Welcome back, Top Chef New York! It's been too long.
I've got a lot to say about new judge Toby Young, so I will try my best to keep the episode recappage short and sweet.
Quickfire Challenge: In case you couldn't tell, this shit was sponsored by Diet Dr. Pepper. Ariane must've blabbed the full product name at least four times while cooking. Diet Dr. Pepper really is good, though. It tastes just like regular Dr. Pepper. Diet Dr. Pepper. Diet Dr. Pepper. Jean-Christophe Novelli, perhaps the most humorless top-three-buttons-unbuttoned French bastard I've ever seen on TV (holy shit look at this picture of him!), challenged the cheftestants to create a sweet treat without using any sugar. I was excited that my dude Gene busted out Filipino banana lumpia, but Radhika ended up snagging immunity with a beautiful-sounding bread pudding.
Elimination Challenge: A cool task this week — the chefs were split into two groups and instructed to create family-style dishes for a panel comprising Tom, Padma, Novelli and Young. The twists — the tasting was blind, meaning no one knew whose dish was whose; the non-cooking group was asked to sit with the judges and offer their honest opinions; and the in-kitchen group was made to watch the palpable brutality on a really nice flat screen.
Top three: Stefan, who did duck breast and pretzel dumplings with Czech-marked red cabbage; Ariane, who whipped up an amazing-sounding brown-butter skate wing; and Jamie, who came out on top thanks to her seared sea scallops with roasted fennel and garlic cream. (This is what elicited the brilliant "This is Top Chef, not Top Scallops!" comment from Fabio.)
Bottom three: Gene, who couldn't temper his creative streak with solid execution (daikon fettucini, my man?); Melissa, who created an unimaginative beat street version of the ahi tuna tacos from Distrito; and Carla, whose pea-mint risotto topped with a scallop just didn't work. The Fryin' Hawaiian and the mystery blondie (all we knew about her is that she was from Maryland and that's why she liked apples) were sent home, making up for the no-elimination Christmas miracle/Natasha Richardson's boobs shitshow.
Onto the new guy.
I recently said how I excited I was that How to Lose Friends & Alienate People author Young would be replacing Ted Allen as resident sourpuss white male as well as filling in for Gail Simmons for the remainder of Season 5. Now that Young's first hour at the long table has aired, I have a few thoughts.
- It was exceedingly clear that a majority of the cheftestants had no idea who the fuck the guy was. (Not that they're ignorant — he's not so well-known in the States, recent movie notwithstanding.) They kept referring to him as "the British food critic" with the same transparently polite tone people use to discuss their relatives' negligible accomplishments ("Yeah, Uncle Rick played half a season with a Double A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals ... ").
- I'm not sure whether I should chalk it up to first-episode jitters or an unsteady hand in the editing room, but many of Young's comments took off awkwardly. Some landed safely (the cat food comment was despicably lovely; I liked his description of Leah's interesting bread-skinned rouget as "pan-European fish and chips"), while others didn't (straight crickets, at least on my couch, when he compared Jeff's odd plating to Tom Cruise's role in Tropic Thunder). I'm confident, though, that he'll hit his stride in the next two episodes, earning allies and enemies along the way.
- I think Tom Colicchio hates Young's guts. At the judges' table, Young informed Jamie that "fennel has a slight anise-y undertone." Master chef Colicchio promptly rolled his eyes, as if to say "Of course fennel has a slight anise-y undertone. But what about this orange — do you think it has a slight citrus-y undertone? You fuck." I anticipate some epic bald-guy tete-a-tetes.
- I enjoyed reading this story on Young's Bravo blog about his contentious relationship with guest judge Novelli:
A few years ago, I appeared as a judge on an episode of the British version of Hell's Kitchen and Jean-Christophe was one of two celebrity chefs leading a team of contestants. To cut a long story short, he took such violent exception to my remarks about his team's food that he banned me from all his restaurants. Until last night, our paths hadn't crossed and I was concerned that the tension between us might spill out on to the show.
In fact, after some perfunctory squaring off, we decided to bury the hatchet and — as is the way with these things — ended up getting horribly drunk together when the show had wrapped. We may have even pricked our fingers and become blood brothers — I'm afraid I don't remember. It was the first of what I hope will be many wonderful experiences working on Top Chef.
Welcome to the weird world of American cable television, Mr. Young.
|Martin Argles | Guardian|
After a contrived Martha-boasting holiday special where no one got booted and a rerun of a Christmas cookoff challenge, Top Chef looks to get back on track this week next week (dammit!) with the introduction of new judge Toby Young. Infamous for his acerbic nature as well as his 2005 memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, I think Young has the potential to be the perfect replacement for the likable Ted Allen, who left the show to pursue a bunch of different projects with Food Network. He uses the phrase "the bland leading the bland" in the Bravo teaser. Har.
Best part is that they're rocking a double elimination this episode to make up for the faux-miraculous sparing of Gene, Melissa and Jamie two weeks back.
Young's How to Lose Friends, which chronicles his combative trials within the New York publishing world (Vanity Fair in particular), was adapted into a movie, which came out in Philly this fall. Simon Pegg, who plays a version of Young in the film, had nothing but nice things to stay about the journalist when questioned by our own Shaun Brady:
"I was expecting a lot more of an obnoxious, tenacious self-promoter," Pegg says ... "I'm sure he is that to a degree, but the guy I met was a pretty mellow, sweet guy who I really liked."
This week's episode took what felt like an eternity to watch, so I'll try to keep this recap as succinct as possible.
Quickfire Challenge: Martha Stewart came out rocking some skinny jeans surprisingly lithely. She challenged the Top Chef hopefuls to create a "one-pot holiday meal" in 45 minutes. She borrowed a quote from Einstein to convey what she was looking for ("Make it simple, but not too simple"), which marked the first time in history anyone in skinny jeans has quoted Einstein. Our dude Jeff's potato risotto with crispy pork and Brussels sprouts sounded excellent, but Martha thought it sucked; she also criticized Gene's corn starch-thickened Korean pork stew and Fabio's polenta, which means we can safely conclude that Martha Stewart hates ethnic carbs.
One exception: Hosea's paella, which was joined in Martha's top three favorites by Jamie's potato, scallop and kale stew (white person food!) and Ariane's beef and cauliflower purée (even whiter white person food!). Ariane won because she is from Jersey and so is Martha.
After all this, the Harlem Gospel Choir came out and we were treated to a brief glimpse of Padma — who is transcendently beautiful — dancing while getting lifted up by that Holy Spirit. This, my favorite moment of the episode, was at once tremendously pleasing and tremendously uncomfortable. This is going to do wonders for the Find Padma a Mate Campaign.
For the Elimination Challenge, the remaining cheftestants were instructed to craft "12 Days of Christmas"-themed food for a 300-person American Foundation for AIDS Research fundraiser. Forcing Fabio to make a crab dish that somehow conveyed the phrase "nine ladies dancing" was cruel and unusual enough, but the viewing public was fed the biggest load of festive shit by the whole refrigerator issue. The chefs came back to the prep kitchen the morning of the event to discover that one of the fridge doors had been left ajar, rendering Hosea's pork and Radhika's duck spoiled and unservable. Haute tension, dramatic music, Radhika's crying and saying she should pack up and go now, etc. Wait ... what's this? HARK, I spy the True Spirit of Christmas, sitting majestically atop his jingle bell- and wreath-adorned steed, on the horizon! All the other chefs lended a helping hand to get Rad and Hosea back on their feet. Hey, a bunch of extra pork and duck — enough for 300 people! — just happens to be hanging out in the kitchen! Wow, this couldn't have worked out any better. This is what Christmas is all about! Now where is that crippled kid?
You make me sick, Bravo.
And you made me even sicker when you subjected me to all of this pre-fab holiday cheer and then DIDN'T ELIMINATE ANYONE. Hosea got the win, but each of the bottom three chefs — Gene (crappy poisson cru), Jamie (crappy scallop vichyssoise dish, ew) and Melissa (crappily gorgonzola-fied NY strip steak) — were spared. Tom Colicchio is baby Jesus Santa!
Natasha Richardson, aka Liam Neeson's wife, lent her celebrity to the show this week. Her boobs looked really weird to me. Anyone else?
At the end of last's week recap, I mentioned that Episode 5 would feature the chefs catering a bridal shower. I didn't realize it would be Gail Simmons' bridal shower. Amazing. I love all things Gail. Most all small-screen culinary personalities can be lumped into one of two groups: snooty, inaccessible pinky-up gourmands (Martha) or overly excitable foodies who don't seem like real people (Guy Fieri). I think Gail succeeds at striking a friendly balance between these two extremes. As an editor at Food & Wine, she's at the top of her field, but she still possesses a fun demeanor and the vim and vigor of someone's who's hungry most of the time. Tell me how to properly store my cheese, Gail! Parchment paper? You got it! Now talk to me about knife skills! You're so good at cutting!
This week's Quickfire featured a bracket-style, backwards Name That Tune tourney where the cheftestants tasted multi-ingredient sauces and challenged each other to rattle off lists of the components. ("I can five ingredients." "Well, I can name six." "Name those ingredients!") A new and welcome twist on the usual blindfolded taste test challenge. Carla, Hosea and Stefan made it to the finals, where they were given Mexican mole, the most ingredient-laden sauce of them all. Hosea edges out Stefan ("I outpalated him!"), snatching away immunity from the domineering Euro who doesn't get why lesbian Jamie doesn't want to bump uglies with him.
"I would rather be on Satan's team than Stefan's team," Radhika told the camera as the contestants drew knives and formed four themed teams — "Old," "New," "Borrowed" and "Blue" — to tackle the 40-gal shower luncheon. (Non-Gail guest of honor: Food & Wine EIC Dana Cowin, who loves Philly.) A bit dramatic, Rad. Give the man a break — he revealed to Tom Colicchio in this episode that he married the same woman twice, so nuptials could very well be a touchy subject for him. Or maybe not: Stef's "Old" team (working with Jeff and Hosea) impressed both Gail's girlies and the judges' panel with their trio of classic tomato-based dishes (a terrine, a carpaccio and a gazpacho shot). Rad, Jamie and Ariane, aka the "Borrowed" squad, also earned high marks for their gorgeous lamb served atop a vadouvan carrot purée. (They "borrowed" the Indian spices from Rad's Indian background.)
The other two teams dropped the wedding bell ball a bit. Team "New" — Gene, Danny and Carla — crafted some sort of mediocre DIY sushi plate that they didn't feel the need to explain to the perplexed ladies who lunch. Then Fabio's "Blue" team — easily the most difficult theme of the four to visually interpret — was met with shrugs and scowls for its blue corn-encrusted Chilean sea bass. ("Not the most politically correct choice, perhaps?" said Gail of the threatened species.)
Ariane took home the win for the second week in a row for perfectly cooking the lamb. Jamie whined and pouted about it a whole lot. "None of us expected anyone but me to win," she moaned after the fact. You made a purée, chick.
Alas, Danny was told to pack his knives and go for refusing (or not being able) to articulate just what was wrong with the lackluster "New" offerings. This counts as my favorite moment of the episode, if only for the fact that he used the phrase "a little splooge of this" to describe his team's approach to plating. That's going to haunt me for a minute. Good riddance.
Apologies for getting off track with last week's Top Chef recap — there's still time to blame things on extended holiday revelry, right? Anyway, smooth sailing from here on out.
I thoroughly enjoyed Episode 3, but not because of the cornball Thanksgiving themeage, the dubbing of Tom Colicchio as a "gay bear icon" or the involvement of the Foo Fighters. I loved it because it featured two — two! — independent references to MacGyver, which is better than Six Feet Under, The Wire, The Sopranos, Charles In Charge and every other TV show that's ever aired. God bless you, Carla ("I feel like I'm a MacGyver when it comes to these things!" she exclaimed at the outset of the first challenge) and Gene (his impromptu barbecue-pit-building prowess earned the Mac label from judges). This counts as my favorite moment of the episode.
Episode 3's Quickfire Challenge, overseen by Grant Achatz of Chicago's famed Alinea, tagged the cheftestants with the masturbatory, placement-heavy task of turning recipes out of the Top Chef cookbook into soup using Swanson brand broth. (David Snyder quoted Achatz in his Jan. 2008 piece on "molecular" cooking.) Leah, who I pegged as a frontrunner at the outset, took it with her chilled white asparagus soup with brioche, tuna and tapenade, a spoonable interpretation of a dish from Season 3 winner Hung Huynh. (She even got her own press release!)
Elimination Challenge brought on the Foo, as cheffies split into two squadrons ("Team Sexy Pants" and "Team Cougar") to whip up a Turkey Day pre-concert meal for Dave Grohl, his bandmates and assorted entourage — using only microwaves and toaster ovens. I know most of you are finally emancipated from the fetters of Thanksgiving leftovers, so I won't stir up any gut-wrenching flashbacks by going over what the kids made in detail. Just know that the Sexy Pantsers won based on Rad's roasted vegan stuffing and desserts from Fabio and Hosea. "Team Rainbow" member Richard, who was the contestant to go on the record stating what everyone already knows — that the baldheaded Tom C. is every famished bear's dream meal — was sent packing for a crappy s'more dessert that Grohl compared to saliva.
Achatz is such an interesting guy, but some of his comments — "It's just good to execute classics the way they're supposed to be done," he advised at the judges' table — came off slightly disingenuous, as he's the king of not-even-remotely-"classic" cuisine. Aren't you the guy who turns peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into space dust?
Onto Episode 4.
It always amazes me, in the realm of reality television, how a favored contestant can turn despicable in a blink thanks to things as ostensibly innocuous as smarmy editing or out-of-context quoting. I find that the exact opposite is true, as well — take Jeff, the blonde-as-a-state-of-mind Miami chef who, until last night, I'd earmarked as nothing more than an airy fop and a dead ringer for Dr. Robert Chase from House.
The guy somehow managed to win me over early in Episode 4 during a Quickfire Challenge that required the cooks to put together a breakfast-themed amuse bouche for the transcendently beautiful Padma and guest judge Rocco DiSpirito. ("He's not really Italian," Fabio was sure to point out.) Amuses, a common starting point at mid- to high-range restaurants, are supposed to be one tiny little bite, a flavorful tease to get you excited for the courses to come. For some reason, very few chefs on TV seem to get this (it's come up on Top Chef and other cooking competition shows multiple times).
|Jeff's enormous amuse bouche.|
Jeff made the thing to the right.
The moment I started rooting for the guy was during an on-camera sit-down where he attempted to defend his decision to make his amuse more than one bite. He had the twice-baked potato! He had the yogurt sorbet! And that's — you can see the realization wash over his face — "two ... too much." I love anyone who's self-aware enough to pick apart their own screwups while blabbing about themselves, to themselves, on cable television. Jeff all the way. Leah, however, ended up with the immunity idol for her amuse, a bacon-egg-cheese thing.
This week's Elimination: Come up with a simple dish designed to be presented on live TV in no more than 2.5 minutes. This flirtation with small-screen stardom drew some interesting responses from the contestants — Leah freaked out, but gumba-fied Daniel, whose aspirations are "kinda similar to Bobby Flay's," claimed that he "light[s] up in front of the camera." None of them meta-addressed that they were currently on TV to begin with.
The chefs present their dishes to Padma, Tom and Rocco in a really funny mock studio setup. Top three: Ariane kills it with her warm mom charm, Fabio finagles the metaphorical pantaloons off Padma by not being able to speak English and our dude Jeff is all polish all day. Bottom three: Jamie undercooks a duck egg, Alex undercooks crème brûlée and Melissa almost kills Colicchio with a far-too-hot habanero shrimp (aw he can't digest spicy food!).
The frontrunners are then told that their dishes will be judged on live television by the Today Show crew, about whom we learn some weird things, namely that watermelon makes Meredith Viera sick (?!) and that Kathie Lee is racist against Arabs Jeff's malfouf rolls. Ariane earns the eventual badge at judges' table. Alex is told to pack his knives and go, which is fine by me because the whole bawling-over-the-drippy-letter scene that started the episode was terrible.
Favorite moment: Jeff on the Today Show aspect of the competition — "I'm serving a Middle Eastern roll to a bunch of ladies with unsophisticated palates at 6:37 a.m. I'm pissed off."
Next week, they're catering a bridal shower. Looks like Fabio will have yet another opportunity to exploit his FOB status for residual booty. Gail Simmons is shown hating on everything as per usual ("This is not a good start to a new life"). I love Gail!
|Martha Williams | betweenchicago.com|
Last week, on the season premiere of Top Chef New York, you stated that you didn't want the judges to pigeonhole you based on your Desi background — basically, you were worried that they would be expecting all of your dishes to feature Indian spices and ingredients. A legitimate concern, I thought.
For the very first Quickfire Challenge, you made apple chutney.
For the second "throw together a cool wiener!" Quickfire — which you won — you made an Indian-inspired kebab hot dog.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with leaning on one's proclivities — take Season 3's Brian Malarkey, who capitalized on his mastery of seafood (he's the exec chef of San Diego's Oceanaire branch) to run deep into the competition. That's why I don't understand why you would stress about being culturally typecast — pulling the Curry Card, henceforth — when your cuisine, by and large, tends to feature Indian elements. (Rad's menu at Chicago's Between, which boasts braised duck samosas, mini lentil burgers and a chutney sampler, sounds sophisticated and stellar.) Guest judge Donatella Arpaia even went out of her way to specifically praise the Indian approach of your dish.
Of course, it's early, and I'm sure girlie has plenty of tricks up her crispy white sleeve, vindalooed or not.
Onto this week's Elimination Challenge: Cooking up "New American" dishes at judge Tom Colicchio's famed Craft for a group of sourpuss Big Apple chefs who didn't make the cut for Season 5. Colicchio, considered by many to be the capo of the characteristically slippery New American school of cooking, was disappointed by the cheftestants' overall output. "If this is your take on New American, then you've set American cuisine back 20 years," he told the kids. Ow. (Colicchio offers his own definition of New American on his Bravo blog.)
There were handful of dishes the panel was feeling — Jamie's corn purée, Tony Todd/Didi Pickles lovechild Carla's apple pastry with cheddar cheese, and the winner, Fabio's beef carpaccio with "spherical olives," a technique that he claimed was cutting-edge. (Colicchio, on the other hand, says it's exactly "seven years old.") Of course the champion New American plate was cranked out by a motherloving Euro.
Padma regurged Ariane's too-sweet dessert into her napkin, which was great because she is transcendently beautiful and it's funny to watch transcendently beautiful people behave like toddlers. But Jill — "she's probably really into Antigone Rising," offered one of my friends — ended up getting axed for making an ostrich egg thing that one taster likened to dog food. The dish looked gross, but she was really sent packing for being a complacent schlub at the judges' table/her ineffective execution of the Blair Waldorf headband.
Favorite quote of the episode: "Congratulations for be here still." – Fabio's declaration to the remaining contestants after Jill's elimination.
I can't wait to see Dave Grohl eat things next week. Think he'll get punched right before?
|PADMA. You. Me. Bottle of Old Grand-Dad. Sack|
of Totino's Pizza Rolls. Now does that sound like
something you'd be interested in?
"As the saying goes, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere," the transcendently beautiful Padma Lakshmi told the eager contestants on the season premiere of Bravo's Top Chef.
Of course. OF COURSE.
Yes, Season 5 is in New York City. Blablabla so many restaurants that are so good blabla more than half a million industry professionals fighting for six jobs blablabla universal epicenter of all things epicurean bla. anthonybourdain mariobatali ericripert thomaskeller we're better than everyone. We know. WE KNOW.
Sorry. New York always gives me anxiety attacks.
Top Chef is easily the best food show on TV and has always been one of my perennial favorites, and not just because I write articles about turkey burgers and turnovers for a living. People love Project Runway (well, used to at least) due to its almost anti-reality TV reality TV gambit: Yes, there's contrived drama and back-stabbing, but the overriding force driving the show is individual talent and creativity. In other words, you can't lie/cheat/steal/fuck your way through the game on some Real World/Road Rules shit. If you can't make a pencil skirt, you're done.
The same precept can be applied to the Lakshmi/Colicchio variety hour: The viewing populace takes insane pleasure in watching highly qualified industry professionals prepare amuse bouches using preservative-laden snacks they buy out of vending machines, but not because it sucks for them. We just want to see what they come with.
This season's very first Quickfire Challenge, an elimination, had the chefs work on some big apples. (Sigh.) Contestants were instructed to peel 15 with a paring knife, then brunoise 2 cups of said fruit; while top finishers in each round secured their spot on the show, the whittled-down list of stragglers moved further down the gauntlet to the final showdown, which saw them cooking a apple-based dish in 20 minutes. Lauren was tossed back on the ferry she rode in on.
The main challenge involved the remaining chefs shopping in various NY ethnic neighborhoods to create a plate representative of the area. As is the case with any reality TV premiere ep, things are so crowded that it's not only tough to pick favorites, it's also difficult to even register who is who. But as far as I can tell, the top three in this inaugural competition have the chops to get far this year — Hawaiian Gene, who blew Padma away with his unwitting interpretation of Indian cuisine; NY native Leah, who cooks Italian but comes from a "Filipino, Russian-Romanian Jewish background" (what up, sis!); and the challenge winner, Finnish baldheaded Euro shit-talker Stefan.
Favorite moment of the episode: Miami chef Jeff, who to me looks just like the Australian doctor from House, had to cook Latin against Florence-born Fabio. "I live in Miami — I know my Latin," Jeff told the camera with all the force and conviction of a 14-year-old Willie Loman in a middle school production of Death of a Salesman. "He's Italian. It’s a whole 'nother continent."
This is gonna be good.
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