Klawchat today at 1 pm EDT.
* We start in the stew room just after Jason’s elimination. Bret starts making excuses, and Nicholas shuts him down quickly. Seemed to me like Bret was trying to convince himself, not anyone else.
* Louis talks about having a family as if it’s not very compatible with chef life. The few chefs I know well have all said that it’s hard to find work/life balance when work is so all-consuming – six or seven days a week, often twelve-hour (or more) days, and that’s just running one successful restaurant.
* This week’s Quickfire is an elimination challenge. Dana Cowan, the Editor-in-Chief of Food and Wine, is the guest judge and may have created the challenge. We get way too much of her on this show. The magazine isn’t that great – it has always seemed dated to me, like it’s still geared toward the dinner-party era of the 1970s, and there’s too little emphasis on cooking (as opposed to dining out) in it. I far prefer Fine Cooking and Bon Appetit in that same genre. Anyway, the challenge is to reinvent a popular food trend that Dana believes is, like heroin, so passé: eggs over everything, bacon, smoked foods, and kale. She says kale only appears as kale salad or kale chips. I ate a kale salad last night at Barbuzzo. It was really fucking good. Also, the best salad I’ve ever had was at Caulfield’s in Beverly Hills and had kale, hard-boiled egg, and applewood-smoked bacon, for the superfecta. So, you know, shut it, Dana.
* Janine wants to smoke scallops, but they get ripped out of the fridge before she can grab them. Scallops would make my list of foods that are overused on Top Chef – and I’d include bacon there, as well as anything truffle, and foie. That’d be a much more interesting challenge: Make a dish that excludes all of those items (and maybe one or two more.) Janine goes for bone-in pork loin instead, but hot-smoking that fully would take an hour or more, not the 30 minutes they have for this challenge.
* Michael goes all Uncle Gus on his oysters. We’re about to see Padma eating a smoked oyster plate, with third-degree burns.
* Odd choices: Stephanie is making a pasta dish with candied bacon, using the bacon fat to coat the pasta. That’s delicious, but not inventive at all. It’s at least been part of northern and central Italian cuisine for a century or more. … Bret is a bad listener and gets a timeout for making a kale salad after Dana specifically said not to make a kale salad. … Aaron deep-fries the kale, which is going to produce something very much like a kale chip. He then overseasons it, which has to be among the top three reasons Top Chef contestants get eliminated (along with under/overcooking a protein and failing to follow explicit directions).
* With about six minutes left, we see Janine panicking because, shocker, the pork isn’t cooked. I assumed at the time she’d sear it off, both to finish cooking it (it can stay rare or medium-rare in the center) and to get some color and flavor on the outside, but we don’t see that step.
* Carrie’s dish looked the best on the screen – soft-boiled egg, hand chopped and mixed into a dressing with chili flakes and lemon zest, served over green beans. It looked and sounded amazing, and I could see putting that dressing on asparagus or even tossing it with wilted bitter greens. Still waiting for the recipe on that one.
* The judges’ favorites: Nina (Scotch quail egg, confit potatoes, leek and potato puré) Shirley (rice congee with a “perfect” shirred egg, sesame oil, and soy sauce), and the visibly nervous Stephanie (fresh pasta with candied bacon and flash-fried sweet potatoes). Winner: Shirley, who I believe called it her “get of the jail free card,” which is a delightful expression and not exactly inaccurate given the history of Top Chef immunity.
* Their least favorites: Bret, for not listening. Aaron, whose kale was totally overdressed and too salty. Louis, in whose dish the judges could barely taste the smokiness of the trout. Aaron is eliminated, saying “one mistake will send you home.” It is maybe the most common mistake of all, though: Season lightly, taste, season again. He seasoned heavily, then tasted, and couldn’t hit Undo. Bret knows he “dodged a bit of a bullet” but doesn’t seem to realize there is a bazooka aimed at his face at this point.
* Elimination challenge: Recreate one of four classic items from the menu at Commander’s Palace, located in New Orleans’ Garden District. It’s legendary for its food and for its history of churning out great chefs, including Emeril and Paul Prud’homme, both of whom will be at the dinner table along with Executive Chef Tory McPhail. No pressure here, just replicate a dish and serve it to the guy who invented it.
* Did Shirley whisper “Commander’s Palace” right before Padma announced it? Was that some kind of subliminal move? Creepy.
* The dishes: Shrimp and tasso Henican (recipe, if you’re curious). Black skillet seared (what we’d call “blackened” outside of Louisiana) trout, a Paul Prud’homme dish. Emeril’s veal chop Tchoupitoulas, with red potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. And a strawberry trio – a petite shortcake, a strawberry blood and sand cocktail, and a strawberry beignet. The cocktail is a variation on a dated but classic drink from the 1920s that included Scotch, blood orange juice, vermouth, and a Danish liqueur called Cherry Heering.
* The first thing I noticed when the chefs entered the kitchen: it’s huge. Usually we see the chefs fighting for square footage or dealing with old equipment, but this is big, spacious, and looks state of the art. I look forward to inevitable complaints about space anyway.
* Give Louis points for at least saying he read up online on Cajun and Creole foods, although given what comes next, it sounds like he might not have retained what he read.
* Stephanie, the Queen of Self-Psychouts, says she’s struggling with the biscuits. She knows it’s a 3:2:1 flour:liquid:fat ratio, but she doesn’t really understand how it works. Really, Steph? Don’t they teach basic pastry dough techniques in culinary school? Can I send you a copy of Ruhlman’s Ratio? It’s on me.
* Bret doesn’t want to fight for grill space, so he decides to grill his chops to order, after the others have vacated the grill. This feels like elimination foreshadowing.
* Mini-drama in the kitchen: First, Nina grabbed Michael’s plates by mistake, even though they had the chefs’ names on them. Michael reclaims his plates but throws her okra on the cooking table. I’m actually shocked that Nina didn’t blow up at him in the kitchen; Michael Voltaggio would have torn the guy’s head off, dumped habanero juice down his throat, and put his head back on backwards, just to make a point.
* The shrimp and tasso dishes come out first. Commander’s Palace’s current head chef Jason is also cooking each of the dishes so the judges can compare. Hugh says Michael overcooked his shrimp, while Travis didn’t cook it enough. Nina whiffed on presentation (although we know why), yet her shrimp was impeccably cooked. Bene’s sauce and Michael’s presentation were the best in those areas.
* Bret, grilling to order, is in the way as the chefs assigned the trout are plating. I don’t know if he’s just a fish out of water after some time outside of a restaurant kitchen, or editing made him look that way, but they are setting him up for a fall.
* The trout comes out and everything is underseasoned, for reasons to be fully explained later. Janine’s was the best according to Hugh, which generates moderate agreement around the table, even from the diners who don’t know what she looks like. Nicholas’ was bland and unevenly cooked. Louis’ was overcooked and dried with no taste because of no salt. Tom says they’re so paranoid about getting it right that they’re getting it wrong. Were they also panicked after seeing Aaron go home for oversalting his kale?
* More drama: Shirley’s yellow beets are gone. Thank God she has immunity or she might lose her mind. Turns out Patty took them by accident and everything’s copacetic. Pea purée this isn’t.
* Bret’s pork chops don’t have grill marks, so the meat looks boiled or steamed. Brian’s is close but his Brussels sprouts are raw. Patty’s plate has the best presentation and her veal is nicely cooked; this was a big episode for her after two down weeks to start the season. Most of Shirley’s pork chops are overcooked. Bret’s sauce is closest to the real thing, but with no sear on the meat and a messy plate, Emeril says his dishes have “no love.” Hugh starts baiting Emeril, trying to get him to go back to the kitchen with him to show them how it’s supposed to be done. This is why we love Hugh.
* The dessert course turned out to be the best of the four, with only Sara falling short of the mark as her beignet wasn’t good and her shortcake tops fell apart.” Carrie nailed the biscuit (shortcake is just a biscuit with cream as the liquid) and her cocktail. Justin’s was very good across the board; Lally Brennan, of the family that owns Commander’s Palace, says, “I’m thinkin that boy might’ve made a beignet before.” Steph’s cocktail and biscuit were good; Hugh says it’s a better biscuit than the original, which flusters Chef McPhail slightly. Everyone says the chefs nailed this course, which is nice to hear so early in the season when the emphasis is (justifiably) on mistakes.
* Dana says she is a “whipped cream whore.” Moving right along…
* Tom’s summary of the worst dishes: The chefs made “basic cooking mistakes.” Justin nailed the beignet. Steph’s beignets weren’t great, but the biscuits were “awesome” (Hugh). The shrimp dishes where largely too acidic for a plate that demanded balance across sweet, sour, salty, and savory. The biggest strugglers: Bret, whose pork was overcooked without grill marks and who served sloppy plates; Louis’ underseasoned trout; and Carlos’ overblackened, underseasoned trout.
* Top three: Justin, Stephanie, and Nina, so two from the dessert course and just one from the three mains. Justin wins, probably for having the fewest mistakes? The camera shows Stephanie smiling for him, but Nina on the edge of a scowl. I’m hoping the win gets Stephanie a boost of confidence, as her pedigree should make her one of the best chefs on the show, but she just comes off as a chronic worrier.
* Bottom three: Louis, Carlos, and Bret. Louis made the spice mix for the whole group, then didn’t retaste his own food. But didn’t anyone in the group taste their food and notice it had no salt? You can’t miss that. Carlos knows he had the skillet too hot but had no recourse. Bret didn’t get the meat on the grill early enough and, to his credit, acknowledging all of his mistakes here. He sounds like a man who knows it’s time.
* Bret is indeed eliminated. Louis’ mistake this time might have been bigger, but Bret’s errors had been compounding over three episodes. Tom said there were “too many mistakes on that plate” and Emeril says he showed “poor time management.” Bret goes into the stew room, says they made the right call and he understands why. I can’t snark a guy who goes out with dignity like that.