February 7, 2009

Four or Five Good Dishes, No Bad Dishes

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 8:32 pm

I love how, every season, the contestants get sent off to do something that seems like it will be fun and, every season, it turns out to be an Elimination Challenge switcheroo, but, every season, they walk right into it without suspecting a thing. Think of Season 3’s “Guilty Pleasures”, when the contestants thought they were going dancing, only to have to man a late-night grease truck outside the nightclub (and poor Casey, almost losing her mind at having to cook in heels and a low-cut shirt). This week, we had dipshit Hosea:

“I’m really pumped. I’m about to sit down with Eric Ripert and Tom Colicchio and have a feast. This is such an honor.”

Yeah, I’m sure Eric and Tom just want to sit back and kick it with you, hear what you have to say about hooking up with girls and then treating them like garbage, your secrets for over-cooking fish and the like… That’s the ticket.

When will these people learn?

And thus we were introduced to a really interesting and, it seems to me, relatively easy Elimination Challenge—each contestant must duplicate a dish from the menu of Le Bernardin—which results in a premature departure for Jamie.

After the last two weeks’ upsets, I think it’s time to formalize the following rule (which has always been implicit), lest the entire rulebook come under attack:

Rule #0: Don’t make the worst dish. This one seems obvious—and it is!—but I have to admit that it continually catches me off-guard. It is better to do nothing, to take no responsibility, to have no ideas, passion, direction, or plan, than to put out a straight-up bad dish. Week after week, inferior, clueless chefs turning out mediocre, uninspired food edge out more-talented chefs who make one big mistake. This is the number one cause of fan frustration and conspiracy theories. Just ask: Jamie (tonight), Jeff (last week), Andrew (Season 4), Tre (Season 3).

This week is a perfect illustration of the principle: Leah had no idea what she was doing. She didn’t have the sophistication or technique to reverse-engineer the recipe. At Judges’ Table, she more-or-less admitted that she had no idea how to properly prepare her dish and asked Eric Ripert to tell her how it should be done (his answer, add some lemon and dilute the sauce, didn’t sound like rocket science). Given another chance, she would have turned out the same bad food. On the other hand, Jamie knew exactly what she was doing, but made a careless error: she over-salted and over-reduced the celery sauce (Ripert: “The celery is really hardcore”). Given another chance, she probably would have nailed it.

So, who goes home? Jamie. Her dish was inedible.

I might also add:

Rule #12: Don’t dis Eric Ripert.

Hurt Eric Ripert

Jamie: "That wasn't my favorite dish that we had over lunch."

Predictions: By all rights, Leah is the weakest contender. But I have lost my faith that it is her destiny to go home. It’s too late in the season, there’s too much variability and March Madness-style caprice in the format. Hell, before last week, I would have put Jeff and Jamie in the Top 4. And just this week, Fabio broke the Sidekick Curse (anybody who talks on the Sidekick in the first five minutes of an episode is dead meat). Only a fool would make predictions under these circumstances.

One thing is for sure, though: Stefan is heavily favored to take home the crown. He is on track to have the winningest record in Top Chef history. He has 4 Elimination wins and 4 Quickfire wins, with 3 episodes left to go. Stephanie won a total of 5 Eliminations (including her season win) and 1 Quickfire. And Stephanie was up against Richard, who won 4 and 2. Stefan has more wins than his two nearest competitors combined (Hosea won 2 and 1,  Carla 2 and 0). Leah (0 and 3) and Fabio (1 and 0) have the potential to match Lisa (1 and 0) as the least distinguished contestants ever to reach the finale.


February 6, 2009

One more, for Carla

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 11:40 am

Perplexed Colicchio

February 5, 2009

Private to Hosea, in re: Monkfish

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 6:30 pm

Disapproving Colicchio... Disapproves

January 27, 2009

One Down, One to Go

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 10:33 am

Hosea speaks:

When I returned home, I told my girlfriend — one of the sweetest women on earth — what happened. She was willing to forgive me. Our relationship was never the same. We are no longer together. So I have to live with my mistakes and try and grow as a person from it.

We’ll have to wait for Leah’s exit interview next week to find out how long her boyfriend waited before breaking up with her.

Hosea, a question: considering the fact that your relationship was over the first time you spooned Leah in front of a television camera (which was, what, Episode 2?), don’t you wish you had skipped all the footsie and the furtive smooching and just properly cheated on the poor girl?

January 22, 2009

Top Chef: Sending Out Some Love (But We’re Just Friends! And That’s All We’re Going to Be!)

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 2:22 am

Damn you, Magical Elves, and your cloak of tele-reali-editing. I was sure right up through the end-of-meal summing up (you know, the part where the judges chat about their overall reactions, until Padma says, “Well, I think we have a lot to discuss at Judges’ Table!”) that I had called it last week, and that Leah would go home: the Sunset Lounge had served the weaker meal and it was clearly almost entirely Leah’s fault. But, on service alone (!), Sunset Lounge pulled out the win and Radhika took the fall for Sahana.

This looks doubly bad for me, since I also pointed out last week that the front of the house was a safe position to play from in Restaurant Wars (indeed, triply bad: I predicted Carla would put in a strong performance). There are some mitigating factors…

First, team leader (or, as they called it here, “chef-owner”) is a tremendously dangerous position to play from in Restaurant Wars—just ask Tre and Dale. The combination of team leader and front of the house is (I think) unprecedented in Restaurant Wars history. And for good reason! The front-of-the-house advantage is premised entirely on the judges’ reluctance to hold you reponsible for the food, since they know you can’t control what’s going on in the kitchen. As the team leader in this challenge, it is your job to be in control of what’s going on in the kitchen! You are going to be held responsible for every dish that goes out. You need to be in the shit, knocking heads. (Bearing this in mind, being awarded the leadership role in Restaurant Wars counts as the Worst Quickfire Prize Ever—worse than a copy of Padma’s cookbook.)

Radhika’s only hope was that either: (a) one of her teammates would “go rogue” and put out an awful dish, despite her best efforts to correct him or (b) her team would knock out a great meal without her help in the kitchen, leaving her well clear of the danger zone. Carla almost pulled off (a) by choking on dessert and sending out an unfrozen “frozen yogurt” that should have been pulled or repurposed (and conceivably could have been saved if she had been as resourceful as Stefan). Jamie and Jeff almost pulled off (b) with a meal that was clearly better, on average, than the competition (the judges scored it 2 courses to 1, head to head). If only Fabio and Stefan hadn’t ruined it all with unctuous Mediterranean charm and delightful desserts!

Which brings us to mitigating factor two: Radhika failed to observe Rule #10. Setting aside the problematics of counterfactuals, it’s hard to argue against the following proposition: if Radhika had chosen Stefan instead of Carla, she would not have gone home tonight. She would have traded the night’s strongest performer for the night’s weakest performer. She would have had the three strongest, most consistent chefs in the kitchen, leaving her free to completely fuck up the front of the house while they rocked plan (b).

On the plus side, picking Carla and putting her on desserts led to the most delightfully strange and awkward Rule #8 violation since Mark of Season Four’s, “I think Tom doesn’t like me”:

Carla: I knew my dishes were going South. At that point, it really wouldn’t help the diner’s if I was in a bad mood. So my thing was, I’m just going to send out some Love with this stuff I’m giving you—

Tom Colicchio: How could your enjoyment impart enjoyment—

Carla: That is my belief, Tom!

Tom Colicchio: [Complete bewilderment]

Choosing Carla would have made a lot more sense if she had been used in the front of the house, where “sending out some Love” could have been a realistic strategy for success.

Predictions: Leah obviously does not have her head in this game. It is her turn to go.

P.S. I have nothing to say about Leah and Hosea’s hoochie-coochie except, if either one of them thinks they’re not getting broken up with at the end of all this, they’re deeply, desperately wrong.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I just realized I’ve been misspelling Jamie’s name all season. I apologize for the error.

January 16, 2009

Top Chef: A Beautiful Blog Post with a Little Bit of Gloating, Some Analysis, and Finished with a Little Bit of Snark

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 2:35 am

The ontological madness continued this week, with a challenge that specifically required a “seasonal meal” for an unspecified season. The cheftestants don’t seem to understand what season they’re supposed to be in any better than I do. Last week was Christmas, right? But it’s 85 degrees in New York? And so we get,

Hosea: I’m just wondering if braised lamb is our best show for “seasonal”.

Arriane: What about grilled?

Leah: Grilled leg of lamb?

Hosea: I don’t think we should do that. I think we should roast it.

Leah: Roasting it is more… seasonal.

Just what exactly in the fuck does that mean? Grilling is not “seasonal” in summer? Alternatively, if you want to pretend it’s winter, what’s wrong with braising? These people are driving me crazy with their multiple levels of reality all at one time!

Stone Barns is not playing this game. It is summer. They have tomatoes, corn, squash, and string beans (which all look lovely, no doubt). You have to “honor” those ingredients, people, or else they will rise from the dead, murder you, bone you, tenderize you, and serve you undercooked with a little fennel, some thyme, and a little bit of lemon juice.

For a while there, I thought it might be Jamie on Rule #10 (“Don’t let anybody get under your skin”)—even I have to admit Stefan was pretty much being a dick this week—but she pulled it out in the end. Instead, as I predicted, Arriane finally went home on Rule #2 (“Never make something you’ve never made before”). It wasn’t quite a meltdown, but it was a pretty decisive failure: she wasn’t comfortable with the baby lamb, she wasn’t comfortable butchering it or tying it up, and she did an overall bad job of preparing it.

Meanwhile, Hosea and Leah’s defense was, “don’t blame us, we didn’t do shit!” Look at their menu: lamb, Swiss chard, potatoes, tomato salad, and a trifle. The two of them spent six hours combined on a couple of side dishes and dessert, while Arriane was busy completely ruining the centerpiece of the meal? When asked point blank what he had done instead of helping with the lamb, Hosea said, “I roasted the potatoes and did the haricots verts.” That’s how you spent three hours? I don’t think I’m exagerrating (much) when I say I could have prepared those two dishes in about 30 minutes.

Leah should have taken responsibility for one of the lamb dishes. Hosea could have, um, beefed up a side dish or salad (maybe by incorporating cracklings to carry the lamb through the meal). Diversification of responsibility is your friend.

Here’s the Toby Young scoreboard for the week:

  1. You’ve heard the expression “mutton dressed as lamb”? This is “lamb dressed as mutton.” I have not heard that expression. Interestingly, the owner of Sangam told me he uses mutton in his “lamb biryani” because it has more flavor, but Americans won’t order mutton.
  2. The pesto is the Big Bad Wolf which has blown this pig’s house down. I should think a Brit would know the difference between “which” and “that”. Harumph.
  3. The mint/strawberry/blueberry combination feels as if somebody drained a Pimm’s and emptied the contents on top of a crème brûlée. I really have no idea what you are talking about.
  4. When I’m faced with a beautiful, well-reared piece of meat… I want to have full-blown, unprotected sex. I didn’t even get to first base with the pork! Although this seems to have made the rest of the world retch en masse, I thought it was pretty funny. I’m highbrow that way.

Predictions: Leah and Carla are the weakest of the pack, though Radhika’s limping along too. I’m guessing Radhika is safe because she works the front of the house (a note to lazy cheftestants: nobody has ever been eliminated for working the front of the house during Restaurant Wars). Carla will put in a solid utility performance, probably making another dessert and a vegetarian first course. Leah will drag her feet again, roll her eyes at the judges, give Hosea a handjob, and go home to explain it all to her boyfriend.

January 9, 2009

Top Chef: No Rules

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 5:10 pm

Sadly, I can’t claim that Melissa and Eugene’s exits are due to clear cut rule violations. They fell afoul of Implicit Rule #0 (“Do not make bad food”). Arguably, Carla saved herself by observing Rule #8 (“Be prepared to defend your dish at Judges’ Table”): she demonstrated that she understood the weakness of her dish and clearly articulated what she could have done differently to improve it. In contrast, Melissa feebly protested that she really is too a creative chef in spite of her bland, boring fish tacos and Eugene stolidly claimed that he is just too out there and forward-thinking and the judges just don’t get him. Right.

In defense of Melissa and Eugene’s concepts (if not of their finished dishes), I get really tired of hearing lazy, complacent axioms from the judges and cheftestants. In this episode, we learned that radishes have to be cold and can’t be paired with tomatoes and basil and that fish tacos could never “wow” the judges (Tom Colicchio has a long list of dishes that could never “wow” him: fish tacos, deviled eggs, chocolate cake, salad (*cough*Rule #1*cough*), cucumber canapes… He seems to live in a permanent state of disillusionment. (On the flip side, his enthusiasm when he likes a dish can be truly infectious, e.g., Stefan’s duck and dumplings)). These kinds of “rules” really are made to be broken—for instance, I’m quite confident that a sufficiently delicious fish taco could in fact “wow” the judges. The trouble is when you go against the conventional wisdom and fail, everybody just clucks and says you never should have tried in the first place.

Jamie: You’ve been warned. When you don’t win, you whine. When you win, you just squeal “finally! finally! finally!” like anybody else gives a shit that you haven’t been winning (hint: your fellow cheftestants wish they were winning too). You are on track to place in this thing. But if you don’t renounce your humorless lesbianism, I will be rooting against you.

My take on Toby Young is: shut the fuck up already. He was 0 for 4 in the over-the-top metaphor competition (“please pack your gibes and go”):

  1. Radhika’s soup :: weapons of mass destruction. This didn’t even make sense. It sounded like the soup was just bland. It would have been more appropriate for Melissa’s habeñero sauce incident (or is that too on the nose?).
  2. Hosea’s bacon-wrapped halibut :: American actors upstaged by British supporting players. This took too many words to get out and didn’t land home with the audience. I’m sure Mr. Young and Anthony Lane could have had a long hard chuckle about that one over tea and biscuits, but to American ears it was strained, pretentious, and, well, twitty.
  3. Eugene’s dish :: “The bland leading the bland”. This one was pretty good. But I suspect you could find it somewhere in the Toby Young food writing archives… it smells a little musty.
  4. Jeff’s avocado sorbet :: Tom Cruise’s cameo in Tropic Thunder. This is the kind of comparison you get from somebody who thinks they’re terrifically hip and cutting edge for having seen Tropic Thunder and knowing that was Tom Cruise, but who doesn’t get how completely un-hip it is to crush on Tom Cruise playing an amoral Hollywood jerkwad. You are trying too hard, dude.

My bet for next to go? It’s time for Arriane’s meltdown, don’t you think?

P.S. After five seasons of Top Chef, after innumerable plates of pork, beef, veal, bacon, duck, foie gras, and so on, ad nauseum, isn’t it strange for Tom Colicchio to play the ethics card on an over-cooked red snapper (“It hurts me that the fish gives up its life and then it gets completely over-cooked and beat up like that…”)?

December 21, 2008

Top Chef: Conspiracies Afoot

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 2:28 pm

I’m not one to jump to the conclusion that producer interference has led to one cheftestant going home over another, but… is it a coincidence that the judges decided not to send anybody home this week, when Jamie—a strong contender and a one-woman Victorian melodrama—had a full-on judgment breakdown and served mediocre scallops raw and under-seasoned in a lukewarm vichyssoise? Her only hope was that Eugene stuck his neck up on the block by stubbornly defending his sickly-sweet poisson cru in the face of the judges’ criticism (Rule #8, people! It’s like you don’t even read the blog!). Here’s a tip for you, Eugene: if Tom Colicchio says your dish is too sweet, do not counter with “to me … it was tart.” Tom Colicchio has good reason to think somewhat highly of his own palate.

So what’s the deal with nobody going home? Was it always planned, as part of the holiday theme? Was it actually a response to the refrigerator snafu, in spite of the fact that neither of the affected cheftestants under-performed because of it? I’m getting progressively more weirded out by the pretenses and lacunae in the presentation of the show: Thanksgiving and Christmas in July, complete with disingenuous references to seasonal ingredients; Gail’s Potemkin bridal shower; the presentation of decisions most likely handed down by the legal department as evidence of the judges’ beneficence. Or how about a “one-pot wonder” Quickfire Challenge in which at least half the cheftestants (including the winner) didn’t make anything anyone would consider making in one pot, ever. For example, Fabio’s polenta and duck breast. Have you ever made polenta? Have you cleaned a polenta-caked pot? Would you seriously make polenta, clean the pot, then sear a duck breast in it instead of just using a separate sauté pan for the duck? Preposterous. I understand they want to present an show that is interesting and exciting without getting bogged down in unnecessary details… can’t they do that without insulting my intelligence?

Private to Padma: scallops are something I associate with winter, especially considering the New York State Atlantic bay scallop season runs from November to March (i.e., winter, more or less).

Private to Arriane: six kinds of deviled eggs? Six? As an hors d’oeuvre?

December 11, 2008

Top Chef: Sploogefest ’08

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

Let’s say this right off the bat: I like Stefan. Every season of Top Chef has at least one polarizing cheftestant. If that cheftestant is a joyless lesbian (Tiffani, Lisa, um, Jamie?), I will hate her. If that cheftestant is a whip-smart, cocky, and socially awkward man (Marcel, Hung, and Stefan), I will shower him with unconditional love.

There is no reason for this that I can think of.

Sure, he was dead wrong about the sorbet and got under Jeff’s skin about it, but he was damn sure right about Eugene’s “deconstructed” plate of random crap nobody would want to eat (and the teddy bear pants! Oh, Jamie, give him that kiss!) and Eugene refused to listen because Stefan is an “asshole” and Danny “Dumbbell” Douche-beard clouded his mind with the power of delusional thinking. This calls for a new rule:

Rule #10: If you let somebody get under your skin for purely personal reasons, you will lose. “I would rather be on Satan’s team than be on Stefan’s team.” Seriously, Radhika?  Because Stefan is going to be in this competition longer than you, I guarantee it. Just ask: Betty (Season 2), anybody who ever worked with Lisa (Season 4), but, curiously, not Ilan (Season 2).

Now, on to Danny: out on Rule #8 (“Be prepared to defend your dish at Judges’ Table”). This does not mean: be prepared to recklessly assert your unsuccessful dish was good. There is no doubt in my mind: if Danny had simply admitted that the dish had failed and been clear-headed about why, it would have been Eugene who went home (since it was his disastrous concept). The question is: is Danny really so insane as to believe that was good food, or did he make a massive strategic error by trying to bluff the judges? (Rule #8, Danny! They never fall for it!)

Note to Jamie: Historically, even top contenders only win 1 or 2 elimination challenges (and 1 or 2 Quickfires) in the whole season, often only in the back half. Don’t act so chagrined when you don’t get called out. (Also, as H shouted at the screen, a carrot puree will never win over well-cooked meat.)

December 4, 2008

Top Chef: Attack of the Next Food Network Stars

Filed under: Top Chef — Chris @ 11:04 am

Never make dessert people. Never make dessert! This shouldn’t even have to be a rule (though it is, Corollary #2.2), every single person who has ever watched Top Chef knows it in their bones. Don’t make dessert.

The persistent delusion amongst the cheftestants that making dessert gets you a “free pass” is inexplicable. Richard got eliminated for a dessert last week. (Remember him, Alex? He wrote you a letter and you cried?) The only support I can find for this notion is last year’s “Wedding Wars” episode, where the cake makers (Stephanie and Lisa, as I recall) were both considered strong team performers.

That said, this week’s challenge was ridiculous. If it had just been about the culinary aspects of the challenge (keep it simple, be prepared, make it fast (but don’t rush), etc.), that would be fair enough, but to judge a cooking competition based on host/camera rapport… it’s just lowbrow. The challenge heavily favored egomaniacal extroverts and those with television/live demo experience—not necessarily the best chefs. Jamie ended up in the bottom three primarily because she failed to remain chipper and upbeat, a morning-show mortal sin. Sure, her eggs weren’t cooked, but come on: no TV chef has ever cut a corner and rushed a dish when the clock was running out?

I enjoyed Melissa’s total perpuzzlement at the critique of her too-hot habeñero sauce. I wonder if her palate is so inured to capsaicin that she really didn’t know what they were talking about? When a South Indian girl like Padma can’t handle the heat in your dish, you’ve gone too far.

Note to Danny: You want to be Bobby Flay, but actually you’re Rupert Pupkin.

Finally, a new rule:

Rule #9: You’ve got to know what an amuse bouche is. No excuses. Amuses only come up in Quickfires, so you won’t get eliminated on this rule, but follow it anyway, for your dignity’s sake.

[UPDATE] Alex kept saying, “I should have stuck to my guns”. What are your guns in this metaphor, Alex? Which guns? Where? What are you talking about?!

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