Spain’s Top Chef – Episode 5

2014.Jan.08 Wednesday · 1 comment

in Books & Other Media

So, welcome to week five of Spain’s version of Top Chef. We left off, not surprisingly, at week 4 with the elimination of the misogynistic chef Borja, and we weren’t at all upset to see him go.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

This week starts with the announcement that there will be no Trial by Fire, which means, also, no one gets immunity from elimination. They’re all going to participate in “Restaurant Wars”. Now, Restaurant Wars in the US and Canadian versions basically sticks the contestants onto two teams and gives them a raw space to overnight turn into a restaurant, come up with a menu, and serve it. The Spanish contestants get it easy. They just have to split into two teams and go into two “true restaurants with real kitchens and real guests” and come up with a menu, that the judges are going to check out beforehand and coach them on, and then serve the menu to the owners and chefs of their respective restaurants as well as a small number of selected guests.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

Judges Susi and Angel get to pick the two team captains. Susi picks Begoña for her skill, courage, preparedness, and half a dozen other things – I think it was the Boy Scout oath. Angel picks Antonio C because he doesn’t want anyone who’s timid about leading and confronting the other cooks. They flip a coin and then get to alternate picking their team members. Barbara, of course, is picked last. They get told that they’re going to be assigned to two very different restaurants and with different tasks – one team is going to prepare lunch, the other dinner. I’m not clear how these are tasks that match up well in terms of a real battle, but I suppose it makes it easier on the judges – in the norteamericano versions, they have to eat two dinners, back to back.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

Begoña’s team is serving lunch at Lhardy, a 175 year old restaurant that serves nothing but true Madrid regional classics. It’s all about tradition and high end service and food with little, if any, straying from “the way it’s always been done”. The team isn’t happy – all of them cook very modern style food and seem to consider themselves above this sort of cuisine. They’re told to prepare a three course lunch menu with two appetizers, two main courses and one dessert, and they have to adapt to the classic style.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

They decide on a choice of lobster with asparagus and summer vegetables, followed by a steak tartare. Or for a second option, a free range chicken with foie gras and a sort of onion stew, and then a dish of bacalao (salt cod) and chickpeas. Head judge Chicote visits with them and suggests that maybe their plates are in the wrong order and they ought to start with the tartare and the cod stew and finish with the lobster and the chicken. Begoña nods in agreement and then waits until he leaves and tells her team they’re not changing anything just to suit him. Off to the side, he tells us he’s afraid that they just won’t be able to rein in their tendency to modernize everything and that they’ll miss the mark with the restaurant staff and customers.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

Elisabeth gets pissy because she thinks that first off, they ought to pay attention to the head judge, and second, her teammates are treating her like a junior line cook who doesn’t know anything. And, as the end of prep time approaches, Begoña escorts Eli from the kitchen introduces her to the tuxedoed waiters, tells her she’s in charge of the dining room and then walks out. Eli gives a shot at explaining the menu and concept, the waiters all look like they’re borderline horrified by it all.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

Enter the guests, chefs, owners…. Everyone, particularly the restaurant’s owner and chef who are seated with judges Susi and Angel, seems a bit surprised at the order of the dishes on the menu, feeling that, where have we heard this before, they’re backwards. We also find out that the other team is going to sit down and get to judge their food as well.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

And, not surprisingly, when the food arrives, they feel even more strongly about this. Susi describes the chicken dish as heavy, inelegant, one-note, and better suited to a main course in a far more casual setting. They do like the lobster starter a bit more, but feel that it wasn’t cleaned and prepped with as much care as it should have been, but they like the flavors and presentation. Of course, the other team’s comments lean towards the nasty side as they critique and tear apart each dish.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

Bizarrely, as they’re plating up the main courses, they’re making mistakes, like breaking the yolks on the tartare. But instead of fixing it, they decide to just forge ahead and send out the plates with the obvious mistakes on them. Are we surprised that the guests aren’t happy? They complain about broken yolks, broken mayonnaise on the plate (what the hell is mayo doing on a “classic” steak tartare plate?), poorly cut meat, at room temperature rather than cold and therefore turning grey, olive oil spilled all over the plate. The bacalao stew fares better. Both dishes, the guests feel, should have been the starters, before the previous two dishes. The yogurt mousse with fresh fruit is generally liked by everyone. But, at the end, the owners and chef of the restaurant feel that pretty much nothing that was served showed any respect for the vintage qualities of the restaurant.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

Antonio’s team is headed to Ramses, a cutting edge, five-year old joint serving modernist Mediterranean cuisine on a casual patio. It’s the sort of place that doesn’t have a chef, it has a “Director of Gastronomy” heading the kitchen. Now, just to make things interesting, Chicote has not only given the team the general feedback, but specifically read them all the nasty quotes from the other team, which incenses them, and they vow to get back at the other team that night in the other restaurant.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

They decide on a ceviche and a gazpacho, then a rib dish and a fish dish. We don’t get a whole lot more information at this point. Should we be surprised that the team assigns Barbara to the dining room to get her out of their hair? Chicote visits with the team and discovers that they planned their menu and told the dining room staff what to put on it before checking to see if they had all the ingredients listed – so some of the dishes are going to come out differently than advertised. He also tastes the ajoblanco (I guess they’re making a white gazpacho), and declares it to be too warm – suggesting that they need to actually chill it down rather than letting it just sit out on the counter. Shades of the other team’s tartare. Seriously, I’m beginning to wonder what sort of restaurants these chefs have ever worked in, if any.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

Barbara, who apparently hasn’t learned the menu, goes to each table and reads what’s on the menu word for word to all the guests, but can’t answer any questions about any of the dishes. The dishes, we learn, are an octopus and plantain ceviche, a white gazpacho with cockles and honey gelatin, a fake cutlet (it looks like they’ve taken a large cube of meat and stuck what looks like a piece of white plastic in it, though I assume we’ll find out it’s not plastic, and a piece of local fish over noodles of thinly sliced squid and served with a pil-pil sauce. Barbara doesn’t know how to write an order ticket, so she just scribbles notes on pieces of paper, without table numbers, numbers of guests, or positions of the guests for each dish, plus varying what name she calls the dishes each time she writes it.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

The ceviche is missing salt and acidity, sort of the two things it’s got to have to be a ceviche. The gazpacho gets rated as sweet and bland. Barbara goes back to the kitchen to tell them that the chefs and guests (not the other team, but the restaurant’s chefs and the judges) think that it’s all too sweet and missing any spice – Miguel’s response is that they have a lot of balls critiquing food he knows is perfect. Barbara decides to sprinkle some ground chili over the dishes as they leave the kitchen. The team tells her not to touch the food again and throws her out of the kitchen. The main courses, the fish is bland, all mushy, and uninteresting, though, the meat dish seems to fare well. The only thing the “director of gastronomy” likes is that they at least tried to do something modern, but he didn’t like any of the food the way it came out. Of course, Chicote shares all the comments with them, especially those of the other team. Needless to say, rancor doesn’t begin to describe how the two teams are now feeling about each other.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

Back at the Top Chef kitchen we are reminded that the judges have taken into account everyone’s commentary, plus watching how the teams worked together, how their menus came together, etc., etc. The three judges, however, have the final decision of which team won. After a suitable pause, he announces that Begoña’s team won. On to the Last Opportunity cookoff….

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

Barbara, Jesus, Antonio C and Miguel get to cook in “the hardest challenge yet”. They’re going to get to taste a dish from chef Ricard Camarena from Valencia. He’s presenting a calamari and cucumber soup. But here’s the kicker. They have to taste the dish blindfolded and then recreate it. The dish has few ingredients – quickly seared squid, blanched cucumber, salt, ground chili pepper, cilantro flowers, and clarified calamari broth mixed with cucumber juice. Nothing else. But that’s a lot at the same time. I have to admit, that’s a hard test – it’s hard enough identifying individual ingredients blindfolded, but to recreate an entire dish, a nightmare.

Remember, they’ve not seen the dish to identify ingredients, nor to see the plating… they each have a cloche covered bowl, they put on their blindfolds, and then lift the lids and set to it. They sniff, they taste, they stick their fingers in it. After a minute they have to stop. Then the dishes are taken away, they remove their blindfolds, head into the pantry, and start to cook. They have an hour.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

The hour up, they present their plates. Ricard Camarena leaves the three judges to do the tasting. I still don’t get why the guests don’t stay and help judge. I could see an argument for consistency in judging, but hey, we’ve had schoolchildren doing the judging at one of the competitions, and local fisherman at another, so that doesn’t really hold water. They’re all over the place with ingredients, truly. Barbara has made a black squid ink and cuttlefish broth with ginger and lemongrass and bits of seaweed instead of the cucumber. They like it, but note that it doesn’t taste remotely like the original dish. Antonio C has made a squid broth and then stocked it with turnips and radishes along with the cucumber. They like it, but again, wonder where he encountered the flavors or textures of those additional vegetables. Miguel starts by reminding them that this isn’t the type of cooking he typically does and therefore he doesn’t really understand it even if he likes it. Who cares? He’s made his broth with horseradish and then diced up cheese into it – again, they like it, but are truly mystified as to his choices of ingredients. Jesus has mixed pasta (which is what he thought the calamari was) with green beans, cucumber, turnips and radishes in a sort of olive oil cream sauce. They do like it, but note that it’s leagues away from the original dish – so far that it’s unrecognizable as even being related.

Top Chef Spain - Episode 5

So, it’s Jesus who gets sent home. They ask him what happened. He maintains that in his bowl, he tasted green beans, turnips, radishes and cucumbers, and that the squid didn’t taste like squid and had the texture of pasta, so he’s quite sure that he reproduced it faithfully. They still send him home. He says that after all, it’s a competition and this is the way it works – he doesn’t know if he made a mistake in what he made or they made a mistake in what they gave him (wtf?) but he has to accept it because that’s the way these things work. Tears fill his eyes as he packs his knives and heads out. A shame, he was one of my favorites. We close, more or less, on Chicote with his hands clapped to his face murmuring “mother of god save me” as he shakes his head. Jesus says goodbye to them, the other contestants, and leaves.

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