Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Top Chef Boston - Episode 4 - "12 Chefs Walk Into a Bar ..."

The Quickfire

Norm! I knew I'd love this week's Quickfire when Padme had the chefs meet her at the real-life Cheers bar, accompanied by actor George Wendt. The parameters of the challenge were exactly as expected: make a creative, tasty bar snack in 30 minutes. This was great because 1) I love good bar food, and 2) I adored Cheers in my college and grad school years (although it wasn't Cheers but rather its spin-off, Frasier, that went on to become what is probably my all-time favorite sitcom, even beating out The Big Bang Theory, which is quite a feat).

The chefs were divided into two groups due to the size of the kitchen, and the show kind of raced through the challenge. In fact, the first group included Katie, Rebecca, Stacy, Keriann, Aaron, and Doug (I'm going to dispense with the last names from now on), but although I watched it through twice, I did not see Doug present any food. The offerings included Katie's beer-battered fried cheese curd; Rebecca's crispy chicken wings with spicy ponzu glaze; what Stacy called a take on a BLT, but which I gather was pesto, prosciutto, tomato jam, and burrata (a "semisoft white Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream," according to Google); Keriann's onion ring with crab salad and spicy hollandaise; and Aaron's hamburger with peanut butter (!), mayo, and a sunny-side-up egg. Almost all of George and Padme's comments were positive; the worse thing I heard was that Rebecca's wings didn't have enough glaze, and Padme would have liked it as a dipping sauce.

The second group came up with: James' pickled and grilled carrots with red bean puree; Adam's black bean chilaquiles (usually a fried corn tortilla dish) with a fried egg; Katsuji's mahi mahi and tuna ceviche with a tomato and jalapeƱo salsa; Mei's lime-chili chicken wings; and Gregory's mini burgers that unfortunately lost their top buns and, in Padme's case, all of the toppings when Gregory dropped them on the floor. And in writing that just now, I've realized they left Melissa out of the presentation this time. Yet we had time at the beginning of the episode to listen to how much Keriann misses her kids. Strange editing....

In any case, most of the second group's dishes were well received, particularly Katsuji's and Mei's. Padme wanted a little heat on Adam's chilaquiles, which he pointed out was difficult to achieve with dried spices instead of fresh ingredients. George identified Katsuji and Keriann's dishes as his favorites, and awarded immunity to Katsuji, who at this point really seems to run hot and cold. The bottom dishes were Gregory's naked burgers and James' veggies. I actually liked the idea of a veggie and hummus bar snack, but I quite dislike generic grilled veggies, so I can see why this wasn't a big hit.

Elimination Challenge

There were two aspects of this week's elimination challenge that bothered me, but as the episode went on, the aspects grew on me a little. The chefs were told to divide themselves into three teams and to write a classic Italian menu consisting of antipasti, pasta, and secundi (which means second course, often meat, poultry, game, or fish, according to The diners would see their written menus, and the team that got the most orders for their menu would win the challenge. Everyone on the remaining three teams would be up for elimination.

In essence, then, three people would get immunity for their menu alone, no matter how good or bad the actual food turned out to be. While I understand the importance of designing a menu with dishes that people will want to eat, I felt that this was an awful lot of immunity to award when it could actually happen that the food itself would be inedible. Also, didn't this result in a lot of wasted food? If each team had to prepare for 60 diners and they only got 8 orders, did everything else they have prepped get thrown away? But as the episode went on, I could see why some menus were clearly more appealing than others.

The second aspect was the guest judge Emmy Rossum turned out to need gluten free food, in a challenge that specifically required pasta. At first, this totally ticked me off. I completely understand the necessity of restaurants having gluten-free and other allergen-free offerings, but it seemed out of place in this artificially constructed environment and challenge. In a normal restaurant, after all, you would have many dishes that are not pasta, so the customer needing gluten-free food would ideally have several things to choose from, not just a "pasta dish substitute."

But then I saw how well three of the four teams handled the gluten-free aspect, and it kind of won me over. Chefs can be mentally prepared for this, especially these days. The only reservation I still have about this requirement is that some of the teams seemed to have more time to deal with it than others; the teams who got lots of orders and/or who served the judges earlier in the evening had a disadvantage -- although I suspect more time wouldn't have improved things for the one team that didn't handle the gluten-free aspect well.

In any case, the chefs seemed to sort themselves into teams without too much drama. Aaron quickly sidled up to frontrunner Gregory who happened to be standing next to Katsuji, which could have been an recipe for disaster but wasn't as bad as it could have been. I'm not sure why Gregory agreed to be the peacekeeper between the two most obnoxious chefs, but it was probably because he didn't want the drama of saying no. The teams ended up as:

- ORANGE: Adam, Mei, and Doug
- PURPLE: Katsuji, Gregory, and Aaron
- GRAY: Melissa, James, and Keriann
- BLUE: Stacy, Rebecca, and Katie

Guest judge Michael Schlow expedited service as this was the kitchen of his Italian restaurant "Via Matta." He and Tom Colicchio took a quick whirl through the kitchen that again seemed rushed (in editing, not in actuality, I imagine).

Right off the bat, the blue and purple teams got a lot of orders, although the show was careful not to let us know for sure which one got the most. The judges had the purple team's food first; they loved Aaron's scallop antipasti and Gregory's peppercorn crusted strip loin with sweet onion compote, but didn't care for Katsuji's spring pea and goat cheese ravioli with pecorino, nor his gluten-free take on it, which consisted of the insides of the ravioli inelegantly dumped into a bowl.

Next, the judges ordered the orange menu. They were not initially impressed with Doug's radicchio salad for the antipasti course, but conceded that it tasted fine. Adam did the pasta course: scallop and fennel linguine with sun-gold tomatoes and gremolata (which Google describes as "a dressing or garnish made with chopped parsley, garlic, and grated lemon zest" -- sounds like dressy pesto to me). His gluten-free version was a red quinoa polenta cake with seafood brodo, that Emmy loved. The last course was Mei's branzino (sea bass) with lemon jam. Padme loved the crispy skin and the judges liked it overall.

The gray team came next, and James began second-guessing himself about letting the others talk him into seafood when he would have preferred to serve lamb. Based on the number of orders that they didn't get, he should have gone with his gut. I know I wouldn't have ordered an all-seafood menu against so many other interesting choices. The judges felt his cold seafood salad was un-modern. Melissa did a pasta course of spring-pea ravioli with ramps and a bacon-parmesan broth, and her gluten-free risotto with fresh peas was fine in Emmy's opinion. Keriann finished with a pan-seared halibut and olive oil potato puree that everyone seemed to love.

Last and not quite least, the blue team started with Rebecca's scallops, which Padme found too salty while Emmy was disappointed that the fennel was not charred as advertised. Tom said he wished some of them had "dug a little deeper," which I took to mean he found some of the dishes uninspired. Katie was the star of this team, with her hand-cut pappardelle pasta with basil-walnut pesto and confit cherry tomatoes. Her gluten-free zucchini pappardelle was Emmy's favorite GF dish of the night, and I felt it was the most creative, with perhaps the red quinoa polenta cake a close second (although I know I would have found the texture of the zucchini pasta a lot more satisfying than that of the polenta cake). Stacy ended the judges' service with her grilled ribeye. Tom was not happy that she'd sliced it thinly, and the vegetables were apparently pretty unappetizing at this stage in the evening. Having cooked veggies sitting around for I'm assuming an hour or longer can't have been too smart.

Judges Table

There weren't a lot of surprises this time around, which is fine. According to Michael Schlow, the blue and purple teams were very close in the number of orders, but the purple team won. Tom noted that Katsuji could have been looking at going home if he hadn't had immunity. The orange team was safe, and James, Stacy, and Rebecca were called out as having cooked the least favorite dishes. Tom felt that they all played it too safe, and there were also major problems with their dishes: James' issue was the oil to acid ratio, Rebecca's fennel wasn't properly executed, and Stacy killed her vegetables. I was a bit surprised that Stacy didn't seem to own up to it, instead saying they tasted good to her, when we had seen her in the kitchen lamenting how overcooked her veggies were becoming.

In the end, James and Rebecca were sent home. I felt more for James than I did for Rebecca, not that I dislike her, but because I have a feeling James had a little more to offer as a chef (although to be fair, I'm going on gut feeling and very little information). Stacy got lucky.

I came away from the episode still disliking Aaron and Katsuji a lot, but at least the episode wasn't all about them. It's telling that when the purple team won, Aaron said "I knew I'd win" instead of "I knew we'd win." (Hopefully that wasn't creative editing to make us dislike him more.)

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: I still like Doug a lot, and Melissa seems nice and competent, but we didn't get to see as much of them this episode. I think I have to go with Katie, then. She handled both the Quickfire and the elimination challenge calmly and skillfully, and didn't bat an eye at the gluten-free request.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: In the Quickfire, no contest: I love fried cheese, and I bet Katie's fried cheese curds took it to a new level. Although I have to admit I'm a bit intrigued by the idea of peanut butter and mayo on a burger.... In the elimination challenge, I wanted to get my hands on Gregory's strip loin with sweet onion compote. I brought home a jar of onion marmalade from a recent trip to England, and can just imagine how something like that would taste when made from scratch by an accomplished chef. And Padme said it melted in her mouth.

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