Thursday, October 30, 2014
For this week's Quickfire, guest judge Ming Tsai and Padme explained that in honor of the Boston Tea Party, each chef would have to create a dish highlighting tea as an ingredient. Although the chefs had to hurry up to the front of the kitchen to choose their tea, they didn't really have to stampede because they were choosing the teas blindly. I admit I'm not much of tea drinker myself, but even I can see that there's an almost endless variety of flavors, so a lot of scope for creativity here.
There were a nice variety of dishes created, and Ming picked as his three favorites Melissa King's seared duck breast with toasted nut oolong tea-infused rice; Gregory's tuna crudo with strawberry; and Ron Eyester's chocolate and salt tea-crusted duck breast in "the spirit of mole." Ultimately, Ming chose Gregory's dish as the favorite, giving Gregory immunity for the elimination round. Gregory's dish sounded terrific to me except for the mention of coconut, which happens to be a flavor I don't care for. Because of that, I was actually more interested in Katsuji Tanabe's toasted brown rice tea broth with brown rice crusted tuna.
On the downside, Ming singled out James Rigato's crispy skin trout and quinoa with beurre blanc, noting that he hadn't had a beurre blanc sauce in about ten years, and that there was too much of it. Aaron Grissom had remarked on the datedness of this type of sauce as well, so I guess some things just go in and out of style. Another misstep was Aaron's overcooked monkfish, and the third was Rebecca LaMalfa's cake with strawberries and apples. I know they're nervous, and I would be too, but Rebecca didn't do herself any favors by telling the judges that she made, in her words, "a pretty-much neutral cake" in order to try and soak up the lemongrass tea flavor. I'm sure the judges would have reached the same conclusion anyway, i.e. that she didn't manage to infuse the cake with the tea flavor, but still, it would be better not to have planted the idea in their heads that she had just served them a flavorless cake.
Not surprisingly, Aaron's overcooked fish was chosen as the least favorite dish of the Quickfire. This was a pretty basic mistake for someone who just told a competitor he could cook her under the table. Aaron also said that he he'd wanted the yellowtail, but "Adam grabbed it out of my hand." Did Adam really grab it out of Aaron's hands? Seems unlikely, and if it isn't true, then he should have said instead that "Adam got to it first." Oh a show like this, yes, I'm a stickler for accuracy.
Since this was a sudden death Quickfire, Aaron then had to choose a chef he thought he could beat in a head-to-head challenge. The added twist was that the only heat they could use was boiling water. Aaron chose Katie Weinner, which was fine, but then he spent a little too much time explaining that it was because she teaches at culinary school, and he never went to school, so he really wanted to beat her for that reason. There have been plenty of contestants over the years who haven't been formally trained, and it's one thing to mention it (as in "yeah, I'm a little intimidated because I don't have the training that some of these folks have but I think I can hold my own"), but I take a pretty quick dislike to the ones who have turned it into a chip on their shoulder.
In any case, I was really hoping Aaron would go home at this point based on his behavior so far, but as soon as Katie said she was making pasta, I suspected we'd be stuck with Aaron for a while longer. I bet her hand-cut pappardella tasted good, but it's fairly hard to get a "wow" factor that will impress judges with a simple pasta dish. Also, she said she made "sauce," but I sure couldn't see any in the bowl. In the meantime, Aaron concocted a spring roll with the wrapper made of shrimp that he cooked in a Ziploc in the boiling water, which I thought was kind of impressive. His only misstep was putting raw peanuts in the roll, and I also think he should have tried to actually close the ends of it, but this dish was enough to beat Katie and to save Aaron.
To announce the Elimination Challenge, two ballpark vendors came into the kitchen bearing peanuts, popcorn, cotton candy, and a few other ballpark standbys. The challenge was simple: create a fine dining dish based on one of these classic concession snacks and serve it the next day at Fenway Park. The chefs had 45 minutes and $350 to shop, three hours to prep and cook that day, and an hour to finish cooking at the ballpark. (I always wonder how badly the dishes are hurt by some of the cooked ingredients hanging around overnight; I'm not sure why they didn't just give them four hours straight the next day, but maybe they don't want to give them an entire night to spend deciding what to make.) In this case the chefs had to go up and grab the snack they wanted, but they had multiples of everything and it didn't appear that anybody got stuck with something they didn't want. In some ways I wouldn't have minded them drawing knives, because we got an awful lot of peanuts and popcorn this episode, but this way was fine too.
At the ballpark, the chefs served in stages, which I always think is a good idea. With thirteen competing, there was a pretty standard distribution of the great, the okay, and the bad. During service, the judges were most impressed with Katie, Melissa, Gregory, and Stacy Cogswell. Katie had intended to make a popcorn panacotta but turned it into mousse on a blue cornmeal salted shortbread when it didn't set, and apologized to the judges as she served it. She was pretty floored when they really liked the dish, and they all advised her not to try and take herself out of the game like that. Melissa made a corn and ramp soup with bacon popcorn; Stacy served a seared scallop with pickled peanuts that judge Hugh Acheson really loved; and Gregory made a roasted duck and peanut nam prik pao (and no, I won't even pretend I have any idea what that means). Richard called it a moneyball dish, smart and balanced.
More towards the middle of the road were Rebecca's salmon with honey mustard glaze and toasted peanut streusel (I read that as "crumbs" but it still sounded good) and Doug Adams' seared scallop with sweet corn sauce and popcorn. Aaron didn't do terribly, with his pretzel-wrapped rillette and spring pea tendril salad, but Ming thought an actual sausage would have served better than the rillette, which the magical internet tells me is like a pâté. I know I've seen others make their own from-scratch sausage on Top Chef before, and can see how that might have really been stunning in Aaron's pretzel wrap.
The chefs who found themselves on the bottom included Keriann Von Raesfeld, whose beer-braised short ribs were undercooked and underseasoned; Ron, who put a huge fish croquette in the middle of his very thick, very rich corn soup; Adam, who seriously overcooked his fish (the judges loved the rest of the dish); and Katsuji, who ruined what might have been a good bread pudding dish by plopping a tough, dry piece of pork belly on top of it.
Back in the Stew Room, Aaron once again disgusted me, but I have to say that Katsuji really turned me off too. It was obvious Aaron was nervous about his dish; give him any excuse and he will lash out, from fear. For all I know I might do the same under the circumstances, not that I think I'd be as big an ass as he is. But there was no reason that Katsuji had to deliberately poke at Aaron like that. And by starting a testosterone-laden fight in the Stew Room, Katsuji made it miserable for the rest of the chefs. This is a prime opportunity for them to bond a little, but instead they have to listen to a couple of jackasses make everyone uncomfortable. Maybe I am not the typical Bravo TV reality show viewer, but I don't actually like the drama and I don't like to see contestants do poorly and get shredded by the judges. I think they should be challenged to push the boundaries of their comfort zones, but for me a terrific episode is when a bunch of chefs do great and the judges have to agonize over who gets the win.
In any case, this judges official top three choices this week were Gregory, Melissa, and Katie. I thought it could have gone to either Gregory or Melissa, and I was happy enough with the outcome when Gregory was announced as the winner. I do like Katie and was very glad to see her do so much better than she expected, but I don't honestly think she has the confidence or consistency to go all the way.
The bottom three called out were Keriann, Katsuji, and Ron, with Ron being the one to pack his knives. I'm kind of sorry to see him go.
Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Gregory's story about his past with drugs was surprising to me, and a little moving. I'm really glad he got his act together. And although I can't say whether he'll be the one I'm rooting for in the end, I do like that he just generally goes about his cooking without being a drama queen about it. On cooking alone, I like that Gregory seems to nail two things every time: balance and details. Interestingly, in his blog post this week, Hugh Acheson says in relation to Gregory, "This industry is fraught with addiction and we need to support those who have fought through that beast of a battle to win." It made me wonder why the culinary industry is fraught with addiction. Maybe because it's full of stress and adrenalin highs, and you want to keep the latter going when the cooking is done for the night. In any case, I recommend Hugh's blog posts, which are kind of funny. (I also like Richard's posts, but somebody needs to proofread them because he doesn't know the difference between "your" and you're." I know, he's an amazing chef and we can't expect him to do everything perfectly!)
I also enjoyed watching Stacy, the one Bostonian on the show, a lot this week. I can't imagine what pickled peanuts taste like but I'd love to find out. She's spunky and I think we haven't really seen what she can do yet.
The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Melissa's corn and ramp soup with bacon popcorn. I'm not a fan of the "everything bacon" trend, but wow, that looked good. I also wanted to get my hands on Katsuji's brown rice crusted tuna from the Quickfire.
Til next week!