My list of the ten prospects who just missed my top 100 was posted yesterday for Insiders. I also wanted to repost the link to my review of the cooperative game Forbidden Desert, which appeared on Paste magazine’s site a few weeks ago. I’ll be chatting today at 1 pm as well.
The Top Chef season 11 finale did not feature the two best chefs of the season, despite the judges’ claims to the contrary. Shirley had the better record coming into the penultimate episode, and from our distant vantage points (i.e., we can’t taste the food), she had the best combination of execution and creativity of anyone this season. Nick struggled through the last few episodes in New Orleans, and Nina never showed the kind of vision or inventiveness that I would expect from a Top Chef winner.
* The final elimination challenge: Take over a restaurant and make it your own for the night with a four-course menu.
* Padma is in spaghetti straps at the start. Oh, hello there.
* And then the bikini shot – Padma emerging from the waves, brushing her hair back from her face, wearing less than a fat quarter’s worth of fabric. The clip is completely gratuitous, of course.
* Nick says that he quit his job to come on Top Chef, and that winning the top prize of $125,000 would be “a kick-start to owning (his) own business,” which I can confirm that he does now, opening Laurel in Philadelphia in November. So that might have been a clue.
* Padma arrives with string bikini top on and a bunch of eliminated chefs behind her. Nick gets to pick his three sous first, and then Nina picks her three from the six who remain. He chooses Jason (they’re friends), Louis (the most technically sound chef, in Nick’s view), and Brian (saying he clicked with Brian in Restaurant Wars). Nina takes Shirley (duh), Stephanie (who says “I got those TC jitters again”), and Travis (whom she keeps calling one of the “gossip girls” … not entirely appropriate). I think she might have the stronger team, although Jason could be a lot better than we thought, and we didn’t see anything from Travis to make me think he’d be a real asset here. Janine, Carlos, and Sara were passed over. I’m not shocked – Janine wasn’t there long, the other two weren’t strong on fundamentals, and Sara didn’t come off as a team player.
* Nick wants to highlight classic and contemporary French technique. Meanwhile, Jason is already showing a better attitude – perhaps he’s aware he came off poorly the first time around.
* Nina seems to be planning with a broader palate, but still is going for Caribbean ingredients fused with Italian cuisine. She wants to do two extra “surprise” courses.
* The chefs chop at Kumu Farms, “Maui’s source for specialty farming,” as well as Whole Foods Maui, which must be the best Whole Foods on the planet. I wonder if the fish is still flopping around when it enters the store.
* Nick wants to do another panna cotta and do it well this time. Is it just me, or is panna cotta kind of overrated? It’s an eggless custard, thickened with gelatin rather than the proteins and emulsifiers found in egg yolks. That gives it a funkier texture – think strained yogurt versus those thickened with starch or pectin – and robs it of some flavor.
* There’s no ice cream machine in Nina’s kitchen, so she has to call an audible based on what she’s already purchased, making zeppole instead. That’s a big move from custard (semi-freddo) to fried dough.
* There’s a lot of protein on Nick’s menu – three savory/meat courses and then panna cotta. I understand this is a competition, not an actual restaurant, but we don’t need to eat anywhere near that much meat, nor would I want to. After two of these courses I’d be screaming for a vegetable dish. Meat is a luxury good, not an essential part of every meal.
* Tom asks Nick if his food is too subtle compared to Nina’s spicy food. Nick responds by dumping a bottle of hot sauce on Tom’s head and screaming “IS THAT TOO SUBTLE FOR YOU?”
* Nina says she prefers a cheese course to dessert. I knew I didn’t trust that woman.
* We get a little temporary drama as Nina has to continue braising her goat into day two to get it tender enough. Apparently braising goat is normally an “all-day affair.” I’ll take her word for it on that.
* In something of a surprise, Nick’s sous all seem to like working with him. Brian says he’s a “great leader.” The waitstaff won’t feel the same way by the end of the night, though.
* On the start of day two (before service), Nina checks the goat and pronounces it “chewy as fuck.” All righty then.
* When trying to explain the menu to the servers and offer them tastes of the various courses, two servers are absent and Nick demotes them before wandering off swearing. This, kids, is known as “foreshadowing.”
* The judges arrive. Gail appears to have brought the amuse-boobs to dinner. I’m not actually complaining about this. She also looks like she might give birth before the dessert course.
* Nina starts with an amuse-bouche: Breadfruit with whipped foie gras butter and curry salt on top.
* Nina’s first course: tuna and escolar tartare with tomato water, basil, and jalapeño. Escolar shouldn’t be eaten raw – the fish contains wax esters that cause severe stomach upset in some diners because our bodies can’t break them down. There’s no surefire way of reducing or eliminating them in the fish, but they’re absolutely at their highest levels when the fish is still raw. The judges appeared to have rendered their decisions before running to the bathrooms, so Nina isn’t hurt by this and they all love the dush.
* Service at Nick’s place is struggling. His expediter is either absent or clueless, or maybe he just did a lousy job of training the staff.
* Nick’s first course: Hamachi and tuna crudo with green apple wasabi, celery, and Maui meyer lemon. Once again, his fish is a touch underseasoned and needs a few grains of sea salt. You’d think by now he’d be a madman about this stuff.
* After dinner, Janine will be trying out for a part in Love Shack: The Musical, Featuring the Songs of the B-52’s.
* Nick’s second course: Sweet shrimp bisque with scallop noodles (made by Jason), shaved abalone, and daikon noodles. Chef Paul Bartolotta, one of the diners at the judges’ table, says the dish is “not sweet.” I may have missed something here in the chatter, but that’s not what “sweet shrimp” means, is it?
* Nina’s second course: Roasted goat sugo with orecchiette, cherry tomato confit, whipped goat cheese, and arugula. The goat, after all the drama, ended up perfectly cooked and seasoned. Tom says he’d come back for this dish. I love the sound of this – she did something very Italian at heart, but replaced the typical game meats you’d find in this (rabbit, boar, duck) with a very Caribbean element in goat.
* Nina’s third course: Spice-rubbed swordfish with squash puree, braised kale, and smoked onion jus. It sounds like some overpowering flavors over the mild, delicately-flavored fish (which has a meaty texture but not flavor), and the judges all say the same thing. I’m a purist when I have swordfish, which is rarely anyway – brushed with olive oil, seasoned with salt and black pepper, served with a squeeze of lime juice. It doesn’t need much more than that.
* Nick’s third course: Seared kombu-cured duck, shaved compressed kabucha squash, hijiki, and ginger. The duck is inconsistent from plate to plate – Emeril says his is chewy – but is packed with flavor and Nick did a great job rendering out the fat, which is nearly always my complaint when I order duck and don’t love it. Hijiki is a sea vegetable that grows on coastlines of China, Japan, and Korea, but apparently is high in arsenic and several countries recommend against its consumption. Good times.
* Nick’s fourth course: Caramelized white chocolate panna cotta, almond cocoa crumble, shortbread, and passion fruit and papaya puree. Delicious but not quite jiggly enough. I’m just writing what they said, people.
* Nick’s servers didn’t put spoons out even though we saw him ask them to do so. Something very weird is going on over on his side of the house. Are the servers deliberately ignoring him, maybe because he’s being rude to them? Or are we missing something entirely?
* Nina’s intermezzo (a between-courses offering, a palate-cleanser in this case): Compressed dragon fruit with ginger simple syrup and frozen papaya.
* Nina’s dessert: Chocolate zeppole, passion fruit anglaise, macadamia nuts. I want this recipe; she does (or did) something very similar to it at her restaurant. Tom says it’s not a complete dessert and it seems like a weak ending to her meal. I’ve asked Nina about the zeppole on Twitter, as I’ve never seen chocolate zeppole but want to try them out. They’re the Italian version of fried dough or beignets, nearly always yeast-raised and very airy and doughy inside. When I was growing up on Long Island, we’d go to Italian festivals all summer and get zeppole, three or six to a bag, coated in powdered sugar.
* Watch What Happens Live preview: Nick looks like he’s going to work out, Nina looks like she’s going clubbing, I look like I’m changing the channel.
* Tom says Nick’s sweet shrimp bisque with scallop noodles was the “best dish I’ve had all year.” The judges do seem more enthusiastic about Nina’s food overall.
* How do the judges eat this much? I’d be asking for a bucket by this point.
* And here we have Nick’s meltdown. Yes, someone out front screwed up – the prompt appears to be a table that never got its first course – but screaming “God damn it!” and slamming the counter in the kitchen ain’t solving a thing, buddy. First off, it’s not even clear whose fault this is; did Nick fail to train the staff properly, or does he just have a couple of screw-ups? Second, and more importantly at this point, blame is totally irrelevant when you are faced with a problem that requires a solution. Find the problem, figure out how to fix it, and drop everything to make it happen. (Jason appears to get this better than Nick in the heat of the moment.) If your staff in this challenge is a car of idiots, so what – you’ll never have to see them again. Solve the problem and move on.
We’ve seen this from Nick way too often during the season. He’s great until something goes wrong, but after that he loses his mind. I’ll confess I see a lot of myself, at least my old self, in this. Whatever the cause – anxiety, anger, control issues – you can’t go through life with a permanently elevated heart rate. Meditate, get therapy, try medication, whatever, don’t do this to yourself or to the people around you.
* Padma’s fabric accessory looks like a stack of Kayan neck-rings from Burma. Weird fashion choices across the board here – I haven’t even gotten to Tom’s super-casual shirt under the blazer.
* Judges’ table: Nick glosses over the service issues; it’s great that he didn’t just blame the staff, but maybe admitting he overreacted just a touch would have been smart. His first dish was a touch underseasoned. His second dish had no scallop flavor for Padma, but Tom adored it and Padma does this eye-roll that would make my daughter envious. Emeril’s duck was undercooked, but it sounds like no one else’s was. Nick doesn’t like panna cotta to be jiggly, but all the judges say it should be jiggly, so he needs to get … never mind. He should just make it more jiggly next time.
* Nina’s meal started stronger, but ended weakly. Tom asks if they should judge her on the two mini-courses too, and she says yes (why not?). Her crudo had really broad flavors and beautiful colors; other than the escolar, I’d eat this in a heartbeat. Her orecchiette with goat was “awesome,” “killer,” and Gail said it was one of her best dishes all season. Nina knows already that her swordfish dish didn’t really gel, and concedes that dessert isn’t her strong point, calling what she served “a bite,” not a full dessert. After that much food, though, isn’t a “bite” a good thing? Do you want a thick slice of a flourless chocolate torte or a heavy bread pudding after all that fish and meat and rich sauces? I wouldn’t.
* Back in the kitchen, the world’s smallest violin plays for Nick as he tells Nina that he didn’t win because he wasn’t perfect.
* Course by course: First to Nina. Second to Nina overall, but Tom disagrees. Third to Nick. Fourth to Nick by a huge margin. Hugh asks which chef delivered a better overall experience; Padma says they should consider service. Hugh is evidently pissed off about Nick lashing out the way he did (and rightly so). Tom says Nick was more consistent start to finish. Padma says Nina’s two extras were “amazing,” but Gail wishes she’d put that energy into the main four.
* Tom asks everyone for the worst dish of the night: Emeril says the duck, but the others all say the swordfish or the panna cotta.
* And the winner is … Nick! I’m surprised, based on judges’ table, but Tom tweeted more details this morning:
This is how we scored last nights challenge 1st course 5 to Nina 2nd 3 Nina 2 Nick 4th 1 Nina 4 nick 5th 0 Nina 5 to nick Nina 9 nick 11
— Tom Colicchio (@tomcolicchio) February 6, 2014
So the inference that Nick opening a new restaurant in November was a clue he’d won the show turned out to be accurate. I hope he set aside a little of that money to take up yoga, though.
* Nina leaves with a great quote: “I’m a role model for people in St. Lucia now.” She handled finishing second better than Nick handled winning. And she didn’t tell anyone to “suck a dick” in this episode.
* Overall, I wasn’t thrilled with the season as a viewer. We didn’t get the kind of wildly inventive dishes that have characterized great seasons or great individual chefs – there was no Blais, Voltaggio, Qui, or Kish anywhere here, not even an Izard. Louis may have been able to bring that, but his exile to Last Chance Kitchen seemed justified, and only there did we see evidence of a chef who’d worked under Thomas Keller and had both the technical chops and the respect for ingredients that characterizes the best Top Chef winners. Shirley topped my rankings for much of the season and it sounds like she was eliminated in a fairly close call one step from the finals. It just wasn’t an ideal set of contestants this time around, and the chefs most likely to blow us away didn’t get to the final matchup.