Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Retro-Review: Season One of Top Chef


I'm doing a Hulu free trial for a month, and lo and behold, I saw that they have several past seasons of Top Chef. So I decided to take a fresh look at Season One from 2006. I watched it back then, and remembered a lot of the contestants, including Harold, Dave, Tiffani, and Lee Anne. But there was something I'd forgotten: the judges were mean. Outright mean. Yes, I'm talking about Tom Collichio and Gail Simmons (who, by the way, haven't changed a bit in terms of appearance -- they still look as fantastic now as they did back then).

In the current Season 17, Top Chef All Stars in L.A., the judges tell the chefs who had their "least favorite dish." Back in Season 1, it was "You three had the worst dishes" and "I'd get rid of all three of you if I could." At multiple points, Tom deliberately tries to stoke arguments between chefs. Instead of saying, "Some of your teammates felt your performance was weak", Tom says "Dave, Tiffani says you should go home." During the deliberations, the judges also take past performance into consideration when judging on a current challenge, which they never do now. But mainly, it's the judges' tone that bothers me.

What I like about the more recent seasons of Top Chef is that there's a much more prevalent attitude of respect. Yes, the challenges are still tricky, with twists and last-minute curve balls, but they don't seem designed to make the chefs fail. In Season 1, there's an episode with Ted Allen from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as a guest judge. He's holding a dinner party for his cookbook launch, and tells the chefs that it's very important to him, so they better do well or he'll be a cranky judge. The seven chefs excitedly plan fantastic dishes -- this, after weeks of having to cook with microwaves and ingredients purchased at gas stations -- and then Tom walks into the kitchen and says they have to draw knives to trade courses, and cook each other's planned dishes. And then he tells them they can choose to help each other succeed in those dishes or not, it's up to them.

As far as I'm concerned, Ted and Company deserved a crappy dinner party at that point.

Most of the competitors were as I remembered them, except Stephen. I did remember that he was an arrogant sommelier who felt it was his civic chef duty to educates the masses, which apparently meant everybody other than himself, whether they wanted to be educated or not. There's an episode where he rants at Candace, the youngest and least experienced competitor who was only halfway through culinary school when she went on the show (which would never happen now!), because she wanted to serve children food that was appropriate for children. But in rewatching, I found Stephen to be so over the top that he was almost a caricature, and I have to wonder how much of that "performance" was contrived.

Another detail from Season 1 that surprises me is the bare-bones stew room, where everyone drinks bottled water. Nowadays they're always drinking wine, usually in a slightly nicer setting, while they wait to hear what the judges have to say. And most shocking of all: in one episode, Stephen uses a laptop at the house to look up recipes online for the next day's challenge!

And I'd almost forgotten that Season 1 was hosted by Katie Lee Joel! No wonder, because for me the name Padma Lakshmi is practically synonymous with Top Chef. Poor Katie's delivery was absolutely wooden, and she didn't even taste the food or have any input in the Quickfire challenge decisions.

Obviously I liked Season 1 well enough at the time, because I watched it through back then, and eagerly awaited every new season as it came out. But boy, it's hard to like it now in comparison to later seasons.

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Saturday, May 9, 2020

Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. - Playing "Ketchup" with Episodes 6 and 7

[The Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the Top Chef contestants cooked to celebrate the L.A. Philharmonic's 100th anniversary]


Episode 6: Get Your Phil

The Quickfire challenge this time around featured all kinds of flour, with the exception of all-purpose flour -- which of course threw the chefs for a loop. The guest judge was Chris Bianco, who looked to me like a nice version of the Heat Miser and Snow Miser's love child. Mr. Bianco is apparently famous as an artisan baker and pizza master, hence the flour challenge. And I had no idea there were so many types of flour! Quinoa flour, masa flour, blue corn flour, rice flour, rye flour....

So how did it go down? Bryan Voltaggio, having earlier remarked that he hasn't done well in the Quickfires, then makes a dish that he himself says "doesn't have much flour in it," whereas everyone else is featuring flour. Bryan did this before in the fried rice Quickfire challenge; if I recall correctly, he made something else (porridge? oatmeal?) with a little fried rice on top. I would think he'd know by now that the judges expect the highlighted ingredient to be a major component of the dish.

But he still did way better than Brian Malarkey, who envisioned making coconut ice cream and a coconut donut. Guess which half ended up on the plate? Not the part that uses flour! I really disliked his little "performance" apology to Padma and Chris Bianco, in which he asks them to envision a luscious donut, blah blah blah. I don't want to keep picking on him, but a little of his personality really goes a long way.

On the top end, we had Gregory, Nini, and Melissa, with Gregory taking home $5,000 for his nutty tapioca pancakes with blueberry maple syrup.

The Elimination challenge was certainly interesting. The chefs drew knives for the five flavor profiles: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Then, they had to divide themeselves into pairs, with the caveat that partners could not have the same profile. Karen and Nini (umami/sour) immediately chose to work together, and Gregory and Stephanie (salty/sour), Melissa and Kevin (sweet/salty), and Bryan and Erik (sweet/bitter) quickly sorted themselves. That left Lee Anne and Marlarkey (umami/bitter) to work together. Note to producers: do you realize how much you give away in the editing? The minute we see the pre-commercial teasers of Lee Anne and Marlarkey butting heads, we know that they actually won't be going home. You're telegraphing it all over the place.

At any rate, the task was to cook a dish highlighting the two flavor profiles, and serve it to the judges, the conductor of the L.A. Phil, and 60 orchestra members, all to celebrate the Phil's 100th anniversary. As an aside, I loved conductor Gustavo Dudamel's anecdote about becoming his conductor's assistant at age eleven -- it reminded me of the character Rodrigo De Souza in the fabulous Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle. Back to the cooking: Kevin and Melissa won handily with a cabbage dish, while Padma noted that Lee Anne and Malarkey came close to winning themselves. On the bottom were Bryan V. and Erik, for not getting enough sweetness into their pork dish, and Karen and Nini, for introducing too much sweetness into what was supposed to be an umami/sour dish. Ultimately, Karen and Nini were eliminated. I thought it was the right decision, because it seems a lesser evil to have too little of one flavor profile, versus introducing an intrusive third flavor profile into the dish. They're told, however, that they'll be cooking on Last Chance Kitchen that very night.

One final question about this episode: How is it possible that Nini and Karen were allowed to dig into bins of fish with their bare hands at Whole Foods? Did the store have to throw away any fish they didn't take, or did they sell it to other customers? Gross!


Episode 7: Pitch Perfect

Right at the beginning of the episode, we find Karen back on Top Chef, which I was glad to see. The best moment of that LCK episode was when Joe Sasto, over in the peanut gallery, calls the competitors "girls." Karen, without missing a beat, retorts "Chefs would be better. Where I'm from, they call me Chef too." Boom!

This Quickfire was a little on the silly side. The Chefs had to make tacos in honor of guest judge Danny Trejo, which makes sense because he owns a line of taco restaurants, but the only "knife" they could use was a machete. Yes, yes, I know why, but as far as I'm concerned, that little gimmick was a severed finger waiting to happen. Fortunately, nobody cut anything off. Gregory had a terrible time because he'd never made a tortilla, and being flustered led him to oversalt his rockfish. Stephanie got her first win, with the all-important immunity, and her happiness was great to see. Lee Anne and Karen also showed well.

Okay, this was a terrific idea for an Elimination challenge. The chefs had to pitch their restaurant concepts, including a menu, a mood board, and sample dishes, and the two winners would have their concepts brought to life in the following week's Restaurant Wars. I'll be honest, I didn't know what a mood board was before this episode; I guess now I would describe it was a sophisticated collage that uses colors and textures to elicit a mood that you're trying to convey. Guest judges for this challenge were Stephanie Izard, who won Top Chef: Chicago in 2008, and restauranteur Kevin Boehm.

The concept that appealed the most to me was Melissa's "Sabrina", which she described as modern Asian California that was also romantic. The judges liked it; Kevin Boehn said that Melissa has "Michelin-star chops." But they were more impressed with the tightness of Gregory and Kevin's concepts. Gregory came up with "Kann" (the Haitian word for cane, as in sugar cane), a restaurant serving Haitian wood-fired food, and Kevin presented "The Country Captain", based on the dish of the same name. It's a dish I've never heard of, but apparently it's the first truly American version of a curry dish, generally made with chicken. The judges also liked Malarkey's Baja Asian street food concept, but chose Gregory and Kevin's to compete in Restaurant Wars.

On the bottom: Erik, Stephanie, and Lee Anne. Stephanie had immunity, so that left Erik and Lee Anne. And while her concept was a little run-of-the-mill in the judges' mind, Erik's was also muddy, plus he didn't execute his dishes well, so he went home.


Where We're At Now

Next episode is Restaurant Wars! I don't have a prediction going in -- Restaurant Wars is probably the hardest challenge to predict, ever, because so many things can go wrong no matter how talented the chefs are. They have to depend on servers who don't know their food or the pop-up restaurants layouts, and on diners knowing that they shouldn't linger too long after dessert when there are crowds at the door. I like Kevin and Gregory equally, so I can't even say I have a preference for which restaurant wins.


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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. - Playing "Ketchup" with Episodes 3, 4, and 5

[L-R: Ludo LeFebvre, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons]

If I can't keep up with Top Chef blogging when I'm stuck at home 24/7, it's probably hopeless, but I'm going to try and catch up anyway with this summary of Episodes 3, 4, and 5.


Episode 3: Strokes of Genius

I was super excited to see Ali Wong and Randall Park as guest judges for the Quickfire Challenge! I adored them in the Netflix movie they co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in, Always Be My Maybe, and I recently read her book Dear Girls, a somewhat rated-R memoir written as short letters to her still-small daughters (to be read after they turn 21, she says). The Quickfire was to make a great fried rice dish, incorporating at least one of the odd ingredients that Randall and Ali had picked, including peanut butter, frog legs, jelly beans, Red Hots, watermelon, Fritos, and so on. Kevin won immunity with what he called "bachelor fried rice"; it contained wieners, cheetos, and bourbon. Ali called it a party in her mouth. (I will make no comments!)

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs went to the Getty Museum to find inspiration in art. I like these kinds of challenges, but sometimes they work better than others. In this case, many of the dishes were a reach when it came to connecting them with the art period that inspired them. But there were some truly beautiful plates. Melissa took top honors with a lobster wonton in broth; guest judge Ludo LeFebvre called it a Michelin-star dish, Gail said it was pretty close to perfection, and Tom called it stunning. I know I certainly wanted to try it!

On the bottom end, Jamie was asked to pack his knives and go, because although his plate was gorgeous, he failed to get the jus onto the chicken, so it ate dry. Lee Anne was also in the bottom, and it's worth noting (because a pattern will emerge) that she ran out of time plating. She still seemed to get everything on the plate, but she said it looked terrible. In my mind, the bigger problem was that it was a whole mess of ingredients. She described it to the judges as: duck breast, a duck egg, a duck confit, beet red wine puree, yellow golden beet puree, fermented black garlic sauce, bread and celery root puree, and poached apples. It seemed like the list would never end!


Episode 4: You're So Fresh

Another fun guest judge for the Quickfire Challenge: Kelly Clarkson! With great promotional timing, her appearance coincided with the upcoming animated Trolls film in which she voices a character. So the kitchen was decorated with Trolls and six bright colors, each one representing a group of trolls and their musical genre from the movie. The chefs had to make a dish with at least one ingredient from each color group. As you can imagine, this resulted in some fairly strange dishes. Gregory won the Quickfire with a butternut squash and plantain vegan soup.

The Elimination Challenge was one I could get really excited about: two teams, each creating a six-course progressive vegetarian meal that would include dessert and feature produce they would be buying at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. The blue team's meal seemed almost perfect, and what I wouldn't give to have been in that restaurant sampling that menu! The red team made the mistake of starting with two raw dishes in a row, and neither were spectacular. Brian Malarkey made a tomato and mozzarella salad that, while beautiful, certainly wasn't very original. It was followed by Lee Anne's hummus with crudite.

Although this season has been fairly drama-free so far, this episode flirted with drama disaster when it came out at Judges' Table that Lee Anne's dish didn't have enough salt on it. Remember I said that pattern that was developing? In Lee Anne's own words, "I just don't have time to finish plating my dish" -- for which she has nobody to blame, especially when 1) it happened to her the previous episode, and 2) she was plating raw vegetables! So Lee Anne made a point at Judges' Table of saying she didn't finish off her plates, somebody else did, at which point a slightly guilt-stricken Marlarkey pointed out that the hummus was underseasoned too, i.e. that could not possibly have been his fault. He didn't need to say this -- the judges wouldn't have sent him home for how much salt he did or didn't put on someone else's dish -- but on the other hand, Lea Anne kind of started it by pointing out that it was supposedly someone else's mistake.

Sigh.... but I have to give Lee Anne credit for letting it go.

At any rate, Melissa won her second Elimination Challenge in a row with a coconut corn soup with pickled garlic chives and puffed rice grains. Again, I would have loved to tasted the entirety of that team's menu, but I also have to say, I was excited by both teams' desserts, which may never have happened before. Eric made a butternut squash and goat's milk pudding with chocolate hazelnut "soil" and a ginger granita. Nini made a delicious-looking "peaches and cream" creampuff with peach sorbet. I bet that tasted heavenly.

Before I move on to the next episode, my two favorite moments were Karen, Stephanie, and Nini chorusing "Good morning, Padma!" while striking a Charlie's Angels pose, and Karen's reaction to seeing Kelly Clarkson walk in through the door. My least favorite moment, however, was when the chefs stormed the table with the colored ingredients, almost knocking each other over and taking ridiculous quantities of food. I will keep saying this until I'm blue in the face: the chefs should not have to physically wrestle over ingredients. They should either draw knives to see who picks in what order, or there should be enough of every ingredient for every chef who wants it.

Episode 5: Bring Your Loved One to Work

Almost every season of Top Chef involves family members, and this season is no exception. For the Quickfire, the chefs had to imitate a restaurant dish as described over the phone by their family member. Padma called this a challenge of communication, and while that was true to an extent, you can be the best communicator in the world and not recognize a certain fish, or know that cilantro is cilantro. So it wasn't an entirely level playing field. Kevin won, assisted by his wife who is not only an attorney with a head for details, she also knows food and subtle tastes. Still, Kevin's reaction when he wins something is adorable, so I had to be happy for him.

I enjoyed this Elimination Challenge. The chefs had to create a signature product and then serve it at an outdoor shopping center with a dish showcasing that product. They had the evening before to prepare the product, then time to cook the dish the next day. During the evening session, Lee Anne's mother became faint and had to leave the kitchen. I was glad to see that Lee Anne behaved like a trouper, and the other chefs pitched in to give her a hand where they could.

Between the evening and the next day, we got one of those interludes where they show the chefs at the house, and we were treated (!) to Brian Malarkey's list of who he thought would go home next. I think the instinct to have those thoughts is entirely natural, and if writing it down helped him organize his thoughts, that's fine. But to share that on television? That was kind of a dick move. I knew the minute they showed it that he would end up in the bottom of the Elimination Challenge, and so he did. Honestly? I'm ready for him to go home. It wasn't him, however, but Jen, whose "sunny" ginger and lemon sauce turned Tom off with its grainy ginger bits. Joining Jen at the bottom were Stephanie, who seems to have a lot of stress-induced crankiness (I can relate), and the afore-mentioned Brian Malarkey.

At the other end of the spectrum, the three top contenders at Judges' Table were Gregory, Nini, and Eric. It's worth noting that all three made something related to their respective Haitian, Vietnamese, and African heritage, which often seems to delight the judges when it's done at this kind of elevated level. Gail said Nini's Nuoc Mam glaze was clearly made with love, the second time she's described Nini's food that way (the other time was the peach dessert). The judges also had a nice word to say to Melissa, who "sold" 31 bottles of her Korean-inspired kimchi-peach vinaigrette. But it was Gregory who took first place.


Where We're At Now

I like this season so far. My top three prediction, in order, is Melissa, Gregory, and Kevin, who all seem to be winning up a storm. Kevin has a lot of heart, but Melissa and Gregory seem to be extremely consistent so far. I'd be happy to see any of the three of them win. My favorite challenge so far has been the vegetarian progressive meal. I'm not a vegetarian myself, but I keep my meat consumption pretty low, and I'm always excited to see what really great chefs can do with vegetarian ingredients.

Until next time .... which is a few hours from now!

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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. - Episode 2 - "The Jonathan Gold Standard"

[The Top Chef contestants arrive at L.A.'s Union Station]

This week's episode had a little change-up in format; instead of competing in a Quickfire Challenge, the chefs spent a day exploring a handful of L.A. restaurants listed in the late food critic Jonathan Gold's guidebook. The first 17 minutes of the episode consisted of the chefs sampling some of Gold's favorite dishes, looking for inspiration for the dish they would each individually serve to 200 guests gathering to honor Gold, who passed away in 2018.


Elimination Challenge

After stuffing themselves silly (no judgment here; I'm just envious!), the chefs were given 30 minutes and $700 to shop at Whole Foods. That seems like a lot of money, but of course they want the best ingredients and they'll be serving 200 people apiece.

A little foreshadowing occurred during prep: Eric Adjepong said of his African-inspired scallops and braised red cabbage that it was a "kind of funky pairing" so it would be hard to pull off. Just as Tom Colicchio told Joe Sasto in the first episode that "glue" isn't a word you want to have associated with your food, so I would tell Eric the same about the word "funky." In the meantime, Stephanie Cmar realized mid-service that offering Indian food to Padma without having any experience cooking it might not have been the best strategy.

At the event, the two guest judges were food writer Ruth Reichl and Laurie Ochoa, an arts and entertainment editor and Jonathan Gold's wife. I enjoyed seeing director and actor Jon Favreau as one of the guests, especially because I recently watched his movie Chef, in which he plays a high-level chef who finds himself again by running a food truck.

The dishes were varied and interesting! I was drawn to Melissa King's mala beef tartare served on a little spiced potato chip, but sadly would have found it too spicy. I truly wish I wasn't a spice wimp. Same goes for Karen Akunowicz's pan-roasted cumin lamb dumpling. I'm a sucker for dumplings, but when describing it she used the word "chili" twice.... I was puzzled by Brian Malarkey's dish, which was (deep breath) a fried rice beef tartare with kimchi vinaigrette, cracked peanuts, and a fish-sauce cured fermented egg yolk.

???

Lee Anne's dish... I'm with Tom; you could see by his expression that he wasn't won over by the cheese and fish combination. And assuming the order of service aired is the same that actually happened, you could tell Lee Anne's confidence in it was shaken when she self-consciously greeted Padma and Gail with "Hello, ladies, I'm braving the fish and cheese boat."

One thing that puzzled me show-wise is that we heard chefs describing their dishes during prep, we heard again when the first set of judges tasted them, and yet again when the other set of judges tasted them. It seems to me that in years past, we would hear one set of judges' reactions or the other, but not usually both, unless there was something unusual going on. So this episode felt a little repetitious to me by the end. Is it because they had more time to fill due to the lack of a Quickfire Challenge? Meanwhile, the silhouette of Jonathan Gold projected high on the wall made me think that Alfred Hitchcock was there waiting for a murder mystery on the Top Chef show.


Judges' Table

Overall the judges thought the group did a good job honoring Jonathan Gold's legacy. Their three favorite dishes were by Nini, Kevin, and Brian Voltaggio. Tom loved Nini's broth from her "masa" ball soup so much that he told her he'd had someone bottle up what was left since he was feeling under the weather. Ruth Reichl said that she was expecting the worst from Kevin's "clunky ball" but that it turned out to be delicious, and she said twice during the show that he needs to bottle the apple butter that he used, which turned out to be his grandmother's recipe. Gail told Brian V. that his short ribs felt like a departure from anything she'd eaten before from him, which made me think: if someone asked me to describe Brian V's food overall, I couldn't do it. I don't have a feeling for who he is as a cook, but at the same time, I would have confidence in anything he put down in front of me. Of the three, the judges picked Kevin's dish as their favorite.

Next came the three least favorite dishes, and there were really no surprises based on the comments made during the event. Angelo, Stephanie, and Eric were called up to have their dishes picked apart. Stephanie accepted the criticism gracefully; she was obviously unhappy with herself, but she didn't disagree with anything the judges said. Of Eric's dish, Gail said that the two pieces (the scallops and the cabbage) were not talking to each other. When asked about his dish, Angelo talked again about being inspired by tumeric. Tom called the dish too sweet, Padma said that the tuna, while beautifully seasoned, didn't make sense in the dish, and Ruth had the severest criticism of the night when she said, not unkindly, that the tuna had died in vain because the dish was just a piece of flesh in broth. She also said that she felt like the three bottom chefs forgot that food is supposed to be delicious, and the cutest moment of the episode is Padma's expression when she says, "YESSSSS!!!" to indicate that Ruth expressed Padma's own feelings perfectly.

Ultimately, Angelo was asked to pack his knives. I'm sad to see him go, but I felt like his focus wasn't there as I remembered it from his previous season. I did watch "Last Chance Kitchen", by the way, and debated blogging about that too, but I've decided I'll just let that unfold as it may.


Elimination Challenge Winner: Kevin Gillespie

Packed Their Knives: Angelo Sosa

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Kevin's roasted pork, mushroom, and black currant terrine with apple butter, because I'm a sucker for hot little dumpling-type foods, especially with unexpected ingredients (as long as they're not too spicy!)

Question of the Week: When did everyone on Top Chef decide that saying "in broth" was too passe, and we must now refer to it as "en brodo" as much as possible?

Who I'm Most Rooting for After this Episode: Kevin Gillepsie, because who wouldn't be moved by his humble statement upon winning this week, and Melissa King. I can't put my finger on what it is, but there's something about her that I really like. I also liked Nini's sweet and apparently calm disposition. She thought of a dish, she made it, she served it with confidence -- no drama there at all.


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