I have a column up on the Royals’ success dilemma, plus postseason picks, and I chatted today as well.
Top Chef returns to New Orleans, great news because it’s a disadvantaged city still on its way back from the natural and human disasters of 2005, and because Louisiana is home of two of the only truly American cuisines – Cajun and Creole. Hugh Acheson does not appear on this week’s episode, but he did appear on my podcast and talked about the season. He also promised that we’ll get a Cochon challenge, which is huge news as that restaurant is insanely great.
So we meet the chefs, starting with the man voted sexiest chef in Lake Nobody Cares, Jason, who looks like a douchebag and admits it, but claims he can really cook. If you want to convince people you’re not a douchebag, losing the pink shorts would be a good start. Then we meet Janine, an Australian chef who refers to herself as “not so ugly,” a rather stunning contrast in ego to Jason, as she is rather better than not-so-ugly – but more on that later, once the boys start acting like boys around her. Also of interest is Stephanie from Boston’s No. 9 Park; she tried out with her roommate/colleague Kristen last year, but was bounced in the qualifying round while Kristen went on to win the top prize.
On to the cooking…
* No quickfire this week. Instead, we get a giant elimination challenge, where the chefs are randomly assigned one of three non-traditional proteins – gator, turtle, and frog – and must cook a dish featuring that item to be plated and served at a giant shindig in a Bayou swamp. To me that says they should be thinking more Cajun than Creole if they’re trying to play to the audience. The guests get bead necklaces and are asked to give one to the chef who created their favorite dish of the evening. The three chefs with the most necklaces end up in the top, and the three with the fewest go on the chopping block.
* Two of the 19 chefs begin with immunity because they won a mini-competition of ten New Orleans chefs to earn their spots on the main show. One is Justin, from La Petite Grocery, and the other, Michael, is from the French Quarter stalwart Galatoire’s, so we’re not screwing around here.
* The whining starts early as Michael drives one of the carloads of chefs on their shopping trip and points out some of the sights of the city, only to have Travis grumbling in the back that he just wants to think about cooking. You’re in one of the greatest food tourism cities in the country. Don’t be afraid to relax the sphincter and enjoy it, big guy.
* Bravo runs a live TV poll asking viewers which they would prefer to eat – gator, turtle, or neither, with gator winning in the last update. I’ve had gator and frog, but never turtle. The whole tastes-like-chicken thing gets old fast, because chicken itself has two tastes – dark meat, which usually offers flavor and texture, and white meat, which usually tastes like drywall. Saying “it tastes like chicken” is tantamount to saying “I’m not going to be bothered to think about what this should taste like.” If you cook gator, and it tastes like chicken, congratulations! You suck at this.
* One common thread as we continue to meet the chefs: The boys are cocky and the girls are self-effacing. Think that has a little to do with how we raise our children? The first female chef here to tell any of the men to go shit in his tocque will be my new favorite. I’m secretly hoping it’s Janine, though.
* I should point out that I’ve never cooked any of these proteins, so I have no idea what the challenges are beyond the tendency of such meats to dry out or toughen, but I was floored to see the raw turtle meat, which was the color of a burgundy wine. Michael is treating his like a cube steak to tenderize it.
* Another interesting background – Nina, the daughter of John Compton, the former Prime Minister of St. Lucia and one of the leaders of the country’s independence movement in the 1970s. She speaks of Top Chef as if it were the Olympics and she her country’s flag-bearer. She’s making a curry dish in a nod to her background and grinding the turtle meat into meatballs to mitigate its toughness.
* And then the testosterone kicks in, as we get comments on Janine wearing short shorts and sandals in the kitchen while we see a few of the straight male chefs trying (and largely failing) to flirt with her. I’m guessing that she’s immune to weak game having spent her professional life in male-dominated kitchens, but hey, stay classy, fellas.
* Chef Douchey-Douche, who slipped and wiped out on the floor earlier in the show, cuts his finger right as Tom enters the kitchen to do his walkaround.
* Sara works at Taste of Shoyu, a Japanese restaurant at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport (note to self for the 2014 Futures Game), bringing “real food” to the airport, after several yaers working for Wolfgang Puck as executive chef at two of his restaurants.
* Patty is running into trouble with her output, worrying that she may not have enough servings of her gator rillettes. She’s actually pretty good-looking herself, but all the talk is about Janine. I wonder why that is…
* Ramon is making turtle soup with a Thai dashi, but makes an obvious mistake when he tries to cool the dashi more quickly by dumping a bunch of ice in it, thus watering it down. Why not put it in a larger bowl or pot that is full of ice, so it cools (and maybe even reduces a little more with the last bit of evaporation) without dilution? Is it possible that a professional chef knows so little of basic chemistry that he gets this wrong?
* When Emeril walks into the house the next morning, did everyone clap for him or for the beignets? Because, really, while it would be fun to meet Emeril, I would absolutely trade that opportunity for two beignets. Well, maybe two beignets and a cup of coffee.
* The chefs arrive at the swamp to find they have to build their own cooking stations, including setting up the gas grills. I hate these physical-strength challenges, as they’re a pretty clear disadvantage for at least some of the women in every season. What are we accomplishing here? Is it just so we can watch Sara nearly blow herself and a few nearby chefs up as fire starts shooting out the Venturi tubes?
* Patty is scrambling, moving to a plan B – making a pan sauce with “a gumbo flavor profile.” I don’t see how that’s possible in this short a period of time, since the fundamental flavor of gumbo comes from the roux, which takes 30-60 minutes to make.
* Nina thinks her curry came out too spicy and makes a chutney to balance it, which just sounds like a strong way to show more of her range and increase the dish’s complexity anyway.
* Padma admits she’s never been to a swamp. Did they hire two people just to keep the mosquitos away from her?
* Steph notices Douchey-Douche’s “air about himself.” More like hydrogen sulfide, I’d guess. He’s acting pretty douchey about being done early.
* Tom is not a fan of okra. I love okra. Tom is wrong.
* To the dishes: Bene (who said he wanted to be the first “Top Gay Chef”) makes a turtle croquette with cauliflower puree. Nina’s finished dish is a curried turtle meatball with chayote slaw and chutney with raisins, earning huge praise even from the judges. Janine makes an “alligator BLT,” gator confit (in duck fat, dear God I love this woman) with a tomato jam on the side. Aaron does a duo of turtle, one confit with pickled eggplant, the other in a ragout served over tagliatelle.
* Shirley steals a recipe from her mother-in-law for “turtle tea,” a soup with goji berry and chinese slaw. Carrie does a cold dish, poached frog legs with an oyster emulsion and cold zucchini salad. I believe her dish was the only cold one, which could be an advantage since the air in the swamp was apparently so humid you could chew it. Carlos serves gator rilletes with fennel and pickled red onion relish.
* Note to guests: Giving Janine beads will not get her to flash you.
* Michael serves up fried gator, with sauce piquant, slaw, and basil. Sara goes for a “general Tso’s” gator, deep fried with smoked chilis, pea shoots and herbs, and pickled vegetables. Padma takes a bite and drops a “holy shit that’s hot.” If she says it’s spicy, you know it’s damn spicy. Ramon’s braised turtle with thai dashi and shaved radish is already getting panned for lack of flavor. Big shock there. Patty’s Cajun-style gator with yucca puree doesn’t look like much, and I don’t see how she could have developed those flavors in such a short time.
* Douchey-Douche does a frog’s leg croquette with roasted eggplant and a fennel salad. Steph confited her frog’s legs in butter and served with a spinach and watercress puree, which made me think of glasswort (a.k.a. sea beans) and how they’d be a perfect garnish for any of these dishes.
* Nina looks like she has a million beads, which is pretty telling. Ramon has almost none.
* The big twist this year: The chefs get to watch the judges deliberating, and it doesn’t seem like the judges hold back at all even though they’re being watched. I imagine that will be very, very awkward, but also potentially useful for chefs who take mental notes on their own dishes and what judges do and don’t favor in others’ dishes.
* The crowd loved Nina’s, Sara’s (despite the heat), Carrie’s, Shirley’s, and Janine’s. They didn’t favor Aaron (Tom said pasta suffered from sitting around too much), Patty (gator wasn’t treated as well), Carlos (toast was quite soggy), Ramon (dashi didn’t have flavor), or Bene (mushrooms weren’t cooked properly). Nothing terribly shocking on either side there, I think.
* Top three: Carrie, Nina, and Sara. Sara brought a lot of heat and cooked to the audience. If I had a surprise it was her making the top three despite a dish that had the Spice Queen dropping s-bombs on camera. Nina says she’d heard that turtle is tough, so she made a bite-sized dish that would become tender when cooked in the sauce. Carrie thought on a humid and hot evening, a cold dish would be refreshing, but she was the only chef who presented a cold dish and it may have helped her cause. Nina wins. That makes sense given what we were shown, but she’ll have to show she can cook outside of her genre as the show progresses.
* Bottom three: Patty, Aaron, and Ramon. Aaron said he ran with the pasta idea, but didn’t think of how the time and place would affect execution, earning him a scolding from Tom. Curtis said he wouldn’t try to do homemade pasta in a swamp for 150, period. Tom thinks it could have worked if done in small batches. No one mentions that he might have been better off doing one preparation well rather than two poorly.
* Ramon’s dashi was bland. Tom’s face when Ramon says he added ice was priceless, and I think his quote, “that’s just bizarre,” was just the best he could get out of his mouth while he was still in shock. At this point, I was certain Ramon was toast, and then Emeril said of the dashi, “it’s not a cocktail!” and I was sure.
* Patty says she changed concept midstream, broke up her rillettes, and at the end it was just pounded-out gator meat. Tom’s surprised she got a dish out the way she described her experience. I don’t know if this was poor planning or poor execution, but I can’t imagine she’s very long for the show either way.
* Ramon goes. Right call. Last Chance Kitchen is back, and maybe he’ll think more about cooling techniques before his first battle.
* One last note on this episode: The previews for the rest of the season focused mostly on positive moments, not behind-the-scenes drama; even the negative bits were more about dishes not working or chefs appearing stressed, rather than Project Runway-style sniping and bickering. Good for them. After all, I’m just here for the food.