Sorry this is so delayed, but I had no free time in Arizona to watch the show and write it up. Anyway, I posted two more Fall League columns, players who exceeded expectations and players who fell short. I also have a column up explaining my disdain for the term “clutch”, and I had Dirk Hayhurst as a guest on this week’s Behind the Dish podcast.
On to the show…
* The show starts with a Quickfire that begins right after Ramon’s elimination: Prepare a gumbo, based on your heritage, and begin that same night at the house using a slow cooker. The chefs get 15 minutes the following day to finish, and the winner gets immunity. The judge is Leah Chase, the 90-year-old “Queen of Creole Cuisine” and owner of Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans, which has been open since 1941.
* Michael, one of the two local chefs on the show, says in New Orleans, “if you don’t have gumbo on your menu you’re going out of business.” I believe that, but I’ve also had some very mediocre gumbo down there, so it’s important to have it on the menu but not as important that it be good.
* Aaron asks another chef, “is gumbo like a velouté base?” It’s not – velout´, one of the five mother sauces in French cuisine, involves a very light roux, while gumbo requires a dark roux for its characteristic flavor. I don’t know how a professional, US-born chef could be ignorant of this. It’s not an obscure dish.
* I clearly couldn’t host the Top Chef contestants in my house because there aren’t enough outlets.
* Carrie is going for an Iowa/Trinidad blend, reflecting her mixed roots, but the result looks more like broccoli soup. Jason, who lost his Polish-born mother when he was just three years old (and yeah, now I feel bad for the guy), makes one with cabbage, pork shanks, beets, and potatoes as the thickener.
* Michael hates his gumbo so he dumps it out and starts over. Pretty ballsy to do that even though the lost cooking time is significant. It’s a sunk cost, though – you can’t get that time back, so continuing with a crappy dish just because you’ve spent a lot of time on it is a bad strategy.
* At judging, Aaron misses the opportunity of a lifetime when Padma picks up a shrimp from his dish and says, “Did you want me to put the whole head in my mouth?” The correct response was, “No, Padma, just the tip.”
* The bottom three dishes belonged to Jason, primarily for the dried beets; Michael, whose revised drunken-chicken with dirty rice didn’t seem to be gumbo at all; and Patty, whose mofongo-style dish with plantains aslo seemed to be not-gumbo. Then we get Jason calling it “bullshit” in the confessional and I’m reminded of why I didn’t like the guy in the first place. I knew it wasn’t just the douchey hair.
* The top three were Carrie’s green gumbo (coconut, green mango, and buttery corn crumble), Aaron’s shrimp heads, and Shirley’s with braised pork belly. Carrie wins, despite her concerns about the color, when Leah says it reminds her of the gumbo z’herbes she makes for Holy Thursday. Carrie gets immunity from cruci … er, elimination.
* Elimination challenge: Food trucks! Susan Spicer of Bayona restaurant is the guest judge. I don’t know who she is and her pants look ridiculous. Other than that, great to have you here, Susan. She can’t measure up to Leah, who says “the Pope quit” but after Katrina “I had to keep going.” I’m surprised the chefs didn’t fight over who got to take her home. Anyway, the chefs are cooking for Habitat for Humanity volunteers who appear to be working in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was the hardest-hit area during Katrina, probably because the whole area is four feet below sea level (and the levees didn’t hold).
* Padma splits the chefs up into five teams. The yellow team does a taco truck with ceviche and some kind of fried food, all very smart and traditional for a truck. The blue team does a “surf truck” and Jason is talking some health-food nonsense about giving the volunteers “sustained energy throughout the course of the day” as if what they really want is a Clif Bar and a Red Bull. The green team is going Mediterranean; the three women all volunteer Louis for service duty because of his smile, which I guess is dreamy or something. The red team is going for a Miami-Caribbean theme and four of the chefs are completely ignoring Bene.
* Patty recalls when Hurricane George hit Puerto Rico in 1997 and she didn’t have electricity for six months. If you thought the response in Louisana was slow, think about the second-class status of a U.S. commonwealth or territory.
* Bene has been relegated to sous chef and it’s not clear why the others chefs have no respect for him at all. I don’t know if it’s because he’s goofy (he is) or if he said something off camera that convinced them that he’s not that good, but he has to stand up for himself and make sure there’s an item that he can claim as his own.
* Carrie wants to make empanadas but can’t find a rolling pin at Whole Foods, so she buys a giant bottle of wine and chills it for a makeshift, very cold rolling pin that will keep the fat in the dough from melting while she’s working with it. That’s pretty clever.
* Nicholas and Jason are trying to make sure that Patty/Bret don’t “overthink the dishes.” I’m just going to say that they should have spent more time thinking about their own dishes instead, as Jason’s salmon rolls, which he rolls up ahead of time so he can spend more time chatting up the volunteers, are going to get very soggy as they sit.
* To the food … The yellow team serves a dorado (mahi-mahi) and shrimp ceviche with tomato from Travis and Brian, a beef and pork curry empanada with mangos from Carrie and Aaron, and tilapia tacos with chipotle aioli and cabbage from Carlos and Aaron. Everything seems to be a hit, including the volunteer’s comment “whatever this yellow stuff is, it’s good,” which sounds far worse without context.
* We need to chip in and buy Tom a better hat.
* The blue team serves Jason’s salmon hand roll with quinoa and a honey mustard miso; Nick’s spiced shrimp with a watermelon/tomato sauce; Bret’s coconut ceviche with snapper and scallop as well as hot plantain chips; and Patty’s tuna slider with crispy pancetta, avocado, and tomato. The negatives start early here – Jason’s rolls are soggy and soft, Bret’s plantains are way too hot and the dish isn’t well seasoned, Patty’s tuna isn’t well-seasoned and the tomatoes were somehow off.
* Janine, in response to a question about doing construction work: “I’m pretty good with my hands.” Is this whole season just going to be “male chefs giggling at anything Janine says that might have a double meaning?”
* The red team serves Janine’s cold gazpacho with pickled shrimp; Justin’s lobster and crab fritter with corn puree and bacon jam, which Tom comps to a funnel cake and is the item I most wanted to reach into my television and grab; Nina and Bene’s jerk chicken sandwich with mango and crispy plantains; and Michael’s ricotta with burnt honey, stone fruit, and toasted coconut. The judges seem mixed on Janine using ginger in the gazpacho. Michael’s dessert gets raves, and it was the only dessert anyone served, which is often a plus for the chef.
* The green team offers Steph’s crispy chickpeas (falafel) with watercress and radish salad, Sara’s tuna burger with watermelon rind pickles, Shirley’s spicy grilled lamb salad, and Louis’ “amuse” … which was just a rectangular block of watermelon on a lemongrass stick? Is that really all he did? I mean, I don’t want Louis to strain himself or anything, but that seems a little basic.
* Judges’ table: The yellow team wins, and blue is on the bottom, no surprise either way. Green team was the runner-up. The judges describe the red and blue teams’ plates as “strange choices” that weren’t “as well thought-through.” That doesn’t line up with the comments we saw about the red team, though; the only real criticism was directed against the blue team and it seemed like the guests and judges liked several red team plates.
* It’s clear right away the the empanadas were the winning dish, although the judges liked everything the yellow team offered. Making the dough on the truck was the key to the dish and to impressing the judges, so Carrie completes the sweep of the episode. Maybe Jason should have put his salmon roll in a Pop-Tart instead.
* Speaking of Jason, he’s in a good emotional frame of mind for Judges’ Table: “if they’re constructive, I’ll be nice. If they’re rude, I’ll be rude back.”
* When Bret says he thought they were in good shape because they had leftovers – which means that diners didn’t come back for seconds – Padma looks at Bret like he’s the dimmest bulb in the chandelier. It’s like when you put together something from IKEA and you have a few unused screws when you think you’re done. Those aren’t bonus pieces.
* Three of the dishes were real duds. Bret’s ceviche wasn’t cold enough to begin with, wasn’t seasoned correctly, and the tostones were too hot to pick up (they’re the utensils with which you eat the fish). The tomato on Patty’s tuna slider was apparently awful and Tom was so pissed off about it that, if he were still wearing that hat at judges’ table, it might have caught fire. (Which wouldn’t have been a bad outcome from a fashion perspective.) Jason admits that rolling up his salmon early was a mistake, but says he didn’t realize it at the time he was doing it. Even Nicholas’ dish fell short due to the wasabi peas. Tom says “details” are where they went wrong, but these weren’t minor details – if I got warm ceviche in a restaurant, I’d send it back.
* Jason is eliminated. I’m shocked – he certainly wasn’t the worst chef in the room, based on what we’ve seen, and I thought the questions about Bret’s ceviche, from high temperature to insufficient acidity, would have bounced him. Jason says he’s “bitter and angry” and in this one case I can’t blame him, even though he comes off so badly on TV.
* Am I alone in thinking we haven’t seen a strong favorite or two? Paul and Kristen had already separated themselves somewhat by this point in their seasons, but I don’t see anyone like that yet. Carrie is the easy choice for now, based on these wins and what I’d call moderate ambition with her cooking, but what she’s made so far hasn’t been wildly inventive like Paul’s dishes or immaculately intricate like Kristen’s. After Carrie, I’ll go with Carlos (gut feel pick) and Stephanie for the top three, with Shirley also a consideration, and Brian and Travis both in the “haven’t seen enough” bucket. Bottom three: Patty, Bret, and Bene.
* Can’t wait till tonight’s episode, which I believe marks the return of Hugh Acheson. Plus, yellow beets are the new pea purée.