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 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.

July 10, 2009

Top Chef Masters: Digging a Hole

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 1:30 pm

Wow, 0 for 3. Obviously, the “most famous chef” rule of thumb is not working. I would say one should always choose the stony-faced female chef, but all of the remaining chefs are men. (That’s a total of 3 female Masters out of 24, for those keeping count. And 2 of the 3 advanced to the Champions’ Round. (Cindy Pawlcyn was insufficiently stony-faced.))

Next week: Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson, Michael Chiarello, Nils Norén, and Rick Moonen. MacKinnon-Patterson is young and all the winners so far have been old. Michael Chiarello is a food and lifestyle celebrity, not a restaurant chef (i.e., he’s soft). Rick Moonen is a seafood chef (Rule #3). I’m picking Nils Norén, who was the Executive Chef at a really good restaurant (Aquavit) and who has to look his French Culinary Institute students in the eye.

P.S. Top Chef: Las Vegas will premiere August 26! That will make six seasons and a spin-off in less than four years. Doesn’t Bravo have any more housewives or spoiled rich kids they could put on TV?

P.P.S. Bravo, the unofficial network of The Gays, totally succeeded in confusing me on the point that Neil Patrick Harris’ friend David Burtka is his boyfriend. Why would they be cagey about that?

July 1, 2009

Top Chef Masters Prediction #3

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 12:34 pm

My predictions aren’t turning out so good. I abandoned the “most famous chef” heuristic after the Wylie Dufresne debacle. So I went with Wilo Benet based on, oh, let’s say intuition. Things were looking good in the Quickfire, but who knew the producers would throw Rick Bayless a slow pitch over the center of the plate, offering him the opportunity to make tacos de lengua, which he’s probably made thousands of times (beside which, tongue is by far the most palatable of the four kinds of offal in attendance).

Next week: John Besh, Anita Lo, Mark Peel, and Doug Rodriguez. I’m going back to the most famous chef: John Besh. He beat Mario Batali on Iron Chef, after all (and was almost an Iron Chef himself).

[UPDATE] In observance of the birth of our glorious nation, there will be no Top Chef Masters this week. Feel free to watch a repeat of The Fashion Show instead.

June 20, 2009

Top Chef Masters: Lost Supper

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 1:27 pm

Congratulations to Suzanne Tracht (aka Chance the Gardener). It’s interesting the extent to which she, like Hubert Keller, pretty much dominated the competition from the get-go. That said, it doesn’t seem quite fair that Chef Tracht’s Quickfire-winning amuse bouche had the least representation of vending machine ingredients, using Fritos and Dr. Pepper as accents in a dish composed primarily of micro-greens and shallots. The other chefs’ plates had a vending machine protein right in the center of the plate. (I’m not sure I even consider a salad an amuse bouche, but what the hell do I know. It beats fruit gazpacho in  Granny Smith apple bowl.)

With Wylie Dufresne choking on the Quickfire, my predictions get off to a rocky start. I don’t expect things to get any better through these first rounds, since I’m just making wild-ass guesses. (Speaking of Wylie Dufresne, can I just say that I am so, so sick of the molecular gastronomy debate, and particularly the “I’m not a fan of your arid, soul-less approach to food, but this dish happens to be delicious. I nevertheless refuse to admit there is any problem with my a priori commitments,” style of criticism you saw in evidence from James Oseland and Gael Greene toward Wylie Dufresne. I say this as someone who has eaten at Drufresne’s restaurant and didn’t particularly like it. The idea that there are certain ingredients, techniques, and tools that can’t be used to make proper “soul-ful” food is just… ridiculous.)

Next week: Rick Bayless, Wilo Benet, Ludo Lefebvre, and Cindy Pawlcyn. My prediction? Wilo Benet. Because I like the name Wilo.

P.S. Can Jay Raynor please replace Toby Young on the regular show?

P.P.S. Can Elizabeth Falkner please come over and make me some cookies?

June 12, 2009

Top Chef Masters

Filed under: Not Tech, Top Chef — Chris @ 3:47 pm

To cover it, or not to cover it? That is the question. On the one hand, this blog has suffered from a lack of content since Top Chef: New York went off the air in February. On the other hand… Well, I like the fact that the vibe is more laid back, good natured, and collegial; that the skill and ease of the contestants genuinely earns the “masters” label; that the “critics” (not “judges”) are more respectful and attentive; that the tenor of the conversation runs towards “here’s why this dish wasn’t perfect” as opposed to “here’s why you’d have to be an utter fucking fool to think this dish could ever work at all.”

But the lack of drama is going to be a problem.

As much as I like to act all contemptuous of the Hoseas, the Leahs, the Arrianes, and so on, and pretend they have no place on Top Chef, I’m in the snark business over here. Writing a snarky blog post about Top Chef Masters is going to be like preparing an amuse bouche with ingredients from a vending machine. I don’t want to turn out the blog equivalent of a Snickers bar with a Cheeto sticking out of it.

Let’s wait and see. Hopefully, somebody douchey or arrogant or humorlessly homosexual will turn up and make a run at the finals.

This week, Hubert Keller had everybody out-classed. In the Quickfire, instead of condescending to little-girl tastes (e.g., chocolate-covered strawberries), he put out a whimsical and appealing plate of meringue swans and parfait. In the Elimination, he had the good sense to stay away from cuts of meat that would need to be to be “seared” on a hot plate (somehow Tim Love got away with this. I suppose skirt steak is more forgiving than pork chops).

Christopher Lee made the rookie mistake of trying to make a risotto (Rule #4). Tim Love got a little cute, making a “pozole” without hominy (Rule #4.2.1); that one slid by because it just happened to be delicious. (BTW, why was James Oseland so desperate to convince us that he enjoys football and tailgating and all of the manly pursuits of men?) All four contestants cheated a bit by preparing a raw first course, untouched by dorm room appliances. Overall, the quality of the dishes look pretty high. I can only imagine the parade of insipid “duos” and “trios” that would have been produced by a regular Top Chef cohort.

Next week’s contestants are Wylie Dufresne, Elizabeth Falkner, Suzanne Tracht, and Graham Elliot Bowles.

Prediction: I’m going to proceed on the assumption that the most famous chef always wins. That would be Wylie Dufresne, I think. Though he’s going to have a hard time pulling off anything molecularly gastronomical.

February 26, 2009

Who Will Be the Least Mediocre Chef?

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 12:58 am

This was the weakest finale we’ve ever seen from Top Chef. As I predicted, Carla faltered and Hosea surged. As I did not predict, Stefan stayed in his slump. Both Carla and Stefan severely under-performed their potential (with Carla getting caught up in Casey’s all-powerful finale-hexing vortex), while Hosea was at the top of his game. Sadly, the top of Hosea’s game looked like a competent but pretty uninspiring meal, making him a contender for the all-time worst Top Chef (he and Ilan need to have a douche-off).

In the end, it really wasn’t even close. As much as the judges hemmed and hawed, and as much as Toby Young tried to make the presence or absence of dessert a deciding factor, you just have to look at the dish count (or at Fabio’s sad, resigned, European face) to see it couldn’t have turned out otherwise:

  • Carla: 2 good dishes, 2 bad dishes (the beef and the cheese course)
  • Hosea: 3 good dishes, 1 mediocre dish (the crudo)
  • Stefan: 2 good dishes, 1 mediocre dish (dessert), 1 bad dish (the carpaccio)

The only way you could make this come out another way is to double or triple count the best dish of the night (Stefan’s squab), or to weigh the full-season record of the contestants (Stefan’s 4 Elimination wins and 4 Quickfires vs. Hosea’s 2 and 1).

It is nevertheless gratifying to point out that Stefan went out on one of the original, bedrock rules: never make dessert. This goes double in the context of a three-course meal (“Did you really think that dessert was one of your three best dishes?”). It goes triple in the finale (“Is that the dish you wanted as your last impression on the judges this season?”). If Stefan had made just one more savory course—and it hadn’t sucked—the judges almost certainly would have given him the prize.

So, how did I do this season? Of 6 testable predictions over the course of the season, I got 2 right (ouch). They were Arriane’s elimination and Carla’s meltdown tonight. The successful Arriane prediction sent me off on a power trip: I repeatedly tried and failed to predict Leah’s demise.

Of 13 eliminations, 6 were clear-cut rule violations, 4 of them among the original Six Commandments. That’s not counting any Rule #0 violations or Radhika’s dismissal in Restaurant Wars (which was arguably but unprovably covered by Rule #10). That does count Eugene’s and Danny’s eliminations under Rule #8 (which, to be fair,  is kind of a catch-all for “don’t make an ass out of yourself at Judges’ Table”). That’s not bad, but I’d like to see some improvement next season. I will have to carefully study the outlier eliminations and come up with some more refined principle than “don’t make bad food.”

Favorite line of the night: Stefan on Marcel: “He’s a bit of a twat, but who’s not?”

February 25, 2009

This Message Brought to You By Diet Coke

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 9:03 am

Spokes-Colicchio Is Thirsty For Liquidity

February 22, 2009

Will There Be a Slaughtering?

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 4:16 pm

Giddy Colicchio

This game might not be Stefan’s to lose anymore. Wha’ happened?

First, Stefan had the misfortune to make gumbo and beignets, setting himself up for a head-to-head comparison with Hosea and Carla. It looks pretty bad when other contestants make better versions of both of your dishes. (Hosea had also obviously studied and refined a knock-out gumbo recipe, which he tailored to the tasted of the local judges. That’s the kind of clever gamesmanship you would usually expect from Stefan, while Hosea looked on, washed some green beans, and whined about Europe.)

"This is not a butt rubbing competition... There will be a slaughtering."

"This is not a butt rubbing competition... There will be a slaughtering."

Second, Stefan gave the appearance of being cocky and arrogant. And, probably, he is cocky and arrogant. But I think there’s another factor at work: Stefan strives for an air of sprezzatura. It’s not enough to defeat and humble his opponents; he has to make it look easy. But the judges, especially Tom, don’t want to see that. They subscribe to this very American idea that you need to work hard and sweat or else you’re not doing it right. Stefan hasn’t yet had Hung’s insight: if you want to win this competition, you need to shamelessly flatter the judges’ prejudices. If your temperament and world-view clash with that of the judges, suck it up and tell them what they want to hear. In Hung’s case, this was that technically flawless French-Asian fusion cuisine was a reflection of his heart and soul, that he cooked with the blood, sweat, and tears of the immigrant experience. In Stefan’s case, he needs to reassure the judges that he cares more deeply about the food than about humiliating his competitors, that he spends every last second of his allotted cooking time obsessed with achieving perfection (smoke breaks are not OK).

"If it works out, it works out. If not, fine."

"If it works out, it works out. If not, fine."

Predictions. The Top Chef finale often features a reversal of fortune, where a contestant who is on a hot streak chokes (Richard, Casey) and/or a contestant who has been floundering exceeds expectations (Lisa, Dale, Ilan). Given that, Stefan’s missteps might have been a blessing (weakness is strength!), Carla might falter, and Hosea might surge. I’m picking Stefan, with Hosea as first runner up (this is not an official designation, but the judges usually make it clear who came in second and who came in third). Sorry Carla, but I just have a bad feeling about your chances—it won’t stop me from offering you a cheerful “Hootie hoo!” should we ever cross paths.

February 16, 2009

The (Still) Raw and the (Over)cooked

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 12:29 am

I think the universe is trying to tell me something. Just when I had lost my faith in Leah’s ability to fail, she finally gets the ax. And to really add a special zest, she goes home the same week that Stefan screws up.

In the end, the judges had a choice between two travesties: (1) send home the most talented chef, who anyone can see stands head and shoulders above the remaining competitors, or (2) send home the chef who didn’t overcook her fish. Overcooking (aka “disrespecting”) a protein is a Top Chef cardinal sin, which ordinarily trumps any lapse of technique or seasoning. Not without reason: I’m sure I would take watery egg and a thin Hollandaise over medium-to-well-done salmon any day (but don’t go by me, I never order eggs Benedict). In this case, I can’t help but think the judges took past performance into account in sending home the weaker chef.

It’s also possible that Leah’s eggs were worse than they were portrayed in the broadcast. Something like this seems to have occurred with Jeff’s elimination over Fabio in the Super Bowl episode. It seemed as if Fabio’s overcooked venison was an open-and-shut eliminator. But the secondary sources say that Jeff’s ceviche dish was just really, really bad. I can certainly imagine Stefan’s spinach being tastier than any single thing on Leah’s plate (but again, don’t go by me, not an eggs Benedict guy).

You will. Respect. Your. Proteins.

You will. Respect. Your. Proteins.

Predictions: I’m going with Hosea or Fabio (or, if it’s a double elimination, Hosea and Fabio). Neither one has a chance in hell of winning. After a rough patch there around Restaurant Wars, Carla is firing on all pistons. I think she might have a shot at this thing.



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