We’re in Charleston! Great food city, beautiful downtown. I wish I had more work reasons to go there and catch a Riverdogs game (they have great food there). I’m glad Top Chef chose Charleston now before climate change pushes the city underwater.
One bit of self-promotion first – I posted my annual list of cookbook recommendations on Monday, and it includes the work of a few Top Chef alumni, including two past winners.
* Half of the sixteen chef-testants are returnees. We get Brooke, who lost to Kristen Kish in the strange live-elimination format. John Tesar is back. There’s Sheldon, who got to open two restaurants post-TC. Casey, who’s been on the show at least twice before, is back for more. Were they having trouble finding enough new chefs to compete?
* Katsuji’s back, and asks “Am I getting subtitles on Top Chef this year or not?” I don’t think he needs subtitles so much as he needs a cap on his ingredient count.
* The chefs are split into two groups of eight, so first the new chefs compete. We meet a few of them, including Jamie, who is immediately Neck-Tat Guy; and Jim, the Executive Chef of the state of Alabama, a big Star Trek and Buffy fan whose voice is even higher than mine.
* First (rookie) quickfire: Testing everything from knife skills, time management, presentation. The chefs get one hour to creating as many dishes as you want featuring … a chicken. The loser of group one will face the loser of group two and the loser of that gets eliminated.
* Alabama wants to make three dishes, including something with the skin and the innards, because when he was a kid he would often share a box of fried chicken livers with his dad.
* Gerald is smoking a chicken breast and talking about a soup that might include a 63-degree egg. I do not want a 63-degree egg any more than I want a 40-degree day.
* Padma asks Neck-Tat: “Are you tattooed everywhere?” He says, “Almost everywhere. 75%.” This makes me uncomfortable. Then he tells the confessional that his former boss used to call him Rodman and claims the ink is his defense mechanism against the corporate world. Sure thing, buddy. I don’t think the corporate world is fazed.
* The Italian-born Silvia Barban is making pasta without a rest period for the dough. If she pulls this off I’d say she’s an immediate favorite to get to the finals, because the judges always love fresh pasta dishes. It got both Nina and Sarah G to the final two in their seasons.
* Charleston-chef, Emily, says she’s been fired from a couple of jobs because of her attitude. During their visit to her station, she tells Tom & Padma “anyway stop talking.”
* Tesar says “Top Chef is all about the clock.” The eight vets are watching the rookies on TV in the stew room are all yelling at them to plate. They’re sort of rooting for everyone, and remembering what it was like to be in the rookies’ place.
* Silvia gets the first dish out – fresh tagliatelle with chicken ragout and crispy chicken skin, mascarpone, and orange.
* Neck-Tat burned his vegetables. That’s a rookie error.
* Gerald says his dish “doesn’t represent me as a chef.” Alabama says it’s “totally worrisome” that he only made livers after these grandiose plans for two or three dishes.
* Here comes the food. BJ made a chasseur-style thigh with mushrooms, bacon, liver, and pressure-cooker stock. … Jim (Alabama) made fried innards with aioli, butter lettuces, strawberry vinaigrette; Tom says “I wish we saw some more” … Emily made buttermilk/black pepper biscuits with fried chicken, thick bread and butter pickle, and slaw; plus an Asian BBQ wing with tamarind and chili glaze … Gerald made a smoked, buttermilk-poached chicken, chicken jus, wild mushrooms, and a vegetable fricasee; he tells Tom & Padma “it looks easier on television” … Jamie (Neck-Tat) made a pan-roasted breast and a stripped-down chicken grand-mère with glazed spring vegetables and crushed potatoes. … Sylva, who’s Haitian, made a paprika and chili-marinated buttermilk chicken with grated corn pudding. I thought this had the best presentation … Silvia’s second dish was a corn, jalapeno, heirloom tomato salad with balsamic-marinted chicken. I love how she pronounces the “h” in heirloom, and Padma praises her for two dishes … Annie made a pan-seared breast, with a panzanella and a black garlic jus. Tom scoffs at her and says it’s not a panzanella. The vets all feel bad for her as they watch her face fall.
* Favorites: Silvia’s pasta, where they loved hint of orange and the texture of the crisped skin; Emily’s chicken wings, which were simple with a lot of flavor; and Jim, whose livers had a lot of flavor, crunch, and acidity.
* Jim wins, and gets immunity. Already we have weirdness in the judging – Silvia made two dishes that the judges liked, one they loved, and managed to execute a fresh pasta dish in a very short period of time, while Jim made just one dish and wasted almost the entire bird and won.
* Least favorites: Annie’s chicken was nicely cooked, but her “panzanella” was sloppy and just “a bunch of croutons” according to Tom; Gerald, whose sauce was greasy because his quick stock appears to have emulsified; Neck-Tat, who killed his vegetables by overcooked. Tom says Gerald’s was the worst, so he’s up for elimination. Gerald says in confessional it’s the least favorite dish of his he’s ever cooked.
* Silvia says in confessional that she “always had a little crush on Sam” Talbot, from season 2, who’s also back.
* Graham Elliott is the new fourth judge for this season. The veterans’ challenge is to get creative with shrimp and grits, with thirty minutes to make their versions of this classic dish. Casey says grits can barely be done in that time. The only way I know to make polenta, which is essenitally yellow-corn grits, takes a minimum of 35.
* Brooke is using ground shrimp rather than sausage to wrap and cook a Scotch egg, which seems risky just because the traditional method means there’s plenty of fat in the ‘wrapper,’ while shrimp is so lean that a ground shrimp mixture could dry right out unless she’s adding fat to it.
* We got a lot of foreshadowing stuff here that ended up going nowhere. Katsuji’s scorching tomatoes and peppers on the burner but appears not to be paying attention. Sheldon’s hand blender doesn’t work. Amanda hasn’t been cooking in almost two years due to a back problem. Here’s a spoiler: None of them lost.
* And the food: Brooke did make that shrimp Scotch egg with grits, lemon fennel salad, and espelette … Sam made shrimp with coconut milk grits, blackened tomatoes, vinegar, chili, and maple syrup … Shirley made her “bowl of hug,” shrimp and grits with steamed egg custard made with shrimp stock, fresh corn, and bacon; Graham said it had “explosive” flavor and noticed touch of sesame at the end … Katsuji made adobo-style shrimp and grits, with fish stock, charred tomatoes and peppers; Padma said – who saw this coming – that Katsuji “could use a little editing” … Casey made coconut shrimp and grits with corn, smoked tomato sauce, peach and fennel salad; she cooked the shrimp and corn in coconut oil, and corn ended up the dominant flavor … Tesar made Korean shrimp and grits with faux kimchi … Amanda made head-on shrimp with tasso ham, pickled raisins, peaches, and kale chiffonade (why?) … Sheldon made dashi-poached shrimp and miso grits, yuzu miso broth, and pickled cabbage; the judges felt this was a little flat.
* Favorites: Amanda, Brooke, and Shirley. The judges praise Brooke’s technique, especially the perfect cooking of the egg at the heart of the dish. Tom said Shirley’s “gave you a hug after it slapped you.” The winner is Brooke, unsurprisingly, given the risk she took.
* She mentions in the confessional that there’s an “old wives’ tale” that whoever wins the first TC challenge has a better chance of winning the whole thing. I could look it up but I’m too lazy.
* Least favorites: Casey’s fell flat; it was tasty, but not at the level of others. Tesar’s dish didn’t seem to make much sense to the judges, and Tom couldn’t figure out what the kimchi was doing there. Katsuji didn’t include enough of his pickled vegetables to get them in every bite. Tesar is the bottom and has to face Gerald in an elimination quickfire.
* Tesar is 58. I don’t think he looks that old, and he doesn’t act that old. Katsuji advises him to mess with Gerald’s head, but to Tesar’s credit he doesn’t seem interested in that kind of gamesmanship.
* Gerald says – I think I got this right – that he used to live in his car when he and his wife were going through a separation because he couldn’t afford two residences, one for his wife and five kids and one for himself. I rewound this twice and still am not 100% sure if that was past tense.
* The elimination challenge takes place at Boone Hall Plantation, a working plantation that is also a sort of museum of slavery, with tours available for people to see the slave quarters. The main house reminded me of Django Unchained, but that was filmed in Louisiana.
* Padma explains that “since the 1950s it’s been open to visitors … to honor those who worked and toiled here.” Those were slaves. Just say the word. In fact, shout it. Don’t gloss over it as “work.” And maybe this wasn’t a great place for an episode.
* Elimination quickfire: Apparently this plantation is home to one of the world’s largest oyster festivals. Tesar and Gerald each have 20 minutes to make an oyster dish, and there’s a fire going for an oyster roast.
* Tesar brought truffles and busts them out for his dish. Apparently Top Chef allows contestants to bring a few ingredients with them. Other chefs are all “whoa,” but 1) truffles are the most cliché ingredient imaginable and I hate when judges give chefs credit for using them and 2) I doubt every contestant has the cash to buy a truffle or the access to ‘borrow’ one.
* Gerald only puts a couple of oysters on the fire, which looks like a rookie mistake, and when the first batch turn out to have little crabs in them (ew) he has to go cook a second batch. I had to look this up, but apparently these are called oyster pea crabs, and they’re both edible and considered a delicacy. Wikipedia linked to this 1913 NY Times article (PDF) about the little bugs, and a quick google search turned up this Delmarva Now story about them. I guess Gerald should have kept the crabs and used them?
* Tesar made an oyster “stew,” with cream-poached oysters, truffle butter, hot sauce, shaved truffle. He put the raw oyster in the bowl and poured the hot soup liquid over it to “poach” it, although that’s a stretch on the definition of poaching. Tom says “the oyster is totally raw.” … Gerald served roasted oysters with thai-style mignonette and tomato compote. He jokes that he “can’t do too much. I didn’t bring truffles.” I think the judges are underwhelmed by the concept – it’s a very basic preparation.
* They send Gerald home, saying his Thai flavors weren’t hot enough – that if you’re selling something as Thai, it should have some heat. I’d have preferred to lose Tesar and see someone new stick around longer; Tesar’s act wore thin last time around, and it’s not as if he made it to the finals like Brooke did.