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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