Sunday, March 29, 2020

Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. - Episode 2 - "The Jonathan Gold Standard"

[The Top Chef contestants arrive at L.A.'s Union Station]

This week's episode had a little change-up in format; instead of competing in a Quickfire Challenge, the chefs spent a day exploring a handful of L.A. restaurants listed in the late food critic Jonathan Gold's guidebook. The first 17 minutes of the episode consisted of the chefs sampling some of Gold's favorite dishes, looking for inspiration for the dish they would each individually serve to 200 guests gathering to honor Gold, who passed away in 2018.

Elimination Challenge

After stuffing themselves silly (no judgment here; I'm just envious!), the chefs were given 30 minutes and $700 to shop at Whole Foods. That seems like a lot of money, but of course they want the best ingredients and they'll be serving 200 people apiece.

A little foreshadowing occurred during prep: Eric Adjepong said of his African-inspired scallops and braised red cabbage that it was a "kind of funky pairing" so it would be hard to pull off. Just as Tom Colicchio told Joe Sasto in the first episode that "glue" isn't a word you want to have associated with your food, so I would tell Eric the same about the word "funky." In the meantime, Stephanie Cmar realized mid-service that offering Indian food to Padma without having any experience cooking it might not have been the best strategy.

At the event, the two guest judges were food writer Ruth Reichl and Laurie Ochoa, an arts and entertainment editor and Jonathan Gold's wife. I enjoyed seeing director and actor Jon Favreau as one of the guests, especially because I recently watched his movie Chef, in which he plays a high-level chef who finds himself again by running a food truck.

The dishes were varied and interesting! I was drawn to Melissa King's mala beef tartare served on a little spiced potato chip, but sadly would have found it too spicy. I truly wish I wasn't a spice wimp. Same goes for Karen Akunowicz's pan-roasted cumin lamb dumpling. I'm a sucker for dumplings, but when describing it she used the word "chili" twice.... I was puzzled by Brian Malarkey's dish, which was (deep breath) a fried rice beef tartare with kimchi vinaigrette, cracked peanuts, and a fish-sauce cured fermented egg yolk.


Lee Anne's dish... I'm with Tom; you could see by his expression that he wasn't won over by the cheese and fish combination. And assuming the order of service aired is the same that actually happened, you could tell Lee Anne's confidence in it was shaken when she self-consciously greeted Padma and Gail with "Hello, ladies, I'm braving the fish and cheese boat."

One thing that puzzled me show-wise is that we heard chefs describing their dishes during prep, we heard again when the first set of judges tasted them, and yet again when the other set of judges tasted them. It seems to me that in years past, we would hear one set of judges' reactions or the other, but not usually both, unless there was something unusual going on. So this episode felt a little repetitious to me by the end. Is it because they had more time to fill due to the lack of a Quickfire Challenge? Meanwhile, the silhouette of Jonathan Gold projected high on the wall made me think that Alfred Hitchcock was there waiting for a murder mystery on the Top Chef show.

Judges' Table

Overall the judges thought the group did a good job honoring Jonathan Gold's legacy. Their three favorite dishes were by Nini, Kevin, and Brian Voltaggio. Tom loved Nini's broth from her "masa" ball soup so much that he told her he'd had someone bottle up what was left since he was feeling under the weather. Ruth Reichl said that she was expecting the worst from Kevin's "clunky ball" but that it turned out to be delicious, and she said twice during the show that he needs to bottle the apple butter that he used, which turned out to be his grandmother's recipe. Gail told Brian V. that his short ribs felt like a departure from anything she'd eaten before from him, which made me think: if someone asked me to describe Brian V's food overall, I couldn't do it. I don't have a feeling for who he is as a cook, but at the same time, I would have confidence in anything he put down in front of me. Of the three, the judges picked Kevin's dish as their favorite.

Next came the three least favorite dishes, and there were really no surprises based on the comments made during the event. Angelo, Stephanie, and Eric were called up to have their dishes picked apart. Stephanie accepted the criticism gracefully; she was obviously unhappy with herself, but she didn't disagree with anything the judges said. Of Eric's dish, Gail said that the two pieces (the scallops and the cabbage) were not talking to each other. When asked about his dish, Angelo talked again about being inspired by tumeric. Tom called the dish too sweet, Padma said that the tuna, while beautifully seasoned, didn't make sense in the dish, and Ruth had the severest criticism of the night when she said, not unkindly, that the tuna had died in vain because the dish was just a piece of flesh in broth. She also said that she felt like the three bottom chefs forgot that food is supposed to be delicious, and the cutest moment of the episode is Padma's expression when she says, "YESSSSS!!!" to indicate that Ruth expressed Padma's own feelings perfectly.

Ultimately, Angelo was asked to pack his knives. I'm sad to see him go, but I felt like his focus wasn't there as I remembered it from his previous season. I did watch "Last Chance Kitchen", by the way, and debated blogging about that too, but I've decided I'll just let that unfold as it may.

Elimination Challenge Winner: Kevin Gillespie

Packed Their Knives: Angelo Sosa

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Kevin's roasted pork, mushroom, and black currant terrine with apple butter, because I'm a sucker for hot little dumpling-type foods, especially with unexpected ingredients (as long as they're not too spicy!)

Question of the Week: When did everyone on Top Chef decide that saying "in broth" was too passe, and we must now refer to it as "en brodo" as much as possible?

Who I'm Most Rooting for After this Episode: Kevin Gillepsie, because who wouldn't be moved by his humble statement upon winning this week, and Melissa King. I can't put my finger on what it is, but there's something about her that I really like. I also liked Nini's sweet and apparently calm disposition. She thought of a dish, she made it, she served it with confidence -- no drama there at all.

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Monday, March 23, 2020

Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. - Episode 1 - "It's Like They Never Left"

[Left to right: Jeremiah Tower, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons]

Although this season of Top Chef is called "Top Chef All Stars L.A.", I'm tempted to rename it "Top Chef 2020 - The Social Distancing Edition". The enforced isolation is giving me the time to blog the episodes again, something I haven't been able to do in a couple of years. And heaven knows I want and need the distraction from the news right now!

Before I get started ... It occurred to me to think about whether I prefer this, an all-star season, to a regular season with a completely new crop of chefs. And I think I prefer this right now, because it's the TV version of "comfort food," giving me a lot of familiar faces, most of whom I like. And I'm all about comfort food at the moment! I'm most excited to see Gregory Gourdet, Angelo Sosa, Lee Anne Wong, and Bryan Voltaggio back -- although I think it's a bit weird for Bryan to be back after having been on Top Chef Masters. And as always, it's terrific to see Tom, Padma, and Gail again!

QuickFire Challenge

I liked this version of the familiar mis-en-place, which took place at L.A.'s Griffith Observatory, presumably because it's both iconic and scenic. All 15 chefs started by "turning" artichokes, which I think means removing the leaves and the choke to get to the heart. The first five chefs to finish to Tom's satisfaction formed the first team, and got to immediately speed away and begin on the remainder of the Quickfire challenge, which was to use the prepped ingredients to create two dishes. The remaining 10 chefs began to "supreme" California oranges, a term I've never heard used as a verb before! According to, supreming "is a technique that removes the membrane from citrus fruit so it can be served in slices" with "no rind, no pith, no mess." The five chefs who finished this task first formed the second team, and also got to leave for the kitchen, but the remaining chefs had to shell 20 perfect almonds, which apparently is a lot harder than it sounds. The last team couldn't leave for the kitchen until all five had completed the task, and once they arrived, the 15-minute clock started for all teams, giving the first two teams a significant time advantage over the third.

Rather than list the many variations of artichoke dishes that were prepared and given Really Long Names, I'll summarize by saying that the first team, wearing red aprons, won the challenge, even though Joe Sasto's pasta was one of the judges' least favorite elements (and Joe making pasta was the source of the episode title "It's Like They Never Left", because apparently he made it a few too many times during his original season). Each member of this team became a team captain for the Elimination Challenge, and were given the option of choosing their team members. So the competition went from 3 teams of 5 preparing 2 dishes to 5 teams of 3 preparing 3 dishes. (Got that?)

Elimination Challenge

This was a fun challenge, and one that folks who've competed on the show before, and watched other seasons, might have seen coming: cooking seafood on the beach using only a fire pit. Each chef was meant to prepare an individual dish, but the judges were also looking for cohesiveness among each team.

The Green team went first, consisting of Melissa King, Karen Akunowicz, and Angelo Sosa. I remember Melissa and Angelo from prior seasons, but I think I must have missed Karen's season. I remember Melissa having this sort-of understated super-competence, if that makes sense, and she showed it here by impressing the judges with her grilled swordfish and radicchio. Karen's grilled scallops also went over well, but Angelo's oysters were, according to Tom, off-putting because there were neither hot nor cold. In fact, Tom compared the oysters to eating phlegm.

Next came the Red team: Brian Malarkey, who served sea urchin and spot prawns with hibiscus ponzu; Joe Sasto, who offered a flatbread with clams, sea urchin, peppers, and aioli; and Lee Anne Wong, who prepared a glazed halibut and sea urchin. It immediately became clear that this team was likely to be on the bottom, because Brian and Lee Anne's dishes both had sauces that made the flatbread soggy (the food was served family-style). Lee Anne also accidentally burned the edges of her fish.

The Yellow team was led by Jamie Lynch, who served steamed muscles that Tom ultimately found a little dry, although the judges liked the taste. Gregory Gourdet made a charred salmon with grilled peaches (yum) and a roasted chili dressing, which I'm sure would have been too spicy for me, but the judges loved it. Stephanie Cmar served a brined prawn with tomato sauce and roasted corn dressing, which Gail loved. Guest judge Nancy Silverton said she liked everything from this team.

Next up: the Dark Blue team (they were just called the Blue team, but the last team looked to be Light Blue to me!). Kevin Gillepsie made an eye of swordfish dish that Tom said was overcooked, although all of the judges practically gasped at how beautiful the presentation was. Jennifer Carroll made a spiced tuna loin with grilled kale, which multiple judges said they would gladly eat every day. Nini Nguyen, another chef I don't recognize (so I probably missed her season), served a grilled scallop with a variety of vegetables. The judges commented on the "herb line" that went through all three dishes, drawing them together as a cohesive meal.

Last but not least was the Light Blue team, with Bryan Voltaggio serving a sablefish over corn porridge and charred leeks. The judges liked the taste but the fish was somewhat overcooked. Eric Adjepong, who I don't recognize, made a "Chesapeake boil" with prawns -- I'm not sure what that means. Lisa Fernandes made a ceviche that Tom praised for being simple and ice cold.

Judges' Table

So there were no real surprises at the Judges' Table. The Yellow team won, with Gregory taking home top honors, and the Red team was on the bottom. The only bit of suspense was whether Lee Anne or Joe would go home, and in the end it was Joe. I always feel for that first chef to go home.

What actually surprised me in this episode was how much Lee Anne struggled during every phase. She was on the last team in the mis-en-place contest, her tempura artichoke was thick and doughy, ostensibly because she couldn't get a fryer quickly enough or for long enough, and she burned her fish by pouring olive oil directly on top of her grilling fish instead of rubbing the oil on the grill itself. I like Lee Anne, so I don't want to pick on her, but I wonder if her difficulties stem from the fact that after competing during Season 1 of Top Chef, she then went on to work as a behind-the-scenes producer of the show for several years, which may have kept her from doing as much cooking as she otherwise would have done. Anyway, hopefully she'll go far in the season, and she did go far in Season 1. [Edited to add: ack! I didn't realize Lee Anne was also on Season 15, which I missed. So much for my theory!]

So, to wrap up.....

Quick Fire Winner: Red team - Brian V., Jamie, Joe, Melissa, and Kevin

Elimination Challenge Winner: Gregory Gourdet

Packed Their Knives: Joe Sasto

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste The Blue team's artichoke tempura with citrus aioli, from the Quickfire Challenge

Who I'm Most Rooting for After this Episode: Gregory, Kevin, Melissa, and Angelo

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