Friday, April 28, 2006


Fried Cooks

Previously on Top Chef: Lee Anne got stuck with the big thinker and the no-thinker. Dave's style was ordinary but Stephen's style was much more refined. Serving food? Ordinary. The contest was not Top Sous Chef or Top Sommelier. Miguel got the boot.

Stephen and Harold go through their morning routine. Stephen believes that he and Harold are the two best chefs left. Tiffani sees people getting more desperate as their time runs out. She refuses to attack anyone. Translation: she will say bad things about people, but in a objective way, not a mean way. Lee Anne wonders what the next challenges will be. As long as Harold doesn't have to shop at a gas station or cook for kids, he'll be happy. Which is kind of true, since I think Harold enjoys being cranky about the challenges. Lee Anne is ready to win and go home. I'm not sure which would please her more at this point.

QuickFire Challenge and Elimination Challenge: This round is about working for a client. They'll all work together to cater a wedding reception. The QuickFire Challenge is to come up with a menu and a cold prawn canape to present to the couple. The Elimination Challenge is to produce the winning menu for the wedding reception. There's no immunity this time. Katie brings in the clients: Scott and Scott. Stephen interviews that he thinks a non-traditional couple means that the food might have a little more flair. Stephen is kind of a ninny in so many ways.

The Scotts would like a "Pan-Asian meal with fusion influences." They'll serve the prawn canapes at the reception. The meal will consist of an amuse bouche and four courses. The fourth course is the dessert course, and they'd like a wedding cake. Harold is less than thrilled with the prospect of baking a big ol' cake. The chefs have 90 minutes to sketch the cake, design a menu and create the prawn canape. The budget is $3000 for 100 guests. And go!

Stephen interviews that the menu had to be practical. Tiffani thinks wedding menus have to be able to appeal to a wide variety of people. Dave has done a lot of catering, so he knows his menu can be done. Harold feels confident about his background with Asian food. Lee Anne gets crafty with her presentation supplies, using watercolors to show what the food will look like and folding origami. Harold is not very confident about his artistic ability. He's a cook; he doesn't draw. There's a lot of things that Harold doesn't do. But he doesn't have any insecurity about it -- he's got his talents and he's happy with that. So good for him.

Katie announces the five-minute mark. There's a montage of everyone finishing their dishes, and the Scotts return.

The Scotts confer. The winner is Lee Anne. She's stunned. Now she's responsible for catering the reception. Which is being held tomorrow afternoon. Nobody looks really mindboggled to hear it, but they're clearly not happy. Stephen wonders if they can do it. Lee Anne thinks it's essentially impossible to pull off. No, Lee Anne, think Pollyanna! The Little Engine That Could! Optimism!

Lee Anne thinks it's a good thing they all spent the previous day sleeping. They'll be working at the Grand Cafe at the Hotel Monaco. They can divvy up the work however they want. The Scotts wish them luck. Harold suggests just parceling out tasks, but Lee Anne goes over everything with the group so they can pitch in as needed. Harold interviews that most wedding caterers have weeks or even months to prepare, but they have just 16 hours. Lee Anne passes out assignments:

Everyone will contribute to the dessert course. Harold brings up cake mix and Lee Anne agrees to go with it. Tiffani wants confirmation that they're really going to go with boxed cake mix, and everyone but Stephen is a definite yes. Stephen doesn't say anything, but later he asks Harold if they're really going with the mix. Stephen, the decision was just made right in front of you. I think his brain was busy trying to compute a reality in which he'll be associated with a box mix, and it just couldn't. Stephen interviews that he wasn't going to have anything to do with some mediocre box mix cake. Not that he's going to propose a better alternative, mind you.

Chef Tom drops in to see how the planning is going. He asks about catering experience, and there's a general noise of everyone saying they've catered before. The team will be pulling an all-nighter to get it done. Stephen interviews that he thought the all-nighter was unnecessary, since 100 people isn't that many. Chef Tom thinks this will be a test of their stamina. Lee Anne rounds up everyone for their shopping expedition. Since night has fallen, the only thing open is grocery stores.

As usual, they have 1 hour for shopping. Harold thinks it's ridiculous to cater a wedding out of a supermarket instead of using specialty purveyors. Stephen needs to get oysters. Harold asks about salmon at the fish counter. They have frozen wild salmon and fresh Atlantic (farm-raised) salmon. Harold is stuck between frozen good salmon and fresh crappy salmon. He goes with the fresh salmon because it's fresh, even if it's crappy. I'm not so sure he made the right choice. If the difference in basic quality is that great, then maybe it's better to go with frozen, unless they just don't have time to thaw it. So then the supervisor doesn't want to sell Harold the fresh fish because she's planning to use them for sashimi. Harold is forced to get stern with the fish people about all the money they're spending (and I'm sure the cameras don't hurt), and they wind up selling him three whole salmon. Harold tells Lee Anne about it. She's ready to jump in, but Harold's already gotten his fish, so they're good. Tiffani picks up eight boxes of cake mix. Harold calls out five minutes as Dave is getting seafood. They hustle through checkout, Lee Anne handles over a wad of cash, and a parade of shopping carts makes its way out the door.

They head over to the Hotel Monaco and check out the workspace. Okay, now the countdown says 16 hours to reception. So instead of starting the whole project at 10 pm, they're arriving at the kitchen at 10 pm. Dave wants to get as much done up front as possible, to avoid last-minute scrambles. Harold preps his crappy salmon. Lee Anne rolls out scallion pancakes, which will be crispy instead of soft. Dave makes truffles: milk chocolate/sesame, dark chocolate/ginger, white chocolate/sake. Tiffani takes on the cake batter. She wants to get the cake baked right off so it can cool. Chef Tom drops in and discovers the cake mix boxes. Stephen seems to be anticipating a righteous smackdown. Tiffani explains it was a team decision to go with the safe bet, and Chef Tom commends her honesty. Tiffani interviews that she'd rather have a box mix cake than explain to the clients that the cake fell and they didn't have time to make another.

The countdown shows it's 3 am, with 11 hours to go. Stephen is working on his little lobster spring rolls. He pats, pats, pats the filling into place, then folds and creases the sides of the wrapper, then carefully rolls it up. Harold interviews that Stephen is extremely slow at prep work. Lee Anne warns Stephen about his dumplings running low on stock and Tiffani checks them. Lee Anne figures she could have gotten Stephen's job done in half the time. The dish has a lot of components, but it's not complicated. The timestamp is 6 am when Stephen finishes the spring rolls. So, 100 spring rolls in three hours works out to roughly 30 spring rolls an hour, which is about 2 minutes per spring roll. Two whole minutes to: lay down a wrapper, drop on a dollop of filling, smooth it down, fold the edges and roll. Why is this taking longer than 30 seconds a roll? Was he measuring to make sure every spring roll was exactly the same?

The sun rises. Tiffani yawns. Harold sips coffee. Dave interviews that they were running behind, so he jumped in to help with whatever needed doing plus his own canapes. Tiffani appreciates Dave's work ethic but worries that taking on too much can dilute quality. Around 10 am, the Scotts arrive at the hotel. They're not too nervous, but one of them worries that a sleepy chef nodded off into the wedding cake. There's a montage of chefs looking like zombies in the kitchen. Lee Anne is worried about time. I'm sure they're fading fast. Not only have they been up all night, they've been stuck in that kitchen for hours on end. If they had taken a break to shower and brush their teeth, just the change of scenery would have given them a little refresher.

With an hour left, the chefs are summoned to meet the judges. In addition to Chef Tom and Gail, they have Marcy Blum, a "wedding planner to the stars," who happened to plan Katie's wedding. Chef Tom is looking rather natty in his black suit. Katie is also wearing a black pants suit, while Gail has on a little black dress. Marcy Blum is wearing something dark that might be black, but she has a rosy/peachy jacket over it. Pet peeve time: I don't think women should wear black to weddings. Men can wear black because that's the color of men's formal wear (colored tuxedos are an abomination), but for women, black is too somber a color for a festive occasion. Over the last decade or so, the "little black dress" has gone from classic to cop-out.

Back to the food. Lee Anne starts decorating the cake. Stephen thinks everyone is too tense. Wedding ceremony. Pet peeve time again: I'm not so fond of "personalized" wedding vows. One of the points of a wedding ceremony is wrapping yourself in tradition. That's what gives the occasion a sense of solemnity. You don't get the same weight from personally-written vows, no matter how heartfelt. Which is not to say you can't tweak the traditional vows -- the "obey" part is a great candidate for modification -- but don't just toss them out.

Back in the kitchen, it's 2:40 and the canapes will be served at 3 pm. So the countdown was for the ceremony, not the reception. Stephen discovers that the canapes will be served from 3 pm to 4:30 pm. They don't have enough food for that long, so it's time to improvise. Lee Anne shows Dave some leftover crab, and Tiffani volunteers to chop up some cucumber. With their help, Dave assembles another set of appetizers. The waiters start serving. Dave is happy that his food went out first, so it still had some integrity. Whatever that means. The guests love the prawn toasts. Lee Anne is happy that trays are coming back empty; it means people are enjoying the food. Gail tells Katie she thought the canapes were greasy and Marcy finds them flavorless.

Stephen is out in the dining area, drawing up a chart. Harold interviews that the next course up is Stephen's. Stephen is lecturing the wait staff about their jobs. They look like they're not getting paid enough to deal with him. Stephen is babbling about where the wine came from, like the waiters care. This is the problem with Stephen's brand of "education": he doesn't think about what people need (let alone want) to know. He just summons up everything he knows and dumps it on his audience. Lee Anne interviews that they had a captain to handle communication with the kitchen, so they didn't need Stephen to do it. Meanwhile, the spoons they got for serving Stephen's dumplings still have stickers on them, which means they haven't been washed. Everybody is thoroughly pissed about the spoons and Stephen's absence.

The guests are seated in the dining room. The rest of the team plates Stephen's dish while Stephen instructs the wait staff about pouring the wines. His belief is that the execution is the most important part of the event. That would be the execution of the service, not the cooking. A chef is supposed to lead and delegate and manage in the kitchen, and no one took that role except Stephen. Who is managing outside the kitchen. Wiener. The amuse bouche goes out - lobster harumaki, glazed oyster with yazu-marinated roe, and crab soup dumplings. The guests enjoy it and Marcy is pleased with it.

Harold is talking to Stephen in the kitchen. In an interview, he explains that he was telling Stephen to step away from the front of the house. Stephen tells Harold that the wait staff doesn't know how to serve, that they were just going to bring food out on trays and the food would get cold that way. Harold's like, "Oh, well, that's no good." Not so forceful after all. Dave interviews that Harold was having issues with his dish. Harold preps his salad course -- seared salmon salad over noodles with Thai green papaya and lime/chili vinaigrette. He's not happy with the salmon. The Scotts are a little disappointed; the salmon doesn't go with the noodles. Chef Tom and Gail's food is cold. A pair of guests in striped shirts compare the salmon to boiled chicken.

Lee Anne, Dave, Harold and Tiffani are all pooped out. Lee Anne interviews that they sensed things weren't going well. Next up is Tiffani's Lover's Nest -- seafood and fresh vegetables in a potato taro root basket with mango and coconut. At least some of the plates have origami birds for decoration. I can't imagine they folded 200 origami birds with their schedule. The dish is well-received by the guests.

Now it's time for Lee Anne's Peking-style steak, crispy scallion pancakes and cucumber salad, but there's a timing mix-up. Stephen tells them to fire the dish, but then he comes back and says there's a pause while they have a toast. Harold is pissed; he doesn't think Stephen knows what he's doing. After the toast, one of the wait staff (not the captain, but he's wearing a dark shirt, so he's management of some kind) says they've cleared for the next course. Stephen is surprised at how fast that was. The captain comes back and says they're ready for the course now. Gail has more temperature issues. The Scotts' verdict is "solid, not stellar."

By now, it's 6:30 pm and they've got to wrap it up. Stephen wanders off as the wedding cake goes out, because he still doesn't want to have anything to do with it. He thinks it's a mockery. Lee Anne presents the cake. She's looking for Stephen as she carries the cake out, and I really want her to watch where she's going. The last thing they need now is for her to trip. Dave plated the truffles earlier, so they send those out and do the cake service. One guest found eggshells in the cake. Gail thinks the cake is really sweet. The Scotts like the truffles.

Finally, it's over. The Scotts are just so happy about the day that they haven't the heart to look for flaws. Chef Tom asks what they loved about the meal, and they can't think of anything. Chef Tom finds that telling. Lee Anne interviews that this was definitely a humbling moment. Back in the kitchen, the chefs all look exhausted.

Judges' table: Katie asks Marcy her opinion. She thought it was a lovely wedding, but the food didn't contribute to the experience. Gail thinks Lee Anne was too ambitious with the menu and they just didn't deliver. Chef Tom thinks the team settled for just getting it done. Marcy agrees, nothing wowed her. Chef Tom doesn't see a winner. Gail just wants to know what happened, so the chefs are summoned to the table.

Chef Tom expresses his disappointment; he's had better take-out. Nobody is surprised to hear it. Or perhaps they are, but they're too tired to move their faces. Tiffani volunteers that they did an okay job given what wedding food is usually like. Marcy doesn't like that Tiffani is down on wedding food; her clients expect extraordinary food. Of course, her clients expect to pay in the high six figures for a wedding. Chef Tom asks if Tiffani would serve that food in a restaurant. When Tiffani says no, he asks why they would serve it at a wedding. Tiffani doesn't have a response. Chef Tom asks Lee Anne if she tasted everything. She did, but not everything met her satisfaction. She's unhappy because it was her menu, and they didn't do well with it. Chef Tom didn't find much flavor. The salmon tasted like it had been sitting around for a while before getting plopped on top of the other ingredients. Harold said it tasted good to him. The salmon was the least favorite dish of the evening. Katie asks about the cake mix. Harold says he proposed the idea. Gail reveals that a guest found eggshells in his cake.

Chef Tom asks if everyone pulled their weight. Lee Anne praises Dave for jumping in wherever he was needed, so she thinks he should be safe. Chef Tom asks him who should have contributed more, and Dave gives up Stephen. His soup spoons weren't washed but he was out "selling wine." Tiffani volunteers that Stephen was the only person who worked solely on his own dish and didn't contribute to the dessert course. Stephen protests that he was in the kitchen. He did leave a few times, but he claims the director of catering wanted to know how they wanted the food served, and he was only gone for five minutes. Stephen's sense of time is about as good as his sense of money. He figured the team was capable of handling things in his absence. Gail asks if he told them where he was going. Stephen says he did, but Tiffani disagrees. Stephen says someone had to be the liaison with the front of the house. He gets annoyed because he was trying to make the event great, not "selling wine." The way the servers laid the plates was a thing of beauty. Marcy thinks "sweeping the room" was very sophisticated. Gail asks Lee Anne if she assigned Stephen the liaison role. She did not. Katie asks Stephen who he would boot and he gives up Lee Anne, since the meal was her responsibility. He says the menu couldn't be "executed under these circumstances." This from the guy who thought pulling an all-nighter was unnecessary. Lee Anne accepts responsibility, even if that means being sent home. Harold says that Lee Anne did a lot of things right from a chef's viewpoint, and he respects her. They leave to let the judges confer.

Chef Tom is disappointed. Gail points to Stephen as not accepting their criticism. Chef Tom says he told Stephen at the last judges' table that he needed to be a chef, and he's out in the front of the house again. Marcy still likes the orchestration of the serving. Chef Tom thinks Lee Anne should have dragged Stephen back into the kitchen. She dropped the ball in a lot of ways. Harold was responsible for the disappointing salmon salad. The judges come to a decision.

Katie announces that they're not awarding a winner. Chef Tom expresses their disappointment in Harold's dish. Lee Anne needed to invest herself in the menu, not abdicate responsibility. Stephen is a good cook, but he's concentrating on the wrong things. Tiffani needs to take a stand about things she thinks are wrong. Katie boots Stephen, who just nods. She asks if he has anything to say, but he doesn't. Everyone sits awkwardly for a minute, until Katie dismisses them. Back in the kitchen, Harold shakes Stephen's hand. He would have been willing to support Stephen if he hadn't gone after Lee Anne.

Stephen expects to raise the standard of excellence in the American restaurant industry. He takes pride in providing "an unbelievable experience for the guest." I can certainly see Stephen's guests asking, "Can you believe this guy?"

Did Stephen deserve the boot? Lee Anne didn't rally the team and Harold's dish was disappointing. But at least Harold was there to plate his own dish. Stephen was explicitly told to step up to the chef role, and he was the least use in the kitchen. His prep work was slow, he didn't help anyone else out and he left some of his own work for the others to do. Worse, Stephen failed his own definition of a chef's responsibility to lead and delegate and manage. Telling people exactly what to do is not delegating. Delegating is telling the captain what kind of service you'd like and letting him instruct his staff. Delegating is telling the captain how much wine you have and letting him figure out how much to pour for each guest. Delegating is letting people do their jobs. As for leading and managing, they both involve communicating with the rest of your team. Stephen didn't see himself as a team member; he was busy being a crusader for high service standards. That's not the job he signed on for. Lee Anne failed in her responsibilities, but at least she recognized what those responsibilities were.

Personally, I'm happy to see him go. It was an entertaining run, but we're now getting down to some serious competition. There's no room for lightweights. With his emphasis on style over substance, Stephen is a lightweight.

Controversy: Was a wedding reception in 16 hours a fair challenge? In his blog, Chef Tom states that it was a manageable project. If they were in their own kitchens with their own tools and coworkers and suppliers, I could see it happening. But when they're hamsters in some reality TV habitrail, maybe not. Granted, they all got rest the day before, but sleep isn't enough to eradicate the strain of being in this kind of competition, away from their normal sources of mental refreshment. Especially since they're fast approaching the final competition, so the pressure keeps building. It's harder and harder for them to achieve excellence. Now add in the emotional significance of a wedding, so they really want to achieve excellence, and you're putting them in a situation where their aspirations are likely to exceed their grasps. Given their dedication to their craft, that's actually fairly cruel.

Since fatigue was such a factor as the day progressed, should they have gotten some sleep? Chef Tom thinks they should have done all their shopping and chopping, and then gotten a few hours of rest before starting early in the morning. In his opinion, they panicked and sabotaged themselves with the all-nighter. I did get a sense of panic -- everyone but Stephen thought it was impossible. And I do think they ran into problems by cooking things too early; some of the food didn't reheat properly. I think it would have been useful if Lee Anne had worked out a timeline of what needed to get done when, so they could see where (if) they had a place to take a break and at least get out of the kitchen, even if they couldn't sleep. So I don't know if Chef Tom is right, but I would have liked to see a more "let's do the best we can" attitude than "oh, crap, we're screwed."

Controversy: Was it fair to criticize Lee Anne's menu as too ambitious? She knew at the time that they'd be preparing the menu, but she didn't know how much time they would have. But when Katie said the reception was the next day, no one seemed too surprised. Dismayed, sure, but not shocked. The elimination challenge always follows the day after the QuickFire challenge, so that was foreseeable. But they might have expected an evening wedding instead of an afternoon wedding, which would allow another five or six hours to work. I wonder if Lee Anne's background makes her feel more comfortable about pulling off events. She handles events in her job at the French Culinary Institute, so she probably has an experienced team to work with. That's going to color her expectations of what can be accomplished. She was also called out for being too ambitious with Sabor menu. In both cases, she didn't get much contribution out of Stephen. If she had at least chewed him out, it would have showed that she was trying to manage him. Actually managing him is possible, I think, but it would require almost constant monitoring and redirection in the early stages, until he gets into the habit of obedience. It's nice that Harold tried to straighten him out, but that came far too late to do much good to the team.

Should Lee Anne have modified the menu? On the job, I think she would have at least considered it. Especially in the event of not finding good quality ingredients, like the salmon. In the context of a competition, it's hard to tell if changing the menu would be construed as cheating. The show has had a consistent standard of putting the best food you can in front of the customer, so I think she would have been safe as long as she made the case that it was for the customers' benefit. I suspect this was another consequence of their fatigue and panic -- they felt trapped by their menu, and couldn't see the possibility of changing it.

I am curious about the shopping rules, though. They ordered the Chinese spoons for plating Stephen's dumplings, so they were able to get something from a source other than the supermarket. Which makes me wonder, why couldn't they have ordered salmon? Did Stephen pout until he got his soup spoons?

The other thing that feels off to me is the last minute discovery that the reception tray service would run for 1 1/2 hours. The event had a service captain, and I'm sure he would have consulted with the chef -- Lee Anne -- about the schedule and the service and such. For that matter, why would the director of catering approach Stephen to find out about service? If the chefs were all in the kitchen, why would the director approach Stephen specifically? ("Oh, look, it's noted sommelier Stephen Asprinio. Let me beg him to favor us with the benefit of his service expertise.") Surely someone else would have noticed and redirected the director (ahem) to Lee Anne. So Stephen must not have been in the kitchen when the whole service question was raised. Worst case, he sought out the catering director and introduced himself as the liaison to the kitchen, leading to the "how do you want the service to go?" question. And then Stephen failed to get the necessary information and pass it on. Actually, the worst case would be that the producers kept the captain from consulting with Lee Anne so they could create a "crisis."

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?