Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Smarm-to-Table

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 14

Previously on Top Chef: Jacques Pepin tasked the chefs with emulating one of his signature dishes, but didn't mention that he generally gets more than thirty-five minutes to pull it off. Nicholas took the Quickfire win and immunity. AND IMMUNITY, I SAID. In the Elimination Challenge, the chefs split into French and Spanish teams, but nobody wedged themselves in the middle while waving the flag of Andorra. Nina led the Spanish team to a win, while Nicholas' poor dishes sank the French. His immunity shielded him from elimination, so the chop fell on poor Stephanie, instead. Five chefs remain. Who will be eliminated tonight?

Quickfire. The chefs are joined in the Kitchen by Padma and guest judge Roy Choi. Roy helped kick off the food truck craze in Los Angeles with his innovative taco ideas. Innovative Taco Ideas will be the title of my autobiography, by the way. Putting a creative spin on tacos is understandable in L.A., but since we're in New Orleans, today's challenge will be to put a creative spin on something much more regionally appropriate: The Po'Boy Sandwich. Mmmm, I could go for one of those right now. Damned post-new-year diets. The chefs only have twenty minutes to throw something together, and unbelievably, immunity is still up for grabs. Seriously? Someone gets to coast into the final four on a twenty-minute sandwich? Whatever. Padma starts the clock.

Unsurprisingly, with such a tight time limit, the chefs immediately back into their comfort zones. Nina goes for an island feel, Shirley opts for Asian style, Carlos makes al pastor, and so on. When time runs out, Padma and Roy go down the line. Nicholas has a cornmeal-encrusted shrimp po'boy with spicy mayo, fennel, and pancetta. Shirley's Asian po'boy involves catfish in a soy/garlic glaze. Nina has fried Mahi Mahi with pickled onions. Brian makes a po'boy with lobster and gochujang aioli. It also involves pickled cabbage. Carlos has made an al pastor po'boy of marinated pork with chili, pineapple, onion, and roasted garlic. When it comes time for the final decision, Roy basically blasts all five chefs for being boring, uncreative, and too "chefy".

I can't taste the food, of course, so I have no idea if these sandwiches were truly disappointing or not. What I can tell you, though, is that this is not the first time a guest judge who considers themselves a creative genius is an arrogant douche about other people's efforts. I think there's a direct correlation between ego and criticism with some of these judges. It's not attractive. The worst of it is when Roy scoffs about Carlos' dish not being "real" al pastor. Sure, I'll go ahead and buy that from the South Korean American, rather than the Mexican chef from Mexico. Anyhow, though nobody impresses King Roy, the award for the least disastrous po'boy goes to... Shirley! Yay! I'm still a bit gobsmacked that someone just earned final four placement on what was deemed a boring sandwich, but I adore Shirley, so I'm fine with it.

Elimination Challenge. Actor/Director/Unfortunate Beard Haver Jon Favreau enters the Kitchen. His new film, Chef, is briefly described, and I've got to say, it looks pretty intriguing. He tells the contestants that for today's challenge, they'll have to make their dishes using only what can be found in dumpsters all around New Orleans. There's a beat before he tells them that he's totally kidding. Ha! Nice burn. Shirley, in particular, looked like she was about to have a massive coronary. The real Elimination Challenge will be to create a dish that represents a turning point in the chefs' careers. That's vague to the point of pointless. It's not a complaint; I like challenges where the chefs have a degree of freedom. It's just that they can basically make whatever they want and claim it figures into their past in a significant way. The chefs play fair, though, because you can actively see the wheels spinning in their brains. The meals will be presented at a restaurant that serves as a charity to teach culinary skills to at-risk youth. There's an idea I can get behind. I think everyone should would a service job for a couple of years when they're young - it teaches invaluable lessons.

Shopping. Nicholas buys a metric ton of carrots. In the prep kitchen, he sets up some pots, and snaps at Carlos when he moves them to another burner. So yeah, on the one hand, who cares which burner your pot is on as long as they're all functional? On the other, I can't fault Nicholas for not wanting Carlos to interact with his stuff in any way, shape, or form. Nina attempts to make stuffed pasta. She quickly runs into trouble when the heat of the kitchen ruins the dough. She scraps the filled-pasta idea, and goes for fettuccine instead. Brian is working with boneless, skinless chicken breast. Cue the needle scratch on the record. Boneless, skinless chicken breast may be a staple in most American home kitchens, thanks to its affordability, versatility, and health benefits. But to a chef, there's apparently nothing more flavorless or unwelcome. Nina treats Brian's use of it as if he were throwing together a dish made out of goat poop. Towards the end of prep time, Nicholas finds that his quinoa is burnt. It's totally ruined, so he won't be able to use it as the textural element he hoped. He doesn't know if he set the oven temperature incorrectly, or if someone (hint, hint) is sabotaging him. Come on, dude. Carlos is a bit thoughtless, but he's not manipulative or villainous. Sack up and take responsibility for your mistakes. Time runs out.

Service. Shirley has made crispy-skinned snapper with crustacean broth, tofu, and Napa cabbage with melted leek. Yuuuuum. She says that her dish is inspired by the "turning point" of her being on the show (and the Vietnamese shrimp challenge in particular). I'm happy to see that the servers are allowed to have a plate of all the chefs' dishes as well as the diners. Nina brings out her fettuccine with charred calamari, crab, and pine nut gremolata. Does everything sound so great today because the chefs are stepping it up, or because I'm so hungry? Brian has a chicken anticucho with twice-cooked potatoes and a feta walnut pesto. Emeril finds the potato severely undercooked, and the judges are as aghast as Nina was about the boneless, skinless chicken breast. Execute him! Carlos presents braised pork belly with sweet potato puree and a chipotle tamarind glaze. It looks pretty damned tasty. Nicholas brings out his carrots-a-million-ways dish, and explains his problem with the ruined quinoa. The judges agree that there's a real textural problem with the dish, but also that the fish is under-seasoned, which seems to be Nicholas' curse ever since Justin left.

Judges' Table. All five chefs are called in for feedback. Shirley's dish is roundly praised, and her sauces get better by the week. Carlos' dish was thought-out and bursting with flavor. Nina's dish was well-balanced, and the pasta came out perfect. The winner by a hair is... Shirley! Hooray! That leaves Brian and Nicholas in the bottom. Brian is excoriated for his protein choice, and I mean, come on, guys. We get it. Chicken skin is yummy. He didn't murder a prostitute. His underdone potatoes are also a big source of consternation. Nicholas should have just skipped serving fish altogether and focused on his carrots. The lack of quinoa hurt his plan, but not all of the blame for his misfire can be pinned on that. Tom throws it over to Padma for the chop. Brian. Please pack your knives and go. Brian is classy and mature in his final interview, but is visibly surprised by his ouster. Yeah, we thought Nicholas was going, too. I guess we can all take a lesson from this: Using skinless, boneless chicken breast is worse than fifteen Hiroshimas.

Overall Grade: C+

2 comments:

Storm said...

I'm 99% sure Roy Choi's comments were staged. He's not that great at improv. And if the chefs had knocked it out of the park, how could they be challenged to "find their voice"? So I think he was instructed to be unnecessarily harsh because production took one look at him and went "Yes! We found our judgmental dickbag!"

And oh, that comment to Carlos about "WELL, I'M FROM LA!" about al pastor was the height of obliviousness. Really, man? This guy is from Mexico. I think he's got you beat. If you have a genuine problem with the authenticity, then just say it ("Al pastor is traditionally X but you've done Y"). I would have cheered if Carlos had just punched him there, and I'm far from Carlos's biggest fan.

I guess I can see where the criticism of Brian's protein comes from. I expect boneless, skinless chicken breast to show up on the menu at Chili's. Not so much at a nicer place. I think they were mostly confused by its presence.

Limecrete said...

I know Carlos isn't the most popular contestant this season, but yeah, I really felt for him in that moment.

I don't get furious-angry, I get passive-aggressive-angry. That's why it's good I'll never be on one of these shows, because that's the moment I would have been like "Thanks, I'll be sure to head back to Mexico and let them know that the Korean guy says we're doing al pastor incorrectly."