Buenos Aires – Continuing on last week’s post on the new reality series Top Chef, with episode #5, Blind Confusion – a headlong jump into the world of exotic flavors. First, the quickfire challenge – a blindfolded attempt to identify twenty different offbeat ingredients, most of them Asian. Surprisingly, my fave Asian contestant, Lee Anne, didn’t do well at all. And I don’t say that to be ethnically prejudiced, but as head judge Tom Colicchio pointed out, taste is very tied into childhood memories (or, for an even more interesting look at taste memory, Heston Blumenthal’s “Philosophy” section on the site for his restaurant, The Fat Duck), and none of the ingredients were likely to have been childhood memories for at least seven of the contestants.
As Tom suggested, a blindfolded challenge to identify more everyday “American” ingredients would have been a far better test of how tuned in folks were to their own palates, rather than whether or not they’ve tasted all sorts of exotic stuff. I also think the guest judge, Mike Yakura of La Colonial, was a little picky on answers – Miguel, for example, answered “sriracha sauce” for the chili paste – other than texture, he’s dead-on right, he just narrowed it down to a specific style of chili sauce; several people guessed litchis for longans and got those wrong – awfully close in flavor for someone who doesn’t specialize in those fruits. Interestingly, Andrea, the nutritionist and health food proponent, knew the most… a whopping total of 4 out of 20. For fun, later on, the competitors created their own competition using junk food as the tasting test, and both Miguel and Dave did quite well and identifying most of their 20 challenges, which just underscores the point.
The main challenge, paired teams to create fusion dishes of Latin food with a selected other cuisine – Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or Moroccan. Dave and Tiffani worked suprisingly well together given their different personalities, but I think that also showed what happens in pairing two professional chefs together – they were able to just work and not worry about their differences. They also were, in my view, the only ones who really created street food, the other requirement for the dish, producing the only one of the four dishes that could really be eaten one-handed.
Stephen and Lee Anne came close – I think they also did a nice job with setting aside their differences and plunging into the dish. Their dish was marginally street food, it wasn’t really edible one-handed, and they were serving it with a drink on the side. And given the neighborhood they were headed into, San Francisco’s Mission District, and giving the food away to people on the street, Stephen’s insistence on dressing in a fancy pinstripe suit, pink shirt, and glowing orange tie, and trying to “educate” the “locals” was more of his usual condescending, umm, crap.
Andrea and Miguel were paired together, and with Andrea’s immunity from elimination, Miguel basically let her run the show, despite her past disasters – whether he thought that somehow her immunity would extend to him, or some equally bizarre thought, is unknown. Serving a fairly ordinary burrito (lentils and brown rice, but otherwise nothing new), but open faced, and requiring a knife and fork to eat, plus serving a drink, made it completely non-street food. He also, not surprisingly, immediately began to point the finger at Andrea as the reason for all the problems, as several people put it “threw her under the bus”. In a show of class on her part, she took it calmly and offered up her immunity to him, obviously shocking him completely, and leaving him, for a change, at a loss for words.
Harold and Lisa basically screwed up by trying to serve a dish that had no bearing on the assignment. Serving basically raw tuna on the street, in a bowl, requiring a fork, and also having forgotten one of their key ingredients, was a clear disaster – they found it near impossible to get anyone to even try the food. As one of the judges pointed out, had they perhaps recast their dish as their take on ceviche, they might have had more success appealing to the local Latin population, than nattering on about seared toro tataki. Though in the end, Lisa was sent home as the weaker of the two of them, my view is that Harold’s lack of 1) following instructions, 2) ensuring, as more or less the leader of the team, that they had all their ingredients, and 3) whipping up a dish that was apparently completely bland – gets back to his lack of creativity and ability to lead – essentials for a “top chef”.