, but the arugula is out there? “Anything you wouldn’t have done in here, Tyler?” asks Tom. “I never would’ve thought arugula.” Yeah, the hay, you would’ve thought of, but the arugula’s a stretch? Tom thinks there’s too much arugula. What’s with the arugula? It’s lettuce. Sure, it’s got some zing to it relative to iceberg or romaine, but put it with ice cream and cherries and it’s lettuce. In spite of the abundance of rocket, as Gordon Ramsey likes to call it, Tom likes it; everything on the plate has a purpose.

CJ and Tyler win. I’m very disappointed. But it was inevitable that Kuniko would be out, and it’ll be good to see CJ lose again at some point.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 4 – 50s Food Flashback

The mystery is over. We now know who Stefan will be bird-dogging all season: Kristen. And she seems just fine with it, since the position comes with foot massages. I have to say, I’m disappointed in her taste. There’s a difference of opinion about whether her feet smell. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Oh, and News flash: CJ and Josh hate John. We’re treated to an extended replay of the Stew Room Squabble just to make sure we remember, complete with new footage that includes barbs like “Oklahoma” and “balls.” Stefan’s thrilled: “John pushes buttons so hard, I love it, it’s like Real Housewives.”

Enough of this crap, can we get cooking, please?

Quickfire:

Naomi Pomeroy is waiting in the kitchen with Padma. I like her; I wish she’d been in the finals on TCM3. We’re treated to the clip that made her famous: yelling at her father during a Quickfire. It’s not all that, actually, but it doesn’t take much to get famous on TCM. Josh is glad to see her: she does “land-roaming animals,” which is right up his alley.

And land-roaming animals it is (vegetarians, you may want to avert your eyes): two hanging sides of beef await them. They have one hour to butcher and cook something. Now I see why they made sure we remembered the animosity amongst the contestants: nothing says Emmy like giving men who hate each other knives and saws and yelling, “Your time begins… NOW!” But the only blood drawn is Eliza’s, and that from a routine minor chopping mishap. The editors had some fun with this one: they show everyone cooking merrily away while Carla and Josie seem to struggle forever to lift one of the sides off the meathook.

And, oh my, look what happens! CJ, John, and Josh are the Top Three! Wow, what Drama, amongst these arch-enemies! Raise your hand if you think this is crap…? I do, I do!

CJ decides to do a tartar with raw juniper and kohlrabi. Now, I’ve never butchered anything bigger than a chicken, but isn’t that kind of avoiding the whole butchering issue? He claims he knows what he’s doing, and runs off with a giant hunk of cow, so maybe I’m off here, but can’t you just chop up pretty much any of the meat and call it tartar? Naomi likes it, though, and gives him props for perfect knife cuts, so maybe it’s more complicated than I realize.

Josh grinds the shoulder (again, avoiding delicate butchering, and even avoiding knife work) to make a meatball with creamy polenta and pickled shallots. Does anyone else automatically hear Grayson saying, “Like a meatball?” any time anyone makes a meatball now? It seems like kind of an odd choice, seeing as he’s a meat guy, but maybe pigs really are that different from cows. In any case, Naomi likes the acidity and how the flavors come together.

John sings the praises of the sweet unctuousness of oxtail; he braises it, then braises it some more, adds some potato gnocchi, braised veggies, a sauce, and some artichoke chips. That sounds like a lot of stuff to me. Naomi’s impressed with the tenderness. John wins.

John wins, and CJ and Josh throw up a little in their mouths.

Then we have the Bottom Three:

Tyler starts out in a bad place because he was in the bottom on Faux Thanksgiving; he’s got to prove himself, and chooses Hispanic Crudo with Charred Tomato Sauce & Cilantro Radish Slaw as the way to do that; it’s not typical steak-house fare, and he hopes they notice. They notice, all right. Now, I live in Maine, I don’t get out much, but is “Hispanic” the right word to use there? And he grills it – chars it, in fact, and the recipe calls for medium – so can it still be called a crudo? I’m so confused, linguistically. Naomi is also confused, culinarily: it’s underseasoned and falls short. John drops his head. “I can’t do anything right.” I don’t know if he’s putting the dejection on a little for the interview camera, but dang, he’s got Charlie Brown down pat.

Eliza doesn’t seem sure if she’s dealing with flank or skirt steak, but ends up with soy-and-lime marinated grilled flank steak with cherry-cognac reduction, asparagus, and a potato cake. Naomi wonders if the others are jealous because she got the flank steak; I never knew it was that great a catch. Padma calls the asparagus and cherry combo “interesting” which could go either way, but in this case, it went bad: the combination didn’t work, so she earns her bottom slot even though her steak was well-cooked.

Lizzie does battle with the pressure cooker: Pressure cooker: 1, Lizzie: 0. She makes braised foreshank with turnips and dill. The foreshank was tough; it needed more time, but Naomi gives her props for taking a chance.

Then we have everyone else:

Micah goes for oxtail, too; he knows John’s working with it, but “he’s stuck in his ways” so no problem, Micah has this one in the bag. Famous last words. The oxtail isn’t as tender as he’d like, so he chops it up, and serves oxtail polenta with Truffled Romanesco Cauliflower. I confess, I’d never heard of romanesco cauliflower (I thought it was a recipe, like Swedish meatballs). Naomi likes it, and compliments him on a great job butchering. Too bad there was already an oxtail dish (not to mention a Drama Trio) in the top.

Stefan makes Braised Top Round Ravioli with Marjoram & Aged Parmesan; he’s really proud of the marjoram in the pasta. Naomi likes the flavors.

Sheldon has never done a whole side of beef before, but he grabs a hacksaw and gets to work. He ends up with round steak and makes kalbi with Tomato Cardamom Broth & Fennel Salad. Isn’t kalbi made with short ribs? Naomi likes the flavors, but prefers it closer to medium.

Brooke digs out a hanger steak, which is one of those things, like flat iron steak, they didn’t have back when I was learning to cook; I’m not that interested in cuts of meat, so I haven’t been inclined to experiment. She makes Grilled Hanger Steak with Smoked Onion Figs & Cauliflower Puree. Naomi loves hanger steak, calls it the hardest cut to cook and slice correctly; it’s a little rare for her. Brooke decides she’s being supercritical because it’s her favorite cut. Whatever gets you through the night.

Carla presents a Sirloin Medallion Wrapped in Bacon with Asiago Risotto and Marsala Sauce. Sounds Vegas. Naomi likes the flavor and the sauce.

Kristen, running on her freshly massaged feet (how does anyone tolerate having someone touch their feet? Doesn’t it tickle?) grabs the first piece she finds so she could get cooking, and ends up with Top Sirloin Tartare with Mustard Sabayon & Carpaccio Salad. No comment.

Danyele‘s Grilled Flank Steak with Chickpea Frites and Parsley Chimichurri gets no comment.

Chrissy does Grilled Hanger Steak with Brown Butter, Parsley & Radish Salad but gets no mention.

And then we Bart, who didn’t even get camera time for his Kidneys with Kidney Fat Roasted Vegetables & Cherry Vinegar Dressing, Beer Pickled Turnips and Black Garlic, though we heard someone mention kidneys as the butchering started. Come on, they guy cooked kidneys, isn’t that worth a mention?

Elimination Challenge:

Welcome back to the 50s – a time when no one knew what cholesterol was, when “dinner” meant shrimp cocktail and roast beef, when desserts were sweet and no one apologized for them, a time before people used words like “arugula” or “balsamic vinegar” in polite company. A time when Peter Canlis opened the restaurant that invented “Northwest Cuisine.” On only $50,000, which was a lot of money in the 50s, but not enough for him to have a house, too, so he lived over the restaurant. The chefs will be reviving the original menu for the current Canlis crew, Peter’s grandsons. Finally, a prize: $10,000. And, oh, it’s a double elimination. Hugh and Emeril join Naomi at the table with the Canlis boys; Gail is still MIA this season. Gail? GAIL?!?

For Starters:

Lizzie makes marinated herring. Naomi loves it, Padma finds it full of flavor, and Tom thinks it’s nicely marinated. Emeril loves, of all things, the saltines she serves with it. Tom says they should’ve been still wrapped in little plastic sleeves to be totally 50s, but admires the audacity. Top Four.

Tyler serves a lettuce plume. It’s actually crab leg cocktail but the romaine leaf standing straight up in the sundae dish is priceless. And really 50s. I can hear Gordon Ramsey screaming at someone serving that, it’s so 50s. Apparently it tastes good, too; Padma likes it, and Tom appreciates the chopped lettuce on the bottom. Hugh finds it straightforward, a beautiful rendition of crab. Top Four – oh, good, that’ll cheer up Charlie Brown.

I kept calling Josh “Oklahoma” in my notes this episode, because of the opening scuffle, but I need to stop that before it becomes a habit. He isn’t helping matters when he complains they don’t have the French onion soup he’s assigned in Oklahoma; he’s more used to calf fries, aka testicles. I knew that, actually, since I just learned about lamb fries on Chopped this week. John offers to help with the soup, but Josh blows him off. That might’ve been a mistake: the soup is salty – almost inedibly so (though Tom walks that back a little in his blog) – and cold, and the Canlises call it “not guest friendly” since it requires a spoon, a fork, and a knife to cut the hard crouton on top. And Naomi misses the cheese. Bottom Four. It’s gotta burn.

Chrissy takes the Special Salad, which should be easy, but it’s also a very particular dish that’s been served for 62 years so she’s got to get it right. And she doesn’t. It’s overdressed, the croutons are soggy, Tom isn’t happy she used the outer leaves of the romaine, Hugh’s offended by “naked” tomatoes (?), and Padma wants more mint. Chrissy is bummed to be in the Bottom Four for a salad, but that’s how it goes sometimes.

Brooke makes Seafood Salad a la Louis; the Canlises think it’s right out of a Time-Life cookbook (I used to have some of those), Tom thinks the seafood is cooked well, but Naomi thinks the green beans are undercooked.

John knows about the 50s, like he knows about everything else in the universe. His father was a foodie and used to take him to the Rainbow Room and Luchow’s, which was pretty high-end sutff back then; but if he’s really 54, he would’ve been born in 1958, so he’s blowing smoke about something. He makes Steamed Clams Bordelaise which goes over well, Rainbow Room or no. But not well enough, it seems. Either that, or they’re just tired of him winning everything. However obnoxious, seems like he can cook. Since he has immunity, he also expedites. CJ and Josh aren’t thrilled with his expedition, but no one else seems to mind. He does one thing that endears him to me, even if only for a split second: He yells “Who has tape so I can set up an expediting line? Anyone? Beuller?”

Mains:

Stefan thinks of the dirty martini when he thinks 50s food, because he likes it dirty. He probably thinks he’s cute, doesn’t he? He gets that most beloved of dishes, Calf’s liver which was called calves liver in the 50s (and probably still is by the casually agrammatical). He’d prefer to pan-sear it, but it’s supposed to be grilled, so he grills it. And they love it: Tom thinks it’s nicely cooked, and Emeril gives him props for leaving something alone and respecting the product. Top Four.

Kristin is mad – that’s the word she uses, mad – because she’s got two side dishes, and simple ones at that: fried onions to accompany Stefan’s liver (wow, that sounds weird), and mushrooms, a simple dish only requiring four ingredients. She knows if she’s only got four ingredients to work with, everything had better be perfect, so she heads for simplicity. Good move: everyone loves them. And her onion rings are perfect. Top Four.

Carla is kind of uncertain about the squab; it isn’t something she makes everyday. They come back too rare – “apparently people like that bird a little more cooked” – but the ones the judges eat are overcooked and underseasoned; Tom doesn’t like how she didn’t debone the rib cage. Padma likes the red wine sauce, but it isn’t enough; she’s in the Bottom Four.

CJ decides to sous vide his lamb after grilling for his kebabs and pilaf, and everyone watching at home groans. The meat isn’t seasoned, there’s no marinade flavor, and it’s mealy; Tom can tell it’s been sous vide’d. Even the pilaf fails: underseasoned, soggy, mostly orzo. Bottom Four.

Sheldon manages to snare the Mahi Mahi for his own; I’m surprised this was around in the 50s. I know Polynesian was hot after the war and after Hawaii became a state, but it always seemed limited to pineapple and pork. One of the Canlis boys tells an interesting story about the mahi mahi: it’d never been seen before (aha, see?), and it was “imported” by packing it in ice in the flight attendant’s suitcase. Oh, the good old days when the airlines cared about customer service. Naomi likes it, a Canlis loves it, but Tom got bloodline. Oops.

Micah makes some mediocre veggies: the carrots are very underdone, the turnips are overdone. But Naomi gives it props for looking right.

Josie signs up for baked potato. This isn’t just your average russet, it’s The Potato that Ate the Eggplant that Ate Chicago, it’s “like a planet,” look out, it’s loose, we’re all gonna DIEEEEEeeeee… nah, they’re big potatoes, ok? Yeah, those aren’t typically served as baked potatoes, but we’re not talking genetic mutations. I think everyone was waiting for her to serve them medium. They’re ok, but not hot enough (?), and Padma wants more oil on the skin to make them crispy.

Bart makes an ok New York steak, though Naomi doesn’t like that he sliced it with the grain instead of across.

Desserts:

Eliza serves a Fresh Frozen Hawaiian Pineapple Parfait and some melted sherbet. Tom likes the parfait: the fruit is ok, the crunch is ok, what more do you want from a parfait. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it’s better than some desserts have gone in the past.

Danyele makes a lot of sundaes at work, which strikes me as bizarre. But she’s all set to go with the Vanilla Ice Cream Royal Hawaiian Supreme, scary as that sounds. They love the ice cream. One of the Canlises loves the hit of salt from the peanut brittle with the vanilla ice cream. Padma appreciates how the desserts smacked of the 50s. A Canlis nods: “50s, and sugar.” That’s what desserts were then.

Judges’ Table

Top Four Lizzie, Kristin, Tyler, and Stefan, wait to hear… and Kristen wins. Stefan is happy for her. I hope he’s not screwing with her head.

Bottom Four: Carla, Chrissy, CJ, Josh. Two will be out. Josh is shocked his soup was cold, and bad-mouths John for his expediting (“He was a monkey… he thought he had a plan but it failed.” Wait… a monkey? What does a monkey have to do with this? Is this Hung’s monkey?) Tom rakes Carla over the coals for not checking on the grilling of her quail. Chrissy did her interpretation of the salad, and that wasn’t how they saw it. CJ shocks them with tales of sous vide.

Carla and Chrissy are out. The kitchen’s gonna be a lot quieter without Carla. She seems surprisingly disappointed. I’m a little sorry for Chrissy, but come on, messing up a salad is pretty indefensible.

We could quibble about Carla having a good sauce while everything on CJ’s plate was a mess, and Tom called Josh’s soup “borderline inedible” due to saltiness, but I’m not inclined to do so. She seemed over her head from the start once she moved away from meatballs. And she was annoying as all getout.

Next week:

Gail returns. Everyone goes equipment shopping for one of those absurd “make stuff under conditions no one would ever make stuff” challenges. Bart wears an amazing shirt; Kristin goes Unabomber. A team elimination. Sigh. I knew it couldn’t last: catering plus drama. Oh well, we had four pretty good episodes before they went all craptastic on us.

Last Chance Kitchen:

Finally, it’s back. Jeffrey, Kuniko, Chrissy, and Carla line up in the kitchen. I’d like to see Kuniko take it, but I could live with Jeffrey. Kuniko is happy: she can do this. I think she’s right; it’s a better venue for her than the main competition, with less distraction. Carla can’t think; she’s confused. Fine.

They have 30 minutes to cook the same ingredient, though not necessarily the same dish, that got them eliminated. I’m assuming Tom will take into account that some people have harder ingredients than others. Like salad vs. quail. Hell, I can make a pretty good salad.

Kuniko finds herself facing down a potato. “This is the revenge of my potato.” She’s so cute. “I feel two butterflies in the stomach.” I wonder if she practices these things or if they come naturally to her. She makes an Asian style chowder. “Pavé time killed me, if I do it I’m stupid,” she tells Tom. She’s right. “I don’t need to convince Tom I can make a potato pavé, I need to convince him I know how to cook a potato.” Good decision. Tom asks if she’s happy with it; she is. He moves on without comment. But turns out, it was pretty good chowder; she wins.

Jeffrey has the dreaded halibut he overcooked in E1. He adds morels and peas, sautéed with cream. Tom says it’s definitely better than the one that got him kicked off.

Chrissy makes the same salad she screwed up, only, hopefully, without the overdressing. She had some problems with wilting before, so she takes care with temperatures to make sure that isn’t an issue. Tom thinks it’s much better; she wouldn’t have been eliminated with this salad. It’s got great acid punch, and the mint and marjoram are there this time. “Yes, you can make a salad.” Which is a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever heard one.

Carla has to bone and cook a squab in 30 minutes, which seems a little unfair. I’m not sure what she’s doing, but it looks messy. “It takes me 12 minutes to debone that bitch.” “People should not have to cook anything in half an hour.” I can sympathize; I think word limits should be outlawed, myself. She’s the only one talking in the kitchen, and it’s driving Chrissy nuts. But she’s screwed up the squab twice in a row. The breast is nice, but the legs are raw, and it’s not seasoned. Carla’s disappointed, but hey,”Everybody knows I’m not too good on quickfire, but I have a good reputation, it’s not because I suck.” Maybe. “Give me time, give me the kitchen, and I will serve you the best squab you’ve ever had in your life.” No thanks.

There’s also a “Save a Chef” deal where viewers can vote for another chef to move on in addition to the LCK winner; at least, I think that’s what it is, I’m not exactly sure. I’m not sure it makes sense to have people who haven’t tasted anything vote on which chef deserves another chance, but that’s just me. It involves Twitter or text and as much as I’d like to see Jeffrey continue, I’d rather not. But check it out if you’re inclined.

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 3, Tom vs. Emeril: Turkeypocalypse

The World in Dumplings

The World in Dumplings

I once helped out with a Thanksgiving dinner where the bird turned out pink inside. Scary pink. I told the host-cook, “You can’t serve that,” but she waved me away. “It’s ok, it’s organic,” she said with the logic of the righteous. “We’ll just eat the outside.” And there was the stuffing I’d contributed, a beautiful combination of veggies, dried fruits, spices, herbs, and artisan breads, all marinated in campylobacter juice. We put the stuffing back in the oven while we finished preparations, but I wasn’t convinced. Was I being over-cautious? Was the host being reckless? What to do? Should I warn the guests? Did I have to eat that potentially contaminated stuffing? Fortunately, someone else noticed the pinkness of the bird and asked some pointed questions, so I wasn’t alone with the secret. I forced myself to eat the stuffing; it would’ve been cowardly (and awkward to explain) otherwise. The good news: no one got sick. But it’s an awful feeling, to cut into an undercooked turkey. It makes everything on the table seem contaminated.

We’ll get to pink turkeys. But first…

Quickfire:

Dumplings!

What’s cuter than a dumpling? Pretty much anything, actually, but they’re still irresistible. And there’s a dumpling – at least one – for every country. It might even be a rule: you can’t be a country unless you have a dumpling.

Dana Cowin joins Padma to deliver the challenge: pick a country off the board, and, in one hour, make a dumpling authentic to the cuisine. Product-placement tablets are helpfully provided to allow five minutes of research, since even the best chef might be unfamiliar with, say, fufu. Or buutz. And authenticity counts.

(I’ve included general recipes for reference, as well as those by the chefs, when available)

Josie knows dumplings: they need to be cooked delicately to maintain structure and texture. “You put love in envelopes. Or purses. Then you eat it.” She may know dumplings, but methinks she needs a little work on metaphors. She makes Korean Mandu with pork, tofu, shiitake mushrooms, scallions and ginger. Dana: “Is kim chee traditionally part of this?” “Sure,” says Josie, the Global Soul Chef, “Any time you go to any Korean restaurant, it’s one pickly, fermented, fishy type of town.” Yes, and any time I go to a Chinese restaurant, I get a fortune cookie, but that doesn’t mean they have anything to do with China. So does her dish contain kim chee too? I can’t tell. I hate to be a party pooper – you know I do – and I like Josie, but has the global chef (and Yankees exec sous, btw) ever travelled anywhere besides the Hamptons? Bravo refers to her as a “world traveler” but offers no specifics, and I can’t find any other information. Dana loves her complete-dish dumpling – it’s authentic, and she wants to eat more – and Josie wins; she gets immunity. I guess it pays to hang out in Korean restaurants.

Stefan also knows dumplings. Well, of course he does, he looks like one. No, wait, that’s a thumb he looks like. Anyway, he grew up in Germany for pete’s sake, and he manages to snag klopse off the board, so no excuses. “It’s a peasant dish,” he assures Dana, as if she doesn’t know. She likes the ground lamb filling, mashed potatoes, and caper sauce; it invites her into Grandma’s house: “This would be really good for a day at the harvest.” Stefan’s relieved; he couldn’t screw this one up and go back home. Top three.

Micah, bless his heart, is a little late getting to the board, so he ends up with Kazakhstan. “I didn’t know Kazakhstan was real.” Yes, it is, it’s where the nuclear weapons are. Or, maybe, were. Not to mention some biological and chemical shit that would keep you up nights if you knew about it. But it’s ok, even Sam Seaborn got it confused with Kyrgyzstan. Which is also real, but without the WMD. What does this have to do with dumplings? Nothing, but I just love any excuse to revisit The West Wing. In addition to WMD, Kazakhstan has some awesome dumplings called manti, and Micah does his best to approximate these (leaving out the horsemeat) by using lamb, dates, curry, and cinnamon. Dana’s impressed: “You went really bold.” Top three. Yes, Micah, there is a Kazakhstan.

Carla isn’t doing so well. She’s got a bandage the size of a volleyball on her hand, which gets in the way of using the product-placement tablet. And she’s got to make these West African fufu. So she makes Italian fufu instead. Dana is not pleased: “These dumplings came to Africa by way of Italy.” Carla understands, and, to give her credit, is appropriately chagrined. But when all you have is a hammer… Bottom Three.

Brooke has no flour. How can you have no flour? What, is this a new torture method, only provide enough flour for 16 chefs and let them play duck-duck-goose? Josie is sympathetic but hasn’t got any flour to spare. So Brooke’s Indonesian siomay are unwrapped filling. Tasty – Dana likes the flavors of the chicken, shrimp, peanut sauce, and daikon – but not a dumpling. Literally, a nudie dumpling; if only she was doing Italian, she could’ve called it gnudi. Bottom three.

Kuniko knows takoyaki (octopus dumplings), though she doesn’t make them at home; she goes to the takoyaki shop and buys them. Of course; where else would you get takoyaki but the takoyaki shop? She’s got the octopus cooked and chopped, but nothing gets to the plate. She’s embarrassed. Brooke is surprised: she’d expected more from the chef at Comme Ça. CJ feels bad for her. Is this more of the already-professed lack of focus? Bottom three.

Sheldon knows every dumpling on the board. Oh, wait, no, that was a joke. Hawaii isn’t big on dumplings, it seems, but he manages to get one he knows, Chinese jiaozi, with pork and shiitake mushroom filling. Dana’s excited to meet him, since he’s a Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef. He does a good job. But not better than at least three other chefs.

John approves of the challenge, to the great relief of the TC culinary production staff, I’m sure; it’s technique-driven, and a good judge of the talent of a chef. That he’s right doesn’t make it any less annoying. But I agree: it’s a good challenge, combining several basic skills (dough, sauce, flavor combinations) with flexibility to produce something that might be out of one’s comfort zone and probably isn’t something any of them cook every day. John calls out a warning when he notices someone’s dumplings are burning, which is a nice thing to do. He’s a walking contradiction, isn’t he. Interesting. He’s got Swedish Kroppkakor, which, incredibly enough, I happen to know something about. My aunt, who came here from Sweden as a child, used to make them (along with vetebrod) for my family. I confess: as a child, I hated kroppkakor, though I might feel differently today. She pronounced it “KREP-Korker,” not “krep-KA-ka” as Padma and Dana do. Dana hasn’t seen it with a béchamel before. If John doesn’t stop wearing those glasses on his eyebrows, I’m going to develop a nervous twitch.

Lizzie makes Szilvas Gomboc , a Hungarian potato dumpling stuffed with plum and cinnamon. It must sound better than it tastes.

CJ loves pierogi, and uses veal, pork, and gooseberry puree. Dana compliments him on a pretty plate.

Bart makes a Norwegian hairball. Which is what happens when you make a Norwegian potetball, a perfectly innocent potato dumpling stuffed with lamb, and cover it with fried spaghetti for some reason known only to Belgian beer knights. Dana: “what about the crazy fried hair?” He wanted to add texture. Next time, try carrots.

Kristen‘s Nepalese momo, stuffed with pork and chicken liver spiced with ginger and cumin, pass without comment.

Some chefs got left on the cutting room floor (though, oddly, three of them are the only recipes posted so far), but international dumplings deserve mention, even Chrissy’s Indian samoas, the papas rellenas from Mexico via Danyele, and Eliza’s Mongolian buutz. Tyler made something, too – there’s a picture to prove it – but the details are a state secret, possibly to avoid an international incident.

Elimination Challenge

Well surprise surpise, here it Nov. 21 and it’s a Thanksgiving challenge, filmed last July. Two teams will each prepare a Thanksgiving meal for FareStart, a Seattle non-profit that trains the homeless and disadvantaged to work in culinary fields.

Now the twist: Emeril and Tom will “guide” the teams, setting the tone: Creole vs Italian Thanksgiving. Dana and Thierry Rautureau round out the table. I’m happy about this, since it’s kind of boring to watch the constant stream of Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving Feasts pouring out of Food Network this time of year.

Gray Team – A Creole Thanksgiving:

Josie makes Triple-Spiced turkey with cayenne. There’s nothing like hearing Emeril tell her to “stuff that ass with butter” to make your day. “I have immunity,” says Josie. So I can screw up the protein, which will rack up a loss for the team, and get someone else truly talented out of my way, she thinks. “Oh, so you can push the envelope,” says naïve Emeril, who gets paid the same whether his team wins or loses. Yeah, I’m sure that’s what she meant. Actually, I’m pretty sure that is what she meant (I don’t see her as having anywhere near the required level of deviousness to pull off such psychopathic sabotage), or it was a sincere offer to do whatever was riskiest, which usually means dessert. But it doesn’t work out that way, and the blogosphere is pissed. Poor Josie. She started out as the “who were you again” of the returning chefs, and now it turns out one of the global soul chef things she can’t do is roast a turkey. She’s not seeing color on the bird, and she’s intimidated by the glistening, majestic Red Team (or at least their turkey), so she takes the temperature down for a low-and-slow approach, which, well, I’m not a global soul chef, but that makes no sense to me. Wouldn’t you turn the oven up? Maybe she had already turned the oven down, and then turned it up at the end, because it looks like it’s got plenty of color when it comes out. In fact, it looks burned, and she’s now worried it’s overcooked and dry. I don’t know if there’s a shortage of meat thermometers in addition to the shortage of flour, but for whatever reason, it’s pink when they cut into it at the table. “Practically raw,” says Dana. But well-seasoned, as if anyone cares.

Tyler is excited to learn how Emeril makes gumbo; he gets a lesson on roux. We find out Tyler’s had some struggles with alcohol and is seven months sober. I’m guessing he doesn’t have a sponsor, because no sponsor on earth would ok anyone with seven months going on a high-pressure reality show famous for showing chefs guzzling from whatever bottle happens to be handy. His Andouille and Shrimp gumbo is, shall we say, a disappointment. Emeril finds it a little bitter. Thierry thinks it lacks flavor; Emeril wonders what happened to the Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce.

Kuniko is so busy helping John prep (and helping Tyler do something with… tongs?) she doesn’t work on her own dish and brings out a raw, underseasoned potato pavé (a sort of compressed scalloped potato dish). “Go back to the kitchen and actually cook it,” says Thierry. “Simple.” You’d think. Emeril wonders how she could serve without tasting. Tom wonders how she got a knife through it without realizing it was uncooked.

Sheldon makes greens – kale and chard – with ham hocks. Tom loves the flavor, but the greens need to be cooked more; as Dana says, “They’re not falling apart yet.” Padma appreciates the texture, though. I thought he made collards, which I’ve never had; I know something about chard, and I’m with Padma on this one. However, the objective was to make a Creole dish.

Danyele‘s version of Emeril’s Mom’s stuffing with chorizo and cayenne is great; Emeril approves.

John asks Emeril if it’s ok to put bacon in the cornbread; sure, says Emeril, “and jalapeno isn’t a bad idea either.” The resulting stuffing is a hit.

Kristen makes Assiette of Root Vegetables (don’t panic, “assiette” just means “plate”), Parsnip Truffle Puree & Crème Fraiche. Emeril thinks it’s a great idea, but underseasoned; Tom doesn’t think it needs the crème fraiche.

Brooke offers super-tender sweet potato biscuits. Dana loves the crunch of seeds; smart dish. I want one. Or seven.

John goes for a deconstructed pumpkin pie, aka spiced pumpkin and goat cheese Ricotta Torte. It’s a little grainy – even John notices it – but Thierry loves it anyway.

Chrissy asks Emeril if she can say “bam” when she puts vanilla in her batter (though if it’s bread pudding, isn’t it a custard?). They might have to pay Food Network for that clip. Her white chocolate pecan bread pudding goes over well.

Red Team – Ringraziamento

CJ somehow takes the lead on this team, maybe because he’s making the turkey. Or maybe because he’s the tallest. He’s pretty full of himself and his leadership until Carla tells him to leave her alone so she can make her soup. I was all ready for him to be in the bottom line-up weaseling out of it with, “There was no team leader,” but this was his episode to be the Hero. His butter-basted braised turkey (Tom insists there’s about three pounds of butter under the skin, which seems impossible to me) with “Tom’s Stuffing” (foie gras, sausage, fennel, and kale) is a big hit. When he explains it’s a recipe Tom’s family has passed down for generations, Thierry laughs: If there’s foie in it, it isn’t passed down from generations. Good point. Tom grins.

Carla is worried because Tom wants her to make 30 meatballs. I don’t understand; why should that worry her? She makes meatballs every night. Then she gets into it with CJ (“I know how to do soup”), and then with Stefan: “Girls are ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’ and guys are ‘chef.'” As annoying as she is, she’s got a good point (and I’m kind of annoyed that she’s got me agreeing with her). I hate being called “honey” by anyone I’m not on soul-kissing terms with. When anyone at work, male or female, used to call me “honey,” I’d call them “darlin’,” on the theory they were channeling some old Southern gentleman unable to change his ways. Stefan’s freaked out by Carla because her husband’s a Mafioso and he doesn’t want to get stabbed. ” That’s why I left Europe. European women! ” So many stereotypes, so little time. Her carrot soup with turkey meatballs is a huge hit. Great meatballs, yummy creamy soup. Good thing she was on Tom’s team, or they could’ve been eating Italian gumbo.

Lizzie manages to impress everyone with mashed potatoes. How? Well, Dana wonders if she’s going for Joel Robuchon’s version, which is half butter and half potato. It better be a great dish, since you can only eat two forkfuls before your heart explodes. But she doesn’t go quite that far: two pounds potatoes, one pound butter. Plus a little cream. Damn, now I want some mashed potatoes. It’s been a while.

Micah likes having freedom to express himself within a plan. Dana isn’t too happy about how he expressed his Brussels sprouts with bacon, cranberries, and shallots; they’re underseasoned and a little greasy. Thierry loves them, though.

Bart somehow gets away with making a salad of Fennel, Gorgonzola, Orange & Pumpkin Seeds. Salad? How many Top Chefs have run into trouble over salad? Carlos went home in S2 – in the Thanksgiving episode, in fact – because all he did was a salad. Dana finds it a great palate cleanser, but Padma thinks it could use more refinement.

Joshua makes a sweet potato ravioli that Emeril thinks is the weak link on the plate; they’re a little tough. Tom complains about the thickness of the double layers of pasta around the edges.

Eliza (who? Oh, right, the paler version of Brooke) sends out a Chocolate Tart with White Chocolate & Mint Syrup. It’s too much chocolate. Emeril, Thierry, I’m sorry, there’s no such thing as too much chocolate.

Stefan manages to get his Panna Cotta with Orange Cardamom Crisp & Candied Pecans done in spite of his fear of European women with Mafia husbands (not to mention crowded kitchen quarters), but it’s more of the dessert letdown. Thierry doesn’t like the jam. Padma thinks the cardamom is too strong (and if Padma thinks your cardamom is too strong, you’ve got a problem), but that’s Tom’s favorite part.

Judges’ Table:

Tom and Emeril abstain from the Team decision, since they were involved, but it’s not even close: Red Team wins in a unanimous decision that surprises no one. You just don’t undercook a turkey and win the Thanksgiving challenge. CJ, Carla, and Lizzie are up for the individual win.

CJ gets a pat on the head from Tom for his leadership. His turkey was perfect, moist, well-seasoned.

Carla apparently created some confusion without even realizing it. Tom was expecting cabbage soup, and it looks like right up until Lizzie explains “I think she must’ve said ‘carrot,’ not ‘cabbage,’ he was looking for the cabbage. Whatever it was, everyone loved it.

Lizzie gets a lot of props for mashed potatoes. But looking at the scorecard, nothing else was universally well-received, so I guess it was by default.

Carla wins. CJ glowers. Ok, now that she’s won something, can you send her home please?

Gray Team loses. Tyler, Sheldon, and Kuniko are up for the loss, and Josie gets called out because her sin was that egregious.

Tyler has to face Emeril about his anemic gumbo. “It was perfect when I left yesterday; what happened?” Seems he added more roux but didn’t add more Worcestershire or Tabasco, which left it weak.

Kuniko is really proud that she learned about Louisiana, then tries the “I didn’t have enough time” card, but that doesn’t fly when you have five hours to make scalloped potatoes. Josie jumps in to defend her, saying she was helping everyone out. Padma sorrowfully says they can only judge on the potatoes they got, and they were plain and undercooked.

Sheldon gets a lesson in Southern cuisine from Dana: the greens should be melted. “But they’d be mush!” he says. Yes, exactly. I don’t know much about greens myself, aside from spinach; I just learned about massaged kale a couple of weeks ago, courtesy of Episode 1 (and this video is worth watching if only for all the people trying to get money out of the poor woman – oh, I get it, that’s why the site is called “Cookus interruptus”). But the table agrees they needed to be cooked longer.

Josie really gets smacked down by Tom: “Your team lost because the turkey was undercooked. You’re the reason this team’s here.” Ouch. Up until the moment they tell her the turkey was undercooked, she was sure it was overcooked. I feel kind of bad for her. But I feel worse for Kuniko.

Kuniko is out, to no one’s surprise. Dishwater gumbo isn’t good; raw, unseasoned potatoes are terrible. Again, I’m very disappointed to see someone I like go home, but I don’t think this is the kind of atmosphere where she was going to flourish. Her parting words: “If I didn’t help anybody else and just took care of myself that’s worse than me going home.”

Back in the Stew Room after the goodbyes, John starts in on Kuniko’s failings (“She should be able to do potatoes in her sleep”), which is pretty nervy, considering he’s been her best buddy through both episodes and benefited from her help. He gets flack from CJ, among others: “Why do you have to say something like that right now? Everything turns into a lecture with you.” Can’t we all just get along? Of course not. Egos at work: This is Top Chef.

Next week: Will Josie and Carla get that side of beef off the hook before the season is over? And something that looks like Restaurant Wars – already?

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 2, A Shock at the Space Needle

They really mean it – the back to basics thing. At least, so far. Great episode – interesting food, clear display of cooking techniques, and a big surprise. Oh, and geoduck, which are always fun.

Quickfire:

I never heard of the “waterfall look” before (and it doesn’t show up on the first page of a Google search, so I’m assuming it’s not just because I’m an old fart), but that’s what Micah calls it – that head-to-toe appraising glance, with an edge of intimidation, that happens in a first gathering of people who are going to be together a while. Or maybe it means scoping out potential bedmates, I don’t know. It’s actually a clever phrase. Hugh now gives it to his dog a lot. That’s a little creepy.

It’s a pretty straightforward challenge: they divide themselves into five teams of three, and prepare local shellfish in twenty minutes. There’s a pretty good video of Supervising Culinary producer (and S3 contestant) Sandee Birdsong setting up the challenge, which included hiding geoduck and razor clams in the mud, and putting the mussels underneath the huge crabs (to make the quick-cooking mussels harder to reach than the more time-consuming crabs). And if you like behind-the-scenes stuff, there was a cool article on Nosh Pit this summer.

Guest judges are former contestants CJ (S3), Stefan (S5), and Josie (S2).

Blue Team: John, Sheldon, Kuniko

John picks Kuniko because she’s Japanese so maybe she has good knife skills. Ok, it’s stupid, but at least he didn’t call her “Origami.” He knows from watching all the past season that the decisions you make are as important as how well you cook (which is true). He starts plotting with his teammates while Padma is still giving her spiel: “Excuse me…. Listen up.” Weak, Padma. The guy is begging for a beat-down. But he’s working well with Kuniko: “Who says the most hated chef in Dallas can’t get along with people?” He’s playing that title for all he’s worth, isn’t he.

Kuniko isn’t all that good at expressing herself in English and worries that’ll get in the way.

Sheldon knows seafood, being from Hawaii. I kind of wonder if Pacific Northwest seafood isn’t a bit different from South Pacific seafood, but maybe it’s close enough.

Their Winning DishGeoduck Sashimi, Ponzu, Apple and Cucumber. CJ loves the thin slices of sashimi (which John did, so there’s a limit to how far he’d trust Kuniko’s knife skills), and the apples are great. Stefan loves the pine nuts, though he and Padma agree it could use just a hint more salt. The prize of immunity is determined by a knife draw, and what do you know, it’s John. “The nice thing about immunity is that you can have an extra glass of wine and sleep.” You know he’s lying: he’s one of those hyperdriven achieving types who expects to win every challenge. But he was really pleased to win this challenge. He’s not really living up to this fearsome reputation. Other than talking in class.

Yellow Team: Danyelle, Joshua, Eliza

Joshua sends Eliza to get geoduck, and is disappointed when she comes back with razor clams instead. “Stefan’s a bit of a dick, one of those guys who knows everything.”

Danyelle has this red Cosette hair, its driving me nuts; sometimes it’s really pretty but in her interviews it looks like a cheap wig. And a dirty one at that. She’s bummed about losing out on the geoduck.

Eliza tried, she really did, digging around in the mud, but the last geoduck was gone. She figures the ex-competitors are going to be vindictive, since they’re the losers. Ouch. “You can burn something and call it Cajun, you can undercook something and call it mid-rare, but you can’t underseason.” Yeah, well, you can’t really get away with that other stuff either. But I’m looking forward to watching you try.

The Losing Dish Razor Clam and Grilled Corn Chowder with Fresno Chili and Grilled Lime. It’s underseasoned and watered down, even if CJ does like the grilled lime.

Green Team: Kristen, Micah, Tyler

Kristen wants geoduck since it’s something that can be done quickly. “It’s great except it looks like a penis. A really big one.” Yes, it does (I remember my first geoduck… it was a summer day at the brand-new Public Market, and Portland Seafood had this thing sitting on ice…). She proposes geoduck two ways, sashimi’d and fried belly.

Micah and Tyler don’t say much.

Fried and Sashimi Geoduck, Radish and Bok Choy Salad, Yuzu Chili Vinaigrette: Josie’s impressed by the nice contrast in texture of the geoduck; CJ and Padma wish the sashimi was cut thinner.

Orange Team: Carla, Chrissy, Lizzy

Carla is a chef but a woman so she wants to look good when she’s cooking: “I want to be a James Beard [sic] and I want to have a nice ass.” She also wants to jabber nonstop. Loudly. Repetitiously. Five minutes into the season, and I’m praying she goes home early.

Chrissy: “There’s an extreme lack of communication right now.” You could call it that. Everyone’s talking and no one’s listening. My shoulders were up around my ears just from the six-second shot of the nightmare that is Team Orange. And by the way: “Stefan looks like a thumb.”

Lizzy isn’t happy with the dish, and she would’ve rather Carla was drowned at birth. “With Carla I almost want to say, “Be quiet.” Almost? I want to tell her to shut the fuck up, myself, and I have the volume control. “You can see the crazy in the dish.”

Oven Roasted Crawfish with Fennel and Herb Salad. CJ wants more acid, but Josie thinks it’s well-seasoned and gives it two thumbs up. Everyone wants Carla to go away. And by the way – I was surprised to see crawfish in a Seattle shellfish challenge; I thought they were gulf critters. Turns out there’s more than one kind of crawfish, and some of them like Seattle just fine.

Gray Team: Bart, Jeffrey, Brooke

Bart: “In Belgium, we’ve been conquered so many times, we just keep everything from everyone who’s conquered us.” Dang, he’s right: The Romans (57 BC), the Franks (5th century AD), Austria (1477), Spain (1566), Austria again (1714), France (1794), Holland (1815), and Germany in both world wars. And Belgium is still there. That’s flexibility.

Brooke prefers a more rustic approach than Bart’s French emphasis, but she’s a team player so she’ll go along. She, too, tried to get geoduck, but John found it first.

Jeffrey… well, he’s there, yes, he is.

Crawfish with Pickled Red Chili, Fennel and Crawfish Cream. CJ thinks it’s a little old-school. Stefan finds the crawfish well-cooked; it’s good, though there’s a little too much dill.

Surprise!

Now that Stefan, CJ, and Josie have made a lot of friends criticizing everyone’s food, Padma announces they are joining the competition. As fellow competitors. They become the Red Team.

Really?

It took me a while to wrap my mind around that. Why would they bring people back? Why would they bring these people back? Actually, two-thirds of that is easy to answer: I would imagine they didn’t want to do another All-Stars season, but figured they could get some mileage out of these guys.

CJ was pretty well-liked during S3 (though IIRC he could be a little devious in subtle ways) – Padma had tears in her eyes when she sent him off for bad airline food. I still remember his introductory line: “I have one testicle and I’m here to cook.” In fact I thought of him when Anthony Ryan said something similar on PRS9. He just did a stage at Noma in Copenhagen, which a few years ago replaced El Bulli as the Best Restaurant in the World. I’m not sure what it takes to get a stage there, but it’s not easy to get a reservation.

Stefan was the runner up to “Hootie…. Who?” (aka Hosea) in S5, in probably the most disputed call in TC history. “I have nothing to prove. I drive a Porche. I own eight restaurants. I lost to Hosea, and there isn’t one person I’ve met who hasn’t said, ‘You should have won.'” Including, I have to admit, me. But that doesn’t mean I want to be stuck watching him again for a whole season. Especially if he continues to bird-dog the women.

Josie became kind of famous, not as the Global Soul Chef, but as the target of a gay-bashing following her TCS2 appearance. She didn’t exactly ace S2: she went home on the fifth challenge (though she was saddled with a less-than-helpful teammate). Seems like a pretty random selection.

Needless to say, the other chefs are not happy about this. Me, I like it fine, but I’m just watching it on tv. I saw something on TWoP last week about “returning chefs” but I kind of skimmed by it, not sure what they were talking about. Now I know. It’s kind of a cool twist early in the game, like the cattle call last year. And for me, a fun surprise in a show that doesn’t really offer that many actual surprises any more.

Elimination Challenge:

You knew when you heard “Seattle” the Space Needle was going to figure in there somewhere. And it does. They stay in teams, and head to the rotating restaurant up in the sky to prepare a dish for Seattle chef Tom Douglas (“Seattle’s got a lot of great restaurants, and he owns half of them,” says Tom). The guy beat Morimoto at Iron Chef. That says something.

The teams have 47 minutes – one revolution of the restaurant – to cook. They go “shopping” in the Top Chef Pantry which has been stocked with all manner of Seattle comestibles.

Blue Team: Kuniko, John, Sheldon:

Kuniko wants to poach cod in chili oil; that scares me; isn’t that awfully strong for fish? But John’s impressed: “She’s challenging me after all these years, I’m loving her choices.” John does the veg, Sheldon the dashi. John gets a little nervous when Kuniko burns the chili oil. I do, too: they call her over to tell her it’s smoking, and she looks at the pot: “This is the chili?” like she doesn’t believe it’s her pot. She explains she starts thinking and can’t stop, and loses focus (I can relate to that). But the re-do works fine: the Chili Oil Poached Cod with Dashi, Spot Prawn Shabu Shabu is a hit. Tom D. likes the smokiness of the dashi, Tom C. is surprised the chili oil isn’t overpowering (me, too, but I feel a little less stupid when he thinks the same thing). Gail loves the spot prawns: “It’s nice and light; the first thing I put in my mouth in Seattle isn’t bad.” Wait a beat. “That came out wrong.” Oh, I think it came out perfectly.

Yellow Team: Joshua, Danyelle, Eliza

In the Pantry, they encounter a Headless Fish. They do not know what kind of fish it is. Eliza guesses monkfish and salmon; Joshua thinks it’s cod, but then he seems unsure, it might be some kind of salmon. Now, I’ve never touched a whole fish in my life, but doesn’t salmon has pink flesh? The ones I eat do, and it’s silvery; this fish is brown, and has white flesh. Monkfish is huge and kind of the shar-pei of fish, right? So I’m wondering if they’re idiots, or if it’s really that hard to tell. Me, I don’t know anything beyond betas, harlequin rasboras, and cardinal tetras (I used to have an aquarium) but come on, they’re chefs. They take the fish, which turns out to be cod. Joshua is out to prove the little guy from Oklahoma is a great chef. Joshua, hon, you ain’t that little. But he did know what the fish was, Oklahoma or not. They serve Pan Roasted Cod, Mushrooms, Fava Beans, Picked Green Apple and Garlic Scape Pistou; Tom D. finds the cod translucent and perfectly cooked, but there’s not enough pistou; Tom C. likes the apple best, but it needed more; it’s loaded with raw garlic.

Green Team: Kristen, Micah, Tyler

Crispy Seared Salmon, Local Vegetables and Spot Prawn Butter Sauce. Micah’s really a leader, but it’s a team, so he’s being a good soldier. Tom C. likes the spot prawns; Gail lost the texture. Tom D. loves the salmon, it’s got a nice firm mouth feel. No, that isn’t dirty.

Gray Team: Bart, Jeffrey, Brooke

They question Jeffrey about his ring, since he says he’s not married, just engaged. “Ah, I get it, she said if you’re going to be on TV you’re going to wear a ring, right?” “He,” says Jeffrey. That’s so cute. Problem is, he sears the halibut on both sides; Brooke thinks it’s overcooked; it’s now how she’d do it, but who is she to say. His teammate, that’s who. Thing is, she’s afraid of heights, so when they go out to present the dish, she’s more concerned about looking out the windows than what she’s putting down. And yes, the Pan Roasted Halibut, Mushrooms, English Peas, Wheat Beer with Herb Sabayon is overcooked to hockey-puckness, per Padma. Tom D. likes the pickled radish salad on top, but doesn’t get any hops flavor out of the beer sabayon; Gail gets nutmeg.

Orange Team: Carla, Chrissy, Lizzy

Please, please, let Carla be out soon. That’s all I have to say, other than after service she cuts her hand putting her knives away. I can’t snicker too much, since Hugh says he’s done the same thing. Unfortunately, she’s good to go, though she’s going to milk it for all its worth. And yes, I’m being callous – I truly don’t want anyone to do serious bodily harm. But if she doesn’t shut up, I might. There’s no recipe listed for the poached salmon with beurre blanc and fava beans, but it’s perfectly cooked. It’s not seasoned that well, but the beurre blanc has lots of flavor.

Red Team: CJ, Stefan, Josie

In the pantry, CJ grabs a couple of really big reddish fish; Stefan decides to get eight quail too, “just in case.” CJ had good potatoes at the Space Needle when he was seven, so he has a soft spot for the site. What the hell does “good potatoes” mean? But no time to ponder that: CJ notices everyone’s doing fish (well, it is Seattle) and wonders if they should do the quail Stefan snuck in under his raincoat instead. Now see, here’s that possible subtle deviousness again – he suggests changing it up, but Stefan has to make the protein, which is really the thing you go home for if it’s screwed up. But everyone agrees to the switch, though Josie’s a little nervous – “it’s really risky to change your dish just before you start cooking.” Same setup, more cherry, says Stefan. He’s not happy with the cherry emulsion Josie CJ first makes. She Josie tries to make another using the ten remaining cherries, but you can tell this is going south in a hurry [addendum: thanks to MoHub for the correction: CJ made the original, rejected cherry sauce, and Josie stepped in to replace it, making me want to keep a closer eye than ever on CJ]. Stefan is used to bigger breast, but hey, whatcha gonna do. “Little breast, it’s the only breast I’m going to be touching for six weeks.” Even though Gail makes him sweat in the armpits. This may be hard for you to understand, Stefan, but I don’t want to know where you’re sweating. Whatever the dish was to be originally, when it’s served it’s Quail Breast with Confit Spot Prawn, Cherries and Porcini. Tom D. likes the cherries, but Gail wants to taste them more. Emeril gets some bitterness at the end with the broth. Tom D. thought it was good: “You guys are tough.”

In the category of casual chit-chat, Emeril reminisces about pink scallops, which, Tom D. tells him, are now called Singing Scallops. I don’t hear much scallop singing on that video. Clicking, and wheezing (which might be the camera operator) but no singing. Tom C. admits he almost moved to Seattle back in the day, after a tough romantic break-up (awwww), but he stayed in NY because he was afraid his car wouldn’t make it. Tom D. is glad, one less competitor for him.

Judges’ Table

Overall, they’re impressed. Gail notices the dishes were very similar, so it was easy to compare. Tom D. thought they did very well, other than “a couple of clunkers.” In the Stew Room, the vets try to convince everyone they don’t have an advantage, they’re hampered by knowing what’s to come. No one’s buying it.

Blue is the winning color – John, Kuniko, Sheldon. Tom C. asks Kuniko if she typically cooks cod in chili oil: “No, I work in a French brasserie, we don’t do such things.” “Maybe you should do it again,” he says. Gail gives John props for the spot prawns. Tom D. called the dish the essence of Seattle. Because she did the fish, Kuniko gets the win: “Oh my gosh, this is going to make everyone go, Who is she, we didn’t even know she was there.” That’s cute. I would’ve expected the Most Hated Chef in Dallas to have taken the protein, the most likely component to win, for himself. He’s very solicitous – “You have to swallow the pill of perfection” – and it makes me nervous. And I’m nervous watching his glasses propped up on his forehead. But in general, props all around, they did what they needed to do with no muss or fuss, they even handled the problem of the burned chili oil on the low-drama setting. A very satisfying win.

On the Bottom:

Red Team (CJ, Stefan, Josie). As soon as the vets walk out of the stew room, everyone starts dishing on them, how they have an unfair advantage. I’d certainly expect so. But look what good it did them. Arrogance erases a lot of the head start. Padma asks Josie if she know why they’re in the bottom. She’s clueless. “I think something is imperfect, maybe missing texture…?” Tom is incredulous: “Really?” Stefan initially defends his overcooked quail (“They were really small”) but in the end has no excuse. Stefan in the Stew Room waiting for the verdict: “You’re a zebra, you’re wounded, you’re walking around Africa…” You’re the zebra who overcooked the quail, Stefan, stop acting like a victim.

Green Team (Jeffrey, Bart, Brooke) : They’re very different, see. Brooke does rustic, not French. Bart wanted to do the fish, but changed his mind when he couldn’t find the right beer, and made the sabayon instead. Jeffrey did the fish fourteen minutes before service. Padma was not pleased with her hockey puck: everything was dry and lacked flavor. The sabayon was overly herby; Gail got a weird flat texture.

Jeffrey is out for the overcooked fish. I’m disappointed – he seemed like a nice guy, and has an impressive background; I was looking forward to watching him. But that fish did look pretty bad, and according to both Gail‘s and Tom‘s blogs, while Stefan’s quail was overcooked, the fish was destroyed. So I can’t argue.

One final note: Top Chef Kitchen is indeed back – and the last chef standing has an automatic in to the finale. But, since there’s only one chef eliminated (the guys who never got to Seattle don’t count), there’s no TCK episode this week. I don’t expect Jeffrey to last to the end, but I’m hoping he stays in a few rounds.

Next week: Thanksgiving. Always a fun time on Top Chef. Just keep in mind they filmed this back in July. Tom and Emeril are working in the kitchen; is that Dana Cowin sitting with my little buddy from TCM, Thierry Rautureau?

Top Chef Seattle: Episode 1, The Ultimate Chef Test

There’s no Seattle in Top Chef: Seattle Episode 1.

We’ve got Tom. Of course. Without Tom, there is no Top Chef. We’ve only got Padma in voice-over; maybe she’s still trying to find just the right outfit. And we don’t have Gail at all. We’ve got Emeril, who has in past seasons of Top Chef risen above the idiot level the Food Network made him famous for. We’ve got Wolfgang Puck, who had so much fun throwing a donut in S6, he signed on for a whole season. And we’ve got Hugh Acheson, the Man With The Brow and the Dry Wit to Use It.

But we start the season with an Audition Round, a variation on what they did last season: teams of 5 or 6 chefs meet one of 4 judges at their respective restaurants to perform a task under scrutiny. Some will get a jacket and move on to Seattle; some will go home and forever more (or at least for the next couple of months) be known as the chef who almost was on Top Chef. But don’t get your hopes up: I’ll tell you right now, there’s no Stone… Chef Tyler Stone… (who, for all his self-promotion, lasted all of two minutes) in this episode. But there is a Belgian knight. And the Most Hated Chef in Dallas.

Let’s meet everyone:

Emeril Lagasse challenges his five hopefuls with his ultimate test of culinary skill: soup. Structure, seasoning, depth, ingredients, passion. Soup is not simple. They have one hour to impress him with soup, as well as organization and stamina.

Josh Valentine was chef-owner of Oklahoma City’s Divine Swine, specializing in all things pig (and he even looks like Kevin Gillespie, with an impressively waxed handlebar moustache to rival Kevin’s beard) when his wife got him to first audition for TCS. Now he’s there, and she’s pregnant, due in three weeks. Missing the birth of his first child is one of those sacrifices one makes for fame. Was it worth it? No one knows how much he gets out of it, but he’s since moved on to become pastry chef at a Dallas restaurant, and promises to bring his signature Candied Bacon Sticky Buns with him. I want one, right now. His Roasted Corn & Coconut Soup with Mussels is a little sweet, though the mussels are perfectly cooked; Emeril’s waiting for the chile, waiting, waiting… and there it is. The Moustache is in.

Jeffrey Jew is a Citizen of the World: he’s part Chinese, part Norwegian-German; he’s CIA trained (that’s chef CIA, not spy), has travelled all over, worked in Italy, London, and Washington, uses Asian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, and European influences, and now works… as a personal chef in St. Pete, FL? Ok. He seems focused and just a touch nervous. Because the weather is hot, he’s making Chilled Watermelon & Tomato Gazpacho, Peppers, & Ceviche. Emeril doesn’t believe he can get the soup, bubbling on the stove, cooked in an hour: “You got a chiller in your pocket?” No, he’s just glad to see you. That intimidates Jeffrey, but he spreads it in a hotel pan and puts it in the freezer. Emeril vows to send him home if he serves hot gazpacho. And guess what: it’s cold, it’s lovely, and he’s in.

Kristen Kish was Model Boston of 2007, and she looks it – gorgeous in a seriously classy way. She also went to culinary school and has worked at some pretty high-powered Boston restaurants, so she’s not just a pretty face. She and contestant Stephanie are co-workers (more on that coming up). Emeril asks why she’s poaching her lemon peels three times; she explains it draws out the bitterness (I’ve made candied lemon peel, and that’s exactly what they tell you to do and why; I suppose Emeril is finding out if she knows why or is just following directions she picked up somewhere). She adds the lemon peel, some apple, and a sautéed scallop to her English Pea Broth and calls it a day. The scallops are nicely cooked; Emeril praises the soup as one of the best he’s tasted in a long time, so she’s in.

Stephanie Cmar, also from Boston (she and Kristen worked together at the time of filming), lives in the same apartment building as Kristen, and they have matching tattoos. “A lot of lesbian rumors because of this, which we’re not, just to clarify,” she says. Ok. Emeril isn’t all that impressed with her Cauliflower Soup with Corn, Lobster, & Pea Tendril; he wishes the cauliflower came through more. But he’s only sending people who can win, and while “one of you hit it out of the park, one missed the mark.” Sorry, Stephanie, no jacket for you. Maybe Kristen will let you borrow hers when she gets back from Seattle.

Tina Bourbeau isn’t a restaurant chef; as close as I can figure it, she invents recipes for a New York grocery delivery service, which presumably delivers prepared meals as well. She sees people grabbing blenders so she wants to avoid purees. She goes with Shellfish & Chorizo Soup with Croutons & Garlic Mayonnaise. Emeril finds it garlicy, but the shellfish isn’t overpowered. But still, it just doesn’t cut it, and she’s out.

Wolfgang Puck wants an omelet. It was the culinary test he was given for his first job, and he failed, so as punishment he had to make omelets for the staff dinner, all 80 staff. It’s one way to learn how to cook an omelet. He demos for his brood when they finish cleaning their stations. Back during Food Network Star 2011, demo’d risotto for the clueless (and humiliated) Jyll; maybe it’s in his contract, he’ll guest judge only if he gets to teach something. Just about every omelet had a serious flaw just by looking at it, so it becomes evident Wolfie (I used to have a VW bug I named Wolfie, during my Amadeus period, I loved that car) was told to cut one and only one chef.

Carla Pellegrino seems to want everyone to be impressed that she was once married to Frank Pellegrino, Jr. and that she was the chef at Rao’s (remember the wiseguys dinner on TCAS?) – I guess if hubby can host a TC episode, ex-wife can compete on one. If this is supposed to be one-upmanship, it’s pretty weak. She knows she’s loud, and some people are annoyed by her, so fine, they’re annoyed. She’s annoyed herself that she doesn’t have white pepper. Wolfie complains that her Mediterranean Omelet with Arugula Salad is like a woman with too much makeup, it’s all covered with mushrooms and other crap. Yes, it’s a mess, but an angry Brazillian with Italian connections is no match for an aging Austrian (and the producers are salivating over the Drama she’s going to bring), so he passes her through on the strength of the “juicy vegetables.” Foul, foul, foul.

Eliza Gavin is playing with mushrooms when Wolfie comes by and advises her to add steak to it. So she ends up with Steak & Eggs, NY Strip and a Morel omelet with a fennel-tomato reduction. He calls it complicated and tasty. She’s in.

Chrissy Camba does omelets at her restaurant but is still nervous. She’s Filipino so she goes with that, a “Torta” Omelet with Lobster, Bacon, Caramelized Onion & Fennel. Wolfie likes that she brought her heritage, and it looks pretty good, though it needs a little salt. She gets a jacket anyway.

Kuniko Yagi got bored with Tokyo banking so came to the US and landed a job in a noodle house. The rest, as they say… She has something to prove to her family. Her Chamomile Milk, Morel Mushroom & Ham Omelet is one of the messier ones (“your technique is almost there”), but she’s in.

Tyler Wiard has already bad-mouthed Tom in the past (I’m guessing it’s why he’s on the show) but he’s “an omelet away from Seattle” so he’s going for it. He makes an unholy mess, throwing fingerling and fennel salad on top of his bacon, shallots, asparagus and roasted red pepper (what, were there no other ingredients left?) omelet to cover up the browning. But he’s in anyway.

Daniel O’Brien is “quietly confident” – I can’t figure out his resume (something about a Wu-Tang-Clan-inspired menu) but after he refers to Kuniko as “Origami” I’m not interested in anything he has to say. Fortunately, he quickly makes a mess of things. His omelet is overdone, though it might be ok to eat in the dark. All these disasters are running together, but Daniel is the one on whom the axe falls. He is not pleased. I am.

Hugh Acheson assigns salad. It’s a test he gives his own chefs; there’s space in the world of salad to show skills and explore flavors.

Bart Vandaela is a beer knight. Belgium takes beer seriously: “The knights, also known as le Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs, are descendant from the 400 year old noble order honored for protecting the public and providing quality beer. ” You don’t have to go on a crusade, or rescue a damsel in distress, or even ride a horse. Just serve beer. Now there’s a country for ya. While he’s cooking, Hugh asks if he wears a suit of armor in the kitchen, to which Sir Bart (no, don’t call him that, he says, keep it simple, just Bart the Chef) replies: “No, we don’t.” Ok, it was a stupid, graceless question, but that’s no reason not to have a little fun with it. Then again, he is cooking, so maybe he’ll have a better rejoinder later. It’s a big salad, says Hugh (what’s wrong with Hugh tonight?) of the Spiny Lobster Salad with Beets, Asparagus & Potatoes. “It’s a big boy who made it,” says Bart, which is not much of a comeback improvement. “It’s a lot going on, ” says Hugh. “That’s what we go for,” says Bart, then wonders, “Did I not understand?” But he’s in. They couldn’t send the knight home.

Sheldon Simeon worked his way from dishwasher to Exec in ten years; he hadn’t been off Hawaii until he worked at Disney World, where he snagged a wife and brought her back to the Island. He starts off frying Brussels sprouts, which is fine except, as Hugh points out, the season ended three months ago. Hey, they don’t do seasons in Hawaii. And by the way, they need vinegar. But his Fried Brussels Sprout Salad with Orange Thai Vinaigrette works well enough to earn a chef’s jacket.

Danyele McPherson got a degree in anthropology; when she realized how useless that was, she started cooking. She’s firing tomatoes on the grill, drizzling oil on them while the flames shoot up to the dismay and scorn of everyone in the kitchen; apparently you’re not supposed to do it that way. But Hugh likes her Grilled Watermelon & Tomato Salad with Charred Tomato Vinaigrette (it’s “very Texas”) so he passes her through with a plea not to burn the kitchen down next time she grills veggies.

Brooke Williamson impresses Hugh with her Kale Salad with Brussels Sprout Leaves & Lemon Vinaigrette without getting scolded for out-of-season Brussels Sprouts. And it’s a pretty simple salad, though there’s a beet vinaigrette underneath the lemon-tossed greens. It sounds pretty good, and as she’s sent to pick out a jacket, she realizes, “Wow, I really have a chance of winning this whole thing.”

Gina Keatley is a Movement. And a ferocious tiger who’ll tell anyone to get out of her way. Unfortunately, when the veggies of her sautéed & Grilled Zucchini with Carrots, Pea Sprouts & Balsamic Reduction are overdone, Hugh tells her to Movement herself out of his way.

Tom Colicchio has the most complicated setup: he wants his potentials to work a service in his restaurant, alongside his regular chefs. He wants to see how they move in a kitchen, the skills they have, how they mesh with other chefs, and not only can they cook but can they figure out what it takes to win these competitions.

John Tesar is The Most Hated Chef In Dallas, and don’t you forget it. He’s also, he says, Jimmy Sears of Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, a talented but wild-card chef derailed by drug use. Tom knows him, knows he’s a good chef, but he’s a hothead. Top Chef is one way he’s fighting his way back. He handles the fish so well, Tom sends him through right off the bat. As Hugh tweeted, “We’ve got our villain.”

Lizzie Binder is from South Africa but has also cooked her way around a few continents. She’s smitten by Tom’s blue eyes, as he tells her to stuff and shape some tortellini. “You’ve made tortellini before, I can tell,” he observes. Yeah. She’s in.

Micah Fields treasures attitude. He went from line cook to exec, skipping the sous chef step, so he doesn’t impress Tom with his fish filleting skills. But he handles duck breast much better, and he moves with purpose, so he gets the blue coat. “I have the drive, the hunger, the thirst for blood. ” That’s nice, dear, move along before Tom hears you and changes his mind.

Anthony Gray is Art Smith’s protégé. Talks like him, too. He’s given ducks to butcher, which is just fine with him, but Tom wonders why he’s using a paring knife. That’s just the way it is; for the record, Hugh admits in his blog that he butchers with a paring knife, too. But Anthony’s tentative, hanging back. He gets more confident with the Hamachi, but then slacks up. “You missed the mark. Pack your knives and go.” I guess Padma released her copyright on that line, because everyone’s using it tonight.

Jorel Pierce (Wait – Jorel? Wasn’t there a Jorel on last time? Oh, no, I remember, that’s what MinxEats – hi, Minx! – called Ty-lor. I can’t wait to see what she calls Jorel) has the second waxed handlebar moustache of the night. I don’t think I’ve seen one in a decade or so, and now we have two? Is this a new thing? He’s eager to break down the chickens, seeing as he can butcher a pig with his eyes closed, but unfortunately, he doesn’t ask how Tom wants it done, so he produces boneless breasts when they should’ve been on the bone. He’s sent to make beurre fondue, and it’s salty. Guess what… no go. There will be no dueling handlebars this season.

We’re left with Fifteen Chefs for TC: Seattle. I like this way of introducing the contenders; it’s a head start on figuring out who’s who.

Next Week:

Actually, it’s a This Season on Top Chef montage. They promised us, back to basics. I see things that don’t look that basic. Boy, am I gonna be surly if basic means roller skates, mud, and a snowy plain. What is Curtis Stone doing there, isn’t he foisted on us enough? On the bright side, there’s The Chef in the Hat, Thierry Rautureau.

Top Chef Masters Season 4 Episode 10: Finale

Did this win - or lose?

Did this win – or lose?

The finale challenge is always interesting: something personal and revealing about the chefs. Too bad they don’t do this throughout the season. But no, they rely on Grand Canyon scenery and hot chicks in bikinis. Is there really anyone watching TCM for the hot chicks in bikinis?

The Assignment:

Write four letters:
A Love Letter
An Apology
A Thank-You Note
A Letter to Yourself

Now translate these letters to four-course meal.

Since we’re dealing with chefs, the letters themselves are imaginary. Me, of course, I’d love to see them actually write letters, and read them as they serve. But I suspect they might walk at this point if that were required of them. It’s like Harold said way back in TC-1: “I’m a cook.” If they wanted to be writers, they’d be restaurant critics. Kerry doesn’t write letters: “Does texting count?” Um, no.

But we never see any letters, so it’s really a matter of, “Cook what you want, and make up stories to go along with it.” I’m fine with that.

The Critics’ Table will consist of, surprisingly, critics. Critics and only critics. A chef’s best friend. Ten of them. Jane Goldman, Alan Richman, John Curtas, Alan Sytsma, Karen Brooks, and Leslie Bargar Suter. Plus, of course, James, Ruth, Krista, and Francis. Oh, and Curtis. Can’t leave him out. Actually, we could, and no one would mind that much.

Shop and Prep:

Their assistants show up; Chris’s is his chef de cuisine, and Kerry is someone he works with on large events, “putting stuff together on the fly.” I’m confused. Kerry’s not cooking on a regular basis? Is not chef/owner of anything? Or executive chef? I don’t understand, just what does Kerry actually do these days? Besides fishing with Tom Colicchio? But you know, this finale is working on a special event, putting something together on the fly, so this could be an advantage for him.

They have six hours to shop and prep, dividing it at their discretion. Chris decides to spend his time shopping all over town at three different locations; Kerry focuses on time in the kitchen, so only goes to the usual joint for ingredients. So he has only himself to blame when he can’t find lobsters. But he does get an extra hour or so to cook.

Me, I’d like to know what happens to that one shrimp he has to put back because he was $.61 over his budget. I don’t want to be the customer who buys that shrimp after sitting around for another few hours after it’s toured the store and been handled by someone who’s been handling everything else in the store. I worry about things like this (no, I don’t, not really, at least not usually, but maybe I should). I hope the producers just bought the damn thing and threw it away.

R&R with Curtis:

After prep, they visit Curtis in the “Rain Man” suite (™ Kerry) for a home-cooked meal of shellfish and foie gras. You know, to relax them before the final day. I think it’d be a riot if they ended up with food poisoning. Not bad food poisoning, you understand. Just enough to make the news. They talk about critics. Curtis says is to make him mad the critics were judging his work when they know less than he does, they didn’t go to culinary school. But sitting with Ruth and James and the others over 10 weeks changed his mind: they have devoted their lives to food. May I reminded him that Francis did go to the premiere culinary school in the United States. Kerry says it’s a different art to deduce, as a diner, what a chef did. I’m not sure that’s exactly what a critic does; I think a critic describes the effect more than the cause. However, there are obvious similarities with writers and editors/literary critics. And writers are just as disdainful of those who get paid to judge their work.

Service:

Kerry:

(Note: I know three of the links are wonky; Bravo’s been like that the last couple of weeks. The recipes are there, the URLs are correct, you just can’t get to them that way – try searching the Bravo recipe finder for “jjigae,” “branzino,” and “boeuf,” and you’ll find them. And if you have any idea why the URLs don’t work, clue me in)

Scallop and Spot Prawn “Korean Jjigae”: His wife is Korean, and on their first date they went fishing, so this is his love letter to her. That’s a good a rationale as any, I suppose; “Jjigae” is a Korean stew and it’s got seafood in it. The critics find it muted for a Korean dish, but expressive for Kerry, which seems like a pretty backhanded compliment to me. One loves the smoothness and finesse; he’d get to first base with it. Which again, seems like a pretty backhanded compliment for a love letter. But maybe you have to want it.

Flan of Sugar Snap Peas with Prosciutto, Morels, and Chervil: Kerry apologizes to his family for waiting too long to come home. Alan thinks it’s the softest flan he’s ever had; they agree it tastes great. I can see flan as an apology: it’s soft and comforting.

Branzino with Clam Ragout and Mustard Greens: the thank-you note is to his family, and incorporates the traditions he knew growing up on Cape Cod. One critic says it’s the least expressive of his dishes; another loves it.

Dry Aged “Cote de Boeuf,” Short Ribs with Fennel Gratin: in his letter to himself, Kerry gives himself permission to revel in joy and express decadence without his usual reserve; he made all the stuff he loves. Alan loves the steak; one of the critics finds her short rib dry and tough around the edges and has no juiciness like the other components; Curtis thinks it’s great.

Chris:

Beef Heart Tartare, Foie Gras, and Puffed Beef Tendon: this is his love letter to his wife. If I were his wife, I would be worried. Nothing says love like puffed beef tendon? Jane loves it conceptually, her heart loves it less. Krista calls it steampunk state tartare. As a chef, Curtis loves that Chris went for beef heart. I do too, I’m just glad I don’t have to eat it.

Scallop, Pancetta Piana and Sea Urchin: it apologizes to his wife for working so much, and serves her favorite things; he actually tears up when describing it, which is a little over the top to me. One critic calls it makeup sex for the sensuality, but Jane thinks, like many apologies, it went too far. To Ruth, it’s the sexiest plate of food ever; apology accepted.

Trippa Napolitana: Chris thanks his great-grandmother for making him a gut man with a nice plate of cow’s stomach lining. They’re skeptical of the brown smear on the side of the plate (pictured above); they debate what it is, and someone guesses charcoal (it’s onion charcoal, per the recipe, but he doesn’t say how to make it. Burn some onions to powder, I’m guessing.). Yeah, edgy is one thing, but putting an unidentified brown smear on a plate of tripe is probably a little much. They decide it’s what Chris left when he peeled out of the house. That’s better than some things it could be. But they do declare it an extraordinary dish.

Blood Sausage, Poached Oysters, and Egg: Chris’s letter to himself is his last supper (hey, that was TC-5), covering air, land, and sea. John calls it “embarrassingly bad;” he’s had better blood sausage, and Chris should’ve brought his A-game. Ouch. I wonder if they asked him to say that, so it wouldn’t look like a runaway. Someone else thinks its bold, and engages the diner in every element. Francis (who, before he went to culinary school, studied English at the University of Michigan) says it’s like taking a swim, basking in the sun from the sky, and a pig comes along and gives you a back rub; it’s the best thing he’s eaten in thirty years.

Critics’ Table:

Overall comments: Kerry’s letters are about himself as a cook, where Chris’s are about him as a person. One meal is going to nurture you into a blissful coma, the other is daring you eat it. Brain vs. palate: which one wins? Do I want to chef who pushes me, or coddles me? To me, this is a lot more interesting than a discussion about who the first course, etc. But if you don’t know who’s going to win by now, you don’t watch much Competitive Reality Television.

They talk to Kerry. He says he do a few tweaks, but like Mitt Romney, he can’t come up with an example. Psst – Kerry – the mustard greens, not getting lobster, remember? James had personal relations with the dishes (really, James, right there at the table?). Francis asks, “What about the letter-to-yourself dish is you?” Kerry mumbles something about unctuous and rich and enjoying something.

Chris’s in the hot seat next. Did he cook for the critics? No, he had to cook for himself. Of course, they’re not letting them off that easy: “Are you more important than the diner?” Curtis questions serving raw cow’s heart as a love letter; Chris says his wife was blown away. She must be a very interesting woman. Ruth was amazed to see something she hadn’t had before, and felt like she’d been missing out on something all her life. Ruth says he went for it; Chris says, “That’s what you asked for.” Kerry looks sulky.

The judges discuss privately while Chris and Kerry assure each other in the kitchen the other has won. James calls it a different worldview. I wouldn’t go that far, but yeah, it’s a different approach to life. Francis recognizes Chris’s dishes are about a deep philosophy as a chef, and who he is. Ruth asks the question: “Do you want to be comforted or thrilled?” And the companion question: “Is there such a thing as too thrilled?”

Now come on, you’ve got to admit – this is the most interesting judging table since that Irish guy talked about throwing plates.

Extraneous Fun Stuff:

Jenni Pulos looks like a Stepford Wife in those “how to decorate your bedroom” spots.

Chris gets 85% of the viewer vote.

No matter what, a decent charity is going to get a lot of money. Maybe fans of the losing chef will be inspired to make contributions to even things out (though that might be difficult; I’m not sure one of them actually has fans). It won’t affect either of their careers at all. So let’s quit talking about the high stakes.

My first post for this season featured a picture of Chris holding guts; did I call it or what. Sure, I had a brief affair with the boys from Maine – I had to – and a little flirtation with Thierry (not to mention some serious ideas about Takashi) but Chris has been around television a long time; he knows how to play it.

The Verdict:

Chris wins. That’s a total of $141,000 for The Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Next:

We’ll meet again on November 7 for Top Chef Seattle. They promise it’s back to basics – I hope that means no bicycles or shooting ranges. And aren’t you glad they’re now naming the seasons by location instead of numbers?

Top Chef Masters Season 4 Episode 9: Old School, New School

Tonight, it’s all about communication.

I’m a big fan of communication, really I am. Some of my best friends are communicators. Though I wouldn’t describe myself as a communicator, I communicate fairly often. Communicating is a good thing. An important thing.

But when we’re down to the last challenge before the finale of a cooking competition …shouldn’t it be about cooking?

I can understand why the QF was postponed this long. Flying all those relatives in from who knows where – oh, wait, no relatives? The critics, who are already sitting around waiting for the elimination challenge, are the mystery partners? Well, that makes sense, too, because there are only three critics… wait, there are actually four with Krista Simmons, five if you throw in Alan Sytsma, both of whom have critted this season. I’m sure they could get a nearly unlimited supply of culinary arts student. So why do they wait until the final elimination to have an episode in which the chefs are judged on food they haven’t cooked?

But mine is not to reason why, mine is to snark and move on.

Quickfire:

The chefs know what’s up when they see the partitions set up in the kitchen. We all remember Naomi Pomeroy from last season yelling at her father for the whole twenty minutes. That was funny once; this second time, not so much. Curtis will judge on the basis of how similar the dishes made by each pair taste and look.

We know, and the chefs seem to know, the mystery guests will be someone they know. Turns out, the critics get to cook. I love this idea. Francis Lam graduated from the CIA (not to mention the University of Michigan, but that had nothing to do with cooking), and I know from her book Garlic and Sapphires that Ruth is an experienced cook; I suspect James knows his way around the kitchen as well. But for all the chefs know, they’re dealing with their crazy uncle Eddie, another chef’s parent or spouse, or previously eliminated chefs (which would be pretty cool, actually).

Chris and James make Prawns with Sautéed Celery , thyme, pine nuts, and chili threads. James puts on a slightly southern accent and Chris has trouble understanding him; I still think it sounds like him, but apparently Chris doesn’t pick up on it. Curtis notes the presentation of the two dishes is similar, but James’s dish doesn’t have as much celery. He can’t decide which he likes more: James’s has more butteriness, but Chris’s is crunchier. They are the winning team, and Chris gets another $5000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, for a total so far of $41,000.

Kerry and Ruth go with sautéed chicken, Swiss chard, bacon, and Parmesan with rosemary cream. Ruth uses a French accent; Kerry asks if she can cook, and she says she’s a home cook. He’s mostly worried that he will get too far ahead, so he forgets to tell her that he’s cutting the chicken tenders in half; the dishes don’t look anything alike. Curtis thinks Ruth’s chicken might be more tender. I think that’s just his shtick for this segment.

Lorena and Francis head for pasta, but Lorena’s spaghetti doesn’t cook (we never see if Francis has the same problem); I’m not exactly sure what Lorena is thinking, but it looks to me like she uses chopped up Swiss chard as the pasta for her Swiss Chard with Sautéed Chicken, onions, and Parmesan. Curtis says soupy, and Lorena tries a fake: that’s exactly how she wanted it. Not so much, no. Curtis thinks it’s quite beautiful, and good, they just need something to put it on. And again we run into the Competitive Reality conundrum: would she have been better off to have served undercooked pasta? Of course not. But whatever you do, the judges will point out the road not taken.

Elimination Challenge:

The chefs will be mentoring two students each, from a high school culinary arts program; the kids will do all the prep and cooking under the direction of the chefs, and they’ll serve the completed dish to the critics, their teachers, and their parents. The chefs don’t really get to plan the meal, either: they must use as the inspiration for the dish whatever the kids present as their favorite dish. Again, it’s a pretty stupid time to throw in a hands-off challenge. In fact, I was convinced throughout the episode, right until the final knife pack, that Curtis was going to say, “Since you all did such a wonderful job [regardless of how wonderful or not it was], all three will be moving on to the finale. I was wrong.

I was also struck that both Chris and Kerry went out of their way to reassure the students about being in this culinary arts program to begin with. Kerry said several times that he, too, went to vocational school. Chris comments on the problems he had because of learning disabilities. Is there something wrong with vocational school now? There wasn’t when I was a kid. Then again, The Godfather hadn’t been made yet when I was a kid, and these kids never heard of “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Our local Portland Arts & Technology High School, which offers programs in everything from music and dance to cooking (and distinguishes between Culinary Concepts and Fast Food) and marine (boats) repair, is highly regarded and hard to get in to. But somehow it feels like both of them regard “vocational school” as akin to reform school: something you’re slightly ashamed of until you make it big, at which point it becomes something you’re proud you rose above. I don’t get it.

Kerry teams up with Brittany and Erwin. They serve him chicken Florentine wrapped with string cheese, which doesn’t impress him. Take it easy, Kerry, they’re sixteen-year-olds. He decides to elevate it to Florentine-inspired Chicken (see the difference?) with orzo and asparagus ragout. He doesn’t want to waste time explaining things, but just tells them what to do: “I’m hoping they’re these dry sponges that will absorb.” It helps if you actually teach, you know. But he’s focused more on getting the dish done and not getting cut than on mentoring, I think. When they’re finished, the kids are exhausted, but Ruth’s impressed and James thinks it’s the best creamed spinach he’s ever had.

Chris works with Lacey and Emilio; the kids serve him pork tenderloin with garlic mashed potatoes. He does a terrific job of mentoring; I want to go work with him myself after watching this. He talks to them about what pigs eat, and how flavors combine, and they head in that direction with the dish. He’s emphasizing simplicity: “Food doesn’t need to be hard, it needs to be good.” He demonstrates how to cut the pork loin, even though they can’t serve the meat he cuts. Assuming it doesn’t just go to waste, I think it’s a great idea; I don’t see the other chefs do this. Am I showing my Chris-bias? Maybe. Maybe he just really shone in this challenge. During plating he gets worried, because it goes faster than he expected, and early plating could be a problem. But he tells them they’re plating like pros and he’s proud of them, leading Lacey to reply, “I’m proud of you, too.” I love that. I think he does,too; he calls her “Smarty-Britches.” They serve Pork Loin with hazelnut brown butter, apples, and watercress. Ruth finds the pork perfectly cooked; Francis loves the brown butter. But James “sensed” the early plating; the salad was soggy. Curtis wonders if Chris pushed them hard enough.

Lorena tries the lasagna JoJo and Jhane have prepared for her. I get the sense she’s a little concerned about making lasagna, but she seems to know exactly what to do. They make the lasagna with three meats, and serve it in a cast-iron skillet, which is pretty cool. Jojo tells her he has diabetes, so Lorena’s delighted to trot out her Healthy Generations shtick while making goat cheese cream for their Three-Meat Lasagna and arugula salad with raspberry vinaigrette. She knows it’s more homey than restaurant: “This is the way I cook,” says Lorena. I love the skillet presentation, myself. This was her favorite challenge. Francis likes the goat cheese. Ruth wonders if she thought about making a variation on lasagna; Lorena wanted to keep the truth. I’m not sure what that means. I would’ve said, in my best Grayson “Like a meatball?” sneer, “Like Florentine-inspired chicken as a variation on chicken Florentine, or pork loin as a variation on pork tenderloin?” Lasagna is what it is, the magic is in creating the sauce and blending flavors. And if you’ll remember, I’m not a Lorena fan – I’d scream bloody murder if she bumped Chris out of the finals and might run amok if she won everything – but I think they’re hosing her for invalid reasons here. Though she could’ve used zucchini ribbons instead of pasta to make it actually healthy instead of just talking the talk, or done individual roll-ups to make it fancy. In the critic’s private discussion, Curtis wonders if it’s something that could be served at a “fantastic restaurant.” There’s some argument about that (James thinks the goat cheese sauce was very sophisticated), but I understand what he means; after all, I can make damn good lasagna (including varieties with the zucchini strips and in roll-up form). But I still wouldn’t mind encountering a terrific basic version in an upscale restaurant, especially if it came in a cast-iron skillet. Then again, my idea of upscale is probably a lot different from Curtis’s.

Winners and Losers:

During judging, James quits. Good. I liked him a lot in the first couple of seasons, but lately he’s been playing Odd Man Out, favoring the one the others don’t like. I’m not sure if that’s at the producers’ request to ramp up suspense, or if he’s just being contrary. But I’m tired of it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really quit, he’s just having trouble making a decision.

Kerry wins. Ruth credits him with pushing the kids to place they didn’t know they could go. And, probably a place they never want to go again. He wins $10,000 for City Harvest. I wonder if they gave it to him so his kids would feel better about what he put them through. The kids, by the way, are nowhere to be seen; I’m surprised they didn’t film a congratulatory sequence with them. Elves, what’s wrong with you?

Lorena is out. I am so relieved. There was a terrible moment when I thought the finale might be between her and Kerry.

Next Week:

Kerry vs Chris in kind of a Darth Vader/Obi-Wan showdown. But it should be interesting for culinary reasons: Kerry’s a fish expert and favors elegance, while Chris does guts, so I’m hoping we’ll see two completely different approaches. As a long-time Top Chef viewer, I tend to value elegance over homeyness, and anything over guts, but I’m still pulling for Chris.