Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Top Chef Episode 13 - Getting Prickly in Mexico

Today while I was driving I was thinking about tonight's upcoming Top Chef episode, and it occurred to me that I really wouldn't be unhappy with any of the three remaining chefs winning, because I like and admire Mei, Melissa, and Gregory. Mei can be a tiny bit abrasive at times but some of her cooking is positively inspired; Melissa's technique is amazing and she's suprised me more than once; and Gregory seems nice and I always admire people who've overcome a rocky past.

This thought of being happy about any of them winning doesn't seem like a big deal, but I can think of a few seasons when I was not nearly so cheerful. For instance, I did not want Ilan Hall to win Season 2 because I think he was arrogant, and his idea of a good time apparently was tormenting Marcel Vigneron out of all proportion for whatever annoyance Marcel might have caused him. I also wasn't happy with Nicholas Elmi winning over Nina Compton in Season 11, for two reasons: because the judges, especially Tom, had been telling him all along he was underseasoning his food, and he did it again in the finale; and because Nina cooked a few extras during her finale meal and Tom tried to argue that maybe the judges shouldn't count the extra effort, which didn't seem consistent with what I'd remembered from prior seasons (although I admit my memory could be faulty on that point).

And I'm sure there have been a few others who I wasn't as happy about, but this time I really would be okay with any of them. So on to Mexico! (And apropos of nothing, I think it's very cute the way Gregory raises his eyebrows over and over in emphasis when he's excited about something. And I was not at all surprised to hear that Mei had been boning up on Mexican cuisine during the six weeks between Boston and Mexico.)

Last Chance Kitchen

Of course, with Last Chance Kitchen (I'm abbreviating it from now on!), someone who is not Gregory, Mei, or Melissa could still win the whole thing. I'm still on the fence about this little wrinkle, which I don't watch myself, mainly due to lack of time. In many ways I don't like the idea of LCK, but on the other hand, it is the only reason that Kristen Kish won in Season 10, and it was beyond tragic when she was (in my mind) wrongfully eliminated because of Josie Malave. This season, there were several strong competitors who went home by just a hair, but I don't feel that anyone was robbed the way Kristen had been in her season.

This year, I wasn't surprised to see Doug and George as the two LCK chefs (the previews had been pretty obvious about it), but I thought the way it was presented in this episode was rather anticlimactic. I'm sure it took longer in real life, but the way it was edited, we don't know what or how they were asked to cook, and it felt like Tom just gulped down their food, said a few hasty words as though he himself was being timed with a stopwatch, and named a winner. There's been more suspense in prior seasons when they've just said to the finalists, "Look who's walking in the door, coming back as the winner of Last Chance Kitchen!" Anyway, Tom praised both dishes, but declared Doug the winner.

The Quickfire

Immediately thereafter, Tom sent the four to meet Padma and the guest judge, Enrique Olvera. One of the chefs said they hoped the Quickfire wouldn't be sudden death, and I laughed, certain that it would be since they now had four contestants. But I was wrong. The challenge was to make a dish using the most prized variety of prickly pear, the xoconostle (pronounced choko-NOS-leh), in 30 minutes, and the winner would get an advantage in the elimination challenge.

Mei faltered, unfortunately. She may have waited too long to choose her protein, because she ended up with steak which might have needed longer to cook than the seafood she had wanted to use. She then planned to call her ribeye a "tataki," which she said meant cooked on the outside and raw in the middle. But when Padma pointed out the uneven cooking of the meat, Mei made no mention of that. I guess even a tataki needs to be more consistent throughout. It's too bad, because they liked her xoconostle salsa and nopales salsa verde.

Doug, who had just finished saying that a lot of Mexican food is vegetable-based, was praised by both Padma and Enrique Olvera for just that. He made a xoconostle and tomatillo stew with roated peppers and pepitas. (I had to look "pepitas" up; they're pumpkin or squash seeds.) Both judges felt that Doug had really highlighted the xoconostle.

Melissa's dish was also well-received; she made a salmon ceviche with xoconostle, leche de tigre (another look-up for me: according to, it's the "Peruvian term for the citrus-based marinade that cures the seafood in a ceviche"), and prickly pear salad. The judges liked the leche de tigre, or "tiger's milk," particularly.

Gregory made a garlic shrimp with olive oil, prickly pear sauce, and xoconostle relish. As soon as Padma said she could "really taste the olive oil," I knew Gregory would be towards the bottom.

Ultimately, the judges chose Doug as the Quickfire winner. I think Melissa was a little surprised by the result because the judges were so congenial and complimenary when tasting her dish. I think her food showed skill and creativity as usual, but Doug's really did seem to highlight the star ingredient better.

Elimination Challenge

The parameters of this challenge were exciting: visit a local artist and collaborate with them to make food inspired by the work the artists would be completing during the cooking phase. The chefs had to cook for 150 guests, so of course the show brought back the eliminated chefs to act as sous chefs. As the Quickfire winner, Doug got to pick both of his chefs first, and he chose Adam and Katsuji. I would never in a million years pick someone as unpredictable as I seem to remember Katsuji being early on in the season, but Doug apparently gets along with him.

Padma then allowed Melissa, Mei, and then Gregory to pick the first of their two chefs in turn, then their second. I'm assuming the order of the turns was based on the chefs' Quickfire performances, but it would have been nice to have that confirmed. Melissa took George, Mei chose Rebecca, and Gregory took Katie. Then Melissa chose James, Mei took Keriann, and Gregory chose Stacy. I'm not surprised that nobody took former hothead Aaron, but I still winced on behalf of the three that weren't chosen.

Next the four contestants went to visit their artists. Greg's artist was named Artemio Sepulveda, whom he described as an "expressionist" artist. I don't feel like I know what that means, but I loved the painting of the large-eyed woman that was hanging over the sofa where the two were sitting and talking. Melissa met artist Leonardo Diaz, and was rightfully worried for two reasons: first, he uses a lot of pink and blue colors in his work, which don't correspond well to food, and second, he seemed to want to improvise his art the next day, which meant it would be difficult for Melissa to represent his art visually on the plate. Mei seemed happy with her artist, Béa Aaronson, who uses tons of color, and Doug was even happier with his former Texan artist Merry Galderoni. I found myself hoping (because I always want them all to do well!) that Doug would remember, in his excitement, not to go too far on the Texan end of Tex-Mex.

Well, little did I know! Doug won with his brisket with "Texas red" (meat chili with no beans) and a masa cake. I was worried that he wouldn't manage a tender brisket in four hours, but the judges went crazy for it, and visually, it certainly matched the painting. I also worried about Gregory's meat being overcooked, but his was the judges' other favorite dish, and I'm actually a little surprised that he didn't win, because his dish sounded a little more creative than Doug's and also matched the artwork well.

Then came my least favorite part of every episode. Based on the judges' remarks, I figured it would have to be Melissa going home, because she was the only one of the four for whom the judges commented on actual cooking: they said the shrimp wasn't as tied in to the dish as the other elements flavor-wise, and that the chorizo was a bit overcooked. Padma did say multiple times that she loved the smoked eggplant ravioli, however. Then the judges mentioned that Mei's dish (chicken and fish sashimi, but I didn't get a good sense of what flavors were there) wasn't as visually wild as they might have liked, but Tom had said earlier that her flavors were a little wild (in a good way). So Melissa went home, and I was sorry to see it, but I certainly didn't want Mei to go home for her dish.

That said, I don't think it's a coincidence that the chef that went home had the artist and artwork that were the hardest to represent visually. I think Mei might have the skill to have been able to tackle that particular artist's work (remember her Walden Pond on a plate?!), but if Doug or Gregory had gotten Melissa's artist as their own, I think they would have gone home for it too. Padma did note that the envelopes were given randomly to the chefs, which was good. And there's no way to equalize artwork. But it was a tough break for Melissa.

And that's my other problem with Last Chance Kitchen. Two other chefs, George and Doug, both got second chances. Melissa, who made it this far, got no second chance. I think they could at least do a sudden-death-to-stay-in for a contestant who has come this far. It wouldn't be right to have anyone else go home in her place after the fact, but still, this unevenness bothers me.

So, with three contestants still left, I have to imagine we have two more episodes to go instead of only one. (I haven't checked my DVR to see what's scheduled.)

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: I would definitely choose Gregory's, for that Valencia Orange sauce, but there would be one little problem for me: the cilantro puree. I'm not allergic to it, but I have the "cilantro tastebud" that turns it to soap in my mouth. (Some people get soap, some get tinfoil; check out if you're skeptical.) So I'll have to go with Mei's dish. I'm not really a brisket girl.

Side Notes:
  • Yikes, were Katsuji and Adam really getting drunk, because they were sure acting like it! Hopefully most of that took place after the food service. Also, I think Adam was trying to help Doug, but telling him repeatedly to relax like it's no big deal was a little insensitive. Adam had nothing to lose. Katsuji.... still not one of my favorites.

  • Hello, can we get translators for the chefs in the grocery store? C'mon! I would have been royally ticked off if one of the chefs had displayed a huge advantage by being fluent in Spanish. I couldn't quite tell how much Gregory knew, but he certainly fared better than Mei.

  • I absolutely love Padma's dress in the photo at the top.

  • Lucky Doug, winning that painting. Gorgeous!
Until next time!

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