Monday, April 25, 2011

Top Chef Masters – The Term MASTERS Really Fits And The Judges Got It Completely Wrong

I wish there had been a break Between Top Chef and Top Chef Masters. To have TCMasters IMMEDIATELY following Top Chef was a bit onerous, so I took it upon myself to casually watch the first two episodes and not analyze the heck out of them.

The first thing that occurred to me was WHY are these chefs doing this? They are an illustrious bunch and many of them certainly don’t need more awards, but I guess they want the challenge, plus a little more fame (and more fortune) never hurts.

The number one sweetie pie has to be Mary Sue Millikin, the cooking partner of former Top Chef Master competitor, Susan Feniger. Formerly half of Two Hot Tamales, Mary Sue has the calm of a Zen master and the skill set too.

In fact, all of the chefs are wildly talented, but there are some I like better than others. Traci des Jardins could be the chef to beat, but her furrowed brow and serious demeanor scares me somewhat. The fact that she’s such good buds with Mary Sue humanizes her a little for me.

Hugh, who reminds me of a young Hugh Laurie, seems like he could be a bit tool-ish, but the other chefs are so sure of themselves and so lacking in hubris for hubris’s sake, that I don’t think HIS overactive ego is going to get any traction.

In the very first Elimination Challenge, there was a lot of hugging going on, much of it to and from Mary Sue – she seems to be the heart of the kitchen.

Hugh was eliminated at the end of episode one, which didn’t bother me one bit. Then John Rivera Sedlar had to drop out and they brought Hugh back. Note: I can’t tell if this is why Sedlar left so suddenly - that it was all too much for him to handle as he was about to open a new restaurant.

The second week, they had to redo awful 60’s classics. The best part was when Floyd Cardoz had NO clue what Ambrosia was and managed to make the almost-winning dish.

Mary Sue won with deviled eggs. James said they were unctuous in the mouth. I’m guessing that’s a good thing. Is it even possible to be unctuous anywhere other than the mouth?

At the end of episode two, Chef Sue Zemanick was eliminated for not getting all her food on the plate. Afterwards, she and Suvir totally confused their competitors when they walked back into the kitchen and he said "I’m leaving" and she said "He’s leaving with me". The others said WHAT??? They were kidding, but it was dumb. Don’t be making jokes about two chefs leaving. It might be true next time!

So here we are at Episode Three

The chefs come into the kitchen and see Curtis standing next to a table with stuff that looks like houseplants. The chefs ask Hugh Acheson what all that stuff is. I guess he’s some kind of outdoorsy expert. He starts rattling off salsify, leather fern, but tells us that something else is hidden there.

Curtis says you can find these things in the wild - grass, leaves, flowers, roots - AND (if you saw the previews you know what’s next) HORNED WORMS. Gross. Alex says “Horned WHAT?” There’s more. Darkling Beetles. John Currence says (to us), “We’re going to have to cook with freakin’ BUGS!”

Curtis adds some more to the list - crickets, which have 3 times more iron than beef and Canadian night crawlers. All of these things are very much alive and crawling around in glass containers. I’m guessing there are no vegetarians there. OH, wait, Suvir is one, but he cooks meat and NEVER tastes it and seems to have no problem...for the moment. Oh, lastly we hear there are scorpions. Lovely. They have to make a five star dish for enthusiastic bug eaters. They have 20 minutes. Barf.   

Here are the dishes, many of which are southeast Asian inspired.      

I love Suvir saying he grew up in New Delhi in a Hindu household and they ate “what was abundantly available without somebody having to take another life. Butchering animals is something (he) just can’t do.”

He comes up with what I think is an ingenious solution, although others may say it’s a copout. He’s making a Himalayan salad (even the NAME sounds peaceful) and he’s serving it with a jar of worms and a torch. If the tasters want to immolate the worms themselves, that’s fine, but he won’t.

The judges are Ruth England and Mykel Hawke from Man, Woman, Wild. Ruth says Naomi’s nightcrawlers have a bitter aftertaste. Myke doesn’t seem to notice. Curtis will only try the salad; Mykel doesn’t bother with the salad and goes right for the bugs. Ruth loves Hugh’s carrot purée with crickets. Myke hates the look of it, but loves the taste. (I kind of think he would like a bug in any form, any where, any how.)  Interestingly, Myke wishes that Celina had removed the legs of her crickets (ew), because they’re a bit scratchy going down. 

So how do they feel about Suvir’s presentation? Initially, Ruth says it was a copout. Then Myke takes the challenge and snaps one of the worms in half and torches it and eats it. He says the whole dish has a nice flavor. Suvir is happy that they don’t reject it out of hand.

John’s grilled scorpion with a smoked egg does well. Mary Sue uses her beetles in a vinaigrette over a Thai sunchoke salad. Ruth and Myke both love it, especially with all the fresh cilantro.

Ruth thinks Traci’s scorpion salad is a bit bitter, from the aloe, though, not the scorpions. Myke really “digs” Floyd’s nightcrawler omelet (gosh, that would give you nightmares, wouldn’t it?). Alex’s angel hair with beetles goes over well. George’s hornworm soup did NOT.

Their least favorites:
George and Suvir, who says his “hands can cook” but he can’t take a life. Myke says that’s “all good”.
Favorites – Hugh and Mary Sue. The winner is Hugh who gets $5000 for Wholesome Wave  AND immunity. He says he is the phoenix of the competition.

The Elimination Challenge is to cook a ten course dinner for a fund raiser for the chefs’ charities. Each chef is responsible for one course. They have to work with what’s in the pantry and they have 3 hours to cook.

Traci says this sounds too easy. Oops, don’t say that. Is that a clue that she’ll be going home? Suddenly Curtis throws a wrench into the works, of course, he does. He says there will be a curve balls coming their way. What? One-handed cooking? No implements? Changing dishes midstream. I hate all that.

Naomi takes it upon herself to organize the menu and write everyone’s dish down, so they don’t have duplicates, which is quite smart, I think. Alex thinks she’s bossy.

George discovers rather quickly that there’s no running water in the kitchen. GROSS! Why do they always have to do things that impact kitchen hygiene?

When they (a different group) cooked from pots and pans just opened in a Target with no visible running water, it was very worrying to me. How can they cook with no water, when they didn’t know that was coming? I know that’s the point, but I don’t like it.

I like when Floyd says he’s worried, because he’s working with raw fish and he can’t wash his hands. EXACTLY! That’s horrible.

George finds this somewhat fitting, because he’s competing for a charity that brings water to people that don’t have it. (Okay, that IS a bit interesting, but not if they weren’t expecting it.)

I love Floyd worrying about contamination. He takes some ice and starts to boil water. (He’d be good if a baby were coming too.)

I also love Suvir who says he never gets stressed in a kitchen. He says for him, it’s calming and therapeutic (being in a kitchen, not being without water). Let’s see how he reacts when Curtis comes in and says that service will start 30 minutes earlier than he had said. He gets mildly fluffed, but not crazy. (I have to try that. Maybe it’s all in the breathing. Iiinnn and ooouuuttt. Iiinnn and ooouuuttt. Mmm, THAT does feel better.)

Naomi admits that she’s become the bossy person, but she doesn’t care. She just wants the meal to go off without a hitch. Curtis comes back in and says he has some bad news. OY! Now what? There will be no waiters, they have to serve the dishes themselves. Oh good, there’s nothing like a sweaty, dirty chef with unwashed hands, serving all the plates that really makes me feel good about a meal.

Guests arrive, including judges James Oseland and Danyelle Freeman.  She looked super familiar to me in the first episode. She was (is?) an actress, but I’m pretty sure I never saw any of her stuff, but I feel as if I know her from somewhere.

Celina is out in the dining room pouring wine and Curtis introduces her to one new judge, Alan Sytsma, editor of Grubstreet. CELINA SHAKES HIS HAND! Eww! Does he realize that there was no water in the kitchen?!! Alan says he worked as an intern for James when he started his food writing career. That’s kind of interesting. He says it was his first job of NOT cutting carrots.

The dishes are here. James says Mary Sue’s Ceviche is attractive, but doesn’t have a lot of flavor. Alan says it’s like “a poorly made guacamole”. They all love Suvir’s chickpea salad.

James: George’s shrimp is “a really gorgeous plate of food”. They all rave about it, except that it has perhaps a bit too much salt. Naomi’s celery velouté is beautiful and delicious. Curtis thinks it may be too rich for a ten course meal.

Alan is unsure if he likes the crunch of the pine nuts in John Currence’s risotto. Danyelle likes it. James says the same basic thing about everyone and in a rather ponderous, pompous tone – that the dish is not a stretch for the chef and they’re not going outside of his or her comfort zone.

Floyd’s sole with roasted cauliflower is fantastic, says James. Various folks think the broth underneath is a bit too strong.

Naomi and Hugh bat heads a bit, because she’s getting the plates out the door. (Maybe before they’re ready…What does she care? Her soup already went out. I could see that that could be annoying.)

What I’m REALLY FRUSTRATED about is Hugh telling us multiple times that there are some frustrations between “Naomi AND I”. NO!!! There is frustration between Naomi and ME!” Oy! WHY do people say that? It sounds sooo dumb! The word “I” NEVER comes after “BETWEEN”, unless someone’s actual NAME is “I”! Got it?!!

What I can’t understand is, that with the reputation that most chefs have, they wouldn’t be thrilled at saying ME, ME, ME, every chance they got!

I like the sound of Alex’s roasted salmon with gazpacho vegetables and tomatillo salsa. James thinks it’s too raw. Danyelle thinks it’s perfect.

James LOVES Traci’s rib eye. Curtis says just by looking at the dish you can tell the chef knows how to cook meat. Danyelle calls it “musty”. Alan calls it “swampy”. James says they’re young and brainwashed and that what Traci has given them is “BOLD, cooked vegetables.” I’d probably side with the old guy.

Hugh is serving panna cotta, but he’s not worried because he has immunity. Delicious, folks say.

I hate Celina calling her dish, Chocolate Puddin’. Why does that make me vaguely uneasy like they’re in a Cracker Barrel or something? Suvir tells us that this is not HIS idea of pudding. He thinks hers resembles the mass-marketed, plastic tasting junk sold in America. He says the texture is not good. James says it’s chalky and gritty. Danyelle says it’s sort of tasteless.

The diners are to vote on their favorite dish and give that chef a 100 dollar donation to his or her charity.

Naomi and Suvir are the first called in. That HAS to be good, right?

The judges stare at the chefs. The chefs stare at the judges. James, in particular, has the stone-faced look down to a science. I would just giggle, I think.

Their dishes received the most votes from the diners. Oh good, I like it when a chef who doesn’t murder animals gets recognized. Naomi’s dish got 43% of the votes, so $1800 goes to Seed Savers Exchange.  Alan says the acidity of the lemon oil on top brought a brightness to Naomi’s soup.

I love this show. The only thing better than watching people cook and watching people taste AND hearing what they say about the food, would be tasting it and blathering about it myself.

Suvir’s dish got 40% of the vote and his charity, Agricultural Stewardship, will receive $1700. The judges, critics, whatever, pick Naomi as the winner and her charity gets an additional $10,000. I bet Hugh will be po’ed.

They call in Mary Sue, Celina and John. I hope Mary Sue and John make it to another week. I like Celina, but I’m more interested in the other two going further. More chef/judge and judge/chef staring back and forth.
James says Mary Sue’s ceviche was too bland. Alan seems to criticize the fact that John’s risotto was TOO classic, too perfect. He definitely should NOT go home for that.

They move on to Celina’s pudding and how it wasn’t rich enough. I don’t like that judges, Alan and Danyelle, actually say PUDDIN’. I would have refused to. It seems clear that Celina’s dish was the worst.

And going home is…JOHN!!! WHAT???!!! GMAB! That IS ridiculous. REALLY ridiculous! I’m mad. Really mad. Celina SHOULD have gone home. I am SOOO mad. That is a really wrong decision!!! John goes home for making an excellent risotto that just wasn’t ground-breaking and Celina stays for making a BAD pudding?!!@#$%*. 

Really poor decision. I wouldn’t just be disappointed if I were John, I’d be enraged. I MAY tune in this week, after I do some deep-breathing. 

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