Some admin stuff first…
* I have a new post up for Insiders, ranking the top 20 prospects by expected 2013 impact. The ranking incorporates my best educated guesses at playing time, based on what I’ve been told by team sources, although injuries could obviously change that. And I did a brief Klawchat, abbreviated so I could take my wife to lunch for Valentine’s Day.
* I’ve updated the Arizona spring training dining guide with a few places I forgot to mention.
* alt-J’s An Awesome Wave, the Mercury Prize-winning album about which I’ve been raving since late October, is now just $2.99 on amazon through that link. I reviewed the album in October, and you can listen to it on Spotify if you’d like to test-drive it first.
Josh’s wife is now a week overdue. I just can’t fathom being in Alaska while my wife was in labor in not-Alaska. She’d be furious with me and, for once, she’d be right.
* Before the quickfire, the three chefs have to fly in a helicopter for about 15 minutes to get to the challenge site – and Brooke’s very real anxiety kicks in almost immediately. She’s in tears, somehow gets herself on the chopper, and spends much of the ride with her eyes closed and clinging to Josh (who gets major points for both helping her and for not patronizing her for her fear). I’m fortunate that my anxiety has never taken that stark a form, but I understand how strong that reaction is, and that it’s not just mental at that point but is physical. Eventually she does recover enough to look out the windows and get absorbed in the views, although I thought that might trigger another round of panic for her.
* Sheldon, meanwhile, thinks this is awesome: “I would die for some good reefer!” You and Tim Beckham, my man.
* They land on Norris Glacier, which appears to be near Mendenhall Lake and Glacier just northeast of Juneau. They’re at a camp where dogsled racers are training for the Iditarod. The quickfire: make a dish using ingredients and equipment found in the camp. It looks like there’s at least a decent supply of fish on hand, but the kitchen is tiny, there are no electrical appliances, and the burners are small and not very powerful.
* I know you’re shocked, but Josh is doing breakfast again – corn cakes with eggs and smoked salmon. He doesn’t have time to fry the eggs and keep them warm when he brings them to the outdoor table, so he scrambles them, which means his plate looks and feels like mush.
* I like that the sled dogs have little dog huts to protect them from the wind.
* Brooke’s pan cools down immediately when she adds the fish, which she says may have to do with the altitude, although I also wonder what material the pan was and how long it would hold the heat (I need a physicist’s opinion here). She made a pan-roasted halibut with lemon zest, smoked sea salt, red currant-beet vinaigrette, and a panzanella with walnuts and crunchy croutons. Despite the pan problems, her halibut has a nice brown sear on the outside.
* Tom’s reaction to Josh’s scrambled eggs – “Really?” – was pretty telling.
* Sheldon does a seared halibut with a chicken broth-tomato sauce, sesame bok choy, and pickled radish. His halibut doesn’t look seared like Brooke’s, but Tom said it was cooked perfectly, instead criticizing the sauce as too salty and very one-note. That turns out to be foreshadowing.
* Brooke wins, no surprise there. Her only real competition at this point is still hanging out in Last Chance Kitchen. That’s her third Quickfire win and seventh win overall.
* So Padma drives the trio back to Juneau after the helicopter ride down, which leads to Sheldon mocking Padma’s driving, saying she’s probably been chauffeured everywhere. A little casual misogyny, maybe?
* Elimination challenge: Cook dinner for the Governor of Alaska and his wife at the Governor’s Mansion. The guest judge is Roy Choi of the Kogi Korean BBQ food trucks (which popularized the Korean taco) and A-Frame.
* Roy and Emeril cook lunch for the group, during which Roy tells about how he was a real stoner into his early 20s, and one day, while high on his couch, he had the Food Network on and saw Emeril braising short ribs in red wine, at which point “Emeril popped out of the TV and slapped [him] across the face” (must have been some good weed), after which Roy started researching culinary schools and turned his life around. That moment felt genuine – I don’t think Emeril knew the story was coming, either.
* Josh asks Emeril one of my favorite culinary-philosophy questions: sugar or no sugar in cornbread. Emeril says no sugar. This is why we like Emeril despite all the “BAM!” stuff. Cornbread with sugar is corn cake.
* The challenge: make a dish that represents the moment when you knew you wanted to be a chef. Brooke says she knew it from age four, so I assume she’s making pureed green beans and Cheerios.
* Josh gets the call from his wife – her water broke, she’s crying on the phone, he’s upset, wife tells him, “if you are still competing you just need to win,” and now he’s crying. Two things: I was surprised that even his wife didn’t know that he was still in the competition, and this reminds me of something I learned when my daughter was born, that only about 10% of pregnant women have their water break before they get to the hospital. Of course, my wife’s water did break, at 5:45 am on a Friday, five weeks before the due date, after which she helped and I had to be peeled off the ceiling.
* Sheldon is making a snapper dish as an homage to Hawai’ian chef Sam Choy (who made an infamous clam flan on Iron Chef America). Tom cautions him not to start cooking the fish too soon, which seems to get into Sheldon’s head … but more on that in a moment.
* Josh’s “moment” was the first time he tasted foie gras, saying its delicate liver flavor changed how he thought about food. He’s making a torchon, foie gras that is soaked, lightly cured and marinated in white wine or brandy, briefly poached, and then wrapped tightly in a towel or parchment paper to dry and chill overnight in a cool place, a process that takes several days but that Josh will try to do overnight. Best of luck.
* Brooke talks about watching Julia Child as a kid and how her mom cooked dinner every night, so she’s making her mom’s braised chicken but is also adding quail to show who she’s evolved into as a chef. Quail has to be high on the list of things chefs screw up regularly on Top Chef.
* Brooke has a lot more ink than I realized, which I bring up because of the debate last week over whether she’s real-life cute or just Top Chef cute. I think she’s real-life cute, for what it’s worth.
* Josh’s wife calls again, obviously in pain and possibly high on medications, crying, “I just want you to be here, I love you, I have to go.” Good luck recovering from that phone call. Anyway, the baby’s born, yata yata yata, back to the kitchen everyone.
* I’m kind of disappointed that Sarah Palin is no longer the governor of Alaska, because maybe she could shoot another caribou for the chefs to cook while asking them to refudiate veganism or something.
* Sheldon starts to cook his fish with 20 minutes to go, but discovers his broth over-reduced and is too salty. He’s hinting that Tom’s comments got in his head, but why the hell wasn’t he checking the broth while he waited to cook the fish? If it’s reducing too fast, take it off the heat, or add some water? Am I missing something?
* He plates first, serving a pan-roasted rockfish, spot prawns, baby vegetables, and some of the dashi (broth) he used to cook the fish. The prawns are great and slightly sweet. Roy loves the concept of the dish. And everyone says it’s too salty. Whoops.
* Wolfgang’s father used to tell him that he’d be good for nothing, which seems to be a common theme among professional chefs – and when Wolfgang became a chef, his father said cooking was for women. Sounds like the damn Father of the Year.
* Moving along rapidly … Brooke serves braised chicken with crispy skin, grilled quail, carrot barley (she cooked the barley in the carrot juice), pickled baby turnips, and mushrooms with pearl onions. Wolfgang says his quail was a little overcooked, an angle I think was played up from here on out through editing to make it look like she didn’t absolutely nail this dish start to finish. Roy says she was “a prodigy in LA” when she first got started. I think her unassuming demeanor masks how extremely skilled she is.
* Josh’s torchon isn’t set up sufficiently and moves it to the freezer. You can hear his death rattle.
* He serves foie three ways: the torchon, foie pan seared on corn purée, and profiteroles with foie mousse. Roy loved the flavors, Gail liked the profiteroles, but the torchon wasn’t set. Tom says you just can’t do it, even if you’re as good as Tom Colicchio. (He may not have phrased it that way.) The Governor says the dish had too little texture contrast, so already he sounds smarter than his predecessor.
* Judges’ Table: Josh says he “wanted to go balls to the wall,” but Tom questions “short-cutting” the torchon and hammers Josh on his core concept. Brooke’s had great flavors, looked simple but was “like origami” according to Roy, and we hear that the quail a little overcooked. Sheldon’s fish cooked perfectly, but he botched the broth. Wolfgang says the fish and prawns were beautifully cooked “like you were the best chef in the world,” so how could Sheldon fail to taste the broth before plating?
* Brooke wins, again. If it weren’t for Last Chance Kitchen, this would be the least dramatic finish for Top Chef in ages.
* Josh is eliminated. I thought Sheldon made the bigger error here, the third week in a row he had a glaring mistake in the elimination challenge and stuck around; Josh used an ingredient he didn’t fully understand (per both Tom and Wolfgang), but it seems like the remainder of his fish was strong. Have they saved Sheldon a little too often?
* LCK: Make Tom a great plate of food. Lizzie wins save-a-chef, so it’s her versus both Kristen and Josh. They get 30 minutes to cook and can use anything in the craft LA kitchen. Josh goes for venison as his protein, claiming he’s “curing” it (impossible in 30 minutes) but really just using a coriander-heavy rub with kale and shaved raw carrot. Lizzie goes for black cod, cooking it with black pepper and vinegar, plus spaetzle and savoy cabbage. Kristen grabs semolina flour to make fresh pasta. Nearly certain she has new tattoos on her arm. She makes caraway orecchiette, with pea tendrils, citrus, brown butter, pomegranate seeds, and fresh herbs. There’s a lot of handwork required to make that shape, although I think that’s part of her strategy – impress the judges by accomplishing tasks they know are arduous or difficult in a short time period. Josh’s venison looks raw, kind of purplish, and sure enough it was cold in the center, so he’s sent home immediately. The winner between Kristen and Lizzie is … to be announced next week, on the show.
* Rankings: Kristen, Brooke, Lizzie, Sheldon. I’ve just lost confidence in Sheldon’s ability to execute in the bigger challenges. The finale really needs to be Kristen versus Brooke in some form; they have nine of the fourteen elimination challenge wins, and they’ve been by far the most impressive contestants this year, blowing just about everyone else out of the water. I know Tom insists the judging is always strictly about the food, but you know Bravo is loving the Kristen storyline, and they figure ratings will be highest if those two women are in the finale.