Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Declaration of Independence

Top Chef - Season 12, Episode 5

Previously: The chefs went to Cheers, and Gregory really embraced the "bar" aspect of the Quickfire by spilling food all over the floor. George Wendt displayed the boredom that all of us audience members are experiencing this season. The Elimination Challenge threatened to spark some actual interest by giving us an intriguing challenge about menu design. Aaron kept on fighting, Gregory kept on winning, and my boyfriend kept on dropping off to sleep during these episodes. James and Rebecca made an unceremonious exit, and I think Rebecca just might be the chef that's made the least amount of impression on me in the history of the franchise. Ten chefs remain. Who will be eliminated tonight?

Monday Morning Quarterback Session. Stacy is shell-shocked by how badly she and her team performed in the last challenge. I'm glad she was able to pull through, but yeah, step it up, girl. Quickfire Challenge. The chefs are met in the Kitchen by Padma and guest judge Jamie Bissonette, which is a name I feel like should be showing up in the Too Many Cooks intro. The theme of this week's challenges is battles, so it looks like I was right when I said "I guess Boston's current food culture is not enough of an attraction, so it's looking more and more like this season will be Quirky Challenges Regarding America's Past". This is like Assassin's Creed 3: Food Missions. Which actually sounds kind of awesome. Somebody make that game.

Anyhoo, in this week's Quickfire, half the chefs get to pick an opponent to cook against head-to-head. That opponent then gets to select a dish from a pre-set list that both chefs will make. There's no immunity, but the winning chef will get $10,000. That puts the chefs' game faces on pretty damned quick. Here's how the match-ups shake out:

Katsuji challenges Aaron, who picks smoked salmon. Doug challenges Adam, who picks mussels. Kariann challenges Stacy, who picks trout. Melissa challenges Katie, who picks BBQ. That leaves Mei vs. Gregory, and they'll be making steamed dumplings. There's naturally a lot of smack talk about who's weak, and who's a threat, and who's going down, and blah blah blah. Let's see who can back up their bluster. Ready? Go! The banter keeps up over the course of the prep, some more good-natured than others. When the dust settles, Padma and Jamie judge each pair of dishes. The winners and losers of each match-up will form a team of their own for their upcoming challenge:

Winners: Katsuji, Doug, Kariann, Katie, and Gregory
Losers: Aaron, Adam, Stacy, Melissa, and Mei

Mei looks piiiiiiiiiiised. Gregory not only beat her in the Quickfire match-up, but he is declared the overall winner, and gets to pocket the $10K. Elimination Challenge. As I just mentioned, the chefs who won their Quickfire match-ups are sorted into one team (Blue), while the losing chefs go to the other team (Red). For today's main challenge, the chefs can make whatever dish they like. They will then go head-to-head in another series of battles. Each time a team wins a battle, they get a point. First team to three points wins, and someone from the losing team goes home. The chefs may pick who participates in each battle, so this is very similar to that tennis challenge that we had such a rousing discussion about. Check the comments!

Shopping. Each team only gets $1000 to serve 100 guests, so they must split up their money and choose ingredients wisely. Which proceeds to happen with no issue whatsoever. Not that I want people pulling each other's hair over who gets to buy cumquats or whatever, but this season desperately needs a shot of adrenaline. Prep. Aaron is making a seafood noodle wrap very much like the one that edged out Katie's dish in that one Quickfire. Melissa interviews that she is confident about her soup. Then, thirty seconds later she interviews that she is concerned about her soup, because the texture isn't working out the way she'd hoped. Even the editors are too bored to pay attention to what's going on.

Service. The food is served outdoors, with people in Revolutionary War garb standing around playing with muskets. The hundred guests tear into the food, but have absolutely no say in whose dish is good or bad or better or worse than anyone else's. So...thanks for stopping by, everyone! The judges will be the ones deciding everything. Adam has taken a pseudo-leader role on the Blue team, but has the refreshing intelligence to realize that as long as he concentrates on making his own dish as good as possible, he's unlikely to be eliminated. Somewhere, Spike is watching this, smirking, then waltzing out the door to go lose yet another contest because he got more caught up in strategy than on making decent food. Aaron spills his dashi all over the ground. Mei has some instant dashi mix to loan him, which he hopes will be good enough to pull him through.

First battle. Adam goes up against Dougie. Katie screams "Go Dooooooooooooogie!" on the sidelines, causing a weary Katsuji to grumble "Please don't do that." Wooo, check out the enthusiasm of even the contestants for this season! The judges like both of the dishes, but Adam's grits with cheddar cheese, poached egg, bacon, and onion jam edges out Dougie's beef tartare. Adam's does look awfully good. The Red team earns their first point.

Second battle. Katsuji has a mini panic attack as he puts together yet another dish with forty-thousand components. Luckily, he's up against Melissa, whose soup has an extremely off-putting texture that the judges find watery and unappetizing. It's bad enough that Katsuji is able to take the battle, earning the Blue team their first point.

Third battle. Gregory goes up for Blue, so the Red team puts up Mei, which was a terrible idea. If you accept that Mei is a strong competitor (which both I and all the chefs do), the one chef you shouldn't pit her against is Gregory, who is the only person that consistently beats her. Put her up against somebody weaker so that she's more likely to grab a point. No time-traveler picks up on my brainwaves, so they are re-matched, and although Mei's strip loin in kimchi vegetables is given high marks, she cannot overcome Gregory's mushroom/coconut milk/tumeric green curry. Bad strategy, Red. The Blue team takes their second point.

Fourth battle. Kariann goes up against Stacy. A lot of Quickfire rematches are going on here, which Padma notes sardonically. I think she may be drunker than usual. No matter how much the judges disliked Melissa's soup, it's nothing compared with the revulsion that meets Kariann's herb meatball. The judges completely trash it. Stacy's marinated beets are nothing to write home about, but they're clearly better than the hated meatball, so Stacy wins the battle. The Red team gets its second point.

Fifth battle. It all comes down to Aaron vs. Katie! Aaron says that if Katie beats him, he will shoot himself in the face. Katie has made a chocolate cake with smoked sour cream, and Aaron implies that she's copped out by making a dessert. Huh? Dessert is usually what gets people kicked off the show. If anything, making chocolate cake takes far stronger stones than making a savory dish; especially a rehash of your own Quickfire entry from a couple of challenge ago. Tom essentially says the same thing. Aaron's scallop noodle and pork meatball is panned, and Katie wins the point, solidifying the Blue team's win. Katie lets out a pretty endearing Xena yell of victory.

Judges' Table. The Blue team is congratulated, and sent to the safe zone. They are shortly joined by Adam and Mei, who both made very good dishes, despite being on the losing team. Looks like Adam's strategy paid off. He's given some guff about it from the judges (and from Gregory on the sidelines, like thanks for chiming in, Golden Boy, but your opinion from the safe zone on this matter is less than essential). It's all bullshit, and Adam happily shrugs it off as such. That leaves Stacy, Aaron, and Melissa up for the chop. Stacy is a little surprised to be in danger, since she won her point. The judges tell her that she shouldn't be too proud about that, since she didn't win so much as Kariann completely blew it. There's a pretty stellar shot of Kariann's reactionary bitchface to this proclamation. All three of these chefs did pretty poor work today, but the one going home is...Aaron. Hooray!

In his final interview, he graciously admits that his personality may not be for everyone. And the Atlantic Ocean is a bit moist. I may have added that last bit. He is finally out of our lives, to the delight of everyone but his girlfriend, since the only food he's prepared for her is a knuckle sandwich. And not that I advocate violence, but Aaron did say that he'd shoot himself in the face if Katie won the point. People should keep their promises, don't you think?

Overall Grade: B-

Monday, November 10, 2014

That's An Order

Top Chef - Season 12, Episode 4

Previously on Top Chef: Teas! Tears! Toupees! T'ballpark food! Gregory hit a homerun, picking up yet another challenge win, while Ron struck out. Twelve chefs remain. Who will be eliminated tonight?

Monday Morning Quarterback Session. Aaron talks. Nobody cares. Kariann bemoans how she hasn't been doing well in the competition, and cries about missing her kids. She should also spare some crying for wasting an entire tube of Dr. Pepper lip gloss, which is smeared all over her mouth. The chefs receive a note from Padma with the address where they are supposed to meet her. It's supposed to be very clandestine, but the surprise is immediately blown by hometown girl Stacy, who recognizes the address as Cheers. Whoops! That was the shortest game of Carmen Sandiego I've ever seen.

Quickfire Challenge. Indeed, the chefs are on their way to the original Cheers bar, where they are met by Padma and George Wendt. He graciously suffers through the chefs yelling "Norm!" at him before we get down to business. Here's an interesting tidbit of trivia for the audience: By law, all bars in Boston must serve food. So, for today's Quickfire, the chefs will use whatever's on-hand in the Cheers kitchen to make an upscale bar snack. Winner gets immunity. Ready? Go!

Aaron combines eggs with peanut butter and mayonnaise, which sounds gross, but he insists that it actually works if balanced properly. I'll buy it; I'd like to try that mixture if it's in the right proportion. Gregory gets a good start on his burger, but gravity is not his friend today, and a lot of his ingredients fly off the plate and onto the floor. Adam is making black bean chilaquile with egg on top, and it's the first dish of the day (and maybe of the competition) that's really made me sit up and take notice. James works on a vegetable hummus, and insists that in Michigan, crudite is totally a bar food. I am unconvinced. Katsuji whips up a spin on a fish taco with some tuna, while Kariann focuses on crabcakes.

Tasting. Padma attempts to banter with George Wendt, who clearly wishes he were anywhere else. He's about as excited to appear on this show as he would be to get a root canal with a rusty screw. Obviously, Gregory is in the bottom, since most of his food is currently getting ground into the kitchen floor by people's shoes. He's joined by James, who didn't make anything approaching bar food. Save the carrot sticks for the garden party, brah. Katsuji and Kariann are the top two, with Katsuji taking the challenge and immunity. He's very pleased, but not as happy as George, who takes off so fast, there's a George-shaped puff of smoke left behind.

Elimination Challenge. Michael Schlow (a competitor from Top Chef: Masters and local food luminary) will be turning his restaurant over to the chefs and guest judging. The chefs will break into teams and each team will serve a three-course Italian meal: Antipasti, pasta, and entree. The chefs will design a menu, and whichever menu gets ordered the most by guests will be automatically be declared the winner and be safe from elimination. So, it doesn't even matter how the food tastes. If it at least sounds appetizing enough to entice the diners, a team can skate by. Everyone else is up for elimination.

How do we feel about this? I've been stewing it over in my mind, and have come to the conclusion that I like this challenge. Sure, on the one hand, it doesn't sound entirely fair that the chefs get to shield themselves from elimination via advertising rather than cooking skills. But, there's no denying that designing a menu does fall under the purview of a chef's duties, and if you can't appeal to diners' imaginations and manage their expectations, it doesn't really matter how good your food is, cause they'll never order it. In another fun little twist, Padma tells the chefs that they can pick their own teams, so let's see how that popularity contest shakes out:

Orange: Adam/Doug/Mei (the sous chef team)
Grey: Kariann/Melissa/James (the seafood team)
Blue: Rebecca/Katie/Stacy (the let's work with anyone except Aaron team)
Purple: Aaron/Katsuji/Gregory (the leftovers)

Interesting. It's completely natural that everyone else would avoid Aaron (including his girlfriend, apparently), but with all that talk last week about the bond between James and Aaron, it's curious that they didn't wind up together. Speaking of last week, since nobody went home during that Sudden Death Quickfire, Padma informs the chefs that this week will be a double elimination, and two people will be going home. The chefs make various consternated faces.

Planning and prep. James is reluctant to make seafood, but in the interest of team harmony, agrees to make fish. Katsuji and Aaron immediately fall to squabbling, of course, and Gregory is kept as busy trying to shut them up and keep them on task as cooking. During the meal, the judges are joined by Emmy Rossum, who drops the bomb on the chefs that she is gluten-free, so that pasta course takes on a new dimension. Katsuji responds to this by ripping open his ravioli and just dumping the filling into a bowl. It's not as though Emmy Rossum is missing anything, as the judges pretty uniformly hate his pasta, anyway. Stacy cuts her ribeye into thin strips, and chars the hell out of her vegetables. Every season seems to attract a group of people with one big problem. Last season, it was overseasoning/underseasoning. This time around, nobody can seem to cook their food for the proper amount of time. Doug makes a pretty basic radicchio salad, but everyone seems to enjoy it.

But, as you know, no matter how good or bad this food is, the winner is all about how good the food sounds. When the dust settles, it doesn't matter that Katsuji's pasta was awful, because the diners ordered the Purple menu most, so the most dysfunctional team gets to slide this week, but not before Katsuji is told he'd be looking at the business end of an elimination if things hadn't happened this way. All of the food on the Orange team was well-received, so they are declared safe as well. Katie, Kariann, and Melissa made some impressive items and are also excused. That brings it down to James, Rebecca, and Stacy. James' sauce was bad, and he should have stuck with his gut and made meat. I mean, yes, you have to make sure you can stand behind the dish you make, but if he can't make a serviceable fish entree, he doesn't really belong here, anyway. Rebecca's concept was all wrong (unbalanced and old-fashioned), and it didn't have enough sauce. Stacy's meat was cut too thin, and her vegetables sucked. Tom throws it over to Padma. Rebecca and James, please pack your knives and go.

Whew. Stacy has been one of the few bright spots so far in this snooze of a season, and it would have been disheartening to see her go. As it is, I'm not too put out to see Non-Entity Rebecca and Swayze Tattoo take off into the sunset. Now, if we could fast-forward to the part of the season that isn't incredibly dull, that'd be great.

Overall Grade: C+

Monday, November 03, 2014

Making Concessions

Top Chef - Season 12, Episode 3

Previously on Top Chef: Aaron decided he didn't have time to develop The Villain Role organically, and decided to just transparently grab for as much camera time as possible. Lanterns went on and off. Jaaaaaaames haaaaaaaad.....the time of his liiiiiiiife, and was led to a Quickfire win by his patron saint, Patrick Swayze. The chefs served the city's first responders, and came thisclose to actually needing them in a professional sense, as Aaron and Kariann lunged at each other's throats without bothering to put much thought into, you know, cooking. Stacy managed to save them both from elimination, goddamn it, so Joy's undercooked veal sent her packing. Double goddamn it. Thirteen chefs remain. Who will be eliminated tonight?

Monday Morning Quarterback Session. Everyone in the household hates Aaron, except James, who feels some kind of ridiculous kinship with him. Aaron explains in interview that he knows he's a lot to take, but it's not his fault, cause he comes from a broken home. Oh, awesome! I had no idea that being a child of divorce gave me free rein to be a raging asshole! This opens up so many avenues for me, you guys. He goes on to say that Top Chef is helping him work through those issues, because this is a televised therapy session, and not a competition where people cook. Apparently. Also, let's ask Seth how competing in Top Chef fared in addressing his mental health issues. Assuming we can get a permit to visit him in his rubber room.

Quickfire Challenge. I guess Boston's current food culture is not enough of an attraction, so it's looking more and more like this season will be Quirky Challenges Regarding America's Past. In this one, Padma and guest judge Ming Tsai are on hand to administer a Sudden Death Quickfire revolving around tea. BOSTON TEA PARTY, GET IT?!? It actually isn't a bad ingredient to base a challenge on, since people don't really work much with tea. The chefs will each grab a mystery blend and have to incorporate it into their dish. Winner gets immunity, and loser faces elimination. Ready? Go!

Some of these tea blends sound deeply unappetizing. I guess I have classical tastes when it comes to tea, because strawberry white tea? Gunpowder spearmint tea? No thanks. Rebecca is finally allowed to speak on-screen, as she tells us that she's somewhat of a double threat, because she has actual pastry experience, unlike a lot of other savory chefs. She makes a neutral cake in order to soak up as much of the tea flavor as possible. It seems she's not as big a threat as she thinks, because after time runs out, she lands in the bottom three, along with James (bad sauce) and Aaron (overcooked fish). The top three include Melissa's duck plate, Ron's mole sauce, and Gregory, who mixed that strawberry tea with tuna. That sounds disgusting, but if the judges say it's good, I'll trust them on this one. Gregory wins the challenge and immunity. Aaron is declared the worst, and must face off against another chef to stay in the competition. Oh, please... Send him packing, someone.

Hmm... Who shall he pick to compete against? Another dude? The strong-willed woman he declared he could cook under the table last week? Nah. Dudebro needs to pick on a meek lady, because he's a giant cliche, so of course he selects Katie. The follow-up challenge is to cook something with only a pot of boiling water as the heating element. Aaron hammers some shrimp into a sheet to make a kind of free-form spring roll. I hate to throw credit his way, but that sounds like a great idea. Katie attempts to impress by hand-making pasta, but her lack of sauce does her in. Aaron wins the head-to-head, and gets to stay. Katie! Get your shit together!

Elimination Challenge. Padma announces that the chefs will be serving the meal at Fenway Park, and the chefs react as if they've been told they'll be hanging out in the Oval Office with Barry O. I'll accept the backflips from Stacy, but the rest of you people... It's a stadium. A stadium. There are a lot them lying around. Plus, fuck the Red Sox. The chefs will pick from a selection of ballpark snacks, and must create an elevated, "fine dining" dish based on it. Popcorn is a popular choice, as are peanuts and pretzels. Katsuji is the only one to pick funnel cake, and nobody picks cotton candy, because everyone is playing it safe, and this season is boring so far.

Prep. Katie dedicates her dish to her late father. Kariann insists she can braise her short ribs in three hours, because the laws of time and physics bend to her will. Ron is sad that being a chef takes him away from his family so much. A vulture swoops in and begins circling his head. Gregory used to do drugs, and has thrown himself completely into his career into order to help overcome his addictions. That's nothing, Gregory. My mom... And my dad... ARE NO LONGER MARRIED TO EACH OTHER. Beat that! Towards the end of prep, Katie realizes that her crème brulee is just not going to set, no matter how she tries to save it. Tying it directly to the memory of her father was perhaps not the best idea, as she is now an emotional wreck. Service. The chefs present in sets of three. Boston sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy, Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley, and Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley's "hair" are all on-hand to help judge.

I'm not going to go over everyone's dishes, but there are some highlights and lowlights. There are also some boring-lights, as everyone kind of aimed for the same thing. There are a mess of corn soups, scallops, and Thai peanut toppings, all of which can be tasty, but none of which are particularly impressive, conceptually. Katie immediately begins crying upon presenting her crème brulee, which she has turned into popcorn mousse, on blue cornmeal salted cornbread. Hey, sounds good to me. It sounds good to the judges, too. They like it very much, and chide her for shooting herself in the foot before anyone has tasted her food. Ron presents a giant mass of a fish croquette in a popcorn soup. I can't comment on its flavor, but visually, it's the furthest thing from "fine dining" we'll see tonight. A lot of chefs have severely undercooked meats (Keriann's magical ribs included), and who knows if that's related to the stadium cooking equipment or not; it's never addressed.

Judges' Table. Despite her emotional swings, Katie lands in the top three, along with Gregory (for his roasted duck with peanut sauce) and Melissa (for her corn and ramp soup with fried calamari). It's time for the increasingly less-rare double win, as Gregory sweeps the week. Meanwhile, Keriann's undercooked ribs and Ron's off-putting fish croquette have sunk them to the bottom, where they're joined by Katsuji, who once again has made a dish where he's thrown everything except potato peelings and paint chips in. The fish croquette is the worst culinary sin, and Ron is sent packing. He's a perfectly nice person, but I don't remember a word of his good-bye. Meanwhile, back in the Kitchen, Aaron has had enough of fighting with Kariann, and picks a fight with Katsuji for a change. I look around for a single molecule of caring, and can't find one.

Overall Grade: C

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Sugar Imperatives and the Shortbread Concierge

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 10

Autumn! Autumn! Autumn! It's passing by too quickly. While we've still got it in our clutches, we've packed another episode full of seasonal goodness, so put on a sweater and go listen to Episode 10.

Topics include "No Menu Monday" at Home Wine Kitchen, a new semi-regular segment about our favorite drinks of the season, the majesty of soups and stews, and the food traditions of Halloween. Dibs on all the Mr. Goodbar! We close with Kyle's advice on stocking up the freezer for the cold months ahead, and given the sudden shift in temperature, it has come none too soon. Please enjoy, and feel free to drop a line to fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Domestic Disturbance

Top Chef - Season 12, Episode 2

Previously on Top Chef: 15 chefs and 1 person who cooks occasionally and hopes to get noticed by being a douche arrived in Boston to get cookin'. A new twist called the Sudden Death Quickfire punted George before his apron was even tied on properly. The Elimination Challenge put the chefs in charge of their own booths at a food fair. It's not a place you'd expect congee to excel, but Mei's impressive dish won the day, anyway. Michael's off-putting corn/caviar soup got him punted, and he groused off to no doubt find more failings to blame on other people. Fourteen chefs remain. Who will be eliminated tonight?

Monday Morning Quarterback Session. After 11 seasons, you'd think the contestants would know the easiest way to shut down a burgeoning villain is to not pay him/her any attention, but Kariann has apparently not received the memo, and is only too happy to bicker with Aaron. Katsuji goes to wake Joy up, and tells her she's got "20 Mexican Minutes" to get ready. "How long is that in Black Minutes?" she grumbles, desperate for a little more sleep. Hehe. Meanwhile, James shows off his Patrick Swayze tattoo, which... Sure is there. On his skin. Forever.

Quickfire. The chefs are met in the Kitchen by Padma and this week's guest judge Todd English. Aaron swoons as if they weren't just cooking alongside him, like, yesterday at the food fair. Also, I guess Top Chef is so impressed by the English name that they're willing to overlook silly things like DWIs and not paying rent.

Anyhow, today's Quickfire is a play on the old Paul Revere saw about "One if by land, Two if by sea". There are two lanterns set up, and if one of them lights up, the chefs must grab an ingredient from the Land table, which includes all sorts of earth-bound components, from meat to herbs to snack foods. If two lamps light up, the chefs will grab an ingredient from the Sea table, which has a bunch of oceanic creatures on it. Once a chef claims an ingredient, it's all his/hers, and all the ingredients must be used to make one composed dish. Sounds pretty challenging. Oh, and the winner will not get immunity, but will get $5000 in prize money. Ready? Go!

One lamp lights up (with a "ding" noise that I'm fairly sure that was added after the fact), and the chefs scramble and tackle each other at the Land table. There's a fair amount of hurry-up-and-wait in preparation for further lamp lightings, since there's only so much prep you can do with your single ingredient. It goes on in this manner until the Land lamp has gone on three times, and the Sea lamps have gone on just once. After Todd and Padma go down the line, Joy and Stacy fall to the bottom, while James and Katsuji rise to the top. I'm consulting my notes to see what they made that inspired these opinions, and have found that I did not write it down. Stellar work, me. Katsuji is happy to have redeemed himself after his disappointing Elimination performance in the first challenge, but that pride will have to be prize enough, as James takes the win. James is quietly pleased. I sense he's not going to get a lot of camera time this season unless he's the clear frontrunner (a la Paul in Season 9).

Elimination Challenge. The heads of the Boston police department and fire department enter (ugh, those BOSTON ACCENTS) and Padma tells the chefs that they'll be cooking for a group of the city's first responders. Pretty noble! The gentlemen describe a bit of what they're looking for (no donuts, please), but it turns out not to matter, because the chefs won't be shopping for ingredients anyway. Good, because that's reliably the most boring segment in every episode. Why do they insist on showing it? Eh, that's a rant for another day. The chefs are amped to cook for the city's heroes, especially hometown girl Stacy (who naturally brings up the Boston marathon bomber), and Adam, who tells the story of his mother, who went briefly missing after the September 11 attacks. He's allowed to spend a couple of minutes detailing the terror and sense of foreboding he went through before finding out that she was okay, and because his story is given some actual time and weight, it's genuinely affecting, and doesn't come off as overblown or pandering. So that's a nice change.

The chefs pull knives to determine teams. Each team will focus on one dish. The number they pull will also determine the order they cook in, and thus the order they get to select their mystery box of ingredients. The teams shake out to be:

Team #1: Mei/Katsuji/Katie
Team #2: Rebecca/Gregory/Adam
Team #3: James/Dougie
Team #4: Melissa/Joy/Ron
Team #5: Aaron/Kariann/Stacy

So that causes some feelings. Mei isn't thrilled to be teamed with two people who were on the bottom of the first Elimination Challenge. Kariann is bummed that she's forced to work with a massive tool. Too bad, suckas. That evening, the teams meet to discuss strategy. Team #5 wonders if they'll be forced to make dessert, and though Kariann has limited experience in pastry, she says it's pointless to try and plan anything without knowing what their ingredients are. That's true across the board, but it does give us time to watch the imminent implosion of Team #5, since they can't go three sentences without Kariann and Aaron getting into a fight. Poor Stacy is caught in the middle, and in interview, mimes shooting herself. I feel you, girl. For viewers, here's a fun game: Re-watch the episode and count how many times Stacy rolls her eyes at the two idiots she's stuck with.

The next day, the teams enter one at a time to start prep. None of the mystery boxes have any overly wacky ingredients (and there aren't any dessert components), so really, the choice is more about preference than about sticking anyone with bad food. Mei and Katsuji get into a brief... Well, not fight. It's just that they both want to make the sauce for their halibut dish. Mei doesn't trust Katsuji after his last Elimination Challenge dish (I guess his high placement in the Quickfire doesn't carry any weight), and he wants to prove he's capable of the task. Mei reluctantly agrees to let him make the sauce, but insists on tasting both his and Katie's components before anything is finalized. I mean, I know she won last week, but I missed the step where she was elected Team Leader of this group. We don't see any interviews of Katsuji or Katie complaining that she's acting like their boss, so maybe it really was decided that she'd take point on this challenge.

Team #5 (well, Aaron and Kariann) are still fighting, and still getting on Stacy's nerves. Meanwhile, Team #4 is suffering from the diametrically opposed problem. They're all trying to be ultra-polite and considerate of each other's feelings, which means that the ideas for the dish are becoming muddled and unfocused. Joy offers to cook the veal, while Ron insists that it should include some vanilla in the flavoring. Sirens go off and a dozen red flags fall from the ceiling. OK, not really, but they should have. Aaron and Kariann take a break from fighting to harangue Stacy about how she's cooking the chicken. She ignores both of them.

Service. Team #1 has made sauteed halibut, with a pea coconut puree and a grilled fennel slaw with pickled cherries and rhubarb. It gets very positive feedback, and to her credit, Mei gives a mea culpa interview in which she gives Katsuji full credit for a delicious sauce. Team #2 is also praised for their filet mignon with parsnip puree, scallops, and vinaigrette. The big shocker for that team is that Rebecca is actually allowed to say a few dozen words on camera. Team #3 believes they had an advantage in only having two people instead of three. I'd be curious to see how they'd have felt about that if their partner had been Aaron, instead. In any case, they've made grilled pork chop with grilled stone fruit salad, mushrooms, and walnuts. The diners like everything. Can it be that this'll be one of those challenges where everything is good, and the loser comes down to a tiny little detail?

Well, no. Because here comes Team #4 with undercooked veal that is flavored with maple and vanilla. Eeeeeeeew. It's also got a citrus/kale slaw on it. I'm gonna go make a quick flow chart called "Should You Add Maple and/or Vanilla to Your Meat/Fish Entree?" It won't take long. All the questions will just point to a big red NO. Joy is in trouble for not cooking the veal long enough, but since it was Ron's idea to include the vanilla, he's in trouble, too. Melissa tries to make herself invisible. Team #4 is also helped along by Team #5, who has prepared pan-roasted chicken breast, with onion/bourbon jam and fresh corn salad. Stacy's chicken is perfectly cooked, but both Aaron's jam and Kariann's corn salad are offensively bad. Who would have thunk it? You know, besides me, you, and everyone else watching.

Judges' Table. Teams #1 and #2 are in the top two spots, and both are given high praise. Katie and Katsuji are relieved to be on this end of the spectrum. It's not quite enough to carry the day, though, as Team #2 takes the top spot. Obviously, Teams #4 and #5 are on the bottom. Joy and Ron are meek when taken to task for their failings, but meekness is not an attitude that Team #5 embraces. Aaron blames Kariann for all their problems. Kariann blames Aaron for all their problems. Stacy stands there and looks like she wants to jump into a volcano. Tom tells both Kariann and Aaron that they should be falling all over themselves to thank Stacy, as her chicken has saved the team (Spoiler: They do not, preferring to fight some more, instead). Unfortunately, that means that lovable, normal Joy will be taking the long walk home. Why yes, I did see this coming a full week ago - you're so considerate to notice! Still, that doesn't mean I can't be sad to lose such a nice contestant. Unlike Michael, she takes full responsibility for her mistakes, and regrets that she couldn't pull it together enough to go farther. Me too, Joy. Be well.

Overall Grade: B-

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Boston Massacre

Top Chef - Season 12, Episode 1

For a show that's clearly past its prime, Top Chef should be commended for doing their damndest to keep things fresh. I can't even pretend to care what's happening on The Amazing Race these days, and that used to be appointment television. Top Chef treads well-worn territory, and some of the casting for Season 12 may as well be published as the Reality Show Archetype Checklist, but some changes are being attempted too. Some are more successful than others.

In the promising column: This season is located in Boston. I may hate their accents, but there's no denying that I'm very interested in the city's food culture. Starting with sixteen contestants that is almost immediately whittled down to fourteen is a lot more manageable than the seasons where they fling close to two dozen people at us. That immediate whittling is due to a new concept called the Sudden Death Quickfire. We'll get to the details in a moment, but on first glance, it struck me as a good way to keep the season moving along at a good clip and to keep the contestants on their toes. Judge feedback is a lot more direct and up-front. I'm a little wary of snark for snark's sake, but it's interesting to see judges criticize food as they eat it, right to the chef's face, rather than sitting on it like some giant secret until it pops out at Judges' Table. And speaking of Judges' Table, all the contestants are called in so that the top three and bottom three are discussed in front of everyone. That should make for some fascinating interpersonal dynamics.

In the not-so-promising column: As this show gets longer in the tooth, casting becomes more and more of a challenge. We'll get to some of the individual people in a moment, but as a group, they seem a bit milquetoast and recycled. A few of them have been brought to the show by their association with previous contestants, which is a bummer. There are plenty of talented chefs in the country; there's no need to be so incestuous. Though it's tough to judge the judges after a single episode, let's give it a whirl, anyway. Tom seems completely over the entire enterprise. His boredom is palpable. Previous contestant (and All-Stars winner) Richard Blais is present as a guest judge, possibly a permanent one. And while he may be an amazing chef, he falls flat in this role. That's about it for my initial complaints, and none of them are insurmountable.

So, shall we get to the details of this first episode from the cradle of American liberty? As always, it's tough to get much of a sense of the contestants, other than the handful that the editors wish to focus on. It'll take a while to figure out who's worth rooting for, and who's a secret asshole, and who can break out of the Reality Show Character Rut. For now, though, the rut is in full swing. Shall we call her "Joy" or "Nice, Relatable Lady Who's Out Of Her Depth"? (Laurine and Carrie say hi, by the way.) Is that "Aaron" or "Guy Who Correctly Assumes He's Not Talented Enough And Will Attempt To Get Attention By Being A Jerk"? (Ken and Eli send their regards.) We'll obviously learn more about these people as we go along, but for now, they're essentially all That One Guy, and That Type of Lady Who...

We begin the festivities with the aforementioned Sudden Death Quickfire. How it works is that the chef who performs the worst is up for immediate elimination. The only way to save himself/herself is to directly challenge another chef to an additional challenge. If the initial loser loses again, then they're out. If they win the subsequent challenge, then both chefs get to stay. It seems very well-designed, and I'm looking forward to seeing how these shake out. The first Quickfire is the always-popular mise-en-place relay race. I generally like this challenge, but feel like it's too early in the season for it. Since we have no sense of the contestants (and they have no sense of each other), the teams and placements are entirely arbitrary. So, that's a disappointment, but it's still a pretty fun challenge.

Since we're in Boston, we get thematically-appropriate ingredients. Someone has gone to the trouble of researching and concluding that it should take about equal amounts of time to break down each of the following: 3 lobsters, 20 oysters, 8 mackerel, and 21 clams. I'd like to see the raw data and footage of the testing that went into reaching these numbers. Not because I don't believe it - it just sounds like it'd be interesting to watch. There will be four teams of four (Green, Yellow, Red, Blue), and the person that takes the longest to finish on the team that completes all four tasks last will be the unfortunate soul up for elimination. So even if you suck, having three capable teammates will pull you through on this one. Ready? Go!

There's immediately some grumbling and pissing matches about who should take each ingredient on each team, but again, since we know nothing of these people's actual strengths and weaknesses yet, it's fairly pointless. All you need to know is that the Green team speeds through their tasks with razor-sharp focus, and everyone on the Red team is terrible. The Red team is last to finish, and the stopwatches show that George took the longest on his task (shucking the clams). He's asked to select which chef to go head-to-head against in the final challenge, and he picks fellow Red teammate Gregory, mostly because Gregory insisted on taking the mackerel, which he then took forever to break down. It sounds petty, but given that George doesn't know anything about anyone in the room, it's a decent enough choice. The final challenge is twenty minutes to prepare a dish with any of the four ingredients. George makes a pan-seared mackerel in a very Greek style, while Gregory goes for style points by making a chilled trio with the lobster, oyster, and mackerel. How he chills food in twenty minutes is beyond me, and it's never shown or remarked upon, I think. Neither one of the dishes blows Padma and Richard away, but Richard selects Gregory as the winner, which means that George will never even get to unpack his suitcase. Bye, George! I'll never forget the time we shared!

Elimination Challenge. The chefs will be manning booths at a Top Chef food festival, alongside previous contestants and some Big Name Chefs. Whew. There's been an unfortunate trend of front-loading the season with team challenges, and I'm glad to see that the chefs will be rising and falling on their own merits in the first big one. The chefs will be serving 250 diners, and are tasked with making an updated version of the very first dish they ever made. So, it'll be fifteen grilled cheese sandwiches or scrambled eggs? Because those are everyone's first dishes. So when you see congee and fried chicken and such later, know that all these people are liars.

The shopping and prep montage is mostly boring, except for giving Aaron another chance to be a tool by openly deriding Katie's choice to make a broccoli salad. Except here I am paying attention to him, so mission accomplished, I guess? That, and... Well, you know when someone makes a good point, but does it in such an assy way that you're reluctant to agree with them? That's where we are here, because although I'd cheerfully push Aaron into a vat of fish guts, he's right. Katie's salad looks overly simplistic, and kind of gross to boot. Katsuji is Mexican, Japanese, and Jewish, and he celebrates his jumbled heritage by throwing every ingredient ever grown or invented into his dish. Meanwhile, Michael tells us that he's totally going to win this competition because he's got "the personality, the look, and the style". I'll just go ahead and remind you that this is a cooking competition in case you've forgotten, because it seems that Michael has.

Service. Boston native Stacy is anxious about representing for the hometown, and is adorably giddy when she gets good feedback on her chicken dish and when she meets the mayor of Boston, who strolls through to shake hands and get some camera time. No judgment. If I were the mayor of my town, going to local food festivals would be number one on the agenda. That, and stemming crime or WHATEVER. Joy makes fried chicken skin with grits, and Js*afl8jfaeKlkhj. Whoops, sorry about that. I was choking on my own drool. And for yet more chicken, Doug (or Dougie, as he asks to be called) gets rave reviews for his chicken with pickled jalapenos and watermelon. As I mentioned before, the judges are lot more forthcoming with their critiques, telling the chefs right there at their booths that their dishes are too sour or contrived or whatever. Richard has the nerve to criticize a couple of them for annoying molecular gastronomy trends like bacon salt and olive oil snow. Physician, heal thyself.

Though there are dishes the judges like and dishes the judges dislike, they seem utterly befuddled by two: They're impressed by Gregory's Haitian stewed chicken with fried bananas and Scotch Bonnet chilis, and less impressed by Katsuji's everything-including-the-kitchen-sink-and-maybe-some-stuff-down-the-garbage-disposal-as-well dish of "Petroleum" Shrimp, with saffron couscous, chili aioli, and a "fondue" of squid ink. Just in case you ever wanted a puddle of gray sludge running down your plate. Aaron may have a lot of bluster, but bluster doesn't save him from Padma having to spit out the pork belly he serves her, which is conservatively 87% fat. I've never seen her look so pissed off, except maybe when Howie took away her power to eliminate. The judges also hate Michael's chilled corn soup with pickled cherries and Sriracha caviar. But don't worry, he knows why they didn't like it. It's because the judges have unsophisticated palates, and just don't understand the dish. Sure, that seems likely. In case my sarcastic tone didn't come across in that last sentence, just picture my eyes rolling out of my head and across the room while reading it.

Judges' Table. All of the contestants are brought in to witness their compatriots' triumph and defeat. In the top three are Dougie's excellent fried chicken, Gregory's confusing, but tasty Haitian chicken, and Mei, who I haven't really mentioned, but whose congee With carmelized pork, fish sauce caramel, and black garlic puree looked amazing. So amazing that she wins. That really does sound like a dish I'd inhale in a very ungentlemanly manner. Down at the bottom are Katie, with her poorly-conceived and poorly-executed broccoli salad, Katsuji's giant mess of a dish, and Michael's corn soup, which is likened to "fishy cereal". Bleh. Tom throws it over to Padma, and Michael is unsurprisingly axed. He humbly accepts his loss, and in his final interview, promises to learn from his mistakes and to work on expanding his understanding on how to appeal to a broad range of tastes. Nah, just joshing you. He spits out excuses as to why the judges are dumb dummies who don't understand his genius. OK, well, thanks for stopping by, Michael. See ya never.

Overall Grade: B

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Reluctant Companionship and the Astonishing Pepper Gradient

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 9

Well, damn! I got so excited about the change in the season and its attendant food, and so busy inhaling the scent of autumnal spices, that I forgot to mention that we just released an episode about it! Other fans of the cooler months of the year will find much to like in these next few editions of the podcast, so to kick it off, go give Episode 9 a listen.

Topics include Eleven Eleven Mississippi, the Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, the fruits and vegetables of autumn, and the ups and downs of communal dining. We wrap with Andy's befuddlement over the omnipresence of a particular fruit, then head back outside to soak up the cool breezes. Please enjoy, and feel free to drop a line to fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!