Thursday, December 10, 2015

Top Chef: California - Episode 3 - Spines & Vines

This episode of Top Chef began with the chefs setting out on their California road trip, beginning with Santa Barbara. They made a harbor-side pit stop to pick up some sea urchins, which they took to the Sanford Winery & Vineyards, where Padma and guest judge Dana Cowin were waiting. It was interesting to see that Dana knew one of the chefs, Jason Stratton, whom she had named "Best New Chef" for Food and Wine magazine. Now, I'm sure she and all the judges are perfectly capable of being objective so I'm not worried on that count, but it seems strange to me that one of the things the chefs are competing for is a feature in Food and Wine magazine. It draws attention to the fact that we're not always getting brand new, young talent trying to break through in the same way we used to on this show. Instead, we're getting people who are already well-known in the culinary world. It doesn't have to be a bad thing, but in a way I'm still a little sad to see it.


After initial greetings, Padma announced that the chefs would start their first Sudden Death Quickfire Challenge immediately, pairing uni (the aforementioned sea urchin) and wine, with 25 minutes to cook. We got lots of commentary from the chefs while they were cooking, and Grayson finally said something that kind of made sense to me, which was that she wasn't sure why people were blending the uni into other ingredients rather than highlighting it, especially since it's delicate.

The first dish the judges tasted was Jeremy's opah, which I had to look up to discover it's a kind of fish, with sour apple, cucumber, and radish vinaigrette, paired with a chardonnay. Angelina, who had said she was playing it a little safe since it was a sudden death challenge, made cacio e pepe with uni butter, also with chardonnay. Padma and Dana commented on the saltiness of the dish, but I was surprised that they didn't comment about Angelina using what I assume had to be dried pasta -- she couldn't have made fresh pasta outdoors in a 25-minute challenge so it had to be dried, right? So why go with that when there were clearly a lot of high quality ingredients there to work with?

Grayson's dish was crab salad with cucumber, grapefruit, and uni. Dana said it was bold to do so little, but that it was nice. Personally, I don't feel that a crab and uni salad with several ingredients in 25 minutes is "so little," but maybe that's me. Dana did compliment Grayson on her wine pairing, which made Grayson happy because her boyfriend is a sommelier. Jason served a salpicon seafood salad with jumbo crab. I had to look up "salpicon," of course, and found that it is "a mixture of finely chopped ingredients bound in a thick sauce and used as a filling or stuffing." I have to say, the photo of his dish didn't look like that definition to me. Dana said the balance of flavors was lovely, but Padma wished the dish had more uni.

Karen had tried to make a soup into which she would "ribbon" the whipped egg and uni, like egg drop soup, but the uni essentially dissolved instead, and Padma said all she could taste was scallion or chive. Giselle made a simple seasoned potato with onion jam and uni; personally I thought this one looked like something I would want to eat, but Dana said there was a bit of a fight between the wine, potato, and onion.

Carl made a sea urchin omelet that looked very pretty in presentation, and Dana called it a thoughtful combination. Amar made uni with shitake tempura on lime ricotta cheese and served it with a rose wine, which the judges found to be a nice combination. Francis's curry was complex, and Padma remarked that she could have edited a few ingredients out. Wesley presented creamed corn with uni, fennel, roe, and scallop, which Dana really seemed to like it (although it sounded a little like all that wine tasting was getting to her). Chad served Asian goulash with uni, rice wine, and a little lime. Padma called it intense, and Dana thought the wine went well with it, but the dish itself wasn't balanced. Isaac made an uni potato salad that they liked a lot.

In the end, the judges started with their favorite dishes, and Grayson looked pretty surprised to be chosen. Dana commented on the simplicity and the showcasing of the uni. Wesley was another favorite with his creamed corn, and Carl was also complimented for his pairing of eggs and uni (cue Giselle looking miserable because she hadn't been able to find the eggs -- did she ask anybody?). The winner, who got immunity, was Grayson. As much as I didn't care for her in the first two episodes -- and I'm sure she'll annoy me again -- I couldn't help but be happy for her.

For the least favorite dishes, Dana named Angelina's pasta with uni butter, Karen's soup due to the lack of uni flavor, and Giselle's potato, which Dana found puzzling and undercooked. Giselle ended up on the bottom, and had to pick one chef to compete against in a head-to-head cook-off. My first thought went to Angelina, who I imagine was a bit shaken by her near miss, and that's who Giselle chose.

The challenge was to cook something with ostrich eggs in 25 minutes, which was a little ironic. Giselle decided to make soft scrambled eggs with a little salsa, while Angelina wasn't quite sure at first what she was doing. I was a little annoyed at the chefs yelling out advice to her from the sidelines; it's almost as though they were giddy with being off the hook, but they weren't doing her any favors by yelling at her. She did also end up with a scramble, with charred vegetables and tomato jam. Dana didn't seem blown away by either dish, but named Giselle the winner in the end, even though she wasn't impressed with Giselle's presentation.

Overall, this was a good quickfire challenge. I noticed that the majority of the chefs seemed to choose chardonnay, which I imagine is the wine most familiar to a lot of them. I also have to say that I felt sorry for these guys trying to do this delicate plating work outside.


Uh oh, it's another team challenge, and the chefs had to pick each other (apart from Grayson, who competed alone as the one with immunity). I'm not saying the show's wrong to do this, but I hate when they have to just look around and pick each other. You know some of them wish the other person hadn't asked them, but they didn't know how to say no. It's just so uncomfortable, like high school all over again. And the chefs didn't appear to choose each that wisely in a lot of cases. Angelina noted her apprehension at getting stuck with Giselle, and I couldn't blame her.

Padma then explained that the chefs would have two hours the next day to prep and cook at the Bacara Resort & Spa. Padma dangled an extra incentive; the overall winner would get to come back to the winery and choose an estate wine with his or her own label.

[We interrupt this blog post for an important message: TOP CHEF, STOP MAKING THE CHEFS RUN TO GET THE INGREDIENTS! If there's one thing that will ever make me stop watching the show, this is it.]

And cue badass music as Tom Colicchio walks in the kitchen (which is also rather obnoxious). He arrived to tell the chefs they were now competing against each other: surf versus turf instead of surf and turf. I'm not crazy about mid-plan change-ups like this, especially when they seem designed to ratchet up the tension between the chefs. Karen and Marjorie seemed to handle it pretty well, while Phillip went the passive-aggressive route with Jeremy in their little team interview. Jason ended up at a big disadvantage; he had compromised with Francis and agree to do Thai flavors, and now he was stuck with those ingredients when it's not a cuisine he knows well. Finally, although I applaud chefs helping each other somewhat, I'm not so sure I would have helped Chad butcher his lamb chops if I were Kwame. It's not the same as lending a few eggs, it's lending a skill the other chef doesn't have, and this is a skills competition. That said, I like Kwame a lot so far.

The first chefs to serve the judges were Wesley, Amar, and Grayson, the latter of whom got to choose any of the chef pairs to compete directly against. Amar served an olive oil poached halibut with eggless Béarnaise sauce, asparagus, and morels. Tom found it delicate but the fish was a little overcooked, and Cat Cora, who was one of several guest judges, found it too simplistic. Wesley was very apprehensive about his ribeye, which he knew was too tough, and made a bigger point than he might have done pointing out the "artwork," as he called it, which was asparagus purée that he stenciled onto the plate in the shape of leaves. The judges found the meat underseasoned but none immediately commented on the toughness of the meat. Tom was snobby about the stenciling. I mean, I thought it looked pretty, but I do agree that Wesley would have done better not to try so hard to call attention to it. Grayson made a lacquered pork belly with a spiced carrot purée. Cat Cora loved the flavors, as did Richard Blais. Grayson won the round handily -- and after the chefs left table-side, Richard did comment on Wesley's meat being badly cooked.

The next pair to serve was Phillip and Jeremy. Jeremy made pan-roasted spot prawns with potato gnocchi and English peas. Cat Cora loved it, and Tom said it was all about finesse. Phillip made center-cut ribeye with rutabaga purée and nori buerre blanc from butter he'd made himself. Cat said it was cooked perfectly. The judges universally preferred Jeremy by a nose, but guest judge Suzanne Goin said she felt bad that they competed directly against each other, because either of them could have wiped out the three previous competitors. I got the feeling that Phillip is not going to take this defeat well, but he needs to remember that just because he will technically be up for elimination doesn't mean there's any chance he would actually be eliminated, based on this dish.

Next came Angelina versus Giselle. Angelina served marinated mussels with escabèche sauce (vinegary sauce with herbs and spices), fennel leek puree, and potatoes. Unfortunately, the judges found that she had neglected the mussels in favor of the other ingredients. Giselle served quail with a tamarindo sauce and a cucumber and radish salad. Tom liked the sauce. The editors cut this sequence a little short, jumping right to the win verdict being handed to Giselle without them actually polling the judges on camera as they'd done for the prior teams.

Kwame and Chad went next. Kwame made a crab salad with turmeric, asparagus, and radish, that was gorgeous to look at. Tom found it playful and fun, while Suzanne called it decadent (in a good way). Chad made spicy bean, honey and orange-lacquered lamb with asparagus mint purée, which the judges found perfectly cooked and luscious. The judges went four and four, so that Tom had to be the tie-breaker: he gave the win to Kwame. Although I thought Chad was a good sport, I'm glad that Kwame won, because Chad's meat might not have presented so well if Kwame hadn't helped him.

Isaac and Carl were up next; Isaac served a fennel-crusted halibut, English peas, and brown butter hollandaise. Tom wanted a little hit of acid, and Dana called something slightly overcooked, although I couldn't catch what she said. Carl did a roasted chicken thigh with prosciutto and English peas. I felt bad for him, because nobody wants to be the one stuck with chicken for a competition at this level, but Tom liked it, especially the white wine dijon sauce. Carl won, although it was another close race.

Next came Karen and Marjorie. Karen had difficulty plating, to the extent that she left someone's fish off the plate. I felt terrible for her. Her dish was seared rock cod with carrot orange purée, blood orange vinaigrette, and roasted carrots. The judges loved it, although Padma continued to look put out at her lack of fish. Marjorie served roasted pork loin with olive oil crushed potatoes, glazed vegetables, and citrus gremolata, which is a garnish made with chopped parsley, garlic, and grated lemon zest (yum!). Unfortunately, the pork was very dry -- Dana Cowan actually made a face, and called it 1960s food. Karen dodged a bullet there for sure.

Finally, we had Jason and Francis. Jason made a marinated grilled pork loin with steamed crudités, Thai-style egg, and green bean salad. Tom was unimpressed with the flavors, and one of the guest judges told Jason he was sorry Jason had been "bullied" into cooking something he wasn't 100% comfortable with. Well, no. Jason wasn't bullied; he compromised because he thought they'd be cooking together, not against each other. Furthermore, most of the challenges are about cooking things they're not 100% comfortable with. Francis's dish was ginger glazed black cod with jicama cucumber relish and roasted squash. Tom called it a hodgepodge on a plate, and the judges didn't appreciate the skin on the fish. Another close race, and Tom once again was the deciding vote: he chose Jason.


The favorite dishes were by Jeremy, Kwame, and Karen (keeping in mind they couldn't pick the really good dishes happened to get edged out in their round, such as Phillip's). The judges were full of compliments for Karen, but Padma pointed out that they couldn't give her the win when the main part of the dish didn't make it to one of the plates. Tom really liked Kwame's dish, and found Jeremy's dish well put-together and thought-out. Guest judge Michael Cimarusti announced Kwame as the winner.

The three least favorite dishes were by Francis, Angelina, and Wesley. I felt strongly for Wesley, because he'd just been hired by Richard Blais, and was embarrassed by his performance. To his credit, he made no excuses, but owned his mistakes. Angelina's dish was criticized mainly for the way she treated the mussels, taking them out of the shell so they dried out on the plate. Francis felt like her original dish wasn't enough, which is why she added the butternut squash that Tom thought didn't make sense, but the judges pointed out that she had too many ingredients. Ultimately, Francis was sent home.


This is based partly on personal tastes -- I'm not terribly adventurous when it comes to seafood -- but the dish I most wanted to taste was Phillip's ribeye. It looked like it would melt in your mouth. I don't care for his personality a great deal, but there's no denying he's talented.


I think that Angelina and Wesley will continue to struggle. I think they're good chefs, but they seem a little shell-shocked at finding themselves in this situation. I think Grayson will be up and down, up and down -- if there's one quality I don't see in her, it's consistency. I think Kwame and Jeremy as a team would probably be unbeatable on this show. So far, other than Phillip, I'm finding most of the competitors to be pretty good eggs (no pun intended).

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