Thursday, April 23, 2020

Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. - Playing "Ketchup" with Episodes 3, 4, and 5

[L-R: Ludo LeFebvre, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons]

If I can't keep up with Top Chef blogging when I'm stuck at home 24/7, it's probably hopeless, but I'm going to try and catch up anyway with this summary of Episodes 3, 4, and 5.

Episode 3: Strokes of Genius

I was super excited to see Ali Wong and Randall Park as guest judges for the Quickfire Challenge! I adored them in the Netflix movie they co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in, Always Be My Maybe, and I recently read her book Dear Girls, a somewhat rated-R memoir written as short letters to her still-small daughters (to be read after they turn 21, she says). The Quickfire was to make a great fried rice dish, incorporating at least one of the odd ingredients that Randall and Ali had picked, including peanut butter, frog legs, jelly beans, Red Hots, watermelon, Fritos, and so on. Kevin won immunity with what he called "bachelor fried rice"; it contained wieners, cheetos, and bourbon. Ali called it a party in her mouth. (I will make no comments!)

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs went to the Getty Museum to find inspiration in art. I like these kinds of challenges, but sometimes they work better than others. In this case, many of the dishes were a reach when it came to connecting them with the art period that inspired them. But there were some truly beautiful plates. Melissa took top honors with a lobster wonton in broth; guest judge Ludo LeFebvre called it a Michelin-star dish, Gail said it was pretty close to perfection, and Tom called it stunning. I know I certainly wanted to try it!

On the bottom end, Jamie was asked to pack his knives and go, because although his plate was gorgeous, he failed to get the jus onto the chicken, so it ate dry. Lee Anne was also in the bottom, and it's worth noting (because a pattern will emerge) that she ran out of time plating. She still seemed to get everything on the plate, but she said it looked terrible. In my mind, the bigger problem was that it was a whole mess of ingredients. She described it to the judges as: duck breast, a duck egg, a duck confit, beet red wine puree, yellow golden beet puree, fermented black garlic sauce, bread and celery root puree, and poached apples. It seemed like the list would never end!

Episode 4: You're So Fresh

Another fun guest judge for the Quickfire Challenge: Kelly Clarkson! With great promotional timing, her appearance coincided with the upcoming animated Trolls film in which she voices a character. So the kitchen was decorated with Trolls and six bright colors, each one representing a group of trolls and their musical genre from the movie. The chefs had to make a dish with at least one ingredient from each color group. As you can imagine, this resulted in some fairly strange dishes. Gregory won the Quickfire with a butternut squash and plantain vegan soup.

The Elimination Challenge was one I could get really excited about: two teams, each creating a six-course progressive vegetarian meal that would include dessert and feature produce they would be buying at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. The blue team's meal seemed almost perfect, and what I wouldn't give to have been in that restaurant sampling that menu! The red team made the mistake of starting with two raw dishes in a row, and neither were spectacular. Brian Malarkey made a tomato and mozzarella salad that, while beautiful, certainly wasn't very original. It was followed by Lee Anne's hummus with crudite.

Although this season has been fairly drama-free so far, this episode flirted with drama disaster when it came out at Judges' Table that Lee Anne's dish didn't have enough salt on it. Remember I said that pattern that was developing? In Lee Anne's own words, "I just don't have time to finish plating my dish" -- for which she has nobody to blame, especially when 1) it happened to her the previous episode, and 2) she was plating raw vegetables! So Lee Anne made a point at Judges' Table of saying she didn't finish off her plates, somebody else did, at which point a slightly guilt-stricken Marlarkey pointed out that the hummus was underseasoned too, i.e. that could not possibly have been his fault. He didn't need to say this -- the judges wouldn't have sent him home for how much salt he did or didn't put on someone else's dish -- but on the other hand, Lea Anne kind of started it by pointing out that it was supposedly someone else's mistake.

Sigh.... but I have to give Lee Anne credit for letting it go.

At any rate, Melissa won her second Elimination Challenge in a row with a coconut corn soup with pickled garlic chives and puffed rice grains. Again, I would have loved to tasted the entirety of that team's menu, but I also have to say, I was excited by both teams' desserts, which may never have happened before. Eric made a butternut squash and goat's milk pudding with chocolate hazelnut "soil" and a ginger granita. Nini made a delicious-looking "peaches and cream" creampuff with peach sorbet. I bet that tasted heavenly.

Before I move on to the next episode, my two favorite moments were Karen, Stephanie, and Nini chorusing "Good morning, Padma!" while striking a Charlie's Angels pose, and Karen's reaction to seeing Kelly Clarkson walk in through the door. My least favorite moment, however, was when the chefs stormed the table with the colored ingredients, almost knocking each other over and taking ridiculous quantities of food. I will keep saying this until I'm blue in the face: the chefs should not have to physically wrestle over ingredients. They should either draw knives to see who picks in what order, or there should be enough of every ingredient for every chef who wants it.

Episode 5: Bring Your Loved One to Work

Almost every season of Top Chef involves family members, and this season is no exception. For the Quickfire, the chefs had to imitate a restaurant dish as described over the phone by their family member. Padma called this a challenge of communication, and while that was true to an extent, you can be the best communicator in the world and not recognize a certain fish, or know that cilantro is cilantro. So it wasn't an entirely level playing field. Kevin won, assisted by his wife who is not only an attorney with a head for details, she also knows food and subtle tastes. Still, Kevin's reaction when he wins something is adorable, so I had to be happy for him.

I enjoyed this Elimination Challenge. The chefs had to create a signature product and then serve it at an outdoor shopping center with a dish showcasing that product. They had the evening before to prepare the product, then time to cook the dish the next day. During the evening session, Lee Anne's mother became faint and had to leave the kitchen. I was glad to see that Lee Anne behaved like a trouper, and the other chefs pitched in to give her a hand where they could.

Between the evening and the next day, we got one of those interludes where they show the chefs at the house, and we were treated (!) to Brian Malarkey's list of who he thought would go home next. I think the instinct to have those thoughts is entirely natural, and if writing it down helped him organize his thoughts, that's fine. But to share that on television? That was kind of a dick move. I knew the minute they showed it that he would end up in the bottom of the Elimination Challenge, and so he did. Honestly? I'm ready for him to go home. It wasn't him, however, but Jen, whose "sunny" ginger and lemon sauce turned Tom off with its grainy ginger bits. Joining Jen at the bottom were Stephanie, who seems to have a lot of stress-induced crankiness (I can relate), and the afore-mentioned Brian Malarkey.

At the other end of the spectrum, the three top contenders at Judges' Table were Gregory, Nini, and Eric. It's worth noting that all three made something related to their respective Haitian, Vietnamese, and African heritage, which often seems to delight the judges when it's done at this kind of elevated level. Gail said Nini's Nuoc Mam glaze was clearly made with love, the second time she's described Nini's food that way (the other time was the peach dessert). The judges also had a nice word to say to Melissa, who "sold" 31 bottles of her Korean-inspired kimchi-peach vinaigrette. But it was Gregory who took first place.

Where We're At Now

I like this season so far. My top three prediction, in order, is Melissa, Gregory, and Kevin, who all seem to be winning up a storm. Kevin has a lot of heart, but Melissa and Gregory seem to be extremely consistent so far. I'd be happy to see any of the three of them win. My favorite challenge so far has been the vegetarian progressive meal. I'm not a vegetarian myself, but I keep my meat consumption pretty low, and I'm always excited to see what really great chefs can do with vegetarian ingredients.

Until next time .... which is a few hours from now!

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