Thursday, October 23, 2014

Top Chef Boston - Episode 2 - Boston’s Bravest & Finest

Last night on Top Chef, the fourteen remaining contestants cooked for some folks in the Boston police and fire departments, which added a nice feel-good element to the episode. At this early stage in the season, we're still getting to know the contestants, and a few, shall I say, "intense" personalities are already emerging. (Thank goodness Michael Patlazhan was eliminated last week; I shudder to think how his ego would have fit into this week's elimination challenge.)

The Quickfire

For the Quickfire challenge, Padme and guest judge Todd English asked the chefs to cook on the fly, invoking Paul Revere's "one if by land, two if by sea" quote to signal the chefs when they needed to choose an ingredient from the "land" table or the "sea" table. The ingredients were eclectic, to say the least, including as pretzels, Velveeta (does that even count as food?), mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns (I had no idea they were edible), boar bacon, skate cheeks, sweetbreads, and more. I liked the concept of the challenge, although the idea of pretzels as a "land" ingredient seems a bit silly. I can live with that, though; my only real issue is that they made the chefs run to get the first-come first-serve ingredients, which in my opinion is dangerous, demeaning, and non-representative of the reality of professional chefdom.

In any case, the chefs had to pay attention to when the lanterns were lit, because only then could they visit the main ingredient tables. Padme indicated there would be no immunity, but the winner would get $5,000. Considering that the elimination was based on a team challenge, I'm glad there was no immunity; too many good contestants go home because someone with immunity screwed up the team's dish.

Not surprisingly, the assortment of ingredients led to some slightly odd results, but there were several dishes that seemed fairly successful. Melissa King used mushrooms, pollock, and razor clams to make something that Padme likened to a tempura platter and that Todd English called delicious. Katsuji Tanabe made poached sweetbreads and uni with a quail egg and hot pepper jelly, a combination that Todd English loved. Padme was impressed that James Rigato's dish was not overwhelmed by the boar bacon. On the other end of the spectrum, they did not like Joy Crump's combination of buffalo strip steak and veal, calling it an odd combination, or Stacy Cogswell's pork chop, which was underseasoned and not properly cooked. In the end, it came down to Katsuji and James, with James taking home the $5,000 prize.

Elimination Challenge

To announce the elimination challenge, Padme introduced the Commissioners of the Boston police and fire departments, and made a point of calling them "first responders." (May I just say that their accents would have given away their Boston roots even if we hadn't know where they were from!) The chefs drew knives to divide up into five teams, and were told they would have two hours the next day to prep and cook at il Casale, an Italian restaurant located in the former Belmont fire department. The teams would not be doing their own shopping, but instead would have to "respond" to boxes of ingredients already in the kitchen.

If there's one thing I dislike about Top Chef, it's the drama that goes with the cooking. I understand it's inevitable to a degree -- the idiom "too many chefs" exists for good reason. At first I thought this challenge might be overwhelmed by team friction, when Mei Lin and Katsuji immediately butted heads over who would make the sauce for their dish, but they settled down nicely once they got cooking. As the first team (red) to compete, Mei, Katsuji, and Katie Weinner got first choice of ingredient boxes, and ended up producing a pea coconut puree with sautéed halibut, pickled rhubarb, and a cherry and grilled fennel slaw. Mei tasted Katsuji's sauce and admitted to the camera that it was really good (I only hope she told Katsuji that as well). She also said that everyone on the team pulled their weight and that she was proud of the dish. The judges agreed; Padme praised the sauce, while Tom Colicchio said the fish was cooked perfectly and the dish was cohesive overall.

The blue team, consisting of Gregory Gourdet, Adam Harvey, and Rebecca LaMalfa, went second, and unanimously chose a box containing filets and scallops. Their dish was a surf & turf: filet mignon and pan-seared scallops with a parsnip puree and marcona vinaigrette. Tom felt the vinaigrette really tied the dish together, and the beef and scallops were both perfectly cooked. He later said that a surf & turf was perhaps a little too obvious a choice, but that it worked.

The gray team, which went third, had only two members: Doug Adams and James Rigato. By their expressions when they drew knives, I thought they didn't look happy at ending up with each other, but I must have been wrong because they seemed to work together smoothly and produced a dish that the judges seemed quite happy with. Padme had remarked that they would have to see whether having only two team members would be an advantage or disadvantage. This wasn't brought up again in the episode, but I suspect that's due to time constraints and editing, and that Doug and James probably found it to be an advantage. Their dish was a grilled pork chop, grilled stonefruit salad, morel mushrooms, and walnuts. Padme thought the chop was nicely seasoned well, Gail loved the apricots, and Tom commented that the dish was flavorful.

The yellow team, which was fourth, consisted of Joy, Ron Eyester, and Melissa King, and this is where we ran into trouble, after three successful dishes. At this point, there were only two ingredient boxes left to choose from, and the one they picked had both salmon and veal. They decided to go with the veal, and Joy agreed to cook it, but she noted that the chops were large and that she thought they should take them off the bone. I cringed at that point, remembering more than one occasion when chefs have been dinged for losing flavor by taking meat off the bone. Perhaps not surprisingly, the veal was undercooked to the point of being unappetizing. I don't have enough culinary experience myself to know whether Joy could have simply started the chops a little earlier, or whether that wasn't possible within the two-hour cook window. That wasn't the only problem, however; the judges found that the vanilla flavor that Roy had wanted to add to both the veal and the celery root puree was overpowering.

The last team (green), made up of Stacy, Keriann Von Raesfeld, and Aaron Grissom, was a disaster from start to finish. The elimination challenge took place the day after the Quickfire, so the chefs had overnight to discuss their strategies, although of course they could only do so much without knowing what their ingredients would be. Keriann and Aaron managed to start fighting immediately. Because they would be serving last, they were worried they'd be stuck with dessert ingredients, so Aaron asked Keriann, who has been to pastry school, what ingredients they might expect and what they might be able to do with them. Keriann, in my opinion, was deliberately obtuse. Instead of saying, "well, if we get A, we might be able to try B, or if we get C, we could try D," she simply kept saying "we don't know what the ingredients are." Surely, surely she could have said that if we get a lot of fruit, we might be able to do a tart of some kind, or if we have a lot of eggs, we could do soufflés. Aaron understandably became frustrated, but he was also a sarcastic ass. Keriann also kept insisting that they not do anything "molecular," and Aaron insisted that he had no intention of doing anything molecular.

So what did Aaron do the next day, when they found a box with chicken and short ribs? He tried to go at least semi-molecular by making an onion marmalade that was intended to be served on top of Stacy's chicken. The arguments continued when Keriann put onion in her corn salad, which Aaron thought was redundant due to his bourbon onion jam. The only thing the two of the managed to agree on was that Stacy was "in the weeds" and could not possibly get her chicken done on time, which turned out to be completely wrong. At the last minute, Aaron decided that he needed to warm up his jam and try to re-set it; Keriann told him not to but he did it anyway, and put it on top of the corn salad instead of the chicken.

The first comment the judges made at the table is that Stacy's chicken was not only the best thing on the plate, it was the only good thing on the plate. Padme disliked the raw onion and the starchiness / scratchiness of the raw corn. Tom said he didn't know what the jam was meant to be, but whatever it was, it was terrible. Padme asked how they had worked together as a team, and Keriann lied through her teeth by saying that they “came together pretty good in the kitchen.” Aaron started out with honesty by saying that he and Keriann had very different styles, but then he began equivocating by saying that Keriann was erratic towards the end, implying that she kept changing her mind. It seemed to me that whatever bad decisions Keriann made (the onion in the corn salad especially), she was at least consistent about it. In response to Aaron's remarks, Keriann pointed out that Aaron's marmalade was supposed to be cold, but then he changed his mind at the last minute by warming it up and putting it on her cold salad.

Back in the kitchen, Keriann said the challenge was over and she was done discussing it, then joined the others in the stew room and called Aaron a lying sack of shit. When Aaron started to respond, she again said she was "done." So she didn't want to talk about it, but kept talking about it, but didn't want to talk about it.

Suffice it to say that I was pretty disgusted with both of them by this time.

There were no surprises at the judges' table. The red and blue teams were on top, and ultimately the blue team (Gregory, Adam, and Rebecca) won. Tom noted that it was due to the precision of the dish and the nice details, such as the unifying vinaigrette and the way the parsnips were prepared. Here's where it surprises me that the judges didn't choose an individual winner as well as a winning team, because it's clear that Gregory contributed the most successful elements to the dish. There have been individual winners of team challenges before (think "Restaurant Wars" in past seasons), but maybe they only do that when a sponsor has offered a prize to award.

The yellow and green teams were called to the center for the bad news. Tom noted that the yellow team's downfall was both conception and cookery, and Padme asked a pointed question: had any of the three chefs on the yellow team tasted the complete dish? Not one of them had -- they'd only tasted the separate components. Top Chef 101 here, I think.

When the attention was back on the green team, which Tom stated was "doomed to fail," Aaron tried to wiggle away again; Tom asked how much time they had, and Aaron said about an hour and 40 minutes. Tom corrected him: two hours. Tom also noted that "tricks" (molecular!) were not going to get Aaron through Top Chef. Keriann came in for criticism too; Tom said that bad corn and raw onion are not what he expects from Top Chef. Padme pointed out the harsh truth, that Aaron and Keriann needed to thank Stacy, because her nicely cooked chicken kept their team from being on the bottom, and therefore kept one of the two of them from going home.

Ultimately, Joy was asked to pack her knives and go. In her little post-interview snippet, Joy said she should have spoken up more, and that she regrets not having a chance to share her style. I'm sorry to see her go, but I can understand that you're not going to get very far on this show if you cook meat improperly.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Hmmm, this is actually difficult. Mei's ego is a little large for my taste, but I suspect it's actually somewhat justified by her skill and experience. Although that may be a problem in and of itself. Last week, when hunting around on the Top Chef website, I came across a post in which Tom Colicchio called Paul Qui, who won Season 9, "the most talented chef we've ever had on the show." In fact, Tom said that they had to "dumb down how good he was" because it would have been "pretty obvious that he was running away with everything." That may happen this season with Mei. A friend and fellow Top Chef enthusiast told me that Mei has been on Top Chef alum and winner Ilan Hall's Knife Fight show already, so she's had some experience with cooking celebrity (although maybe she appeared after filming Top Chef Boston? I can't find her listed on it at IMDB). I can't say it's inappropriate for her to be on this show, exactly, but I think I preferred it when most of the contestants were at earlier stages in their careers.

Which means I still haven't figured out who I liked this week. I can't quite say Katsuji; he showed restraint in both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges, but I think he may well revert to type and go a little crazy later on. I was happy for Katie's success this week but still feel like she may be a little out of her league. I guess I'm going to have to go with James and Doug. They didn't get much attention in this elimination challenge, falling squarely in the middle of the pack during the elimination challenge, but I liked the lack of drama, and think they deserve some credit for putting out the same amount of food with one less person (they all served a larger group, not just the judges), and doing it well.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: I was actually not that excited about the elimination challenge dishes this week, so I'll go with James's winning Quickfire dish: the mussels with boar bacon broth. I've never had mussels and am not sure I'd like the texture, but this would probably be a great way to try them for the first time, and how could I resist trying fiddlehead ferns?

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