Monday, January 20, 2014

European Union

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 13

Previously on Top Chef: The contestants were told to étouffée off with a swarm of crawfish. A few poor creatures lost their lives for no purpose, as some of the chefs couldn't quite grasp the concept. Stephanie literally couldn't grasp it, for fear of anaphylactic shock. Shirley grasped everything just fine, pulling down immunity with another challenge win. In the Elimination Challenge, the chefs were tasked with highlighting seafood. Nicholas gave Carlos a shot at personality redemption, which Carlos proceeded to flush almost instantly. Stephanie's fried oysters carried the day, while Carrie got fried. Six chefs remain. Who will eliminated tonight?

Quickfire. As the chefs head to the Kitchen, we learn that Carlos probably won't be invited to many of Nicholas' birthday parties from here on out. After the oven incident and the knife incident, Nicholas is pretty much at the end of his rope. Anyhow, for today's Quickfire, the chefs are met by Padma and guest judge Jacques Pepin. The chefs are appropriately awed by him, and even more so when he effortlessly demonstrates how to make one of his signature dishes: Dover sole with artichoke and tomato. Once he's done, he informs the chefs that they how have thirty-five minutes to recreate the dish as best they can. Ready? Go!

Some chefs are in a better position than others. Nicholas and Shirley have classical French training, and are a lot stronger out of the gate than Carlos, who is self-taught. Still, being able to execute someone else's vision and the ability to recreate the same dish over and over are important skills for a chef to have, so I always like to see this type of challenge. Thirty-five minutes is not long, though, and when time is up, a lot of the chefs' plates are lacking. Nina managed to get her fish cooked, but wasn't able to fully compose the plate. Brian couldn't even get sauce on the plate, and the whole thing looks like a giant mess. Carlos and Stephanie got more tasks accomplished, but fall victim to complaints like watery sauce and undercooked fish. Nicholas and Shirley duke it out for the win, which goes to... Nicholas, who takes his first Quickfire. Surprisingly, the chefs are still receiving immunity for Quickfire wins. Normally, it's a distant memory by now.

Elimination Challenge. So, New Orleans has belonged to quite a few people over the years. Before it became the shining jewel of America, the Crescent City was ruled by both France and Spain, and what better way to honor that rich history than with a reality show challenge? Sorry, I'm a bit punchy tonight. Anyhow, tonight's Elimination Challenge will split the six chefs into two competing teams. One team will present a French meal, and one a Spanish meal. Each meal will be five courses, and must incorporate almonds, chicken, mussels, olives, and chocolate. The chefs won't be on their own, though. Each team gets an accomplished mentor; Dominique Crenn for the French team, and Julian Serrano for the Spanish team. The chefs draw knives to determine which team they'll be on:

France: Shirley, Stephanie, and Nicholas
Spain: Nina, Brian, and Carlos

The mentors get to spend all day with the chefs before service begins, and unlike past mentor challenges, Crenn and Serrano get massive input into the menus being prepared. On the French side, this means Nicholas happily implementing all of Crenn's intricate technique suggestions and delegating tasks to the others, while on the Spanish side, Serrano is more interested in keeping things simple. That simplicity doesn't mean he's easy-going, though. He micromanages every slice and dash of seasoning, while Crenn prefers to kick back with a glass of wine. There's something telling about nationality in that, I'm sure. Stephanie becomes increasingly nervous, because all of this classical French cooking is completely out of her comfort zone, and she has to rely on Nicholas and Crenn to direct her dish.

The next day, the chefs prep their final dishes for the judges. Shirley is making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, which she's never worked with before. She hopes to not set a Top Chef precedent by becoming the first contestant to lose a chunk of her ear. Hehe. Nina has some last-minute cold feet about the simplicity of her dish, though she's confident in its flavors. The French team is working on a delicate "nest" of corn silk that is meant to dissolve on the tongue, or something. It's becoming readily apparent that this battle is going to come down to traditional vs. modern cuisine. Let's see what the judges are in the mood for. Crenn and Serrano join the judges, of course, as does Jacques Pepin and executive chef John Folse. Tough room. Dinner time!

The French team presents:
-Snapper ceviche with dehydrated olives and olive oil ice cream (Shirley)
-Pickled mussels with crustacean jus and toasted ciabatta (Stephanie)
-Chicken liver mousse on a bullion of roasted chicken (Stephanie/Shirley)
-Cornish game hen in a chocolate sauce, the aforementioned corn silk nest, and eggs made with duck fat (Nicholas)
-Almond flan with shaved plum dark chocolate, served with licorice (Nicholas)

The mussels look absolutely incredible, and I'm always up for a good chicken liver dish. The flan sounds good, too, though I'm not a huge licorice fan.

The Spanish team presents:
-Russian potato salad with shrimp, carrots, potatoes and olives (Nina)
-White garlic soup with almonds, crab, and cherry (Nina)
-Mussels in Romesco with crispy leeks (Carlos)
-Chicken and saffron rice (Brian/Carlos)
-Chocolate flan with raspberries (Brian)

They weren't kidding about the traditional style of these dishes. Nina's potato salad looks straight out of a 1952 issue of Good Housekeeping. That said, everything seems pretty tasty.

Naturally, the mentors each pull for the team they assisted. It actually gets a bit testy at one point. The judges have other issues as well, in that both their favorite and least favorite dishes were presented by the same team. They really loved the consommé in the chicken liver dish, but hated the chocolate game hen. Tom compares the corn silk nest to a wad of hair you'd pull out of the tub drain. And...he kind of has a point. There is no fret 'n sweat in front of the screen this week, I guess because it would instantly give away too much information to the chefs.

Judges' Table. The Spanish team is called in first. After a moment of tension, it's announced that they are the winning team. When it comes to deciding the individual winner, there's no difficulty whatsoever. While Carlos and Brian both bought assets to the menu, it's Nina's dishes that really carried the day, and she wins her umpteenth challenge. All she gets is the duty to call in the French team for judgement. This is where it really gets interesting. Shirley and Stephanie's dishes were both good. Great, even. Shirley's ice cream wasn't a homerun, but her ceviche and consommé were outstanding. Not all of Stephanie's components worked, but her mussels were fantastic.

It's Nicholas that has brought the team down. His chocolate game hen was the worst dish of the day, and his flan wasn't much better. But as we all know, he has immunity from the Quickfire win, so what now? Well, there are a couple of options, and the judges lay out the big one bluntly. Nicholas is free to resign so his teammates aren't punished for his mistakes. The judges won't and can't make him, of course, but they make it plain that it's what they want. Still, this isn't so much a cooking competition as a game. A game has twists and rules, and one of those rules involves immunity. Isn't the whole point of it to shield you from just this situation? Nicholas certainly thinks so, telling the judges that he thinks he's cooked well enough to have earned that immunity, and won't be giving it up.

People in some quarters are very angry about this. To them, Nicholas is a sneak and a coward for doing this. They believe he should have nobly fallen on his sword to protect Stephanie and Shirley from elimination. I'd admire him for taking that course, but I can't be angry at him for not. If this were some other sort of situation, sure. But in Top Chef, the chef who made the biggest mistake not going home has happened multiple times. Being good at solving hangman-style puzzles won't help you if you keep landing on "BANKRUPT" on Wheel of Fortune. Knowing the answers doesn't help if you can't ring in first on Jeopardy!. If the dice aren't on your side, you'll lose your shirt in Monopoly. And on Top Chef, if you're on a losing team with a chef that has immunity, you'll get the chop, no matter how talented you are. It's just the nature of the game, and if there's a problem, then it's up to the judges and producers to address the rules, not Nicholas. As far as I'm concerned, he's perfectly entitled to stay, though I'll be disappointed when one of his teammates, both of whom I like very much, gets eliminated.

In this case, that elimination falls on Stephanie. Bummer. There are always certain dishes that make me want to the climb through the TV screen and grab them, and while there are other contestants I may enjoy more and other contestants that may have more raw talent, Stephanie had the highest percentage of those drool-worthy dishes. She's very proud of the work and growth she achieved while on the show, and hopes to come roaring back in Last Chance Kitchen. Really, if you're going to be eliminated, I suppose the best way to go out is with a dish the judges liked. No mistakes to regret; no second-guessing what you should have done differently. It's just the way the cookie crumbles, and in this case, those crumbs made a big mess.

Overall Grade: B-


Storm said...

I don't know why the judges didn't consult with the producers and not eliminate someone. There's precedent for that, while pressuring someone to resign is just asinine. Remember season 3, when Howie quit and Padma got all holier-than-thou by telling him that THEY would decide who was going home that day? And yet they all but demand that Nick quit? Weird.

Alternatively, they could have decided that the merits outweighed the misfires, named the French team as winners, and eliminated someone from the more mediocre Spanish team (likely Brian, let's be real).

I'm not mad at Nick for staying in the competition, even though Stephanie was my favorite. I am mad that the judges put him in that position.

Limecrete said...

I sure do remember that episode, as it was one of the worst in the show's history. Howie quitting was the only good part, as it rendered the judges completely powerless, no matter how snide Padma was about it.

The situations aren't quite analogous, though, because Howie didn't have immunity, and wasn't the judges' target. He threw himself on his sword because he didn't want to see Brian eliminated for such a rigged, stupid challenge.

I agree with your last sentence (though Shirley is my favorite). If you're unhappy with immune chefs getting to stick around after a terrible dish, don't offer immunity.