Friday, June 12, 2009

Mastering Top Chef

My major complaint with food competition shows is that the competitors can't cook! THAT problem is done away with here, because we have REAL chefs.

They've gathered some authentically top notch, well-respected, doing-just-fine-as-they-are chefs. WHY are they doing this? For the $100,000 prize to the charity of their choice and, I suppose, the bragging rights.

I'm psyched. THIS could be really good, although I've arrived at the action a little early and having to relive the last moments of Top Chef 5 is putting me in a bad mood. Hosea is such a putz. Carla is so darling and Stefan did have game...just not that day.

I don't like this new host - Kelly Choi. She's way too thin and too heavily made up.

I recognize a whole lot of those chefs in the opening sequences.

First we meet the judges. Oh, HERE they're called "The Critics" and they are Gael Greene, James Oseland, Editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine (I'll be honest, I had no idea Colman Andrews wasn't still there) and Gail Simmons is back as a judge. The last one is Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for London Observer (will he be a fill-in for Toby?) He's singularly unattractive as he bites into something in the opening shots.

OMG, is that MC?!! I didn't know he was going to be on. I want him to win! He's my pick. We can go home now. Oh, wait, we're only 2 minutes in...(BTW, here's his take on the first episode.)

Oh goodie, we're introduced to the chefs:

Wait, where are the others? I'm confused.

We're in LA now. Why are there only 4 chefs being introduced? I've never heard of Mike and Tim. Hubert Keller, you may remember was one of the judges on last season's finale. Remember how he was NOT impressed by Hosea skipping dessert in his menu. He felt anyone called Top Chef should be able make dessert. YES!!!

Michael Schlow comes in and says he's from Boston. He has a restaurant called Radius and a bunch of others too. He seems nice. Tom, with a HIDEOUS beard, gives us his take on Michael - there's great Italian food to be found in his restaurants. He's a JB Award winner, among others. His charity is the Cam Neely Foundation. He says graciously that he doesn't think they're all masters, but still students. Let's see how that plays out.

Cutie-pie, pony-tailed Hubert comes in. Among his restaurants are Fleur de Lys in San Fran and one in Las Vegas. Gail says he trained the staff of the White House in healthy cooking. He reminds us that he was judge in the first Top Chef and that he wants to see what it's like on the other side.

Christopher Lee, Executive Chef of Aureole is next. JB and Food & Wine awards winner, Gael tells us he worked with two great NY chefs - Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges. His charity is Autism Speaks. (Did I miss Hubert's charity?)

Tim walks in saying don't mess with Texas. He owns Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, his "flagship" restaurant in Fort Worth. Jay gives us the lowdown on him, even though he appears to have never heard of him (I hadn't either). Jay spouts generalizations that tell us nothing. He says he expects big bold Texas flavors. He could be talking about a bottle of barbecue sauce, but that doesn't give us a clue about how Tim cooks. Plus I expect a less stereotyped assessment from the judges, I mean a critic.

Already I don't like Jay. Tom likes that Tim did some series of dinners, traveling on horseback. He's competing for March of Dimes. Tim says he's the underdog and that he didn't have formal training. But I betcha he can take down a side of beef with one hand hog-tied behind his back. (I have no idea what that reference means.)

Okay, at this point they should tell us what's going on and why there are only 4 chefs there. It would make sense that they couldn't all get there at the same time, so I'm thinking they'll do an elimination between the four and send the top one to the next round.

There's alot of camaraderie amongst the chefs. Kelly comes in and explains the rules. GOSH! I'M smart. THAT is exactly what's happening. There will be one chef chosen to go to the championship round.

Kelly isn't as bad as I thought. They'll be judged on a quickfire and one elimination challenge and they're going to bring back some favorite quickfires from past seasons. Ooh, THIS is going to be good.

Kelly says (without enough drama, maybe I was right about my FIRST assessment of her) that there's only one dish that chefs dread more than any other. I thought she was going to say duck confit or pheasant under glass, but, no, she says DESSERT. Michael has the reaction she wants by saying he has NO formal baking experience. Hubert should be fine, judging by his experience and also his remark about dessert last season. I'm sure Chris will do great and Tim? There's always Beef Entrail Sorbet.

QUICKFIRE Elimination:
To create a dessert for Junior Girl Scouts. (I guess that means booze is out!) Kelly says they have to make the most delicious dessert they can. Isn't that kind of a lowball challenge? I would be surprised if any of them couldn't come up with something great.

The judges for this are...girl scouts. They have 60 minutes.

Tim says in the cooking world, you either graduated from somewhere famous or you worked for someone famous. He seems to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He's not putting booze IN his dessert, but he takes a quick shot of Tequila to quiet his nerves. He starts juggling.

We learn Hubert's charity is the Make A Wish Foundation. Ooh, he's making a meringue swan. Great idea!

Michael is making a brownie-type cake with an almond ice cream. He better watch out, some kids don't like nuts. Oh, he's also making peanut butter chocolates.

Tim opts for chocolate covered strawberries. Where's the Crisco? He makes a bunch of other strawberry dishes. I'm thinking he won't win.

Chris is doing a French toast thing. Michael's cake is not baking and his ice cream is liquid. Poor, poor Michael, he's completely failed. WHAT a shame, because I think his sounded so good.

Oh wait, maybe all is not lost, they still have another challenge, but I really feel bad for him.

Kelly sits with the little girl scouts. The chefs, back in the kitchen, get to watch their reactions.

Milk Chocolate Cake, Peanut Butter, Chocolate Candies & Honey Almond Cream
One girl says it tastes like a tagalong. Red-headed Girl Scout, "I don't really like this chocolate." Another one says, "I think a little less of that malted chocolate would be nice."

Strawberries Three Ways
One girl likes the Chicken Fried Strawberry, because she could dip it in chocolate. Redhead: "I don't really like the chicken fried strawberry. I think it's like a little too soft." Does she like ANYTHING? Another girl says the strawberry milk shake is too sour.

This is kinda dumb to have kids do the judging. I'm all for making kid-friendly food...once a year on their birthdays...but in a Top Chef contest? I think it's irrelevant and bordering on the ridiculous.

Chocolate Mousse Swan, Whipped Cream Mouse, Fruit with Orange Sabayon.
The girls exclaim that it looks awesome as they're served. I loved the chocolate swan idea too. One girl likes the mouse's tail of chocolate. They all like everything of his.

French Toast with Caramelized Banana, Orange Sauce & Maple Syrup Fluff
Oh, gosh, Red is at it again: "I think it's kind of a little bit crunchy and a little bit burnt. I don't really like the sauce." THAT'S the 50th thing she "doesn't really like". Another says, "This tastes like a hash browns." Is that good or bad?

Clearly Hubert did the best with the girls. Kelly comes back with the scores, which can be up to 5 stars.

Michael - 2 1/2 stars. He says that's fair enough and he was happy it wasn't a zero.
Tim - 3 1/2 stars.
Chris - 3 1/2 stars. He didnt look too thrilled.
Hubert got 5 stars!

Oh, too bad, those scores are added to the elimination challenge, which means that Michael is in trouble. The chef that wins that gets $10,000 for his charity and goes to the championship round.

The Elimination Challenge is to create a 3 course meal...using only a toaster, microwave and hot plate. Oy, Michael says he doesn't even own a microwave. They get $150 to shop and access to a limited pantry. Hubert is nervous shopping, because he never does it. This could be his downfall.

The next day they get their stuff organized to go. By mistake, Tim had put all his stuff in the freezer, instead of the fridge and it's frozen solid! Chris says (to us) that the protein isn't a problem, but the produce will be mush. He says if Tim pulls it off, he SHOULD win.

They go to Pomono College (in the sponsor's cars - Lexus) to start cooking. Oh gosh, they're cooking in students' dorm rooms! Chris complains alot, although NOW I don't blame him. He says it's like cooking a 3 course meal on a car engine. He notes the dorm room is REALLY dirty and that the parents won't be pleased.

This challenge is kind of funny. I guess the point is that if you gave them a real kitchen to cook in that wouldn't be much of a test for a professional chef. Yet taking away any semblance of even a badly equipped kitchen may be going too far.

Hubert organizes his stuff nicely and gets too work. Tim has overcome all his frozen crap. Michael lectures the student who's room it is, You should have made your bed. (The kid probably DID clean 3 months of junk off the floor. ) We find out they're cooking for the students, as well as the judges.

Salmon Crudo
Cabbage Soup with Bacon
Pork à la Apicius

Fresh Scottish Salmon
Carrot & Pea Soup with Cinnamon
Macaroni & Cheese With Prawns

We see him draining his pasta in the shower. His menu is smart for college kids.

Red Snapper Ceviche
Creamay Risotto
Pan Roasted Pork Chop

Scallop Carpaccio
Squash & Corn "Pozole"
Skirt Steak & Braised Kale

They meet the judges...critics...all the ones they introduced at the beginning.

The first courses are served. The students loved Tim's first course. James: "There's a perfumey rush of some pretty decent olive oil."

Students likes Michael's crudo. One kid says he can't believe this was made in HIS room. Okay, I know how this is going to go. The students are going to LOVE everything, because they're so quality-food starved and the critics perhaps aren't going to take into account the cooking conditions.

Jay, in his pompous accent, talking about Michael's Crudo, says it's a bit unfair to avoid the arduous cooking issues by serving an uncooked dish. He's a big mouth and has to get his 2 cents in about everything.

The whole thing is kind of gross, because the judges are all eating off the same plate in the center of the table. I guess plating that many individual portions would have been impossible.

Everyone loves Hubert's salmon first course.

Jay and Gael love Michael's' soup, as do the students. Gael says Christopher's risotto is soggy. James says maybe but it actually tastes quite good.

Everybody seems to basically like everybody's. It's hard to tell though, because of the way they're serving it. Some students appear not to like Tim's kale and steak. Everyone raves about Hubert's Mac and Cheese. He's clearly going to be the winner. They like Christopher's main dish.

At "critic's table", we get a better read on what the judges think. Asked about his dish, Hubert gives them too much information about the pasta in the shower. Later, one of the chefs says he hopes he had his clothes on. Jay said he didn't GET Hubert's soup. Gael LOVED the cinnamon in the soup.

Jay loves the "flavor profile" in Michael's meat. Why does he sound so highfaluting when he says that, yet when Michael says it, it's hot? Gael is disappointed in how overcooked the meat is, although when he explains how difficult the cooking conditions were, she agrees.

James says stuff like this a lot: "May I ask you how you felt about the soup?" That's kind of cheating as a judge. Rather then sticking out his own neck and venturing an opinion, he's making the chef think that HE (James) thought something was wrong. That's sneaky. I HAVE TO REMEMBER THAT! Gael adores Michael's cabbage soup.

Tim admits to the judges that everything was frozen. Jay is amazed at how well everything turned out, although he thinks the steak was oversalted.

James does his confessional thing with Christopher, "Can you tell us about the cooking process?" James is annoying. He waits for the chefs to say stuff and THEN he comments.

Christopher has a bit of hubris as he talks about his food, but that's okay. He IS a chef. The judges say all four of them pulled it off with all the things that were working against them. They also remarked on how incredible Tim's dishes were considering the ingredients had all been frozen.

Finally...the results. Wait...My prediction: Hubert wins hands-down.

13½ stars

"Cowboy cool"
14½ stars

Michael is told to return to the kitchen and pack his knives. Ahhh, poor guy.

19 stars
Tim gets the heave-ho.

They're dragging it out, when it's so obvious who won. Hubert WINS with 20½ stars. Make A Wish gets $10,000 from Lexus (get that in). Hubert is happy. Michael is nice. He says it was an humbling experience...which chefs can always use.


Emily said...

Oooh I'm so glad you're reviewing these! I'm definitely watching this. I really like it - it's a break from the traditional Top Chef. I knew HK was going to win this from the beginning. Didn't you? He might win the whole thing! I'm excited about all of the chefs that are going to be competeing. Michael Chiarello!

Sue said...

Isn't Hubert the cutest? And I can hardly wait to see Michael.