December 13, 2009

Michael Hated Everything

Filed under: Not Tech, Top Chef — Chris @ 10:35 pm

Poor Kevin. It’s hard to say he choked, since he put out four pretty solid dishes, but he certainly underperformed his potential. As far as I could see the whole thing was pretty close, with each chef putting out one great dish (Kevin’s chicken skin and squash, Michael’s rockfish, and Bryan’s venison), one mediocre dish (Kevin and Michael’s desserts, Bryan’s tuna-noodle casserole with no tuna, no noodles, and no salt), and a pair of dishes that were good but not impeccable (the Judges always find something to peck).

I think the lesson of Kevin’s two part finale experience is that Top Chef is not the place for slow-cooked meats. It seems to me that you rarely get the time you need in an elimination challenge to properly cook a brisket or a pork belly (though, Shyamalan twist, Michael won with a pork belly back in the Thunderbirds episode).

Who does mom love more?

Predictions. I was only 5 for 13 with my predictions this season, and that’s not counting a totally ill-advised Jennifer vs. Bryan finale prediction from episode 5 (one has to admit that was pretty close!). I probably would have called Robin’s elimination if I had bothered to blog episode 10 (though maybe I would have chosen Eli for spite).

That’s a bit better than I did last season and about a million percent better than I did on Top Chef Masters.

The Rules. The record for The Rules is much better: 9 of 14 eliminations were arguably rule violations. One for Rule A (“Never make a salad or dessert”: Preeti), two for Rule B (“Play it safe”: Jennifer Z. and Robin), four for Rule C (“Respect your proteins”: Hector, Ron, Ashley, Ash, and Eli), one for Rule D (“Be prepared to change your plan”: Mike I.), two for Rule E (“Be prepared to critique your dish”: Eve and Mattin). The ones that fell through the cracks are Laurine, who set a precedent in going home for being a terrible hostess in Restaurant Wars, and Jennifer, Kevin, and Bryan, who were simply not the best of a very good lot. The only rule that didn’t come into play this season was Rule F (“It’s business, not personal”), which is surprising considering how many team-ups with Robin and Ron seemed headed for disaster.

That’s it for this season. No more TV blogging till who knows when… Any suggestions?


December 8, 2009

You Eat What You Like, And I’ll Eat What I Like

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 10:10 pm

The trouble with finishing off the season with four incredibly talented and relatively drama-free chefs is… I’ve got nothing to say. This is what I was afraid Top Chef Masters was going to be like, before Michael Chiarello arrived to douche things up. Unfortunately, the old Chiarello touch didn’t take this week.

Prediction: It’s sad to see Jennifer go, even if it does put me back on a solid prediction streak. My call from last week stands: Kevin FTW. If you are not convinced by the mere fact that the more-technical chef has prevailed over the simpler-but-more-soulful chef exactly once in Top Chef history (that would be Hung, over the outmatched Dale and Casey; a moment of silence for Tiffani, Marcel, Richard, and Stefan); that Kevin is the all-time winningest chef (although Bryan now stands beside him as the all-time not-losing-est chef, having never once been in danger of Elimination); if Kevin’s toothsome Yukon Cornelius-ness isn’t enough to give you a rooting interest, just consider this: it will be an unpleasant and awkward Christmas at the Voltaggio’s if Bryan loses to Michael (or vice versa).

[UPDATE] I meant to note that this is the first time in Top Chef history where there can be no perverse or outrageous outcome in the finale. Notwithstanding Michael is kind of a dick—it’s hard to blame him since obviously his mother never truly loved him—all three chefs are incredibly talented and none of them is a boo-hiss villain in the Tiffani/Ilan/Lisa/Hosea mold. I’ll be rooting for Kevin, but I wish all the best to the Voltaggios too.

November 22, 2009

How Do You Measure a Chef’s Worth? Just By The Pleasure He Gives Here On Earth

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 11:16 pm

This week was a preview of how I expect the rest of the season to play out. Kevin made the smart Rule B play, sticking with simple, clean flavors over elaborate presentations. He risked being dismissed as an underachiever. But in truth it’s rare for a chef to go home for making delicious food that’s not “ambitious” enough. Indeed, Kevin has exactly the kind of approach the Judges like: not overly fussy, focused on flavor, and “soulful.” The Voltaggios are more technically proficient, but more likely to try something risky or conceptual that falls short on flavor. (Top Chef contestants need to spend more time studying Tom Collichio’s Diet Coke commercial—he is not a big fan of conceptual cookery.)

Predictions: I’m putting all my chips on Kevin to win. If you need more convincing, with this episode Kevin clinched the record as the all-time winningest Top Chef contestant, with 5 Elimination wins and 4 Quickfire wins (one, the blind-fold relay, as a team member). He’s won nearly half of the Elimination Challenges he’s participated in (recall he was excused from the Joël Robuchon challenge for his Quickfire win). He’s only been in the bottom once, in Restaurant Wars (that great inverter of Top Chef fortune). In comparison, Stephanie (Season 4) had 5 Elimination wins, including her Season win, and only 1 Quickfire win. Stefan (Season 5) had 4 Elimination wins and 4 Quickfire wins. (Let’s hope that Kevin doesn’t imitate his home stretch performance.)

I am fond of Jennifer, but she obviously has a problem performing under pressure. I expect her to go home next week.

November 15, 2009

The Quiver of a 17th Century Courtesan’s Inner Thigh

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 11:15 pm

First off, I apologize for two weeks without Top Chef blogging. Let’s just say the demands of reality interfered with reality television.

This week, Robin’s luck finally ran out. She ran afoul of Rules A, B, and D: she made a dessert, she attempted to use a technique she had no experience with, and she blundered on as the plan fell apart. She showed up at Judges’ Table hoping to get credit for what she intended, rather than what she served.

The Elimination looked close though: Jennifer put out an inedible protein and Eli had put out a dish that was inedible, period. It’s pretty incredible to think Eli did not get eliminated when he served a dish that got the following reviews:

Tom: “The dish was a failure. Texturally, it completely failed.”

Padma: “I really didn’t like the flavors in that dish. I personally would never want to eat that again.”

Nigella: “I’d rather eat sawdust… I had to bring every ounce of my upbringing to bear to not spitting the bit I had back into the cup.”

"I don't like it at all."

"I don't like it at all."

You have to figure the Judges’ were just ready to be rid of Robin.

Predictions: Can I just pretend I predicted Robin for this week? I have a bad feeling all the fight has gone out of Jennifer, but I’m going to stick to my and everybody else’s guns and predict the top four will be Brian, Jennifer, Kevin, and Michael. (Note: One of these four has won every Elimination Challenge this year. That’s the most concentrated the winners have been in any season.) That means it’s Eli’s turn to go home.

Random observations

  • Kevin on Nigella: “Gordon Ramsey named a turkey after her. She’s legit.”
  • The three top dishes were, by far, less literally inspired by their casinoes than the bottom three dishes.
  • Eli on the Circus Circus casino: “It’s not like big top, elephants, giraffes… It’s, like, not a circus.”.
  • Jennifer served “shit on a shingle” in the Quickfire and “a sword in a stone” for the Elimination Challenge. She may want to consider serving things that sound appetizing.

October 25, 2009

Laurine’s at the Back of the Line When It Comes To Gettin’ Ahead

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 6:13 pm

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: this week didn’t go well for me. After two consecutive front-of-the-house Restaurant Wars eliminations, I am going to have to retract my claims about the front-of-the-house advantage. While Radhika may have been the exception that proves the rule (she went home because she was the team leader and the team failed), Laurine finished the rule off once and for all. She went home instead of Michael, who under-seasoned his char and made bland asparagus. She went home instead of Jennifer, who made two bad dishes, one of which Tom said was “a disaster.” And she went home instead of Kevin, who sent out unevenly cooked, too-rare lamb. (Granted, the lamb dish was technically Laurine’s, and Tom tried to make a lot of the fact that Laurine had promised she would keep an eye on the dish and make sure it passed muster. But still it’s hard to fault Laurine for a poorly cooked dish when it was Kevin who was working the grill.) The reason that Laurine went home this week, instead of any of her teammates, is that she did a terrible job working the front of the house, failing to expedite dishes, forgetting to explain dishes as they arrived, and just generally being frazzled and unhelpful in a too-obvious way. I didn’t think it was possible, but there you have it.

Predictions: Damn you, Laurine, for not going home last week or the week before. And damn you, Robin, for pulling your act together and putting out a delightful pear pithivier. My record has sunk to a pitiful 3 for 9. I’m going to stick with Robin for next week, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Eli finally shoots himself in the foot.

"I am very happy about this whole situation."

"I am very happy about this whole situation."

Random observations

  • The tag-team Quickfire was by far the coolest challenge Top Chef has ever done.
  • Was Padma being a bitch or what? Was there any point in asking for salt for her asparagus except to mess with the Laurine and Mike’s heads?
  • I love that Toby Young is a man who can’t do without dessert.
  • Robin couldn’t help but complain about Mike V. at Judge’s Table, even as the Judges were complimenting her dish. Can’t she see how big his heart is?
  • Since Jennifer was the obvious second choice for elimination, and Kevin the third, one might be tempted to speculate the producers put a thumb on the scale in favor of the top contenders. Far be it from me to suggest such a thing. But one might be tempted.

October 18, 2009

You’re Not My Mom! You Can’t Tell Me What It’s About!

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 10:46 pm

Another poor showing at Judges’ Table this week. Robin ran smack into the face of Rule E, saying she stood behind her dish when she should have been abandoning (er, critiquing) it. Ash went the “I had a much better dish in my head” route and seemed to put far to much stock in how well Charlie Palmer appreciated it in his head.(It was kind of a Rule D⁻¹ violation: don’t change your plan and then expect to get credit for the original plan.) Laurine opened her mouth and revealed that she didn’t know the difference between a rillettes and cat food. Any one of them could have gone home and it wouldn’t have been a surprise. But in the end it was salt before texture: Ash had failed at something so simple as to be unforgiveable.

Predictions: On the one hand, I want to stick with Laurine so that she doesn’t slip past me. On the other hand, it looks as if she’s working the front of the house in Restaurant Wars next week and that means there’s no chance she’ll go home, so long as she avoids the Radhika Trap. And it looks as if Robin, who is obviously the weakest chef left standing (she’s been in the bottom less often than Laurine, but she’s also never been in the top), is going to get herself in trouble next week. Restaurant Wars is always a good candidate for a surprise elimination, but I’m going to play it safe and assume Robin’s luck will run out.

Random observations

  • My comments about Robin above aside, I think its obvious that Eli was being a total jerk and owed her an apology. His evident pride in having “stepped up” to her was incredibly immature (and the other contestants undoubtedly would have told him so directly if they all didn’t also have a chip on their shoulders about her). Eli is such an arrogant tool that I really enjoyed watching Michael and Bryan get under his skin. It was simple schoolyard stuff (“That was flirting… Did you get to second base?”), but amazingly effective. The Voltaggio’s obviously know how to deconstruct a male ego.
  • "Dude, seriously, can you stop? You are pissing me off."

    "Dude, seriously, can you stop? You are pissing me off."

  • I think we can all agree that “the difference between a shaved armpit and a hairy armpit” was the good Toby Young.

October 9, 2009

Ash Turns the Color of an Avocado When Mike V. Drives Down the Street in His El Dorado

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 8:11 pm

Gosh, this week featured one of the loopiest Judges’ Tables in a long time. First, we had Ash’s bizarre sycophantic praise of Michael—which had the doubly unhelpful effect of making Ash look dispensible while emphasizing that Michael was almost entirely responsible for a failed dish—followed by Ashley’s exhausted failure to give the judges a single reason to let her stay. On a first viewing, I thought it was strange that the judges focused on Ashley and let Eli off the hook. On a rewatch, it’s clear that Ashley, in staying loyal to her teammate, took the bulk of the blame for both the undercooked prawns and the over-salted gnocchi. Probably, per Rule C, the undercooked prawns were enough to send her home. Throw in a sprinkle of Rules D and E and she was done for.

Predictions: I’m going to stick with Laurine for next week. There’s just as good a chance of it being Ash or Robin, but I’ll feel stupid if I switch.

Random observations

  • Kevin’s “High Stakes Quickfire” choice this week was a no-brainer. At minimum, his chance of making it through this round was 9 out of 10. In reality, his chance of making a worse dish than Ash and Ashley and Eli and Laurine and Mike and Robin all at the same time was very, very close to zero. At minimum, his chances of winning the $100,000 grand prize at this point are 1 in 10. In reality, his chances of winning are more like 1 in 5 (roughly equal with Bryan, Jennifer, and Michael, with a 25% wildcard factor) and aren’t going to change much until some of the heavy hitters get axed. In addition, the marginal value of being eliminated in Episode 7 versus Episode 8 is neglible. Kevin is already going to benefit a great deal from his run on the show, no matter how much farther he goes.
  • I really miss the Tom Colicchio kitchen walkthroughs in the first half of the season.
  • Mike is lucky to not have faced a Rule F elimination this week. Who do you think would have gone home if that tuna and scallops dish had fallen short, when he had consciously and none-too-subtly marginalized Robin through the whole process?
  • The only thing more important to me than winning this competition is my visceral hatred of womankind.

    The only thing more important to me than winning this competition is my visceral hatred of womankind.

  • To Tyler Florence, on behalf of every Top Chef viewer in the world: of course you can take “the power went off” as an excuse. It’s, like, the best excuse ever.
  • Also in re Mr Florence: Is it the fate of all young attractive male food celebrities to pork out and make everybody sad?

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.
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