Thursday, December 18, 2014

Top Chef - Episode 9 - Big Sausage

Two people got lucky this episode: George and Gregory. George because he got immunity I'm not sure he deserved and that probably kept him from going home, and Gregory because he probably should have gone home instead of Katsuji. Gregory is by far the better chef, but Tom is always saying that they judge on only one challenge at a time, and Gregory's dish in the elimination challenge was very uninspiring.

The Quickfire

But I'm getting ahead of myself, so rewind to the Quickfire challenge. New England Patriots football player Rob Gronkowski, who is Polish, showed up to judge how well the chefs could make sausage from scratch. We've seen chefs on Top Chef make homemade sausage a number of times, but always part of a different challenge: I'm fairly sure someone, possible Lee Anne Wong, made sausage once in a Quickfire in season 1 when they had to reinterpret classic foods and she chose hot dogs. Then she wowed everyone with her from-scratch seafood sausage.

What surprised me in this challenge is that I thought George was one of the Culinary Institute of America alums (yes, he was -- I just looked up his bio). I really would have thought, then, that he would know how to use the machine to make his own sausage. I know they can never learn everything, but George really struggled with this, whereas Doug popped out these gorgeous looking sausages without blinking. So George instead went with a sausage patty that was so thick that it looked far more like a hamburger. I guess it was delicious, though, because Rob Gronkowski picked it as his favorite, thus giving George immunity. I do think George was wise to go the breakfast route, which set him apart from everyone else, and I do note this is the second time we've seen him go with a "plan B" partway through a challenge and come out victorious, so he can definitely think on his feet. But I do think it a little inconsistent that Melissa was named one of the bottom contestants in the Quickfire because her sausages were "too small," when George produced something that the judge himself said might or might not have been a sausage and still won anyway.

Poor Doug -- he's wonderfully good-natured, but boy, was he unhappy to lose this one to a sausage patty. And I don't blame him. Gregory was also identified as one of the bottom choices due to too much spice in his sausage.

Elimination Challenge

This was a fun one, the kind of challenge that lets the chefs get really creative. Guest judge Tony Maws wheeled in a bookcase holding books by iconic American authors: Henry David Thoreau, Stephen King, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dr. Seuss, and Edgar Allen Poe. The chefs were then chosen in order by Padme to pick their authors, and had to come up with a dish inspired by one of that author's works. I have to ask: why did Padme get to decide who chose in what order? Why not draw knives with author names or at least with numbers to choose in that order? If memory serves, Gregory got to go first. Doesn't that mean that Padme gave him a huge advantage?

In any case, it was clear that the chefs were expected to really try to interpret a literary work on a plate, not just come up with something vaguely related. The chefs had 45 minutes and $450 to shop, and then three hours to cook for a room full of authors and literary folks (whatever that means -- I was disappointed that I didn't see any contemporary authors among the diners hose work I'm familiar with.).

As Tom Colicchio pointed out, this was a pretty difficult challenge. I especially felt sorry for Doug, because Emily Dickinson's poems are so brief and a lot are not reminiscent of food in any way. The only poem I could think of without looking her up was "Because I could not stop for death, it kindly stopped for me." Yeah, no. That's not going to work as food! But the judges were allowed a bit of time to glance through the books, and Doug came up with the phrase "sunset in a cup," which he was determined to reproduce as carrot soup. And as he put it, if you're only going to give Tom Colicchio carrot soup, it better be just about the best carrot soup he's ever tasted. So Doug used carrots, grilled carrots, carrot juice -- by God, that soup was going to be carroty! He did an absolutely beautiful job, and it was not a stretch to see his dish as "sunset in a bowl." (I wish the photo had been the other way around, though.)

Mei got Henry David Thoreau, and chose to reproduce Walden Pond on a plate. I had known about his "back to nature" tendencies but had not realized he was vegetarian -- I would have assumed that the "living off the land" philosophy would have included hunting or trapping game. But as a not-quite-vegetarian who has strong vegetarian leanings, I was more than happy to see Mei not even blink an eye at producing a world-class vegetarian dish. I was enchanted with her onion "soil" -- charred onions that she ground and mixed with a few other things, which really did look exactly like soil. I hadn't realized she was also going to sprinkle "snow" on the plaste, and at first I was disappointed because it seemed to mitigate the effect of the soil, but it turned out to be stunning. It really looked like a plate of just-harvested vegetables after a light dusting on snow.

Melissa too went the vegetarian route; her author was Nathanial Hawthorne. I would have struggled with that, knowing little about him except that he wrote The Scarlet Letter, but somehow I escaped having to read that in high school (for which I'm grateful). The easiest route would have been to create a dish suggesting sin and putting the color scarlet somewhere on the plate -- probably beets -- but Melissa dug deeper and remembered another Hawthorne work (I had trouble catching the title from the way she said it, even after rewinding a few times) about farming and seasons. Her idea, then, was to start with spring vegetables, and then have autumn take over via a tableside pour of mushroom broth. The dish certainly looked lovely, but I didn't think it had quite the genius that Mei's dish had. (Edited to add: Apparently it was The Blithedale Romance. I kept hearing The Black Hills Romance, so no wonder I had trouble figuring it out!).

George chose Dr. Seuss as his author, and thank goodness Padme warned him away from green eggs and ham -- which I think we've already seen represented on Top Chef at least once. George immediately went for One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, serving three kinds of sea food with purple potatoes. Apparently everything was cooked nicely, but as the judges pointed out, they really didn't see Dr. Seuss on a plate. Actually, it seems to me that Dr. Seuss was a tough choice: the only titles I can think of off the top of my head are The Cat in the Hat, Hop on Pop, Horton Hears a Who!, and, of course, Green Eggs and Ham.

Although now that I think of it .... considering that this episode aired on December 17 (not that George would have known that), it would have been fun to see the Grinch's "roast beast." But while I haven't the slightest idea how to portray the craziness of Seuss on a gourmet plate, I think there have been lots of contestants over the years that would have done Dr. Suess proud. (Remember the creativity we saw in the "Snow White"/Charlize Theron episode a few years back?) I don't mean to rag on George, but I do think without immunity, he would have been the obvious choice to go home. Not for bad-tasting food, but for lack of imagination.

Then came Gregory, who chose Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven as his inspiration. This too showed a slight lack of imagination, although in looking back at the food photos on the Top Chef website, the piece of nori really did suggest a wing to me. But the grilled hen no longer resembled a bird in any fashion. Would it have been too literal to somehow do a blackened/charred skin on a whole bird? Again, the food was apparently quite tasty, except for one judge's overdone tenderloin -- which honestly, was the reason I thought he was in real danger of going home. Gregory's explanation of how this plate was The Raven was a stretch for me, and any little mistake in execution can make the difference.

Katsuji chose Stephen King and focused on Carrie for his dish. He went all out on the presentation of his fabada, which I thought was bold and fitting. Since his dish did, in my opinion, tell his story, I was ultimately a little surprised that he went home for this. Tom's comment about how his beet sauce was really a puree seemed like a reach for a reason to send him home over Gregory. Trust me, I'd much rather see Katsuji go home over Gregory any day of the week ... but this one time, I don't feel it was fully justified.

I have to quibble a little with how many times we heard the judges, and even a chef or two, say that diners should be able to look at the plate and know the exact work the chef is representing. In my mind, it would be impossible to literally depict the exact identity/title of a work on a plate (except maybe for One Fish, Two Fish...). Instead, I would say that the dish, once explained by the chef, needs to make sense. Doug's did. Mei's did. Melissa's did. Katsuji's did. George's ... almost did, and Gregory's did not. But as perfect as Mei's dish looked to me, if someone set that plate down in front of me without explanation, I wouldn't know it was Walden Pond over any other vegetable/nature related work in literature. And I certainly could not have figured out, without the explanation, that Doug's dish was Emily Dickinson. Let's be a little realistic here.

Overall, the show is getting to be more fun and it's certainly getting easier to write about -- fewer competitors mean that the judges can discuss the dishes more fully right up front, so there are fewer surprises at judges' table, and it's simply easier to remember individual dishes. This episode was also one of the nice ones in which the chefs did really well. I wouldn't mind them losing the bad puns, such as when Tom says "Unfortunately, for one of you this is the last chapter." If I were Tom I'd refuse to say dorky lines like that. Since he's a producer of the show, and possibly the top producer (with another show about to launch), it seems likely that he actually wants the puns. They make me groan Every Single Time.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Mei. There are times to showcase technique, and this was it.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Sorry to be predictable here, but ... Mei. It takes true talent to win a competition with a vegetarian dish. To see vegetables so beautifully prepared is a real treat. This past summer, I sailed from New York to England on the Queen Mary II; of the eight dinners I had abroad, I chose the vegetarian option six times, because the vegetarian food was so good that I did not miss the meat. They served reasonable portions instead of super-sizing everything, so you had just enough of each course to make you happy but not stuffed at the end. I'd love to find an upscale vegetarian restaurant with this kind of finesse. If you know of one in Houston, please let me know!

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