Monday, February 29, 2016

Top Chef Season 13 - Wok This Way

I'm pretty sure this is the first episode this season that actually made me tear up. I completely agree with the judges' decisions on both the winner and the loser this episode, but still....

Before I get into specifics, though, I do have an aside. Most episodes, they show a chef calling home, and this time it was Jeremy. He spoke on the phone to his daughter, who had just made honor roll, according to Jeremy because of all those books he made her read. He then said "I teach my daughter to be a winner always. If you're second, you're the first loser."


Now, while I am a fan of the kids' sports leagues where the coaches and parents don't unduly pressure the kids, I'm not a big fans of the ones where every kid on every team gets a trophy every season. In addition to learning the value of doing your best, it's important to learn how to lose gracefully. So when Jeremy said his daughter had to read 125 books for some school challenge, that's great<. But what if she read 125 books and some other kid read 126 -- is Jeremy then telling his daughter that she's a loser? I dislike how he expressed that sentiment, and I truly hope that's not how he's raising his kid.

And back to the show....

For this episode's QuickFire, the chefs used woks in guest judge Martin Yan's kitchen. I wasn't familiar with Chef Yan but the contestants obviously were; he was apparently one of the early celebrity chefs with a show called "Yan Can Cook." The contestants were given 30 minutes to create a chop suey dish. Chef Yan explained that "chop" means mixture and "suey" means bite-sized morsel, and the two together make the famous Chinese-American dish. He also noted that the wok stations the chefs would be cooking at are five to eight times stronger than normal restaurant kitchen burners.

Long story short, our top three contenders were Marjorie, Jeremy, and Amar. To me, Marjorie's lobster dish looked the most refined -- the most "fine dining" of the chop sueys. Jeremy also did well with his Dungeness crab with a kick, and Chef Yan also liked Amar's pork, vegetable, and fried rice dish. While Carl's lobster dish looked good, both Padma and Chef Yan found it had too few veggies to be a proper chop suey. Isaac's chicken was a little starchy, and Kwame's oil-blanching technique backfired a bit when his eggplant soaked up all the oil. In the end, Marjorie won the QuickFire, earning as as-yet-unknown advantage in the Elimination Challenge.

This was a neat challenge. Padma explained that San Francisco is full of venture capitalists, or people looking to invest in, well, pretty much anything. The six chefs were challenged to create a concept for a fast casual restaurant that would work anywhere in the United States. They would have to describe the concept, name their restaurant, make a single dish for 150 diners, and indicate what the rest of their menu would look like.

Now this is what I call the right balance. It requires the chefs to envision more than a single dish, to think through the things that will make or break a restaurant, but still be required to cook at a level that's actually somewhat reasonable and achievable.

Instead of immunity, the advantage that Marjorie won in the QuickFire was that she not only got to pick her own sous chef from among six eliminated contestants, she got to pair everyone else too. I was definitely surprised that Marjorie didn't pick Karen, but I realized she actually made a wise choice in picking Angelina as her sous chef. While it's obvious that Marjorie and Karen have the utmost respect for each other, Karen did have some time management issues during restaurant wars, and Angelina's lesser experience actually makes her more likely to simply do what Marjorie needs without trying to insert her own editorial view into the challenge. Alas, poor Kwame got stuck with Phillip. Well, Marjorie had to stick him with someone, and since she didn't have immunity herself, it made sense that she try to make sure somebody would have a disadvantage.

Some of the concepts were fun, some were well thought out, and some were less so. The judges made a point of comparing Carl's "Savory Med" concept with the Chipotle chain, but actually I thought most of the chefs' concepts were along those lines. Maybe Carl's menu sign just made it more obvious. In any case, here's what we had: Carl's "Savory Med," for which he served lamb stew over couscous; Marjorie's "Pasta Mama," serving olive oil poached tuna over fresh-made spaghetti; Isaac's "Gumbo for Y’all," with bowls of gumbo that he envisioned as takeaway for the whole family; Jeremy's "Taco Dudes," where he served pork belly tacos and had plans for octopus and other unusual proteins; Kwame's "Waffle Me," with mini chicken and waffles; and Amar’s "Pio Pio," serving Dominican-influenced rotisserie chicken.

In retrospect, while I liked this episode, I can't say that I found any of the concepts all that exciting. I'd love to try quick fresh pasta, but the idea of eating if with tuna didn't really appeal to me. I agreed with the judges that Carl's "Savory Med" seemed to be the best concept. And just going by food trends right now, I have to imagine that Carl's healthier menu would have a better chance of succeeding than Marjorie's carb-heavy idea. Don't get me wrong; I love pasta, but I'm also not looking for reasons to eat it more often than I already do. On the other hand, I was surprised that Carl's prospective menu offered lamb, chicken, and fish without offering a vegetarian option, which would go hand in hand with the "healthier" image.

In any case, Carl did win, which I thought was the right choice. Once again, I was happy to see that his fellow contestants seemed genuinely happy for him.

On the bottom: Jeremy for what Tom thought was a muddled taco concept, and Kwame for his chicken and waffles, which were messy to eat and, more importantly, made with frozen waffles from Whole Foods. I think that if this concept were ever turned into reality, of course they would use frozen waffles. But anybody who watches Top Chef knows that unless you want to go home, you don't use pre-packaged pasta, cake mix for wedding cakes, or anything canned or frozen if you can help it. The minute Kwame chose to use frozen mini-waffles, I knew he would be going home unless someone else majorly screwed up.

But Kwame is also the reason I teared up. He's only been cooking for about five years, and he stopped to graciously thank Tom for inspiring him during his first job as a waiter at one of Tom's restaurants. You could tell Tom was moved too. And even though Kwame seems to have struggled a bit the last few episodes, he's done amazing things for his age, and remained one of the nicest contestants. There he was, stuck with Phillip, and he still managed to put the most positive spin on it that he could. I am really sorry to see him go.

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