Top Chef 8-9-10

2006.May.19 Friday · 0 comments

in Books & Other Media

Buenos Aires – Curveballs are part of a chef’s life. Whether it’s an ingredient that doesn’t show or goes missing, a sauce that curdles, vegetables that burn, or souffles that fall, it’s part of the daily life of working in a kitchen. In Episode 8, Holy Matrimony, Batman, you wouldn’t think the challenge was about curveballs, but somehow, to the contestants, it seemed to be. Now realize, at this point in the show, we’re down to five quite talented challengers, this should have been, you’ll pardon the pun in a moment, a piece of cake.

The problem was, the curves that threw the contestants weren’t the curves that should have been any problem. The premise was, very simply, that two men, Scott and Scott, were getting married. The quickfire challenge was to come up with a wedding reception dinner that would both wow the two grooms AND be executable, as the team was going to have to execute the winning menu. Right off the bat two things seemed to throw them – the first was the fact that they were dealing with a gay wedding – suddenly there seemed to be a need to execute some sort of food that was different or special or I don’t know, gay. Sorry folks, our tastebuds are just the same as heterosexuals, really. And while I can’t speak for Scott and Scott, trust me, not all of us have some sort of decorator or designer gene – ask anyone who’s seen my apartments. The second was the idea of executable, especially in regard to things like a wedding cake. All five of them went into the challenge knowing that a wedding cake isn’t an easy thing to make, that catering a 100 person event is difficult in some ways, but quite easy in others (no excuses about “I’m a restaurant chef” – restaurants get asked to cater large parties all the time, wedding and otherwise). Yet, each and every one of them seemed determined to impress the grooms with flights of fancy, with no apparent thought to the need to actually put it all together. Not surprisingly, the most fanciful, and probably most difficult to execute, was the one chosen by the “judges”. (One has to wonder what it took to talk, or bribe, two people into waiting until the day before their wedding to arrange the wedding reception…)

Then came what would be a curveball in “real life” but should have been expected by the contestants. They were given one day (16 hours actually), to pull it all together. Now, I know that sounds like a short period of time to suddenly cater a party. But, for restaurant professionals, truly it shouldn’t have been. They were asked to prepare a five course meal for 100 people, plus the wedding cake, in probably double the time they normally have to prepare for dinner service in their restaurants for the same number of people. And it’s easier – everyone’s getting the same food, it’s all being done simultaneously – it’s purely a matter of organization. And that’s when they all fell apart. Not one of them, and especially Lee Anne, whose menu won, stepped up and took charge. They each took one of the recipes, ran off to the supermarket, bought their ingredients, including accepting mediocre versions of what they needed, without coordinating (when Harold couldn’t find good quality fresh salmon, why not a moment to consult with the team and consider other fish, rather than buying low grade salmon?). They, wisely I thought, decided to buy a white cake mix to make the cake – they at least recognized that they had some limitations in the area of baking, and chose an option that was safe (with the dissention of Stephen, who objected, but didn’t offer to make the cake from scratch himself). Chefs sometimes have to do that.

And then they just kept falling apart. They decided to pull an all-nighter. Not smart. Sure maybe not a full 8 hours of sleep, but at least take a few hours for a nap so you’re fresh and don’t make stupid mistakes. Stephen took forever to put his hors d’oeuvres together, not surprisingly given his history, and left himself unavailable to help with anything else, following it up by appointing himself the “liaison” to the service staff and disappearing for hours on end. Somehow or other they all seemed to think that all they needed was one hors d’oeuvre per guest – are you kidding me??? And, simply, none of the dishes was executed well – all had basic mistakes that probably never would have happened had they been well rested, and organized. They cooked things too far in advance, they didn’t season things that needed seasoning (hey, since you bought that flavorless poor quality salmon, don’t just grill it with some salt, poach it in something flavorful to give it some zip!), their plating was poorly done, especially given that Lee Anne had made drawings of what she wanted the plates to look like that the grooms had seen and approved, and, in the final, crowning moment, they just sort of threw the wedding cake together. It’s really easy to jazz up a basic white cake mix, and they didn’t bother, just coating it in some overly sweet buttercream and decorating it with flowers. They also missed simple things like – all the courses were hot courses – they could easily have turned something into a cold course to save themselves a lot of work; and they didn’t seem to have any concept that during a banquet dinner, sometimes you have to wait while toasts and speeches are given, especially at a wedding – they were trying to send out courses without checking with the headwaiter, who was quite happy, when they eventually consulted him (and Stephen shut up for a moment), to guide them through the timing – that’s basic to restaurant or catering service.

In the end, I couldn’t tell if some of the non-cooperation was maybe an attempt to undermine Lee Anne’s menu, since she was the likely choice to be on the hook for a poor showing, but I don’t think so. I think it was just very simply no one stepped up to take charge (which should have been her), which is what being a chef is about. In the end, it was Stephen’s lack of being part of the team, and once again his need to play Top Sommelier rather than Top Chef, that got him sent home. As the two core judges pointed out in their post episode wrap-ups – his arrogance and need to lecture and educate people as if they were somehow children and/or incapable of already having knowledge of the subject of wine (primarily) and food points out his own ignorance – after all, he’s only 24 years old, he’s been a sommelier for less than three years, and some of his guests are as knowledgeable or possibly more so on the subject than he is, and have been appreciating drinking and eating for longer than he’s been alive.

In Episode 9, Napa’s Finest, the contestants were given the opportunity to work with low and high ingredients. In the quickfire challenge they were asked to recreate a junk food item as a haute cuisine item. That’s a dream challenge, really. They were not given instructions to use the junk food and make it better (as they were in an earlier episode), but merely to come up with a high quality interpretation of a junk food item. Two of them really did so – Tiffani and Lee Anne – completely recreating the ideas of corndogs and hotdogs respectively, the former making corndogs out of chorizos and duck sausage and spices, the latter making seafood hotdogs. Harold more or less did, turning popcorn into a grilled cake that he served with a seafood ceviche, which in the end was the winning dish for its presentation more than anything. Dave lost it and basically just made gussied up nachos, doing really nothing different from the original other than making fresh sauces. A shame, because something like nachos is right up his alley for doing something really creative.

For the main challenge, they were given black truffles and Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet, and told to make a dish that showcased the truffles and paired with the wine. This was the first moment where Stephen probably could have really shone had he still been in the competition, or at the very least been a real asset to the others. Their lack of experience with wine was immediately obvious, making comments about the “legs” of the wine, and talking about it in terms that they were obviously parroting from things they’d heard during their careers, all to impress, I guess, us, that they knew something about wine (while making it obvious to anyone who does, that they didn’t). This was a key challenge for a couple of reasons. First, it was the final elimination prior to the Las Vegas finals competition. Second, it was a real chance to be totally creative and wow the judges. And third, they had high quality ingredients and a decent budget to work with. Oh, and fourth, the judging panel was going to be a group of top chefs from Napa Valley, along with an old friend of mine, John Shafer, owner of the winery.

For whatever reason, Harold, Lee Anne, and Tiffany all chose to work with lamb. They knew it too, and not one of them turned around and went back to the butcher counter to change their mind. Dave, smartly, chose beef – not because it was necessarily a better choice with the wine (though it is), but because it was different, and he knew this was his last chance to stand out from the crowd. Tiffani got really creative and made gnocchi stuffed with foie gras and the truffles, which really allowed the truffles to show up in the dish, a key requirement. Unfortunately, she didn’t make the gnocchi well, and there were comments from all the chefs about the gummy texture, even though they loved her dish’s flavors. Harold made a dish with a couple of basic flaws, and I honestly was surprised he wasn’t the one sent home – his mushrooms and truffles weren’t cleaned, so his sauce was filled with grit, and according to several judges, the dish didn’t harmonize well with itself, even though components of it were excellent and worked with the wine – but a really basic mistake like not cleaning the mushrooms, at this stage of the game, should have been disqualifying in my view. The judges were busy complaining about three lamb dishes, especially Tom, just as Lee Anne walked in to present her dish. She maintained her composure in front of them. Her dish had too many things going on in it, something she’s usually quite good at not overdoing, and it was sort of odd to see her go such a different direction from her usual food. Nonetheless, everyone seemed to enjoy it, so I was surprised later when she was the one sent home. And Dave, finally, truly showed what he was made of. He kept things together, he stayed true to his style of home-cooking comfort food, and made a simple beef fillet with a truffle and cognac macaroni and cheese. As Tom later said, he had two things going for him – he didn’t cook lamb, and at the end of the day, chefs don’t want fancy food, they want simple comfort food. He won, probably more or less by accident, but not totally, as he smartly made a point while shopping of doing something totally different from the other three contestants.

Episode 10, Reunion, I don’t have a lot to say about. It was, as the title suggest, a reunion. All twelve contestants were reunited. They watched videos of their flubs, flaws, and shining moments. They commented on themselves, each other, and the show in general. They laughed, they cried, they argued. They were friendly and nasty at varying moments. I have to give Stephen credit for watching himself on the past episodes, and especially during the reunion, and realizing what an ass he’d been towards the others, and apologizing to everyone, and especially to Candice, with whom he’d had a major onscreen fight (that we got to see more of during the reunion than during the episode). It was interesting to see the couple of people who were unstintingly unapologetic for their behavior, despite having it thrown up on the screen in front of them and having both the other contestants and the judges point it out to them – Kenn, Tiffani, and Miguel were the folk who truly couldn’t seem to see just how bad their attitudes were – though I think Kenn actually does, but continues “in character” for effect more than anything else. So, in the episode I’m downloading right now, I’m guessing Dave, Harold, and Tiffani are off to Las Vegas for the finals competition – I don’t know yet if this is an all-in-one shot to come up with the winner now, or if there will be just one elimination and then a true final round with just two contestants. We shall see…

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