Procrastiblog

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.

August 31, 2009

Food Processing Prometheus

Filed under: Not Tech — Chris @ 9:53 pm

To: All my food processing comrades at the Park Slope Food Co-op

I had a cheese wrapping epiphany during my shift today. You know how it’s really annoying to pull out and tear off the Cling Wrap while you have the plastic gloves on? Here’s what I want you to do: grab a knife and cut the Cling Wrap. You can just keep the roll next to the cutting board, pull the wrap across the board, then slice the wrap with the tip of the knife. Your life will improve, at least for two hours and forty-five minutes.

BONUS TIP: To listen to a personal music player on the stereo, plug it into the headphone jack that’s lying on top of the stereo receiver, then flip the “Tape Mon” switch. Also, there’s an index of the “Food to Process Music By” CDs taped to the right side of the fridge next to the stereo.

A Shot at Love with Top Chef

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 11:09 am

This week was full of great examples of rules foolishly broken and wisely followed. To start with, Ashley landed herself at Judges’ Table by carelessly ignoring Rules A (“Never make a salad or dessert”), B (“Play it safe”), and D (“Be prepared to change your plan”). She made a panna cotta for dessert, even though nobody asked her to. She made two dishes, even though her team members practically begged her not to. And she served the panna cotta, even though it hadn’t set. So Ashley found herself in the ridiculous situation of facing elimination for a weak dish that she didn’t have to make and shouldn’t have served, when she had a second dish—the one she had set out to make in the first place—that the Judges really liked.

I think the record will show that the reason Eve went home this week instead of Jesse is pretty clearly the observance of Rule E (“Be prepared to defend your dish at Judges’ Table”). In both of her appearances at Judges’ Table, Eve was incoherent. It’s not so much that she demonstrated poor judgment as that she just made no sense. She did not give the Judges a reason to keep her on (Tom: “I don’t think, in her mind, she knows what she’s trying to accomplish.”). In contrast, both times Jesse clearly conveyed that she understood the flaws of her dish and the mistakes she had made in its preparation. This can only get you so far (note Gail’s comment: “How long can Jesse keep making this mistake?”), but it can get you through a couple of close eliminations.

I’m not sure what the hell happened with Preeti. She seems like a mediocre talent. Her dish was not well composed or seasoned, by the Judges’ lights. She probably should have ditched the shiso leaves when they started wilting in the hot sun. She went back to the Stew Room and determinedly refused to learn from the Judges’ critique (“It’s a crowd pleaser!”). I don’t think she’s in this for the distance.

Predictions: Eve is my first successful elimination prediction since Arriane was eliminated from Top Chef: New York (and that includes an entire season of Top Chef Masters)! Huzzah, I am back on top!

The obvious choice this week is Jesse. She’s been up for elimination twice now; she does not seem to have her head in the game. But Top Chef never shakes down that way—a cheftestant can be up for elimination twice, then win in the next episode. My guess is one of the middle-of-the-packers will make a spectacular error in judgment. Maybe Ron?

Random thoughts:

  • Were those comically giant dice or is Padma a much tinier person than I had realized?
  • It’s not just me, right? Michael and Bryan seem to hate each other?
  • Jennifer shows an excellent grasp of Rule D: “The octopus is frozen, but it seems like a good product and, if it’s not, I will make something else up on the fly.”
  • Mike: “People get tired of me. Real quickly.” I have no doubt that this is true, but, you know, I find this kind of charming. More self-deprecating prickliness and less “girls are icky” douchebaggery, Mike.
  • Hector ends up in the top four with a tofu dish. The exception that proves the rule?

August 20, 2009

Top Chef: Las Vegas

Filed under: Not Tech, Top Chef — Chris @ 10:26 pm

I’ll start off by saying congratulations to Rick Bayless for winning Top Chef Masters. He was my sentimental favorite, but if I had chosen him I wouldn’t have achieved my perfectly imperfect 0.0% record of predictions for the season. (I’m off to a good start this season too, see below.)

So, Top Chef: Las Vegas. Let’s play spot the stereotype: slightly older, slightly insecure female contestant who doesn’t have a chance in hell (Robin), check; arrogant, slightly obnoxiously, but talented, nerd (Eli), check; gimmicky duo, one of whom will be eliminated within three weeks (Michael and Bryan), check; hot-blooded Latino, who cooks “with his heart and his balls” (Hector), check; portly, good-natured goofball (Kevin), check; macho, misogynistic douchebag (Mike), check. (Query: is “misogynistic douchebag” a self-negating insult?)

Speaking of Mike (aka The Douche), which was worse: his irritation that Jennifer C. (nota bene: a girl) could keep up with him shucking clams (not beat him mind you, but just keep up) or his blustering when Robin declined to compete in the Quickfire? And speaking of Robin, did she make the right choice? (For a lot more on that, see the end of this post.)

This week’s events gave me good reason to believe the new rules will not have to be significantly amended.

In the Quickfire, the Red Team took about 15 seconds to settle on a plan in which Preeti would shuck the clams. Preeti made it clear to her teammates that she had no idea how to shuck a clam. Kevin, at least, seemed to know how to shuck a clam better than she did (“No, it’s not like an oyster at all!”) Now, was the Red Team prepared to change their plan? Hell no. Did that work out well for them? It did not. And that’s why we have Rule D.

In the Elimination, Jennifer Z. (thank God I don’t have to look at her creepy ear hoops all season) decided to Take a Risk and Wow the Judges with a seitan-stuffed chile relleno. Seitan is never a safe bet. Quoth Kevin: “Who cooks with seitan? Nobody bleeping likes that stuff.” And that’s why we have Rule B.

On a more minor note, at Judges’ Table, Jesse—after finding herself in the bottom for disrespecting a protein (Rule C)—was a great example of Rule E in action. I don’t think she was in serious danger of elimination—that chile relleno was just too bad—but she clearly impressed the Judges by knowing exactly what was wrong with her dish and how it could have been fixed. Eve also had a pretty good explanation at hand (she shouldn’t have added that cream), but got bogged down in a distracting discussion of “complexity” as a vice that seemed to leave the Judges befuddled.

Predictions: I had a 1/17 chance of choosing the first to go and a 16/17 chance of at least not choosing the Elimination winner. Instead, I chose Kevin who, in spite of being young and Georgian and not formally trained, is apparently a very talented chef. Bzzt.

It’s inherently hard to make predictions this early in the season—it seems like half the cheftestants didn’t even register on screen—but it would be no fun if I didn’t at least try. I was very unimpressed with Eve’s fortitude. I’m guessing she’s going to crack up.

P.S. They got Ferran Adrià?!! [UPDATE 8/25: Oops, I think that’s Joël Robuchon. Not nearly as big a “get.” I got thrown by his not-speaking-English-ness.]

The analysis of Robin’s gold chip dilemma is below the fold.

(more…)

August 19, 2009

Top Chef Rules 2.0: These Are My Beliefs

Filed under: Not Tech, Top Chef — Chris @ 6:18 pm

In our continuing effort to spin out the Grand Unified Theory of Top Chef, let’s re-state, clarify, and augment our original (and since-amended) list of rules. In order to avoid confusion, we will enumerate the rules by letters of the alphabet.

Rule A: Never make a salad or dessert. These dishes don’t get any respect, unless they are truly wonderful (even then, it’s almost impossible to win with them). In the case of dessert, you are quite likely to screw it up. Especially ice cream.

Rule B: Play it safe. This is not Top Chef. This is Top Scallop. You can win this competition by cooking menu items from your restaurant week after week (just ask Ilan). Never make something you’ve never made before and just assume it will turn out OK. As timid and pathetic as it sounds, it really is better to be in the middle of the pack until the very end.

Corollary B.1: Don’t get cute. Don’t ever “cleverly” name your dish a “risotto” or “coq au vin” unless you are prepared to really truly execute the classic dish (and, face it, you’re probably not).

(Perhaps we should recognize here an underlying Principle to this Rule, which is that the cheftestants should assume, per Jim Pryor, that the Judges (especially the Guest Judges) are lazy, stupid, and mean. They’re lazy, so they don’t want to have to work to understand your dish; they’re stupid, so they want to eat something that satisfies their preconceptions; and they’re mean, so they’re going to be eager to find some way to criticize you (the simpler and the more obvious the better). With respect to Corollary B.1, the Judges will always be happy to ignore any playful intentions and point out that your twist on a classic dish was made the “wrong” way.)

Corollary B.2: Never be the team leader. The team leader is always the first to go. Even if you’ve got a bottom-feeder on your team undermining you, the Judges are going to ask,”Wouldn’t a real leader find a way to solve the problem?”

Rule C: Respect your proteins. Nothing will get you kicked off Top Chef faster than an over-cooked piece of meat. And a well-cooked piece of meat will always win over even the best vegetarian dish.

Rule D: Be prepared to change your plan. How many times have we watched a cheftestant complacently coast to elimination because he chose to go ahead and stick with the original plan even though he couldn’t get the best quality ingredients or something in the kitchen wasn’t working right or it turned out he had to cook everything with a box of matches and a mirror? Quick thinking is probably the signal virtue of the successful cheftestant. If the plan goes South, change the plan.

Rule E: Be prepared to defend your dish at Judges’ Table. This is really important and not widely appreciated. If your dish didn’t work, you cannot bluff the Judges. Tell them why it didn’t work and what you’d do differently and maybe they’ll take pity on you.

Rule F: It’s business, not personal. If you’ve got a Marcel, a Dale, a Lisa, or a Stefan on your team, you’re going to have to suck it up and deal with it. Sometimes these people are talented and can make a real contribution to your team, if you don’t go into a passive aggressive tailspin. Successful cheftestants accommodate themselves to strong personalities and persevere.

That’s it. Good luck, cheftestants. Please be so kind as to fail in only the above-mentioned ways.

Prediction: Just for kicks, let me glance over the list of contestants…  Eli Kirshtein is the youngest (25) and is not from a Big Restaurant Town (Atlanta), but he’s a Richard Blais protégé and that has to count for something. Kevin Gillespie is also young, also from Atlanta, and doesn’t have a culinary degree. That’s our guy. Kevin will be the first to go.

Top Chef Masters Catch-up

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 4:36 pm

I was AWOL for two weeks, so let me just weigh in with my final thoughts and an ill-fated prediction.

Michael Chiarello: I don’t care if he’s a huge dick—though I think some of his dickishness derives from his insecurity at having spent most of the last ten years out of the trenches, pursuing a career as a celebrity chef—he’s obviously capable of cranking out really delicious food so long as he doesn’t get pushed too far outside his comfort zone (and, honestly, Rick Bayless is no different. Every last dish has been Italian and Mexican from those two). He’s got chops, but he’s outmatched. Total stars for the competition: 79½.

Rick Bayless: This guy is so gosh darn nice, I want to be his best friend. More than any other Masters chef, I want to check out his restaurant. I just need some reason to pass through Chicago someday. Total stars for the competition: 86.

Hubert Keller: He seems to be some kind of Jedi Master. Last week he cranked out 18 dishes to the other chef’s 4 or 5, without breaking a sweat, and earned a perfect 15 star rating from the critics. And he’s just so jolly. Has he ever once even fleetingly betrayed a negative emotion? Total stars for the competition: 83.

Prediction: My heart is with Chef Bayless, but I’m guessing Chef Keller, based partly on his preternatural Cool and based partly on a hunch.

Iceland

Filed under: Iceland — Chris @ 7:49 am

Photo op at Hekla

The full set is here.

July 30, 2009

Top Chef Masters: A Grotesque Huge Ball … Terrifying

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 10:09 pm

Was it just me, or was this week’s challenge kind of too easy? The chefs weren’t obligated to literally mimic the given dish (i.e., this was not Top Chef New York‘s Le Bernardin challenge), so basically the challenge was to compose a dish given a main protein, 3 or 4 key ingredients, and a general idea of how they should inter-relate. The only chef who seemed to sweat if at all was Art Smith, who for some reason was deathly afraid of having to fry an egg (he seemed to think his failure to separate and whip egg whites in the Quickfire had put him under an hex).

The Critics had to make the classic Top Chef choice: what’s worse, the reasonably well-thought-out dish with the cold, overcooked fish (Suzanne Tracht’s grouper) or the horrendously ill-conceived dish that was at least edible (Art Smith’s lamb Scotch egg)? It always ends the same way: you don’t disrespect a protein and get away with it on Top Chef. You can terrify Gael Greene, but you can’t overcook your fish.

Predictions: From now on I’ll predict the opposite of whatever I think is going to happen. I really thought Suzanne Tracht was going to go the distance. Art Smith is obviously the weakest competitor, so he’ll probably win next week. Hubert Keller, Anita Lo, and Rick Bayless can turn out perfectly prepared, refined, and delicious food without breaking a sweat, so obviously one of them will go home next week. Let’s say Anita Lo, since her performance this week was so outstanding (the highest star total yet, by a star and a half!).

July 29, 2009

Top Chef Masters: Now We’re Getting Somewhere

Filed under: Not Tech — Chris @ 6:49 pm

Last week: I found Jonathan Waxman delightful. So much so that I’ve made a note to visit his restaurant ASAP. Art Smith’s food looked delicious, but safe. That’s good gamesmanship: always make something delicious and safe in preference to something adventuresome and potentially disgusting.

This week: The Champions’ Round commences and, with it, perhaps my luck will change. My money is on Suzanne Tracht to take the whole enchilada (even though I think I’ve seen some spoiler-ish insinuations that Hubert Keller is a lock). I think Michael Chiarello and Art Smith are the weakest of the lot, though Rick Bayless seems apt to lose his head in the heat of the competition. I’m going to wear my prejudices on my sleeve and vote against the Lifestyle Celebrity. I’m guessing they ask Chiarello to do something that doesn’t involve Faking Happy for the camera and he chokes.

Now: In honor of Restaurant Week, I’m off to get treated shabbily while eating indifferently-prepared food at a bad table in a slightly better-than-average restaurant.

[UPDATE] And then: It should be noted that the aforementioned restaurant turned out not to be participating in Restaurant Week at dinner time, although the initial announcement included them and they have done so in the past. They did not see fit to inform us of this before we were sitting at our table and handed our menus (unlike Gramercy Tavern, which reminded me on at least two separate occassions before I arrived that they had opted out this summer.) The meal was nearly three times more expensive than the Restaurant Week price and was, really, quite mediocre.

July 22, 2009

Top Chef Masters: In the Weeds

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 10:56 am

Nils Norén, you broke my heart.

Michael Chiarello is creepy, right? He’s go an amped-up, fake-y charm. You can see why it works when it’s aimed straight at the camera on the Food Network, but when the Magical Elves crew take two steps to the left and you have to watch him relate to actual human beings, he’s like a Charming Lifestyle Robot exuding unctuous semi-gayness.

But, damn, it turns out he can cook. And the only guy who had a shot at him—amped-up, twitchy seafood chef Rick Moonen, who could have knocked him off the pedestal with a 3-star shrimp corndog in the Quickfire—just…. didn’t. (What was that about? Has any Top Chef contestant ever failed to get something, anything, onto the plate?)

This week: Art Smith, Jonathan Waxman, Michael Cimarusti, and Roy Yamaguchi. Since none of these chefs are particularly famous or female, I’m going to choose the hometown boy: Jonathan Waxman.

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