Sunday, December 6, 2015

Top Chef: California - Episode 2 - Premiere (Part 2 of 2)


For the second part of the season opener, the sixteen chefs went straight to another elimination challenge. This time, they were divided into four teams of four, each charged with opening a pop-up restaurant somewhere in Los Angeles. Padma, along with guest judge Ludo Lefebvre, divided the chefs into teams based on who they were standing next to, then handed each team a key with an address. That address would determine what kind of cuisine they would have to cook, since each was located in a different part of the city with a distinct identity.

The grey team, consisting of Isaac, Marjorie, Angelina, and Amar, drove to a restaurant called "Taste of Tehran", where owner Saghar Fanisalek advised them on Persian food flavors. Isaac was a bit nervous, being unfamiliar with the cuisine, and Angelina was thrown for a loop when the store at which they shopped had no fish, but they both adapted well. Amar served grilled heirloom carrots with cauliflower hummus and vadouvan, which Wikipedia tells me is a ready-to-use curry spice blend. The judges seemed to love it, although Chef Fanisalek found the cumin a bit odd. Angelina prepared a fennel coriander crusted chicken with lemon confit and a fennel radish salad, which Tom said was nicely cooked although it could have used a little more salt and/or saffron. Isaac served a duo of meat: a lamb kofta and a spicy beef kabob with smoked eggplant, the last of which was Padma's favorite part of the dish. They noted that the dish was spicier than traditional Persian cuisine, but liked it nonetheless. Finally, Marjorie took a chance with a dessert, often thought to be the kiss of death on this show, and served a yogurt mousse with pistachio spongecake and saffron orange syrup. Tom called it very well-balanced and Chef Fanisalek said it incorporated lots of Persian flavors. Overall, Gail thought this team did very well, and Ludo remarked that they looked happier than he ever had when doing a pop-up restaurant.

As the orange team, consisting of Phillip, Grayson, Renee, and Francis, drove to their address in Venice, Phillip noted that it has no ethnicity, because it's a neighborhood of white people. So it perhaps wasn't surprising that their cuisine turned out to be vegan, at a restaurant called "Seed Kitchen" which is owned by Eric Lechasseur. Phillip and Renee seemed happy with this, as both their restaurants are vegan friendly and produce-centric. Grayson, alas, began whining immediately, saying that God put animals on this Earth for one reason, to be eaten.

When service started, Phillip served a dish he called "Cauliflower, Cauliflower, Cauliflower", which was four different colors of that vegetable roasted and served with red onion in lime juice. Tom liked the cauliflower itself but didn't care for the puree, which Gail agreed had a surprising lack of cauliflower taste. Chef Lechasseur also thought it needed more punch. Francis served chana masala, which was a chickpea curry with saffron and tofu chips. Padma said it was delicious and Gail particularly liked the tofu chips, but Tom (as I knew he would) had a big problem with Francis using canned beans instead of fresh produce. I think from the number of times Francis emphasized, both in the grocery store and at Judges' Table, that the can said "organic," I wonder if she's confusing the word "organic" with "fresh" -- but surely she knows that canned beans are not fresh no matter what the can says!

Renee made a stuffed beet with toasted cashews and a bitter spring green sauce. Ludo called it both dry and mushy, and Tom said that whatever was at the center of the tofu and nuts was both heavy and pasty. This was disappointing to me, as I've only recently discovered how good beets can taste. Grayson served a charred bean salad with pickled red onions. She was the only chef that Padma asked (at least on camera) how she felt at service, suggesting to me that they were fishing to see if Grayson would whine. At any rate, the judges concluded that this bean salad was the vegetable version of Grayson's uninspired meatball dish of the previous challenge, something that anyone could make at home.

Karen, Carl, Jason, and Giselle made up the purple team, which got sent to Korea town, where they were met by the owner of "Lukshon", Sang Yoon, who has been a competitor on Top Chef Masters. Karen made a grilled kalbi with nectarine kimchi, which Sang Yoon said was the most Korean of the dishes they tried. Carl made a cuttlefish and shrimp salad with avocado; while Gail liked the texture of the cuttlefish, Tom and Sang Yoon said they wished that Carl had marinated or grilled it. Jason served chilled noodles with iced broth, cucumber, Asian pear, and egg. This dish went over well, with the judges commenting on the pleasant noodle texture and the sweet note added by the pear. Giselle made spicy fried wings with cucumber salad. Karen had expressed reservations due to Giselle's lack of confidence because she'd never made chicken like this before, but Tom and Ludo both liked the wings, even if Tom was not sure they were entirely authentic.

Last but not least, Chad, Wesley, Kwame, Jeremy made up the blue team, which had to cook Mexican food. Chad had the advantage of owning two Mexican restaurants (one actually in Mexico!) and Jeremy also has a lot of experience in that cuisine. None of the chefs asked Ray Garcia, the owner of the restaurant "Broken Spanish" where they cooked, for any advice, which the judges later commented upon. Chad served carrots asado (which I think means a barbecue dish) with banana yogurt and carne seca (a kind of dried beef). Tom found the flavor good but the carrot undercooked, and Chef Garcia says he wouldn't recognize it as Mexican food with his eyes closed. Wesley served an orange and tomato stew with chorizo and hominy, another dish the judges found to be "not really Mexican" (and I thought I caught an unflattering reference to "Hamburger Helper" by the judges). Kwame made a chipotle raisin-braised shrimp with masa porridge and avocado lime puree. Tom said he did a nice job on the shrimp and masa in particular, and Chef Garcia liked the flavors. Jeremy served a grilled skirt steak and potato confit with a poblano and almond puree. While Tom thought the beef was well-cooked and well-seasoned, yet again they did not get "Mexican" from this dish, and Gail thought the sauce was not at all bold.


The judges called all four teams before them, and quickly announced that the Persian team had won. Tom noted that they clearly enjoyed working together, they looked happy, and that it seemed they made good use of their "ambassador" for advice. After the judges paid compliments for all four chefs, Ludo announced that Chef Saghar wanted the winning dish to go on her menu: Majorie's yogurt mousse and spongecake dessert. I was really pleased at this outcome, because Marjorie took a chance instead of playing it safe, and she seems fairly down to earth so far. That can be pretty rare on this show sometimes.

Then came the bad news. Padma announced that the vegan team was the least favorite, although Gail was quick to point out that Kwame's dish was mainly responsible for keeping the Mexican team off the bottom (surprising considering he said it was his first time cooking Mexican food). Tom dinged Francis on the use of canned ingredients, and Grayson on the lack of inspiration behind her dish. Padma and Gail told Renee they liked the use of her spring greens, but the beet itself was underwhelming. Phillip's dish, they found, was just not a stand-out; Gail called it fussy and (I think) "tweezified," by which I think she meant that it was too much about fancy presentation and not enough about bold flavors.

In the end, I was disappointed that Renee went home. I can't fault the judges for the decision, not having tasted the dish, but based on lack of inspiration and innovation, I would have preferred to see either Francis or Grayson go home before Renee. I have to admit I'm biased against Grayson by this point; I was a little disgusted to see her complain in the Stew Room to Renee that Renee told the judges she didn't want to make "just a salad." Grayson seemed to think that was Renee's attempt to cast aspersion on Grayson, whereas I think that in the two seconds Renee had to respond to the judges' comments, perhaps Grayson was not the first thing on her mind.


This is a tough call. I like both cauliflower and beets, so would love to see how someone with a lot more talent and experience than I have might make them, but clearly the judges didn't think too highly of those dishes. Marjorie's dessert would be the obvious choice, but I'm just not a dessert girl. So for me, it would have to be Angelina's fennel and coriander crusted chicken. That coating looked mouth-watering.


Overall, this was a very solid episode, by which I mean that the teams were chosen fairly, the challenge was tough but not impossible, and the chefs cooked up some interesting dishes. Right now, I feel like Kwame is one of the chefs to watch. Phillip reminds me a little too much of Marcel from prior seasons. I'll be surprised if Grayson survives much longer. As for the rest of the chefs, I don't feel like I've had enough chance to form a strong impression yet.

One small complaint: I was mildly annoyed by the extremely pointed tweeting that Padma and Gail did while driving to the pop-ups. Since this was filmed weeks or months ago, what's the point of displaying those old tweets now, except to show how hip and trendy Top Chef is? I get really tired of social media sometimes... (she says while blogging).

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