Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Top Chef Episode 10 - For Julia & Jacques

This is late -- the next episode of Top Chef is tomorrow -- but I got home from a week-long trip to Phoenix with a bit of a stomach bug, and, well, watching a food-related TV show on the DVR just wasn't appealing. I finally felt a bit better this afternoon and so here are my belated and briefer-than-usual comments (*) on the episode.

The Quickfire

First, sometimes I just wish the show was all Quickfire challenges! They're fun, they're quick, there's too little time to get wrapped up in drama.... And they have so much scope for creativity. I've never watched Andy Cohen's show, in part because I think Top Chef is probably the only Bravo show I watch, but I find him very personable. So I was glad to see him and his former college roommate, Dave, as guest judges for the dorm-room ramen-noodle Quickfire. Instead of letting the five remaining chefs use the usual pantry, each chef got only the instant noodles and a bag of food, some of it partially eaten leftovers, from a college student. Fun stuff!

However, I do have one little quibble. Once again, instead of drawing knives, we had Padme choosing who got to pick their student/bag of groceries and in what order. It is not a coincidence that the first three chefs picked the three women students, and the last two were stuck with the male students. Seriously, who is likely to have a better stocked fridge, a male or female college student? If the chefs had drawn knives, their order choice would have been random, but Padme picked Gregory first and of course he chose the most mature looking of the three women, exactly who I would have chosen. It is clear that Gregory is Padme's favorite (she also named him to pick his literary influence first in last week's episode!), and I admit that the advantage he was given here was more a potential advantage than one that actually ended up panning out, but it was still there. Please, Top Chef Producers, have the chefs draw knives!

That aside, I thought the chefs were both creative and good-natured about this challenge. (I love Harold Dieterle, winner of Season 1, but how he would have hated this challenge!) And that's part of why I like Quickfires: especially when immunity is not at stake (which I imagine they would have preferred to the $5K at this point), the chefs can have more fun. I loved how much Mei was laughing as Gregory was describing his pizza-broth-ramen to the judges. She looked like she was having fun. They all did.

I actually expected Gregory to win this, because I thought his dish was pretty darn inventive. No quibbles with Melissa winning, though; considering that Andy said he and Dave both love cheese, her dish was perfect for them. George was a good sport about the hideous bag of ingredients he had to work with, and he turned it into something that I can see might be appealing for late-night drinking munchies. I actually thought Doug's dish was more appetizing than the judges seemed to think; I could see it being offered at an upscale ramen noodle restaurant, especially the ones where you hand-pick the ingredients you want with your noodles. I also thought Mei's dish didn't look bad considering what she had to work with; at first I really thought she would end up making a high-end Asian dish that would have wowed the judges, but maybe the combination of ingredients wasn't right. (I have to say, I'm also leery of leftover seafood/sushi -- I hope that wasn't more than a day old when the student brought it in from her fridge!)

Elimination Challenge

This too was a nice challenge that I enjoyed -- I mean, I didn't become truly aware of "food" until I was in my late 30s or even early 40s, but even I know Julia Child and Jacques Pépin! I think it's a testament to Top Chef that so many accomplished chefs are willing to appear as guest judges. I tend to think it's not just for publicity, but also because Top Chef really is one of the classier competition shows.

Anyway, I have to say that after seeing all five dishes, if Mei didn't win this challenge, I might have had to stage a revolt. I like Gregory so much too, but the judges said it: if both dishes were perfectly executed, the one that put a little something new into it really should be the winner. You have to reward innovation, as long as it's done well and/or logically and/or respectfully (depending on the field). Otherwise things just stagnate. I was really thrilled for Mei and her Duck a l'Orange. I was also glad Gregory's dish was so well-received. Since he doesn't normally cook heavy food with butter, he really did manage to pay homage to Julia's cooking and legacy by preparing his Coq a Vin so perfectly.

One thing I don't quite get: if you are having Jacques Pépin on the show and really want the chefs to be able to create dishes that do justice to Julia Childs, why give them only three hours one day and one hour the next? In fact, why split up the cooking over two days, which they do often on the show? I'm sure there's a reason for it, but surely most high-end dishes are not improved by sitting overnight half-prepared? And since Julia's cooking was about mostly heavy proteins that need a long, long time to cook, why give them a total of only four hours? Why not six hours straight in one day? Can you imagine how much better Doug's, Melissa's, and George's dishes would have been if they'd had enough time to cook their proteins the way they knew they should? I get the novelty of 20-minute Quickfire Challenges and the 24-hour Restaurant War challenges, but I can't see anything to be gained by giving the chefs inadequate time to feed not only Jacques Pépin but one of the most intimidating line-up of guest judges I've seen on Top Chef in a while. (Apropos of nothing, I really like Dana Cohen.)

There you have it. Before hearing the rest of judges' table, my thought going in was that George would likely be the safe one, as his protein didn't sound quite as off as Melissa's or Doug's, both of whose sounded pretty unappetizing. Melissa seemed to have a sliver of an advantage as her vegetables were pronounced so lovely. So I wasn't surprised when Doug was sent home. Sad to see him go, because I really like him, but I can't argue with the verdict. I'm not sure it made sense to me that he chose to cook whole loaves of Foie Gras; I think he wanted to make a big statement on the plate, but I think that if he'd sliced the foie gras and been able to see how well it was or wasn't cooking, he probably wouldn't have gone home.

I'm a little unsettled at the preview for tomorrow's episode. It's one thing to bring on the contestants' family members to taste the food, but to have them there in the kitchen, getting in the way, at this very late stage in the competition? Seems a little misguided to me.

On one last side note, I haven't made up my mind whether to watch Tom Colicchio's new show, Best New Restaurant. On the one hand, I like Tom, and Bravo does good food shows. On the other hand, I think I prefer watching chefs at earlier stages in their careers, and I'm not sure I will enjoy the drama that opening and operating restaurants brings, as opposed to the initial cooking and concepts behind those restaurants.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: We're actually getting down to too few to make this a thing anymore. I like everyone, including George (more than I expected to). I'll miss Doug. I think it's really between Mei and Gregory, and I like them both a lot. But Melissa and George may have surprises in store for us. Melissa in particular has the technical skills, especially with veggies.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Probably Gregory's Coq a Vin. I would say Mei's Duck a l'Orange, but I'm a little afraid of duck as I know it's a fattier meat and I find the texture of fatty meat offputting sometimes.

(* yeah, that "briefer" part didn't really work out, did it?)

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