Friday, February 6, 2015

Top Chef Episode 14 - Holy Escamoley

We're almost to the end now.... Doug replaced Melissa by coming back into the competition via Last Chance Kitchen, and Melissa narrowly lost the elimination challenge last week.

Quickfire Challenge

For this episode, Doug, Mei, and Gregory were driven to a beautiful organic farm called Hacienda Purisima de Jalpa, where guest judge Enrique Farjeat and Padma asked them to create two dishes, one savory and one sweet, using chocolate and the fresh ingredients from the farm. I liked this challenge, although I think they should have given them an hour instead of 45 minutes, because it took a full 15 minutes for them to collect their ingredients, which were a not insignificant distance away from the cooking area.

Doug really struggled with this challenge. I don't know how much time he had between his elimination and then flying to Mexico, but since the three original finalists had some time in between, I have to assume he knew that going to Mexico was a distinct possibility for him. So I would have thought that if desserts were a scary prospect for him, he might have spent some time working on that area. I know that if I were going to compete in a cooking challenge in Mexico, I'd try to make sure I learned many different ways to incorporate avocados, chocolate, and jalapenos into my dishes, as well as ways to upscale some traditional items such as tacos. But regardless of where the finale is going to take place, you need to have a couple of desserts down cold, because eventually you will have to make one.

Doug's savory dish looked quite nice, however. He made a seared hen with onions, tomatoes, chocolate, and ancho chilis. His dessert was melted chocolate onto which he poured chocolate mezcal, with white chocolate "cream" on top. Mei served duck with bitter greens and a chocolate mezcal-based sauce, and a chocolate yogurt with nasturtiums and crushed cocoa nibs. Gregory hit a snag when he accidentally started melting cocoa butter instead of the white chocolate he'd intended to pick up, but he bounced back and presented seared lamb with white chocolate ancho sauce and a green chorizo vinaigrette. His dessert was baby carrots with turmeric, dark chocolate, ginger, and rosemary.

Although I think Mei did fine on both of her dishes, I wasn't at all surprised when Gregory won. With chocolate, it's too easy to go for a pudding or a mousse, or in Mei's case, a yogurt, and there isn't much interesting about the texture. Although I'm not a vegetarian, I tend to eat meatless meals more days than not, and one of my biggest complaints with vegetarian dishes is that too many have the consistency of mush. That's how I felt about the chocolate desserts, aside from Gregory's. It was easily the most creative of the three.

As the winner, Gregory got to choose his sous chef for the elimination challenge first, and I was pleased when he chose George -- partly because I wanted Mei to get to choose Melissa, and partly because I think George's skill level and his professionalism mean that he was a good choice. Then Mei got Melissa, and Doug chose Katsuji. I still don't really understand why Doug is willing to put his trust in Katsuji like that, but hey, he's spent a lot more time with him than I have, so he must be seeing something I'm not.

Elimination Challenge

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs were told to work together on a six-course progressive meal, with each chef responsible for two dishes highlighting one of six classic Mexican ingredients: guava, avocado, Mexican cheeses, poblano peppers, escamole (ant eggs), and huitlacohe (a fungus that grows in ears of corn).

I have to admit, I got slightly annoyed with all three chefs during the discussion/planning phase: Gregory and Mei because they steamrolled Doug into taking on two ingredients he didn't want, and Doug because he let them. I hate fighting and drama on these shows, but if I were him, I would have pointed out that nobody said it was OK to simply shout "shotgun" to get what you want. Doug could have said he would take the least favorite ingredient on the condition that he then get to choose his other one from all the rest, or he could have insisted on drawing straws. But it doesn't do much good to say "I don't want either of these" and then take them, complaining that you got screwed. I also noticed that in the car, Gregory said "I don't want to do dessert" even though he had guava, one of the two logical choices for dessert. Considering that he got both ingredients he wanted, I would have liked to see him a little more willing to compromise.


When the shopping began, I was still a little impatient. If these ingredients are required, they should have been provided. Doug and Katsuji shouldn't have had to spend that much of their shopping time looking for the escamole, or ant eggs. Thank goodness Katsuji speaks Spanish, or it could have been a real problem.

In the end, I thought that the dishes looked amazing. The chefs had decided to try and go lightest dishes to heaviest for courses 1-5, ending with a light dish at the end. Gregory served the first course, a chilled guava soup with bay scallops, habaneras, and roasted guava. The judges found it fresh and balanced, with just the right amount of heat for a perfect starter. Recurring judge Richard Blais noted that making a fruit soup that sophisticated is much harder than people would think.

Mei served the second course, which was centered around avocado. Visually, her dish was a play on a sushi roll; her beautifully sliced avocado was served with xoconostle (remember the prickly pear from last episode?), radish, serrano, and tortilla chips. Unfortunately, most of the judges found the flavors too simple for a Top Chef finale dish. I thought that was a shame, because she really, truly highlighted the Mexican ingredient that they wanted highlighted, and made it look amazing. If she'd gone with a little more xoconostle on the inside, to raise it above just guacamole, that might have made the difference for them.

Doug went third with the escamole course, serving a tortilla EspaƱol with escamoles and escamoli aioli (seasoned mayonnaise). Richard thought going with aioli was brilliant, but one of the guest judges, Eduardo Palazuelos, wanted more escamole flavor, and Tom said that texture and taste-wise, he couldn't tell where the potatoes ended and the escamoles began.

Mei came back for the fourth course, serving a huitlacohe agnolotti (small ravioli) with roasted corn broth and parsley. Eduardo Palazuelos said that the huitlacohe was a little bitter, but later seemed to acknowledge that the sweetness of the corn broth helped balance that.

Gregory served the fifth course, a pork and poblano stew with tomatillos. I first worried that he might get dinged for serving a soup and a stew in the same meal, but the judges loved it, and Tom later called the dish the "star of the show." The guest judges certainly seemed to feel that the dish represented the best of Mexican cuisine, and Tom complimented the stew's texture and earthiness.

Last but not least, Doug served a cheese course as dessert: smoked queso fresco with spiced honey, squash chips, and charred pickles. The judges thought that Doug did a terrific job with a course that was probably the most difficult. As someone who always orders a cheese course in lieu of sweet dessert when that option is available to me, I was dying to taste this dish.

Not surprisingly based on the judges' discussion, Gregory was the clear winner of the challenge. I was glad to see him do well, but again, I felt that Doug was (and allowed himself to be) a little short-changed in this challenge. Mei and Gregory were certainly willing to let the judges get the idea that everyone got the ingredients they wanted, but the judges knew better. I'm glad Doug said it was really a "grab and go" but that they didn't belabor the issue at this point, when it wouldn't do any good.

Nonetheless, I admit I was hoping at this point that Mei would get to stay, partly because I think her guacamole dish was more creative than they gave her credit for; partly because unlike Doug, Mei never went home and had to come back via Last Chance Kitchen; and partly because I think she's extremely talented. I think it's a positive thing that the finale will come down to Mei and Gregory, because now that Gregory has gotten his groove back, I think they probably are the two most talented chefs from this season.

Based on the previews, it looks like the finale will be the Battle of the Sexes, because Gregory will have male sous chefs and Mei will have female sous chefs.

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Doug's cheese course, without a doubt. Although Mei's avocado "sushi" was so pretty I wanted to have that too.

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