Saturday, May 9, 2020

Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. - Playing "Ketchup" with Episodes 6 and 7

[The Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the Top Chef contestants cooked to celebrate the L.A. Philharmonic's 100th anniversary]

Episode 6: Get Your Phil

The Quickfire challenge this time around featured all kinds of flour, with the exception of all-purpose flour -- which of course threw the chefs for a loop. The guest judge was Chris Bianco, who looked to me like a nice version of the Heat Miser and Snow Miser's love child. Mr. Bianco is apparently famous as an artisan baker and pizza master, hence the flour challenge. And I had no idea there were so many types of flour! Quinoa flour, masa flour, blue corn flour, rice flour, rye flour....

So how did it go down? Bryan Voltaggio, having earlier remarked that he hasn't done well in the Quickfires, then makes a dish that he himself says "doesn't have much flour in it," whereas everyone else is featuring flour. Bryan did this before in the fried rice Quickfire challenge; if I recall correctly, he made something else (porridge? oatmeal?) with a little fried rice on top. I would think he'd know by now that the judges expect the highlighted ingredient to be a major component of the dish.

But he still did way better than Brian Malarkey, who envisioned making coconut ice cream and a coconut donut. Guess which half ended up on the plate? Not the part that uses flour! I really disliked his little "performance" apology to Padma and Chris Bianco, in which he asks them to envision a luscious donut, blah blah blah. I don't want to keep picking on him, but a little of his personality really goes a long way.

On the top end, we had Gregory, Nini, and Melissa, with Gregory taking home $5,000 for his nutty tapioca pancakes with blueberry maple syrup.

The Elimination challenge was certainly interesting. The chefs drew knives for the five flavor profiles: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Then, they had to divide themeselves into pairs, with the caveat that partners could not have the same profile. Karen and Nini (umami/sour) immediately chose to work together, and Gregory and Stephanie (salty/sour), Melissa and Kevin (sweet/salty), and Bryan and Erik (sweet/bitter) quickly sorted themselves. That left Lee Anne and Marlarkey (umami/bitter) to work together. Note to producers: do you realize how much you give away in the editing? The minute we see the pre-commercial teasers of Lee Anne and Marlarkey butting heads, we know that they actually won't be going home. You're telegraphing it all over the place.

At any rate, the task was to cook a dish highlighting the two flavor profiles, and serve it to the judges, the conductor of the L.A. Phil, and 60 orchestra members, all to celebrate the Phil's 100th anniversary. As an aside, I loved conductor Gustavo Dudamel's anecdote about becoming his conductor's assistant at age eleven -- it reminded me of the character Rodrigo De Souza in the fabulous Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle. Back to the cooking: Kevin and Melissa won handily with a cabbage dish, while Padma noted that Lee Anne and Malarkey came close to winning themselves. On the bottom were Bryan V. and Erik, for not getting enough sweetness into their pork dish, and Karen and Nini, for introducing too much sweetness into what was supposed to be an umami/sour dish. Ultimately, Karen and Nini were eliminated. I thought it was the right decision, because it seems a lesser evil to have too little of one flavor profile, versus introducing an intrusive third flavor profile into the dish. They're told, however, that they'll be cooking on Last Chance Kitchen that very night.

One final question about this episode: How is it possible that Nini and Karen were allowed to dig into bins of fish with their bare hands at Whole Foods? Did the store have to throw away any fish they didn't take, or did they sell it to other customers? Gross!

Episode 7: Pitch Perfect

Right at the beginning of the episode, we find Karen back on Top Chef, which I was glad to see. The best moment of that LCK episode was when Joe Sasto, over in the peanut gallery, calls the competitors "girls." Karen, without missing a beat, retorts "Chefs would be better. Where I'm from, they call me Chef too." Boom!

This Quickfire was a little on the silly side. The Chefs had to make tacos in honor of guest judge Danny Trejo, which makes sense because he owns a line of taco restaurants, but the only "knife" they could use was a machete. Yes, yes, I know why, but as far as I'm concerned, that little gimmick was a severed finger waiting to happen. Fortunately, nobody cut anything off. Gregory had a terrible time because he'd never made a tortilla, and being flustered led him to oversalt his rockfish. Stephanie got her first win, with the all-important immunity, and her happiness was great to see. Lee Anne and Karen also showed well.

Okay, this was a terrific idea for an Elimination challenge. The chefs had to pitch their restaurant concepts, including a menu, a mood board, and sample dishes, and the two winners would have their concepts brought to life in the following week's Restaurant Wars. I'll be honest, I didn't know what a mood board was before this episode; I guess now I would describe it was a sophisticated collage that uses colors and textures to elicit a mood that you're trying to convey. Guest judges for this challenge were Stephanie Izard, who won Top Chef: Chicago in 2008, and restauranteur Kevin Boehm.

The concept that appealed the most to me was Melissa's "Sabrina", which she described as modern Asian California that was also romantic. The judges liked it; Kevin Boehn said that Melissa has "Michelin-star chops." But they were more impressed with the tightness of Gregory and Kevin's concepts. Gregory came up with "Kann" (the Haitian word for cane, as in sugar cane), a restaurant serving Haitian wood-fired food, and Kevin presented "The Country Captain", based on the dish of the same name. It's a dish I've never heard of, but apparently it's the first truly American version of a curry dish, generally made with chicken. The judges also liked Malarkey's Baja Asian street food concept, but chose Gregory and Kevin's to compete in Restaurant Wars.

On the bottom: Erik, Stephanie, and Lee Anne. Stephanie had immunity, so that left Erik and Lee Anne. And while her concept was a little run-of-the-mill in the judges' mind, Erik's was also muddy, plus he didn't execute his dishes well, so he went home.

Where We're At Now

Next episode is Restaurant Wars! I don't have a prediction going in -- Restaurant Wars is probably the hardest challenge to predict, ever, because so many things can go wrong no matter how talented the chefs are. They have to depend on servers who don't know their food or the pop-up restaurants layouts, and on diners knowing that they shouldn't linger too long after dessert when there are crowds at the door. I like Kevin and Gregory equally, so I can't even say I have a preference for which restaurant wins.

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