The top 100 prospects ranking is up, in two parts, numbers 1 through 50 and numbers 51 through 100. My ranking of all 30 major league farm systems went up on Wednesday. All pieces are Insider. On Friday morning, my top ten prospects and full farm report will go up for each team. In total, you’ll get over 48,000 words of content – longer than Heart of Darkness and less creepy, too.
On to Top Chef … where the Last Chance Kitchen winner is (drumroll please) Doug. George loses again, unfortunately, but at least that ends the mini-controversy about him getting this far after jumping back in halfway through the season. Two of the season’s final four chefs are from Portland.
* The final four are in San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajato, about 270 km northwest of Mexico City. The guest judge for this episode is Enrique Olvera, whose restaurant, Pujol in Mexico City, was named one of the world’s 50 best restaurants by some site or other and who can really take a list like that seriously? Really? Can anyone have ever properly sampled the world’s great restaurants to make such a list? I’m sure Olvera’s food is great, though. He’s written two books that appear to have vanished completely into the ether, but there’s another one coming soon from Phaidon Press, which also published the modestly-titled Mexico: The Cookbook, which includes contributions from Olvera. Anyway, it’s great to see a new face at judges’ table, and one from another country too.
* Quickfire: Create a dish that highlights the xoconostle, a fruit similar to a prickly pear but from a different cactus, prized by chefs for its tartness and frequently used in salsas. Olvera says the plant’s growing season is very short “so when we get it we eat it all the time.” Any of you ever had one? I don’t recall seeing them in Arizona, but I’m not sure I would have known what I was looking at if I had seen one in Pros Ranch Market.
* Mei can’t get the salmon she wanted because Melissa took it – again, what does that accomplish, making it a race for proteins? – so she chooses steak. She covers her steak in salt to sear it. I thought I was aggressive when seasoning meat, but apparently I’m about 50% short of the mark. She realizes she won’t have enough time to cook it through, so she calls an audible and makes a steak tataki, seared on the outside but effectively raw on the interior. I’ve had that with tuna, not really my favorite preparation, but never with steak.
* Melissa is making ceviche. Don’t be afraid to cook something, Melissa.
* Padma is sauntering around this public square in a white dress and heels. There’s no crowd of people staring at her? She looks like she might be starring in a shampoo commercial.
* Mei made a ribeye tataki with cactus salsa verde and xoconostle salsa. The meat’s a mess, in case you missed that foreshadowing. Doug made an all-vegetable xoconostle and tomatillo stew with roasted peppers and pepitas and purple cactus. Enrique likes that he made a vegetable-driven dish, saying that Mexican cuisine is mostly vegetables, despite what people (coughAmericanscough) might think it is. (I’ll be over here swimming in a tub of carnitas.) Melissa made a salmon ceviche with xoconostle, leche de tigre (which is what you marinate ceviche in – lime juice, sliced onion, chilies, salt, pepper, and of course the fish juices), guava, celery, shallots, and beets. She might use as many ingredients as Katsuji did. Gregory served shrimp with garlic, olive oil, two prickly pear sauces, and xoconostle relish.
* Gregory’s was the worst dish, as it was overpowered by the olive oil. Mei’s meat was not cooked correctly. Melissa’s leche de tigre was “refreshing.” I don’t get it – I like ceviche, but how much skill or creativity is required for that? Don’t you just chop and serve? Doug’s was mostly vegetables, which Enrique praises with “that’s the way we eat here most of our days,” and likes that you could really taste the xoconostle.
* “The winner is the one that takes risks in this life.” Is that about the quickfire, or just general advice? I like it. By the way, Doug wins and gets an advantage in the elimination challenge.
* Elimination challenge: Each chef randomly gets the address of a local artist – apparently San Miguel de Allende is the Portland of Mexico – and will meet with the artist, then design a dish inspired by the artist’s work, while the artist will in turn create a painting that will be on display during service. The chefs’ dishes must represent their artists’ work visually. This has “I was gonna use a condom, but I figured, when am I gonna get back to Haiti?” written all over it.
* The eliminated chefs are all there to serve as sous. Doug gets to pick his two first and takes Adam and Katsuji because he’s apparently building a new sitcom. (Katsuji’s deadpan “I don’t cook Mexican” got glossed over, but it was pretty sharp.) Melissa gets George and James, Mei gets Keriann and Rebecca, and Gregory gets Katie and Stacy.
* Mei says, modestly, “my dishes have been described as works of art.” No, Mei, the diners meant they thought Art Smith made your dishes. You know, works of Art.
* Melissa’s artist is a total space cadet. No, like, even more than that.
* They go shopping at Mega, which is absolutely enormous. Personally I prefer Femto. They keep it small and local.
* Doug is flustered by the store, saying “This is not Whole Foods… my spanish is poquito.” How do you work in a kitchen and not know Spanish? Doesn’t half the staff in every restaurant in the United States speak Spanish, including a lot of the people who do the truly hard, manual work? I don’t get how anyone who ever eats out could oppose immigration reform, but that’s another story.
* Mei is saying filet or PEE-lay instead of “piel,” although I’m not sure if that’s the right word or if it would be “pellejo,” which I think is the word for the skin of an animal. Piel might be human skin and this is just not that kind of competition.
* Gregory’s strip loin steaks are at least a little overcooked, although somehow after a rest they’re not overcooked and I must have missed something because that’s not how it usually works, right? Although I guess if scientists can unboil an egg, maybe you can uncook a steak too.
* Gregory’s artist and dish feature “dark, complex flavors.” Just how I like my women. Anyway, his dish is a grilled strip loin with an ancho chili and tamarind sauce, beets, cilantro purée, and a Valencia orange sauce. His artist’s painting has a lot of earth tones, with orange and green the only vibrant colors, both mirrored in the dish. Gail and Tom both love it.
* Doug is slightly apoplectic that he’s serving chili to Tom Colicchio in the Top Chef final four. Just embrace it, man.
* Gail’s dress is too tight. I can’t imagine the pressures women face when going on TV – their looks are scrutinized fifty or a hundred times more than the looks of their male counterparts – but this dress just did not fit, and it was a bad look.
* Doug’s dish is “Texas red,” a beanless chili made with brisket, tomatillo, and a masa cake, paralleling the structural nature of his artist’s painting. He braised the brisket slow. Gail says it’s earthy, has good acidity, and the cheese adds bite. Tom pauses, to give Doug angina, and then says he loves it.
* Melissa makes a “land and sea” dish with smoked eggplant ravioli, shrimp, chorizo, and cotija, and some beet juice to represent the artist’s graffiti. Padma loves the eggplant, saying it’s beautifully done. But this jumped out right away as the losing dish – there’s no cohesion here, and I wondered why all that stuff was on the same plate. The Cheesecake Factory will have this on page 63 of its menu by next Thursday.
* Mei made a snapper and bass crudo with a chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles. Tom and Gail love the chicken skin, and who wouldn’t? It’s like savory candy when it’s done right. (If you have the skin from a roasted or otherwise cooked chicken, just run a paring knife over the inside to scrape it out so you’re just cooking the skin, then pan-fry it on both sides, no oil required.) I thought Mei’s dish was the most attractive, although that’s a subjective thing and I’m the last person to ask about art.
* The judges’ comments after the fact were pretty predictable, at least based on what the editors showed us already. Gregory’s sauce was complex and subtle. Padma says Mei’s dish wasn’t as wild as the artwork, but Tom thought the flavors were wild, and Gail loved the chicken skin like it was pepperoni sauce. The judges all liked the warm flavors of Doug’s chili, and Tom likes that inspiration outside the kitchen made him cook something different. Padma loved Melissa’s ravioli, which we knew, but Tom says some elements were there for shock/color and not for flavor, and he might as well have read her eulogy right there.
* Judges’ Table: Tom loves that the challenge got something more out of Doug, who Gail thought was very literal to the painting (I think that was a compliment). Gail likes that elements of Mei’s artist’s work were in the food, but that the food was still clearly Mei’s. They all wish the presentation had been wilder, but at that point, it would no longer have been Mei’s, right? Her plates are always immaculate. Padma wanted more envelope-pushing; Enrique says he liked the clean flavors, and how the dish was subtle but still playful. (I wish he’d spoken more. His English is fine, but I wonder if he was shy about speaking because it’s not his first language, or if we just lost a bunch of his comments in editing.) Padma loved Melissa’s ravioli, but wasn’t sure what the shrimp was doing there other than to add the pink color. (Pickled red onions could have done the same thing, and would have paired better with the eggplant, I think.) Tom thought it was playful but the chorizo was over-rendered, the only execution failure we’ve heard about. Enrique says Gregory’s dish repped his artist Artemio’s work very nicely, with powerful ingredients and strong flavors that stayed with you. Gail said the elements spoke to Artemio’s vision with the “marigold yellow” from the orange/ginger sauce (this judges’ table brought to you by Crayola).
* Gregory and Doug had the favorite dishes. Doug wins, and gets to take home the painting, which he’ll send to his mom the art teacher. Maybe Mos Chef got his groove back, too, now that everyone had a few weeks off. A competitive Gregory in the final two challenges would make this all much more entertaining.
* Melissa is eliminated. Tom says, “you did nothing wrong, you just came up against three dishes that were stronger.” That means the best three chefs from the early and middle parts of the season are the final three.
* Rankings: I don’t even know any more. I think Gregory, Mei, Doug, except Doug just won the Quickfire and elimination challenge straight out of winning LCK, and Mei’s been better later in the season than Gregory, so I got nothin’ except that I’m glad these are the final three and I’d at any of their restaurants in a heartbeat.
* Next week: Ant eggs? Really?