Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Miami! Bikini babes, beaches, boats. If David Caruso shows up, I'm changing the channel. We see various chefs arriving. The final tally:
- Sandee, 39, Miami: skunk-stripe mini-mohawk, career-changer
- Brian, 34: silly last name (Malarkey), sillier soul patch
- Camille, 34, NYC: the overlooked one
- Dale, 33, Chicago: mini-mohawk
- Sara M., 33, Jamaica: chef/cheesemaker
- Micah, 32: caterer with South African accent
- CJ, 31, California: private chef, cancer survivor, giant
- Howie, 31: a stubbier version of Chef Tom
- Tre, 30, Dallas: a tattoo of "GottaHavePassion" running in block letters down his right forearm. I'm guessing the tattoo artist was at least as drunk as he was.
- Casey, 29: know-it-all
- Hung, 29, Las Vegas: promises to be loud and crazy. He claims to be a "certified professional asshole" but I'm thinking "camera slut."
- Joey, 29, NYC: stereotypical Noo Yawk Eye-talian
- Clay, 27, Mississippi: feels Southern cooking could "really wow" the judges
- Lia, 27, NYC: fresh-faced youngster (but not the youngest)
- Sara N, 25: the quiet one
The chefs gather at Casa Casuarina, the home of the late Gianni Versace, who was murdered on the front steps. I hope this isn't their new digs, 'cause ew, gruesome. (Apparently it's now a fanch-shmancy private hotel, but I think it would make a fabulous fashion museum.) There's a meet-and-greet cocktail party in a courtyard with a spread of hors d'oeuvres. Drinking, noshing, chatting.
In walk Tom and Padma, and the party's over. Tom gives his "I'm not your mentor" speech. If he's going to be wandering around the kitchen, the chefs ought to know what he's doing there. Padma hits them with the QuickFire challenge. Howie interviews that it seemed like a bad time: "We didn't have our knives, the girls were in high-heeled shoes."
The challenge: make a signature amuse bouche from the party leftovers. Casey uses a lot of words to define "amuse bouche" and she still doesn't cover the "one bite" aspect of it. They have ten minutes. And go!
Chefs run around a lot. Sandee has trouble cutting a kumquat with a plastic knife. That's not a fair match-up. Padma calls time and sampling happens. The dishes we hear about:
- Howie: poached shrimp wrapped in cappicola with heirloom tomatoes & champagne/basil vinaigrette
- Micah: "Tuscan Sushi Revisited" Italian ham wrapped around Gorgonzola and dried fig, with fig jam & a "drizzle" of "balsamic"
- Dale: beef tenderloin wrapped around bleu cheese, grape, radish & sea salt, speared on an herb twig
- Clay: fruit gazpacho served in an apple
- Sara: oyster with pineapple mignonette & smoked salmon
- Hung: hamachi with creamy egg rice, grapes, chili sauce, olives, basil & pesto vinaigrette
- Tre: hamachi tartare with avocado, strawberries & champagne served in an oyster shell
Casey lets us know that she knows what an amuse bouche is, and Clay clearly doesn't, because his dish is way too big. I get the feeling Casey spends a lot of time making sure people know what she knows.
Tom is generally pleased. The bottom three: Dale for a too-aggressive cheese, Clay for a too-big dish, Tre for insufficient acid. The top: Micah, Sara M. and Hung. And the winner is Micah. She gets immunity.
Padma sends everyone off to their penthouse suite at the product-placed hotel. Incredible views, huge bathroom, giant patio, hot tub -- you'd think they were supposed to enjoy their stay. Where are the bunk beds and lack of storage space?
The chefs decompress on the patio. Clay invites everyone to tell him that he was a loser at the QuickFire challenge. He confesses that his father was also a chef, but the "restaurant business, it got the better of him" and he committed suicide. There's something in Clay's expression that makes me worry about depression running in his family.
Morning. There are a couple of wakey-wakey shots, but then the chefs get up and interact. Howie interviews that competing is more important than socializing. Well, yeah, but what about when you're not in the kitchen? Hung doesn't care about everyone's personal information; he can read people from the way they work in the kitchen. You can also read people from the way they present themselves, and Hung's monologue says, "Look at me, I'm a character! Give me camera time!"
The chefs file into the gleaming kitchen. There's a spread of "proteins" on a giant table. And not the usual proteins, either. It's like Crocodile Dundee and Jaques Cousteau handled the provisioning. The challenge: a surf-and-turf entree from "exotic" ingredients, including kangaroo, alligator, geoduck and rattlesnake. Each choice has only two portions, so it's time to bring out the knife block and draw for turns. All the early chefs take the easy choices first. The contestants ooh-and-aah when Brian takes both rattlesnake and eel.
The chefs get 30 minutes and $30 to shop for ingredients. They'll be cooking in two groups, so the ones who had limited choices get longer to plan. Chef Tom drops the kicker: the guest judge is Anthony Bourdain, who has a lot of experience with exotic food, so he'll be tough to impress.
Shopping. Sandee recounts how everyone was wandering around, getting used to the store. Micah helpfully points out the okra to Clay, who's looking frazzled. She tells him to calm down. Joey revs himself up to have it out with Micah if she ever tries telling him what to do. I'm pretty sure Joey goes through life ready to have it out with anyone who crosses his path, and is frequently disappointed when most people just ignore him.
Back in the kitchen, the first group has two hours to cook. And away we go! Sandee is sure that there will be chaos. Joey informs us that he's a schedule "freak" while Howie isn't used to the whole ticking clock thing. He's taking his time, making sure his prepwork is all in place. CJ has to duck under the hood to drop his crab in a pot.
Chef Tom strolls through on his look-see. Clay thinks the guest judge will go for his fried fish tail. Chef Tom kind of nudges Lia to clean up the knifework on her wild boar chops. Howie reviews his menu with Chef Tom. He leaves and someone calls the 10 minute mark, which means it's time to run around even more frantically. Actually, it's an interesting situation. While chefs have to get food ready in certain time limits, they usually have the prep done in advance, and they're coordinating with other people. So the whole "race the clock" thing has to be a little new, and the timing can be tricky. You don't want to be ready too soon, or your food will cool down, with corresponding changes in flavors and textures. But you don't want to get caught at the last minute. Speaking of which, Howie runs out of time before he can plate his frog legs. He figures he'll be heading home.
- Joey: seared buffalo rib eye with heirloom tomato salad, grilled scorpion fish with Mediterranean salad, olive tapenade, potato chips
- Sara N.: razor clams with sweet corn chowder, buffalo rib eye with black truffle sauce, buttered carrots
- Clay: pan-seared wild boar chop, cornbread dressing with scorpion fish
- Lia: crusted rack of boar with sesame chili, ginger lentils, sea urchin panna cotta
- Casey: alligator country-fried steak & braised greens with razor clams
- CJ: ostrich tartare with horseradish, spider crabs with anise & tomato broth
- Sandee: Cajun-fried frog legs with spider crab jambalaya
- Howie: sea urchin & chanterelle risotto, no frog legs
The judges dig in. Gail is judging tonight; Ted will be taking turns with her later in the season. Tony Bourdain appreciates Howie's presentation of the risotto, served in a hollowed-out sea urchin. Gail puts in a good word for Sandee. Chef Tom likes that CJ made a single dish with both ingredients. Padma and Bourdain ponder Howie's missing frog legs. Chef Tom reports that Howie had everything under control when he did his walk-through, so he doesn't know what happened. Gail pans Clay's dish and the others concur.
Group 1 cleans up the kitchen and now it's time for Group 2. They get right to work. Hung interviews that he's not paying attention to anyone else; he's just there to prove himself. But I notice he has time for a quick glance at the camera when he flips a morsel of raw geoduck into his mouth. Dale has never tasted his ingredients, so he's taking a risk. Brian has to butcher his snake and eel, which he doesn't really know how to do.
Chef Tom makes a second pass. Hung is going to try to sous-vide his black chicken to make it tender. Chef Tom observes that Tre doesn't seem like a guy who is used to losing, and Tre politely tells him that he's right. So yes, redemption is on the agenda. Chef Tom sums up: this group seems very confident, even though they got stuck with the weirder ingredients. Hung has Tre sample something and Tre is impressed. He calls out a 5 minute warning and the rushing about starts. Brian doesn't finish plating; he's sure he's going home.
- Tre: roasted ostrich fillet with heirloom tomato risotto & abalone sauce topped with a salad
- Brian: they don't even try to caption his "Hair of Medusa" dish. There's something about a Sriracha and lime aioli, some sea eel missing a blood orange & miso salad, and "Electric Venom" snake and eel soup
- Camille: spicy maple-crusted abalone fritter, pan-seared kangaroo with green vegetable/herb sauce & herb salad (Oh, there's our 15th contestant! I was wondering if I had miscounted.)
- Sara M.: black chicken with dark meat braised and white meat brined and pan-seared, geoduck ceviche with cucumber ribbons and red peppers
- Hung: sous-vide black chicken, raw geoduck with fennel, sauce of geoduck innards with ginger & scallions
- Micah: seared kangaroo topping sweet potato pudding, poached egg & chive oil topped with monkfish liver, ostrich carpaccio with monkfish liver & dukko
- Dale: mustard-seared alligator tail, monkfish liver braised with apple hash, sherry vinegar gastrique, olive oil-poached shallot & leek salad
More eating. Chef Tom singles out Tre's dish. Bourdain is impressed with Hung's dish. Gail is not happy with Dale's alligator. Brian made bar food.
Judges' table. The chewing-over begins. In general, much happiness with the performance. Bourdain thinks the weak dishes showed "failure of nerve" rather than bad conception or technique. Padma is surprised that Chef Tom and Bourdain like Sara M's presentation with the chicken claw. Bourdain nominates Hung for top honors. Gail offers the "tiny" critcism that it didn't have much color. Chef Tom mentions Tre's dish and Bourdain likes the classic presentation of non-classic ingredients. Padma fetches the two chefs. Tre interviews that he knew Hung would be his main competition.
Padma asks if they were satisfied with their dishes. Hung says it came out just the way he "tasted" it in his head. Padma asks about the lack of color. Hung protests that the eyes might get the food first, but the mouth and stomach have to be satisfied in the end. Tre felt very comfortable. Chef Tom asks if they checked each other's dishes out. Tre just revels in the memory of his taste of Hung's dish. Padma points out that we've had two winners of the first challenge go on to win the whole shebang. She lets the guest judge sum up. He tells Hung that his dish was excellent but a bit lacking in color, while Tre's dish had a good combination of elements but was a bit conservative. The win goes to Tre. He's pleased to be redeemed. Bourdain seems to be aware of the cheesiness of the prize as he awards Tre a pile of his books, autographed with "obscene doodles." He also promises to get him "savage drunk" if they're ever in New York at the same time.
Back in the pantry, Howie tells Clay that he'd rather get booted for an incomplete than for bad food. The lucky editors hit some foreshadowing gold there. The top two return and Tre gets a round of applause. Howie, Brian, Clay and Dale get summoned before the judges.
Padma asks Brian why he thinks he's in the bottom. He thinks he "got a little excited" and made things too complicated. Chef Tom wonders why he chose frying; Brian figured the textures would work with frying. Padma objects that you could fry anything, including her toe, and it would work. Chef Tom thinks he should have cooked the meat on the bone. Brian says he spent too much time scoring the snake and eel to expose the ribs. Chef Tom wondered where that was, and Brian says he just had too much going on and didn't finish. Bourdain is down on dithering.
Padma turns to Dale, who thinks his problems were unfamiliar ingredients. He experimented with searing some alligator slices and didn't like the texture when it was cooked through. Chef Tom says they all found his medium-rare alligator chewy.
Howie knows exactly why he's on the chopping block: an incomplete dish. He was recrisping the frog legs and had them right next to the plates when time ran out. He was just trying to make everything perfect. Bourdain beats him up hard for not getting his food done on time. Howie agrees, but references a Bourdain story about Ecuadorian line cooks who only deliver the goods "when it's right." "You son of a bitch," Bourdain lovingly coos. Chef Tom points out the need for it to be right and fast, and Howie thoroughly agrees that he messed up and that he could be going home because of it.
Clay doesn't know why he's on the block, although it looks like his dish "could have been better." Chef Tom asks about the timing on his wild boar chops; he cooked them pretty early. Clay says he was going for par-coooking them. Maybe he should have cut them thicker. Bourdain thinks par-cooking is for serving a crowd, not for messing up a lovely wild boar. Clay admits he might have played it safe. Chef Tom wonders if he stands behind his dish. Clay says he does, but he can recognize a mistake at the same time. Chef Tom isn't having it. Also, he didn't like the dressing. Gail thinks the chop was worse. Bourdain thinks he screwed up his "fundamentals."
Padma sends them off so the judges can deliberate. Brian didn't do anything impressive with his ingredients, but he didn't screw up, either. Dale gets credit for analyzing what happened with his dish, although Chef Tom is worried about his "taste level." Clay is in trouble. Gail thinks he just couldn't execute his idea; the judges all hate it. Howie obviously screwed up. Gail is bummed because his risotto was good. Padma gets to the heart of the matter: what is the greater sin? Chef Tom thinks Howie has potential, but Bourdain thinks Howie is right to be worried about his fate.
The chefs return. Chef Tom isn't happy with Clay's failure to stand up for his inedible dish. Howie definitely screwed the pooch. He'd be okay in a restaurant, but this is a competition. Brian just fried food. Dale picked the wrong texture for his alligator and needs to watch his taste level. Clay gets the boot. He thinks he succumbed to nerves. But he managed to make some friends already, and he doesn't need "a fancy title" to feel great about himself.
Right winner? Tre was dinged for being "conservative" but that was also a plus -- making exotic ingredients look familiar and appealing. Hung's lack of color had no upside. So without tasting anything, I can make sense of the decision.
Right loser? This is one of those questions that leads to interminable debate because it's all about X being more important than Y. If you think an incomplete is an incomplete is an incomplete, then you're never going to get behind Clay's dismissal. However, Chef Tom's blog says they reviewed the challenge rules to see if they were obliged to boot Howie, and it turned out they weren't. So the rules left it up to the subjective opinion of the judges. Clay's dish sounded pretty bad overall, while Howie's risotto was good and boldly presented, so it isn't completely out of the question to give Howie the win. Unless you think an incomplete is an incomplete is an incomplete.
It was interesting to watch Howie and Dale defend their dishes. They admitted their faults while making it clear that they did a lot of things right. Dale wasn't familiar with his ingredients, but he experimented and made a choice based on the results. Howie was late, but he was aiming for perfection and his timing was only slightly off. Meanwhile, Clay didn't make a case for what he did right; the discussion was all about what he did wrong. So now we have a better idea of what the judges are looking for when they want contestants to "stand behind" a dish.
Labels: Top Chef