Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Top Chef Episode 13 - Getting Prickly in Mexico

Today while I was driving I was thinking about tonight's upcoming Top Chef episode, and it occurred to me that I really wouldn't be unhappy with any of the three remaining chefs winning, because I like and admire Mei, Melissa, and Gregory. Mei can be a tiny bit abrasive at times but some of her cooking is positively inspired; Melissa's technique is amazing and she's suprised me more than once; and Gregory seems nice and I always admire people who've overcome a rocky past.

This thought of being happy about any of them winning doesn't seem like a big deal, but I can think of a few seasons when I was not nearly so cheerful. For instance, I did not want Ilan Hall to win Season 2 because I think he was arrogant, and his idea of a good time apparently was tormenting Marcel Vigneron out of all proportion for whatever annoyance Marcel might have caused him. I also wasn't happy with Nicholas Elmi winning over Nina Compton in Season 11, for two reasons: because the judges, especially Tom, had been telling him all along he was underseasoning his food, and he did it again in the finale; and because Nina cooked a few extras during her finale meal and Tom tried to argue that maybe the judges shouldn't count the extra effort, which didn't seem consistent with what I'd remembered from prior seasons (although I admit my memory could be faulty on that point).

And I'm sure there have been a few others who I wasn't as happy about, but this time I really would be okay with any of them. So on to Mexico! (And apropos of nothing, I think it's very cute the way Gregory raises his eyebrows over and over in emphasis when he's excited about something. And I was not at all surprised to hear that Mei had been boning up on Mexican cuisine during the six weeks between Boston and Mexico.)

Last Chance Kitchen

Of course, with Last Chance Kitchen (I'm abbreviating it from now on!), someone who is not Gregory, Mei, or Melissa could still win the whole thing. I'm still on the fence about this little wrinkle, which I don't watch myself, mainly due to lack of time. In many ways I don't like the idea of LCK, but on the other hand, it is the only reason that Kristen Kish won in Season 10, and it was beyond tragic when she was (in my mind) wrongfully eliminated because of Josie Malave. This season, there were several strong competitors who went home by just a hair, but I don't feel that anyone was robbed the way Kristen had been in her season.

This year, I wasn't surprised to see Doug and George as the two LCK chefs (the previews had been pretty obvious about it), but I thought the way it was presented in this episode was rather anticlimactic. I'm sure it took longer in real life, but the way it was edited, we don't know what or how they were asked to cook, and it felt like Tom just gulped down their food, said a few hasty words as though he himself was being timed with a stopwatch, and named a winner. There's been more suspense in prior seasons when they've just said to the finalists, "Look who's walking in the door, coming back as the winner of Last Chance Kitchen!" Anyway, Tom praised both dishes, but declared Doug the winner.

The Quickfire

Immediately thereafter, Tom sent the four to meet Padma and the guest judge, Enrique Olvera. One of the chefs said they hoped the Quickfire wouldn't be sudden death, and I laughed, certain that it would be since they now had four contestants. But I was wrong. The challenge was to make a dish using the most prized variety of prickly pear, the xoconostle (pronounced choko-NOS-leh), in 30 minutes, and the winner would get an advantage in the elimination challenge.

Mei faltered, unfortunately. She may have waited too long to choose her protein, because she ended up with steak which might have needed longer to cook than the seafood she had wanted to use. She then planned to call her ribeye a "tataki," which she said meant cooked on the outside and raw in the middle. But when Padma pointed out the uneven cooking of the meat, Mei made no mention of that. I guess even a tataki needs to be more consistent throughout. It's too bad, because they liked her xoconostle salsa and nopales salsa verde.

Doug, who had just finished saying that a lot of Mexican food is vegetable-based, was praised by both Padma and Enrique Olvera for just that. He made a xoconostle and tomatillo stew with roated peppers and pepitas. (I had to look "pepitas" up; they're pumpkin or squash seeds.) Both judges felt that Doug had really highlighted the xoconostle.

Melissa's dish was also well-received; she made a salmon ceviche with xoconostle, leche de tigre (another look-up for me: according to, it's the "Peruvian term for the citrus-based marinade that cures the seafood in a ceviche"), and prickly pear salad. The judges liked the leche de tigre, or "tiger's milk," particularly.

Gregory made a garlic shrimp with olive oil, prickly pear sauce, and xoconostle relish. As soon as Padma said she could "really taste the olive oil," I knew Gregory would be towards the bottom.

Ultimately, the judges chose Doug as the Quickfire winner. I think Melissa was a little surprised by the result because the judges were so congenial and complimenary when tasting her dish. I think her food showed skill and creativity as usual, but Doug's really did seem to highlight the star ingredient better.

Elimination Challenge

The parameters of this challenge were exciting: visit a local artist and collaborate with them to make food inspired by the work the artists would be completing during the cooking phase. The chefs had to cook for 150 guests, so of course the show brought back the eliminated chefs to act as sous chefs. As the Quickfire winner, Doug got to pick both of his chefs first, and he chose Adam and Katsuji. I would never in a million years pick someone as unpredictable as I seem to remember Katsuji being early on in the season, but Doug apparently gets along with him.

Padma then allowed Melissa, Mei, and then Gregory to pick the first of their two chefs in turn, then their second. I'm assuming the order of the turns was based on the chefs' Quickfire performances, but it would have been nice to have that confirmed. Melissa took George, Mei chose Rebecca, and Gregory took Katie. Then Melissa chose James, Mei took Keriann, and Gregory chose Stacy. I'm not surprised that nobody took former hothead Aaron, but I still winced on behalf of the three that weren't chosen.

Next the four contestants went to visit their artists. Greg's artist was named Artemio Sepulveda, whom he described as an "expressionist" artist. I don't feel like I know what that means, but I loved the painting of the large-eyed woman that was hanging over the sofa where the two were sitting and talking. Melissa met artist Leonardo Diaz, and was rightfully worried for two reasons: first, he uses a lot of pink and blue colors in his work, which don't correspond well to food, and second, he seemed to want to improvise his art the next day, which meant it would be difficult for Melissa to represent his art visually on the plate. Mei seemed happy with her artist, Béa Aaronson, who uses tons of color, and Doug was even happier with his former Texan artist Merry Galderoni. I found myself hoping (because I always want them all to do well!) that Doug would remember, in his excitement, not to go too far on the Texan end of Tex-Mex.

Well, little did I know! Doug won with his brisket with "Texas red" (meat chili with no beans) and a masa cake. I was worried that he wouldn't manage a tender brisket in four hours, but the judges went crazy for it, and visually, it certainly matched the painting. I also worried about Gregory's meat being overcooked, but his was the judges' other favorite dish, and I'm actually a little surprised that he didn't win, because his dish sounded a little more creative than Doug's and also matched the artwork well.

Then came my least favorite part of every episode. Based on the judges' remarks, I figured it would have to be Melissa going home, because she was the only one of the four for whom the judges commented on actual cooking: they said the shrimp wasn't as tied in to the dish as the other elements flavor-wise, and that the chorizo was a bit overcooked. Padma did say multiple times that she loved the smoked eggplant ravioli, however. Then the judges mentioned that Mei's dish (chicken and fish sashimi, but I didn't get a good sense of what flavors were there) wasn't as visually wild as they might have liked, but Tom had said earlier that her flavors were a little wild (in a good way). So Melissa went home, and I was sorry to see it, but I certainly didn't want Mei to go home for her dish.

That said, I don't think it's a coincidence that the chef that went home had the artist and artwork that were the hardest to represent visually. I think Mei might have the skill to have been able to tackle that particular artist's work (remember her Walden Pond on a plate?!), but if Doug or Gregory had gotten Melissa's artist as their own, I think they would have gone home for it too. Padma did note that the envelopes were given randomly to the chefs, which was good. And there's no way to equalize artwork. But it was a tough break for Melissa.

And that's my other problem with Last Chance Kitchen. Two other chefs, George and Doug, both got second chances. Melissa, who made it this far, got no second chance. I think they could at least do a sudden-death-to-stay-in for a contestant who has come this far. It wouldn't be right to have anyone else go home in her place after the fact, but still, this unevenness bothers me.

So, with three contestants still left, I have to imagine we have two more episodes to go instead of only one. (I haven't checked my DVR to see what's scheduled.)

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: I would definitely choose Gregory's, for that Valencia Orange sauce, but there would be one little problem for me: the cilantro puree. I'm not allergic to it, but I have the "cilantro tastebud" that turns it to soap in my mouth. (Some people get soap, some get tinfoil; check out if you're skeptical.) So I'll have to go with Mei's dish. I'm not really a brisket girl.

Side Notes:
  • Yikes, were Katsuji and Adam really getting drunk, because they were sure acting like it! Hopefully most of that took place after the food service. Also, I think Adam was trying to help Doug, but telling him repeatedly to relax like it's no big deal was a little insensitive. Adam had nothing to lose. Katsuji.... still not one of my favorites.

  • Hello, can we get translators for the chefs in the grocery store? C'mon! I would have been royally ticked off if one of the chefs had displayed a huge advantage by being fluent in Spanish. I couldn't quite tell how much Gregory knew, but he certainly fared better than Mei.

  • I absolutely love Padma's dress in the photo at the top.

  • Lucky Doug, winning that painting. Gorgeous!
Until next time!
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Thursday, January 22, 2015

On This Muddy Water: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel

On Wednesday, my husband and I went to see the fourth and last performance of On This Muddy Water: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel, put on by the Houston Grand Opera under the auspices of their HGOco's "Songs of Houston" project. With music by D.J. Sparr and words by Janine Joseph, this program consisted of a series of seven vignettes set on the Houston Ship Channel in order to commemorate its centennial. It was based on hours of oral history records, and accompanied by a Ship Channel exhibit in the adjoining room that in my opinion was a terrific use of space, with looped camera footage and audio recordings throughout.

The performance itself was given by baritone Heath Martin and mezzo-soprano Lauren Pastorek, who were accompanied by only four instruments: violin, cello, clarinet, and percussion (mainly marimba, I think). The instruments were used to great and often unusual effect, producing some very evocative music. By far, my favorite piece was "Let It Roll", performed by Heath Martin, because it felt like I was listening to a seaman. Even while I was still listening to it, I felt a little sad that there's a very good chance I will never hear that piece of music again in my life. Of course, I imagine that this was all recorded either in rehearsal or another of the performances, but it won't necessarily be widely available. I would like to hear the entire program again so I can absorb more, but especially that piece.

I also loved "He Said, 'Nyet!'", a piece for both of the singers in which the American seafarers tried to share Christmas presents, or make that New Year's presents since the Russian sailors didn't celebrate Christmas, with their Russian counterparts. The Russians initially wouldn't accept the gifts because they had nothing to give in return, but someone helpfully pointed out that they wouldn't mind a little of that vodka.... The vignette both started and ended with bits of one of the oral history recordings, which was a wonderful touch. Part of the reason I loved this piece was that it reminded me of being introduced about ten years ago to the concept of shoeboxes for sailors at Christmas. My employer only did that for one year while I was there, but I still remember the pleasure I took in putting together a box of small gifts for some foreign sailor who happened to be in the port over the holidays.

Those were my two favorites, but I enjoyed the rest of the program as well. I did find it a little hard to reconcile the mezzo-soprano role with the rest. I think it's absolutely right and necessary that stories told of the Ship Channel include the women, whether sailors or dockworkers or simply the families of such, but the formality of female opera vocals made this seem, well, opera-like. That's certainly isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but when the baritone was singing, he really could have just been a seaman with a gorgeous voice, and I was able to think of it as more authentic and less of a trained performance. This isn't meant as a criticism of Ms. Pastorek's voice or performance; it's just that the female operatic style was a little incongruent to me within the visual and aural picture I was building. At the same time I would not want to exclude women's stories, so it's a dilemma I wouldn't know how to solve myself.

According to the program, since 2007, "HGOco has commissioned 16 new works along with countless innovative community projects and has reached more than one million people in the greater Houston area." This particular performance took place in the gorgeous Julia Ideson Library, which was restored in 2011 as part of the Houston Public Library. That was my first time in the building and I thought it was stunning.

I am looking forward with great anticipation to October 2015, when Houston Grand Opera will put on another HGOco-commissioned work, O Columbia, celebrating the exploratory spirit that leads us to continue even in the wake of tragedies such as the Columbia shuttle disaster. Paul and I were allowed to participate in one of the development workshops for this opera, and I think it will be stunning.

On This Muddy Water: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel
Music by D.J. Sparr
Words by Janine Joseph
Lauren Pastorek, mezzo-soprano
Heath Martin, baritone
Melissa Wilmot, violin
Erik Wheeler, cello
Eric Chi, clarinet
Lindsey Höhn, percussion

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Top Chef Episode 12 - The Final Battle of Bean Town

Getting down to the wire, with only four chefs left, and one already with a ticket to the finale in Mexico!

The Quickfire

My DVR hiccuped right while Padma was explaining the Quickfire, but I did get that she and guest judge Wylie Dufresne expected the chefs to make a dish highlighting beans and putting them "back into favor," with the winner getting a trip to Napa. The chefs had an hour to work.

Gregory reverted to Asian food, and unfortunately just seems to have lost his groove lately. He made navy beans with sake, ham, avocado, and carrot chips; Wylie found the beans slightly overdone and didn't seem impressed with the sake and avocado combination, while Padma thought she detected some bitterness. George made a take on a Greek bean dish, using a tomato base with chickpeas, cumin, paprika, and pork tenderloin. Padma liked the texture and Wylie liked the spice combination. Mei pushed the limits with her dish: bleak bean corn with chipotles, bacon, and a poached egg covered with pinto bean foam. It looked pretty unappetizing, but the egg was a smart move, because Top Chef judges seem to love perfectly cooked eggs on anything as long as you stick a fork in it and it oozes out over everything. Melissa made a pork tenderloin with bacon butter bean puree, carrots, and fried chickpeas.

As the number of chefs go down, it becomes a little easier to guess who's likely to be on top and bottom in any given challenge, or maybe it's just that Wylie sort of telegraphs his intentions. That's not a complaint, though -- I'd rather they not try to be cagey on purpose. In any case, it was pretty obvious that Greg and Melissa weren't in the running for this one, and as soon as Wylie said that George might not have needed the pork in his dish, I knew it would go to Mei. I was happy enough with that because I felt like she knew her target audience well for this challenge, and she executed it just right.

Elimination Challenge

This elimination challenge was about innovation, with Padem and Wylie asking the chefs to really push the boundaries and show the next step in the evolution of their particular style of cooking. They gave the chef 30 minutes and a whopping $1,000 to shop, with 3 1/2 hours to cook the next day, which is more than we've come to expect lately. George correctly pointed out, though, that to truly innovate, you have to try cooking something over and over, tweaking it as you go. It's a little hard to hit something innovative in one single shot.

Well, wow. This was a pretty intense challenge. Gregory served first, with a pan roasted salmon in a Tom kha broth (coconut broth), garnished with crispy chicken and salmon skin. It became apparent even before service that the judges were not likely to think this innovative, and I can see why. Padma thought it was delicious and Tom said the fish was beautifully cooked, including the skin, but the innovation just wasn't there. It seems a bit like Gregory just lost his nerve as the season has gone on, which is too bad because he's so very talented.

Melissa served next: seared duck breast with farro, a walnut miso, and pickled cherries. Because she is generally so calm in the kitchen, I feel like I don't know if her dish is going well or not, but there have been so many times now when the judges have used the phrases "perfectly cooked" or "perfectly executed" to describe her food. Gail thought the combination was delicious, especially the walnut miso. Essentially, everyone loved the dish, but only Wylie said that he didn't find that she'd taken a risk. Richard disagreed, and I'm on his side. I think as a molecular gastronomist, Wylie is biased to think that innovation equals technique, in spite of what he said back when he and Padma were describing the challenge. Certainly it didn't sound like the other judges were accustomed to walnuts + miso + picked cherries. Richard clearly felt strongly on this point, because when asked who he thought should win, he reiterated that he thought Melissa's dish was innovative.

George went next. I was a little surprised when George was so upset that Whole Foods didn't have the pork belly he wanted. On the one hand, if I were competing I think I would want to walk into that store with not only a Plan A and a Plan B, but also a Plan C. On the other hand, if the store has had pork belly every single time he's been there before, it's not unreasonable to expect it again. In any case, George stuck with his octopus, and innovated by grinding up the head and making a fritter, in order to serve octopus two ways with two quite different textures. He also made a green apple harisa, something he'd never done before. Not knowing what harisa was, I looked it up and found several definitions that said it was a sauce made with chili peppers or paste, so I wonder if it's appropriate to call what he made a harisa at all. But I guess that sounds better than "apple sauce." In any cases, the judges found the dish overly complex, and Tom found the octopus bitter and unimaginative.

Last but not least: Mei. You know how they say when you have to make a decision and you can't, you should flip a coin, because while it's in the air you'll find yourself hoping it goes one way or the other? I feel that way about Mei lately. I start the episode liking everyone that's left and being open-minded, and then getting to the end and finding that I've really been rooting for Mei all along. And boy, she did nail it tonight. She served a duck curry with vadouvan (blend of spices -- my, I'm improving my vocabulary with having to look up Top Chef terms tonight!) and yuzu yogurt. I haven't the slightest idea how this dish would taste, but I'd be willing to taste it. Gail called it a "breath of fresh air" and Tom found it difficult to describe, but then admitted that's a good thing, plus he liked how the dish changed as he ate it.

Padma then took opinons on who people thought should win or lose. Writing to this point without having watched the winner/loser announcements yet, I'm guessing Mei wins with Melissa a close second, and George goes home. Padma brought up a good point, that they're asking them to take risks yet punishing them if the risk doesn't pay off, and Wylie asked whether you reward good execution or more creativity. My gut instinct says that even though they're not supposed to consider past track record, they know how good Gregory can be and will find it hard to send him home. I find myself hoping that George gets to stay, for being a bit more gutsy. I don't always favor the biggest risk taker, but the absolute last time to take no risks is in the challenge where they specifically ask for innovation, so I really think Gregory shouldn't be rewarded for playing it safe.

And .... while I was right that the women would be on top and the men on bottom, I got the specifics all wrong. I can't really quibble with either decision because it's so close at this stage. I did think Mei's dish was more innovative than Melissa's, but Melissa's was clearly perfect. And George's octopus did look pretty charred while Gregory's dish was apparently delicious. So Mei, Melissa, and Gregory go to Mexico. I should note that I haven't been watching Last Chance Kitchen so I hadn't known it would be down to Doug and George until I saw that tonight. We'll see what happens.

Random Notes

-- I would like to have seen more of Richard Blais this season. He's nice and sensible and rather adorable.

-- I'm not a huge fan of Wylie Dufresne. He was on Top Chef Masters twice, and the first time he was flabbergasted by how difficult the time management was. The second time, he still seemed caught off guard by it, and he said specifically how much harder competing was than it looked when he was on the judging side. But it feels as though he's forgotten again. This probably isn't fair of me, though, because we only see a small percentage of the actual conversations that go on.

-- I loved that one of the guests at the judges' table was a Harvard physics professor, who has guest chefs come in to show that cooking is really science.

-- I was thrilled that they gave the chefs more time and a big budget, but they should not have been so crowded on the cooking line. That's no way to make chefs create fine dining experiences.

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: I don't like to eat pork, but on flavor profile, I think George's bean dish would have appealed to me the most. Of the elimination dish challenges, I think I'd go with Mei's dish.
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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Top Chef Episode 11 - Sous Your Daddy?

Sometimes I think every single episode of Top Chef is an up-down, up-down experience for me -- which of course means it has to be five million times more so for the chefs themselves! After seeing the previews for this week's episode, I went into it feeling very apprehensive for the chefs, especially Mei, at having to rely on their family members as sous chefs. I was also initially bummed at the lack of a Quickfire Challenge. Then I felt better when Padme explained that the Elimination Challenge would not be "elimination" after all. None of the chefs would go home as a result, but the winner would go directly to the finale in Mexico.

But as the episode went on, I felt that Melissa and Gregory had a huge advantage over George and Mei -- which was odd in George's case because his father owned a diner. But it became immediately apparent that his father, whom he calls "Mr. Tony," is not only opinionated and strong-willed but also somewhat biased against high-end cooking. And Mei ... her brother Harly can't cook, nor do the two of them get along terribly well. Contrast this with Melissa's mother, who can't tell her enough how proud she is of her, and Gregory's sister, who seems thrilled to be there.

It wasn't until Melissa was going over the to-do list with her mother that I realized I should also have been thinking about what that was like for the family members. From what George and his father said, it sounds as though the family members weren't told they would be cooking. Even if they were, I can't imagine they were told they would be the only one with hands on the dish they would have to prepare, as opposed to just chopping some veggies for their chef. I so would not want to be the parent or sibling who went on the show thinking I was there to say "hi" and eat some great food, only to end up being the one who screwed up their kid's/sibling's opportunity to get a definite ticket to the finale. Sigh....

Was I too quick to judge? Considering how well the contestants did overall, maybe so. I was especially surprised by how well received both Mei and Harly's dishes were. I was worried that she was being too harsh with him and that he was going to become defensive or overly nervous, but somehow it all worked out. He clearly was nervous (his tendency to keep laughing at everything reminds me of how nervous I was at my wedding.... I kept doing the same thing), but he came through. And Mei's dish looked phenomenal. I don't have a lot of experience with raw seafood -- I've tended to keep the the "safer" forms of sushi, i.e. tuna and salmon -- but I would love to try her dish. Even with coconut in it, and that's saying a lot.

Gregory and his sister Jessica were up next. The judges really liked her tomato-watermelon soup with lightly sauteed shrimp, but they found Gregory's fish a tiny bit overcooked, as he'd feared they would, and Tom said that unlike most of Gregory's dishes, this one wasn't "clean and bright." Earlier in the episode, Gregory had said that he was going away from his usual bright acids and lots of herbs, and trying more for an umami dish. I wonder if his lesser familiarity with that kind of flavor profile worked against him.

George and his father did better than I expected, and here again I felt that empathy for the family member more. It seemed to me like Mr. Tony may have felt pretty intimidated, not just by the fact that almost every other person he encountered that day was a high-end chef or professional foodie, but also because of a slight language barrier. And your average diner owner isn't necessarily prepared to find himself on national television one day out of the blue. In any case, I was glad to see that fahter and son seemed to get along fine in the kitchen and that the judges liked the dishes. The only negative comments were that the appetizer could have used a little bit more salt, and that Tom felt the mircogreens on George's lobster and sunchoke entree were unnecessary. One of the judges called the sunchoke puree spectacular, and everyone seemed to agree.

Last but not least, I was thrilled with the way Melissa and her mother, who is named Alice, pulled off their dishes (especially after hearing how Melissa's father has no interest in her career -- can you imagine not going to your kid's restaurant?). It was also nice that Melissa had her mother make something remembered from her childhood. And boy, if the judges said that the lobster was cooked absolutely perfectly and then said that the vegetables were still the star of the dish, well, I want that woman living in my house and cooking my vegetables!

After those comments, I figured Melissa was a shoe-in, but then the extended judges' discussion made me wonder if it would be Mei. I was glad the family members were there to hear the results (I would not have been glad to have them witness an elimination, though). In the end Melissa won, which I thought was great. I hope the judges said more to George and his dad that didn't happen to make the editing cut, and I hope they reminded Mei again how wonderful her dish was.

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Melissa's for the veggies, but Mei's for the broth with the raw seafood.

Note to Melissa: I hope you're studying up on Mexican food! And I would advise that you be mentally prepared for an immediate Quickfire elimination at the finale. Yes, I realize this is all in the past by now, but I like to pretend it's real-time.

Side Notes:: First, tonight's episode had an extended preview of Tom's upcoming show, Best New Restaurant. I still haven't quite made up my mind, but I'm a little inclined to skip it. For me, the joy of a show like this is seeing people do well, and for this competition involving sixteen new-ish restaurants, I feel like there's going to be too much setting them up to do badly. Heck, established restaurants get things wrong occasionally; new restaurants are likely to do it a lot. And the whole hidden camera thing is a turn-off for me. Plus it looked like they're going to slam the restaurants, unannounced, with VIP diners. I don't think I can take the stress levels of watching that!

Second, don't you just picture Padme's entire life as getting to wear glorious clothes, eating the best food in gorgeous outdoor settings, and being the one who gets to make the toasts with the high-end wine? Good thing I like her so much, or I'd have to hate her! Of course, she's the one who always has to deliver bad news, and there's been many times when I think she felt that keenly. Which is one of the reasons I like her so much. She loves seeing the chefs do well as much as I do.
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