September 27, 2009

Problematizing Paella

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 9:43 pm

I should start off by noting, in deference to Andy, a change in the wording of Rule E. Instead of, “Be prepared to defend your dish at Judges’ Table”—which gives perhaps too much of a hint of Danny/Gene/Mattin-like defensiveness— we will heretofore say, “Be prepared to critique your dish at Judges’ Table.” The idea, as I stated in comments last week, is that you must:

(a) clearly state what you were trying to achieve, so the judges can see you put some thought into it, and (b) clearly state how and why you fell short, preferably with reference to some circumstance beyond your control. You want to be the guy who screwed up, but could do it better next time, not the guy who is oblivious to his own faults.

Moving on to the episode, this might be a condescending way to look at things, but it seems a little, I don’t know, culturally biased to eliminate Ron on the “deconstruction” challenge. I mean, “deconstructed” (actually “decomposed“) food should be an entry on Stuff White People Like. Ron clearly wasn’t with the program from beginning to end (though I wonder if Kevin and Eli’s pep talk didn’t send him off in the wrong direction, à la Tim “I am woeful, Johnny” Gunn).

I’m not even going to count this as a Rule E elimination, because Ron was just so overmatched and overwhelmed, he never had a chance. On the other hand, note that both Ash and Laurine at least got it on the record that essential components of their dishes didn’t make it to the plate (in both cases potatoes, puréed and fried, respectively). This serves as a nice example of Rule E and Rule D (” Be prepared to change your plan”)—it’s always better to send out an incomplete plate then to serve something that didn’t work).

Toby, I'm going to beat you to death with a pie-ell-ur-ah

Toby, I'm going to beat you to death with a pie-ell-ur-ah

It also would have helped if Ron’s paella had been delicious. I’m going to mark this one down for Rule C (“Respect your proteins”), for the overcooked fish.

Predictions: 3 for 6! If that doesn’t sound impressive to you, please check in on my Top Chef Masters posts.

I don’t think Robin will make it to the final, but I think her fellow cheftestants are being a bit harsh in their assessment of her. For instance, it’s really not clear why they think she’s so much worse than Mattin. I think that they just don’t like her because she’s somewhat annoying and are letting that cloud their judgment (see Rule F). On the flip side, Eli and Mike seem to get included in the “deserve to be here” category just because the other, better cheftestants like them.

But none of that matters. This is Laurine’s week to go home.


September 20, 2009

Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Ceviche

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 3:15 pm

All right, class, let’s see if you’ve been paying attention: why did Mattin go home for a mediocre ceviche instead of Robin for inedible, potentially dangerous shrimp?

Anybody who said Rule E (”Be prepared to defend your dish at Judges’ Table”), give yourself 5 points. Robin knew she screwed up and admitted it: “I’m not making excuses. I’m not proud of what I put out today.” She didn’t have much to say for herself besides—she didn’t even mount an argument that the shrimp had gone bad out in the hot sun and she shouldn’t be blamed—but she also didn’t fight an uphill battle against the judges’, um, judgment. What did Mattin do? He went the Danny route and said, “I was very happy [with my dish] and I’m actually very surprised to be here.” Not smart. Now, you’re not just unlucky or off your game; you’ve called your own judgment into question. That’s a self-inflicted wound you don’t recover from. As Tom said, incredulously, “The biggest problem is he claims to have tasted those ceviches and thought they were good?!

Predictions: I had Ashley pegged wrong. She not only kept her shit together, she stayed focused, thought things through, and excelled.

Robin and Ron are fighting it out down at the bottom. Ashley and Laurine are more marginal cases: they both have talent, but are too unreliable and streaky. I don’t think either has the grit to win this competition. My guess is Ron has finally hit his limit.

Looking out further, I’m going to call it now: the finale will be Jennifer vs. Bryan (who will have Michael oh-so-heart-warmingly on his prep team). Bryan will win, after which he will betray an emotion.

Random thoughts:

  • I was really surprised that Tom Colicchio’s much-promoted spit-out in the bushes was just chewy, too-raw ceviche and not a piece of bad shellfish (like, oh, say, shrimp). I would have thought it would take more than that—something dangerous to eat instead of just lousy (although Tim Love did say it made him feel sick).
  • Tim Love, to Robin: “‘I wanted to play off steak, so I decided to give you sausage and shrimp.’ That’s ridiculous.”
  • Ron, why in the world would you make an alcoholic beverage if you don’t drink? Also, the judges never like things served in coconuts.
  • On his blog, Tom Colicchio defines “correctly seasoned” as “whether it was salted correctly, because salt has the ability to bring out the other three types of taste you experience on your tongue, i.e., sweetness, bitterness and sourness.” That’s what I thought that meant, but I always assumed there was at least a little more to it.

September 13, 2009

Don’t Get Saucy With Me, Béarnaise

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 8:58 pm

In spite of the fact that he straight-up broke Rule C (“Repect your proteins”), I was surprised that Hector went home for a piece of beef that didn’t get cooked through in time. A stubborn piece of meat is a misfortune that can befall even the most talented chef on a time limit. On the other hand, one could argue that: (a) the beef could have gone into the oven sooner and/or been pulled out rarer, (b) there was evidence of uneven cooking and thus of inept food prep (though, to be fair, this reduces to (a) since, given adequate time to plate, the less evenly cooked slices could have been discarded), and (c) the meat was underseasoned (read: not salty enough).

I also think that Rule E (“Be prepared to defend your dish at Judges’ Table”) inarguably leaned in Ash and Hector’s favor. They both clearly understood what had gone wrong with their dish (the meat hadn’t rested) and could easily have fixed it given another chance. Ashley and Mattin, on the other hand, had almost nothing to say in their own defense, a fact that Gail Simmons bemoaned at Judges’ Table. Ashley weakly offered that they could have incorporated the asparagus into the sauce. But she wasn’t willing to openly confront Mattin when he told the judges he didn’t shoot her down. If Hector’s beef hadn’t been such a disaster, it’s hard to guess whether Ashley or Mattin would have gone home instead.

Predictions: Goodbye, Jesse! 2 for 4! A campfire challenge will favor the cool, the collected, and the rustic over the tightly wound, the scatter-brained, and the classically trained. I’d say that puts Robin on the firing line, along with bottom dwellers Ashley, Laurine, Ron, and Mattin. I’m guessing Ashley, who seems the least apt to keep her shit together.

Random thoughts:

  • Does Ron have a problem with women or is he just the worst team player ever?
  • Jennifer and Michael sitting in a tree…
  • H proposes the following unofficial rule: always cook with bacon. Evidence: Bryan’s Elimination win last week and Kevin’s Quickfire win this week. (Mattin’s velouté is the exception that proves the rule.)
  • Mike obviously learned his lesson last week. He didn’t go so far as to steal credit from Bryan for his “deconstructed Béarnaise,” but he made damn sure the judges knew it was a collaborative effort to which he and Bryan contributed just about equally. The judges weren’t buying it—the top prize went to Bryan without much ado—but this time they let his coat-tail riding slide. (Aside: You know that sauce was damn good, because there’s nothing the judges would like better than to roll their eyes and sneer at a “deconstructed” anything.)
  • Hector was pissed when he got eliminated. No “thank you” to the judges. No hand shaking with his peers. He made a beeline for the exit.

September 6, 2009

Top Chef: Right into the Danger Zone

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 5:59 pm

What did we learn this week? For one thing, we learned that that some of the airmen at Nellis Air Force Base are returning from deployment in theater and others are preparing to deploy and that it is therefore a matter of great pride and no little emotion to prepare for them a buffet lunch. More importantly, we learned that one must never let any consideration—seasonality, balance, the preferences of the quote-unquote customers—come before the goal of making a dish that will “wow” the judges.

We’ve seen it time and time again: the cheftestants are asked to collaboratively prepare a meal and, in service of the master plan, some schnook gets stuck making a salad or a dessert or a side of potatoes. And the judges look at the schnook and say, “How in the world did you think you were going to win this competition with a salad or a dessert or a side of potatoes?” And the schnook says, “No meal is complete without a salad or a dessert or a side of potatoes!” And the judges say, “Go home.” Don’t put yourself in that position. If that means serving eight courses of pork belly, go right ahead. Do you want to be the person who says, “We already had seven courses of pork belly, so I made… pasta salad.” Rule A, people. Learn it, love it, live it.

(I can tell you, for the record, that pasta salad is on Tom Colicchio’s list of dishes that could never possibly “wow” him. I have struggled long and hard, but I actually can’t think of a way that a pasta salad could ever possibly be a successful dish on Top Chef. You might get lucky and not get kicked off for it, but you’re sure as hell not going to win.)

Things started off looking pretty good for my predictions. Jesse and Ron got paired up for the express reason that all the other cheftestants didn’t want to work with them. They immediately established a negative rapport. They decided to make chowder on a hot summer day—a decision that raised eyebrows from their fellow cheftestants and the judges—and then squabbled with the other cheftestants over access to the proper equipment with which to prepare it. But, in the end, the chowder was pretty tasty and they didn’t even get called out for being among the worst. Lesson learned: you don’t get kicked off Top Chef for making a pretty tasty chowder—even on a hot summer day—if some other knucklehead made pasta salad.

After landing herself at Judges’ Table with that ill-considered salad, Preeti once again distinguished herself with a disregard for Rule E (“Be prepared to defend your dish at Judges’ Table”). While Laurine admitted that the dish was weak and showed just enough sense to save her own skin, Preeti dug in her heels and talked her way into elimination (“I thought our dish was really good. In terms of flavor, I thought it was better than a lot of the other dishes.” Uh-huh). It didn’t help that, by refusing to turn on each other or provide any specific information about who did what and why, Preeti and Laurine forced the judges to make a decision based almost solely on Judges’ Table conduct.

Predictions: The weakest links are pretty obviously Jesse, Ron, Laurine, and Mattin. I say, in the absence of an unscheduled meltdown, Jesse is the next to go.

Random Thoughts:

  • Just what exactly did Michael do to that slab bacon that Tom Colicchio found so impressive?
  • Mike was all class this week. He actually talked himself into the bottom group by failing to take any credit at all for Michael’s winning dish. He also fell prey to the Ashley fallacy that association with one good dish will immunize you from criticism for a bad one. It might save you from elimination (as it did here), but it won’t stop the judges from griping. They would have preferred he hadn’t made the shrimp salad and just basked in Michael’s reflected glory (like Eli did, apparently).
  • There is some talk of Jennifer being the season’s designated villain. I don’t get it. Sure, she can be a bit curt in the kitchen and she fits into the “pushy woman” box along with Tiffani from Season 1. But, if anything, the other cheftestants seem to appreciate Jennifer’s no bullshit, no drama, results-oriented approach. In this weeks episode, she was ending fights, not starting them.

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