Sunday, January 31, 2016

Top Chef - Episode 8 - Where's the Beef?

[Pretty junk food plating by contestants Karen Akunowicz, Amar Santana, and Carl Dooley.]

This episode had a really fun Quickfire challenge. Padma explained that, inspired by a mysterious new Instagram chef, our contestants would be doing a plating challenge, and the chef with the most "likes" on Instagram would win immunity. The mysterious guest judge known as "Jacques La Merde," face and voice disguised, showed up via screen to encourage the chefs, and Padma revealed that like Chef La Merde, they would only be using junk food, such as Twinkies, Oreos, Cheetos, and so on.

In my mind, they did most of this just right. Thank God the dishes didn't have to be edible -- although I do remember the time in Season 1 when the chefs had to make an edible dish out of vending machine fare.... And thank goodness that while the winner would get immunity, this was no sudden death quickfire, so nobody faced elimination for their artistic talents or lack thereof. Most of the chefs embraced the challenge and seemed to have fun doing it, but if you had to guess who the exception was? If you said Phillip, you'd be right. He takes himself so seriously that he prowled around his dish from every side, looking for the perfect angle from which to take his Instagram photo. Based on the reactions from Padma, Chef La Merde (who turned out to be Christine Flynn) and the rest of the chefs, this probably took a lot longer than we saw onscreen.

My only issue was that the way the photos were displayed on the TV screen, "framed" by their Instagram posts, made it difficult to really see any detail. They did put up a larger size image at the end of some of the chefs' turns, but only for an moment. The whole point of this food was the way it looked; I would have liked to be able to really look at it!

[And now I interrupt this blog post with an anti-commercial about one of the stupidest commercials I've ever seen in my life: the Voltaggios trying to get us to see a new movie release called The Finest Hours. I really like the Voltaggios, especially that cutie Bryan, but to have the two of them pretending to have a "spontaneous" discussion about the movie while cooking for a bunch of water rescue folks was just ludicrous. Top Chef is incredibly skilled at tying into current things (Twitter, Instagram, current hit TV shows), but this just Did Not Work, and I find it a bit insulting that anyone would think I would go decide to see a water rescue drama because two chefs talked about it.]

And back to our regular programming.... Due to the Instagram voting, the winner couldn't be announced until the next day, so the chefs moved on to the Elimination Challenge. Guest judge Neal Fraser, a Top Chef Masters alum, appeared to explain about his Beefsteak charity events, in which people pay a lot of money to dress up, get drunk, and eat a lot of meat. The nine chefs were divided into three teams of three based on who they were standing next to. Each team responsible for one meat dish, one seafood dish, and two sides. The catch? The diners would not be using plates, cutlery, or napkins. (Personally, I would allow them napkins, but whatever.)

I was definitely surprised at some of the chefs' choices. Isaac, who was on the blue team with Chad and Marjorie, decided to serve chicken and bacon sausage rather than some kind of red meat. Chad ended up making tuna, which wasn't his first choice, but the Whole Foods store didn't have enough of the kind of fish he wanted. Marjorie chose to make pickled vegetables and bread. The latter was a risk, but it was a smart one, because that kind of hands-on, medieval dining really needs some bread.

On the green team, Phillip decided to do a rack of lamb that could be served as lollipop chops, another good choice for this type of event. Amar served grilled halibut, using an entire fish that cost over $500 at Whole Foods if I heard him correctly. Jeremy made fried brussel sprouts with bacon and cilantro, and roasted carrots with a spiced yogurt sauce. (Those carrots looked really good, by the way.) The red team, consisting of Kwame, Karen, and Carl, served a roasted beef loin with romesco sauce, plus shrimp and sides. (I had to look up romesco; it's a nut and red pepper-based sauce.)

Service was ... odd. If I were wearing a gown at a black-tie charity event and was not allowed cutlery or napkins while eating, I sure as heck would want the apron bib to cover a lot more of my clothes. And what was someone thinking, dressing Padma in white? But what was really odd is that judges almost seemed like they were drunk. It's great that they were having fun, but while they were acting silly and trying to one-up each other with clever remarks, they seemed to forget that the chefs who had just busted their butts getting this food ready were standing right there and hearing some of it. The judges are there to criticize, not ridicule. Maybe I'm being oversensitive, but I thought the judges were really disrespectful this week.

In terms of the specific criticism, the judges' biggest complaint was that a lot of the food was too dainty. They felt that Isaac's sausage, Carl and Karen's beef loin, and Phillip's lamb fit the parameters of the challenge most closely, but Isaac's sausage was dry, and the steak was too small on the plate. They were definitely not impressed with any of the seafood. Both of the fish dishes were way too dainty, and Kwame's shrimp was apparently quite unappetizing in its preparation. But it's hard for me to imagine seafood prepared in such a way as to fit the medieval dinner atmosphere. I picture turkey drumsticks, sausage, and other meat on a stick. Seafood is a lot more fragile. I think it would have made more sense if the challenge had been to prepare at least two different proteins and two side dishes. Then the judges would have gotten a lot more of what they were looking for.

At judges' table, the first order of business was to announce the winner of the of the Quickfire Challenge: Karen, who maybe had the most adorable reaction ever when she practically shouted "Shut UP!" at the judges upon hearing her name. Her immunity didn't really come into play, though, since the red team was neither on the top or the bottom. Not surprisingly, the green team had the judges' favorite meal, with Phillip taking home the win for his lamb. I don't really like Phillip, and this win is not likely to improve his appeal, but I was glad to see the other chefs congratulate him and seem to mean it. This is a pretty nice group of people so far.

The blue team was the least favorite. It was quickly clear that Marjorie would be safe, with her nicely prepared vegetables and bread. I think it was a close call between Isaac's sausage and Chad's tuna, but ultimately Chad went home.

So, this was an episode that started out strong for me, but made me a little unhappy as it went on. I'm also a little nervous about next week's "Restaurant Wars." Although in recent seasons they seem to have gotten away from making the chefs worry about decor, the previews here showed them hanging artwork on the wall. Really? And they'll be serving both lunch and dinner. I think I do like the idea that each person must serve at least once as Executive Chef or front of the house, because those are always the danger spots and I'm happy to see the risk spread more equally. That's probably the reason for making the chefs do two services, but in a way it also feels like setting them up to fail. We shall see.

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