We start once again, in the Top Chef stew room.
|Ever notice I look like a handsome version of Milhouse?|
No matter who won the night or who went home, the stew room after Judges’ Table is never a fun place to be. Especially not when someone like Bret Pelaggi blabbers on about why Jason Cichonski, went home, “Jason had the most noticeable mistake…(with the nori) being soggy…we never really had a group leader…”
Yeah nobody needs your postmortem armchair quarterbacking at this point. Especially not Jason’s best friend, fellow Philly Chef Nick Elmi. Nick pretty much shuts Bret up by simply stating, “You never f#%king tasted anyone else’s dish…”
Meanwhile, Patty’s tearing up, again.
Next morning while everyone’s getting ready for the day, we get to hear about Louis Maldonado’s life choices. Chef Louis thought that by age 30 he would be further along in his career, perhaps having his own restaurant and being a “big national popular chef.” However he tells us he chose a different route, opting to get married and have a family. Um. Tell us how you really feel! While on the phone, his adorable son asks, “Are you coming back?”
|Life choices man...|
Yeah kiddo. He’s coming back, perhaps real soon. Sheesh.
Enough drama. Time to cook.
Waiting in the Top Chef Kitchen is our host Padma Lakshmi, New Orleans’ own Emeril Legasse, and editor-in-chief of Food and Wine Magazine, Dana Cowin. Or as I like to call her, the “King/Queen Maker of the restaurant world.”
This week’s Quickfire is all about trends. Specifically tiresome trends. Remember how “blackened” was a thing? Yeah, what was once a technique made popular by iconic New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme got ruined by the obscene amount of bad cooks who didn’t know the difference between ‘blackened” and “burnt.” Now, you’d be hard pressed to find this technique used in many “Top Chef” type restaurants.
|I'd hug all of you if I could.|
The challenge is to revive some of these overwrought culinary crutches and make them appealing again. Dana has picked out four of her least favorite food trends. They are: bacon, eggs over everything, smoked (the technique), and kale. And Dana says that while kale itself is ok, she’s more annoyed at the kale salad or kale chips. She specifically says, “I hate to give you advice, but I’d avoid those two things.”
Oh by the way, this is an elimination challenge. Winner gets immunity and loser goes home.
Might as well call this the “meta” challenge. I don’t have to tell you how many times bacon (or pork belly), fried egg on top, and kale have been used on this show and generally with great results. I remember last season joking about how they should have a season where they cannot use bacon - and here we are.
|Wait. Top Chef is sick of bacon as a trend?! What the??|
Things you don’t want to hear yourself say, “I know Dana (Cowin) said don’t do a kale salad...I’m gonna serve a teeny bit of kale salad on top of a gazpacho,” says Bret Pelaggi, while making said gazpacho with canned tomatoes. You know what’s a great way to get kicked off the show? Doing something the judges specifically said not to do.
Our good friend Aaron Cuschieri is at it again. He tells us he’s not somebody who picked up on the big kale trend of 2012. So the first week he tell us he’s never cooked turtle (despite being a chef at The Slurping Turtle,) last week he says he’s never made gumbo, and this week he’s no expert in kale. Pray tell Aaron, what did you expect to happen on Top Chef? “This week, cook whatever the hell you’re comfortable with?”
|Run for your lives! I'm burning the place down!|
He’s going to fry up some kale and dredge it in soy/mirin sauce and hope that Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief a magazine about FOOD and WINE, has never tasted something like that before. Righhhhhht.
There were some other interesting choices made by the chefs during this Quickfire. Carrie created something described by Dana as “egg salad over green beans.” Michael built a smoke signal that nearly blinded Justin while trying to smoke oysters. The Asian guy (Brian Huskey) and the guy who likes Asian guys (Travis Masar) both made bacon and scallops. Yep. Talk about cliches.
You know what? I’m surprised no one just said “what the heck” and just made a dish with all the ingredients: Kale salad with smoky bacon vinaigrette topped with fried egg! Actually, overwrought trends aside that sounds pretty delicious.
The top dishes:
|Wait. Is that bacon on top?|
Nina - Egg on Top
Quail Egg on Confit Potatoes with Leek and Potato Puree
Shirley - Egg On Top
Rice Congee with Shirred Egg, Soy Sauce & Sesame Oil
Stephanie - Bacon
Pasta with Lightly Candied Bacon & Flash Fried Sweet Potatoes
All three thought outside the box and made something unusual. Nina basically made vichyssoise with a scotched egg. And for Stephanie to make fresh pasta in 30 min alone placed her on top. However, it was Shirley’s congee that took home the immunity. You know what would have made that dish even better? Some crunchy bacon.
Now the bottom dishes. Can you guess? Of course you can.
Bret - Kale
Kale Juice & Gazpacho with Kale Salad
Aaron - Kale
Fried Kale dredged in Soy, Mirin, Rice Vinegar & Yuzu Sauce.
Louis - Smoked
Smoked Trout with Lime & Olive Oil Vinaigrette
Despite serving up a kale salad, Bret dodged a bullet. Poor seasoning trumps stupidity (almost) every time. It’s hard to survive if your dish is so over seasoned the judges can’t eat it. Aaron goes home for his way-too-salty crispy kale. Off to Last Chance Kitchen you go. Maybe there you’ll find something you know how to cook.
First of the iconic locales of the season. One of the most famous and revered restaurants in the city, Commander’s Palace.
Talk about a New Orleans institution. Located in the Garden District, Commander’s Palace has been around since the late 1800’s. Historical figures like Mark Twain and Jefferson Davis have entertained here. Iconic chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Legasse have both helmed the kitchen here. This is one of those restaurants where tourists would go just to take pictures of the outside. A culinary monument of New Orleans cuisine, if you will. I’m glad Aaron got eliminated. Because I’m sure he has never heard of it.
The chefs arrive at Commander’s Palace not knowing what the challenge is, and that’s making them uneasy. Not to mention the all the awards and custom made china is just a little intimidating.
In walks Executive Chef Tory McPhail to explains the challenge. The chefs will have to recreate some of the dishes they’ll be tasting tonight. The key here is to get both the taste and the presentation exactly right. There are no recipes, no Instagrams, just your taste buds and your attention to detail.
Poor Justin Devillier’s sitting there, listening to Chef McPhail explain the challenge while thinking, “if only I had won the Beard Award…” He tells us for the past two years he was nominated for Best Chef South, and this year Chef McPhail took it home. Things might be a different had Justin won. Alas, now he’s just a cheftestant who can’t even manage to win a gumbo challenge. Sad face indeed.
Here are the dishes they’ll need to recreate:
|23 Ingredients in this dish.|
First Dish. Shrimp & Tasso Henican, created by Chef Jamie Shannon.
Second Dish. Black Skillet Seared Trout, created by Chef Paul Prudhomme.
Third Dish. Veal Chop Tchoupitoulas, created by Chef Emeril Legasse.
Fourth Dish. Strawberry Trio, created by Chef Tory McPhail.
Since the chefs were already separated by tables, the dishes are assigned by table groupings as well. Each chef will only have to recreate the dish assigned to their table.
|Wait. Beard award has nothing to do with beards? Damn!|
Just like Carrie Mashenay says, many chefs have a hard time delivering the same plate night in and night out with their own food, let alone recreating someone else’s plate after only one sitting? It does seem impossible. Not to mention the added pressure of having the creator of the dish being there to critique your effort? And um, this is only week 3 people!
It’s time to cook.
Most everyone is cooking on their own. You know, they’re do their own thing because this is not a team challenge. However, the table assigned the Black Skillet Seared Trout decides to go half team/half individual. Janine, Louis, Carlos, and Nick all take and prep one component of the dish. Janine’s doing potatoes, Carlos is prepping the vegetables, and Louis is making the spice mix seasoning - for the entire group! So I guess then they divvy up and go cook separately? Yeah that’s got disaster written all over it.
|I dunno what I'm doing!|
The dessert table has got their work cut out for them. They have to make a mini shortbread biscuit, a strawberry cocktail, and a beignet for their Strawberry Trio. I guess flavor wise it’s not as complex, but to know biscuit and beignet recipes when you’re not a pastry chef? That’ll be impressive to pull off.
The key to any chop (steak/veal/pork) is to make sure it’s cooked correctly and there’s a nice char on the outside. Everyone assigned to the veal dish knows this and next thing you know, the grill is full, leaving Bret the odd man out. He decides there’s no room for his chops and opt to grill it later and go straight from the grill to the plate. He knows it’s risky but feels good about it. He shouldn’t. #foreshadowing
While the cheftestants are attempting these dishes, the executive sous chef of Commander’s Palace will also be cooking and presenting what would be considered the “control” dish. His plate will represent the “original.”
|Nothing but love in this room.|
Heartwarming moment of the day. Seeing long-time proprietors Lally Brennan and Ti Martin greet the judges, Emeril and Paul Prudhomme. It was like watching a family homecoming.
We’ve got a crowd this week. Along with the aforementioned proprietors and two hometown celebrity judges, we have Dana Cowin, Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Commander’s Palace’s own Tory McPhail.
Here comes the dishes. First up, the Shrimp and Tasso Ham.
Each member of the group manages to get part of the dish right, but no one manages to recreate the exact dish. Bene’s sauce was good, Nina’s shrimp was cooked best, and Michael had the best presentation. So if you combined those separate components, it’ll come close to the original.
Yeah. You know why this is so hard? I found a recipe for this exact dish off in Saveur magazine. This dish contains 23 different ingredients. TWENTY THREE! So consider it pretty damn impressive that they even came close.
Next up, the Black Skillet Seared Trout from the group who decided to “do it together.”
Unfortunately, their team effort experiment didn’t fare so well. Between Carlos’ “blackened,” to Nick’s uneven cooking, to the last of seasoning on everyone’s dish, it seems like this team is doomed. Tom even had to tell the guests that these chefs must have been so paranoid to emulate the dish that they forgot how to cook properly because most of the foods presented prior to this challenge has been well prepared and well seasoned.
Back in the kitchen, Shirley’s yellow beets are missing. Reminiscent of season 7’s case of the missing Pea Puree, someone seems to have walked away with her beets. Chances are someone did mistakenly took her beets. However since she’s got immunity, nobody really seem to give a damn.
You know what Bret’s giving a damn right about now? His meat. Since he decided to grill the chops later than the other chefs, he was unable to let the meat rest before plating. At the end he was basically throwing components on the plate.
|Whatchu talking about Willis??|
The chefs from this group have various degrees of success. Brian’s dish came the closest but unfortunately his Brussels sprouts were raw. Surprisingly Patty’s chop was cooked perfectly and her presentation was spot on. Bret however, got slammed for not having any grill marks on chop and presented a messy plate presentation. When the creator of the dish deems your dish as having “no love,” you’re in trouble.
Hugh Acheson jumps in and points out if you’re not familiar with these dishes, one hour is not a lot of time to execute them perfectly. To which he gets a shot from Tom. However, unlike “Take Home Chef” Curtis Stone, Hugh’s got a few James Beard awards of his own and is not intimidated.
|You wanna rumble?|
“Well...I’m not saying it’s not possible,” Hugh responded to Tom’s stink eye, “you wanna roll up your sleeves and do this right now? C’mon, I’m game…” he adds, with a twinkle in his eye. Tory McPhail laughs nervously. Even though Hugh’s obviously kidding, there was a little “top dog” moment and just slightly awkward.
During the interlude we’re treated to a great story of Emeril’s interview with Ti’s mom Ella Brennan some thirty years ago. Ella told Emeril to come to New Orleans but he had to stay at least three days in order to meet everyone in the family. And when a walk-through of the restaurant reminded Emeril of his mom’s kitchen, he never left. This was another genuine moment where everyone around the table was glued to Emeril’s telling of this story. By the look in everyone’s eyes you can tell just how and why Emeril is one of the most magnetic and charming chefs ever. His love and passion for everything related to food and cooking is so contagious that you can’t help but hang on his every word. Good stuff.
|When Emeril talks, people listen.|
Lastly, the dessert dish.
Surprisingly, despite the outward appearance of the chefs being totally in the weeds, this group faired the best. The judges’ consensus was that everyone did very well, with Stephanie’s biscuits even surpassing Commander Palace’s!
That’s when Dana Cowin shocked everyone (especially Tom) by confessing to be a “whipped cream whore” that it all tasted good to her. *blink blink*
In the end, it was the dessert group that wowed the judges. By not being experienced in making dessert, they focused on doing things correctly, i.e. execute. Meanwhile, the chefs on the savory courses tried too hard to get the flavor just right, in doing so they forgot the basic fundamentals.
|Winning dish. Dessert of all things.|
The winner was Justin’s beignet and thus his dessert course took home the win. It’s a fitting win for the home town chef. After failing to win the gumbo challenge he finally redeemed himself.
On the bottom, it was the two flavorless and overcooked fishes and Bret, the man with the loveless chop.
Louis and Carlos tell the judges about their ill-fated plan to prep as a group, and Tom is appalled. However, that also explains why everyone in that group’s dish was totally under seasoned. And the fact that none of them tasted the spice was just as troubling.
|Is that the exit? Maybe I can just sneak away...|
|No. You pack your knives and go!|
The writing was pretty much on the wall. This is Emeril’s town, Emeril’s old restaurant, Emeril’s dish, and no matter what the reason, if he feels that you didn’t give enough love into something he cares so deeply about, you’re going home. The combination of not properly handling the chop and basically throwing things onto the plate gets Bret a one-way ticket to Last Chance Kitchen, where he’ll be seeing Ramon, Jason, and Aaron. Judging by his lack of fight in and out of the kitchen, I predict an early exit for him there as well. So Bret, I’d wish you luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it.
Phew. It’s been a tough 3 weeks. Next week, larger than life chef/author Eddie Huang will be joining the gang. No matter what the challenge is, I can guarantee that if Eddie’s around, it won’t be boring.
Thanks and see you next week!
[ Follow me on twitter! @ChezWu ]