Friday, October 17, 2014

Top Chef Boston - Episode 1 - Sudden Death

I have watched every season of Top Chef since it began airing in 2006, and what's most amazing to me is that after 12 seasons, I still love this show. They've managed to keep it fresh (no pun intended) with new locations, some new recurring judges, and lots of fun guest judges. But I think the show's basic format and the fact that the judges aren't there to scream at or ridicule the competing chefs are what has given the show it's longevity. Plus I find host Padme Lakshmi and head judge Tom Colicchio to be appealing. Over the years, I've also watched some of the spin-offs: Top Chef: Just Desserts (2 seasons); Top Chef Masters (5 seasons); and Top Chef Duels (1 season). That's a lot of Top Chef!

This season, I plan to blog each episode, starting with this past Wednesday's episode titled "Sudden Death." First, let me say that Richard Blais is a nice addition. I liked him during Season 4 and I liked him even more when he won Top Chef All Stars. He just seems like a nice guy, and as a former competitor, I hope he'll be a little more sympathetic to what the contestants go through. Second: wow, the playing field is getting ... incestuous these days. One of Michael Voltaggio's sous chefs, Mei Lin, is competing. Another chef, George Pagonis, is business partners with Mike Isabella. Several of the contestants already own their own restaurants (one of them, Ron Eyester, owns three). I remember the days when the main reason they came on the show was so that someday, they might eventually own their own restaurant.

The QuickFire

Third, while I'm not sure I'm a huge fan of the "it's the first episode, let's send someone home right now" mentality, there's no way the chefs can be surprised by it at this point in the show's history. I definitely would rather this kind of quick elimination happen based on the chefs making what they think is a suitable dish to present on the show, rather than a mise en place challenge, and definitely rather than anything to do with a team challenge or relay. I just think the viewers lose out when someone goes home because his team was slow and he didn't do great shucking clams.

So here's how the challenge ran: the chefs were divided into four teams of four and had to decide among themselves who would prepare lobsters, mackerel, oysters, and clams. There were a couple of disagreements, of course. I always wonder why the chefs never insist on rock-paper-scissors in a case where they both really want to do the same thing, but there you have it. Padme explained that the slowest chef on the slowest team would face sudden elimination, which I took to mean would not be sent home just on that basis. Different teams held the lead at different points, but George Pagonis ended up on bottom. His task then became to pick any other chef in the room for a head-to-head showdown; if George lost he would go home, and if he won they would both stay. Here, I would have rather had the slowest person on the slowest team go head-to-head with the slowest person overall in an individual leg of the relay, since they wouldn't necessarily be the same person. The way this was constructed, the absolute slowest person in the room may have gone completely under the radar because they had a superstar on their team, and in fact I suspect that may have happened. Another option would have been to have the four slowest in their given tasks (slowest on lobster, slowest on clams, etc.) all compete in a sudden death challenge and have the worst go home. This would have ensured that someone relatively weak on prep and on competing in actual cooking challenges would be eliminated. As it is, George challenged Gregory Gourdet and lost, and now we don't get to know what kind of a chef George is. Boo.

Onwards to the elimination challenge, but first a short PSA: enough with the "Coming Up" snippets, already! Maybe they do lose a few viewers at each commercial break, but I find it insulting that they assume my attention span is so short that I need a commercial for the show I'm already watching while I'm watching it!

Elimination Challenge

The elimination challenge was pretty exciting, I thought: Top Chef put on its own food festival, and the contestants had to create a dish, for 250 people, based on the first dish they ever remember cooking. Personally I thought that was too limiting, since likely the first things a lot of kids cook is maybe eggs and toast; I have to imagine that many of the chefs didn't go quite as far back down memory lane as they could have. I also thought 250 servings was a little daunting, but maybe that was the right way to go, since the contestants these days generally are more experienced. The chefs had three hours to cook, and then each served at their own table at the festival, alongside booths with other Top Chef alums and celebrity chefs.

I have to say, I wish I had been there, because there were a lot of dishes I would have liked to taste. On the other hand, I'm a spice wimp, and a single sliver of hot pepper can wipe out my tastebuds for an entire day. The dishes that excited me included Joy Crump's grits, greens, and chicken skin; Mei Lin's congee (new word for me); Adam Harvey's fish and chips with tri-color salad and mustard mayo; and Stacy Cogswell's pulled chicken salad. The judges also liked Gregory Gourdet's Haitian stewed chicken with bananas and scotch bonnet peppers. I'll have to take their word for that, because I certainly couldn't have handled it. There were some disasters (and Padme and Richard especially weren't shy with the criticism): Katsuji Tanabe's "petroleum shrimp", which was a mess; Aaron Grissom's pork belly, which was so fatty that Padme spit it out; and Michael Patlazhan's chilled corn soup with sriracha caviar, which the judges found overly fishy and texturely off-putting. I have to say, if Katsuji has ever watched the show before, he should have known that any dish with that many ingredients is going to get reamed. He put everything but the kitchen sink in there.

When it came time, the judges called in the entire group; I wonder if they plan to do that every episode. It's not a bad idea, because then everyone gets the chance to learn from all the critiques. The top three picks, which made good sense to me, were Mei Lin, Gregory Gourdet, and Doug Adams, with Mei Lin taking the top spot. She's very accomplished, and there's a danger that she may absolutely dominate the show from beginning to end.

Then came time for the bad news, which is the part I hate. It's necessary, but I feel terrible for them. The bottom three were Michael, Katsuji, and Katie Weinner, who had served a broccoli salad with bacon powder. Richard had dinged Katie for the dish not being terribly appropriate for the event, and for using bacon snow, which he called one of his least favorite modern cooking techniques. While I agreed with the judges that Katie's execution of the dish lacked refinement, I don't particularly agree that a side dish is inappropriate for a food festival. It just has to be a really good side dish. The comments about Michael and Katsuji's dishes echoed what we'd already heard earlier from the judges, and I definitely agreed in those cases.

In the end, Michael was eliminated. I already disliked him, due to a couple of things he'd said. The first was "I got the personality, I have the look, I have the style. I think I will definitely win this competition." Yeah, but can you cook? Get over yourself. The second was in reference to Tom and Gail saying, at the festival, that the salmon eggs in his dish were too fishy, and they didn't get the sriracha heat. Michael said (not in their hearing) that he was "not sure what went wrong with their palettes." Yes, I'm sure both of them had a simultaneous, complete breakdown of their very experienced palettes! Then, when he was eliminated, Michael showed a moment of graciousness, when he said that sometimes you have to fail. And I thought maybe I was too hard on him.

But then he blew it, saying that maybe Tom should be more open-minded, and "sometimes you gotta grow with age, or you maybe get left behind." I'm sure Tom would be interested to learn that he, with his wildly successful career, is completely behind the times. Jeez Louise, I hate that kind of arrogance.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Mei Lin, for her confidence and competence, Joy Crump for her ability to put together a great-looking down home dish and for her humility.

My Pick for the Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Stacy Cogswell's pulled chicken salad with sweet pea "green goddess" and cranberry on a homemade potato chip. I really want to see what those flavors taste like together.

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