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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