Two links before we get to the recap: I have a new Insider post on how the Mets should handle their rotation, with five of six guys coming off some sort of injury; and I reviewed the boardgame Ulm for Paste.
* I think we got a glimpse of Drunk Shirley in the prelude where she slurred “Let’s dooo this” in the toast. Drunk Shirley is the best Shirley.
* The three remaining chefs are flying from Guadalajara to Riviera Maya, on the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula. They walk into the resort (I think it’s a Secrets location, although I didn’t see an orgy anywhere so maybe not) and Sheldon asks “are we in a Jay Z video man?”
* Why are we seeing so much of the chefs in bathing suits? The shot of the three of them walking into the water, which meant clear shots of Brooke’s and Shirley’s behinds, was kind of inappropriate for a cooking show.
* Their first stop is in Valladolid, a city of about 45K located inland on the Yucatan, a beautiful town with lots of Old World Spanish architecture. It’s named for a city in central Spain that was once the Spanish capital.
* Quickfire: Cook a dish that showcases the habanero. (No tilde, please.) The winner gets a one-week vacation for two at any Secrets resort. Their guest judge is Chef Ricardo Muniz Zurita, who literally wrote the book on Mexican cuisine (in Spanish, of course).
* They have to buy all of their ingredients at an open-air food market in the town center, and it looks like chef heaven, with an unbelievable variety of produce and meat being butchered to order. 13/10, would shop there.
* Sheldon appears to speak no Spanish, which I think would be impossible for a chef cooking in the continental U.S. given how many native speakers typically work in restaurant kitchens. Perhaps that’s not true in Hawai’i, though. Brooke at least speaks quite a bit, although she could stand some work on her accent.
* Sheldon’s looking for queso fresco and somehow can’t find any at the market; I guess it’s possible there wasn’t a vendor selling cheese, but I find that a little hard to believe, since there is cheese in Yucatecan cuisine. He then buys a tamal colado without knowing what it is because he thinks it looks like cheese. (It’s actually a traditional Yucatecan tamale with roasted pork or chicken and an achiote and roasted tomato sauce.
* Shirley says that sometimes to wake herself up in the morning she takes a bite of a habenero. I prefer coffee.
* Brooke can’t get her blender open, briefly at least, which is yet another stupid equipment issue that doesn’t tell us anything about who the best chef is. It’s Top Chef. Maybe we could get the chefs some stuff that works?
* The dishes: Brooke made a roasted pork loin with orange and green habanero salsas, with the green ones in a raw fruit and vegetable salsa with jicama, pineapple, and cucumber … Sheldon made a pan-roasted chayote stuffed with the tamal colado and a roasted habanero/tomato/onion salsa. … Shirley made a masa dumpling with poached egg, habanero, and crispy chicharrones.
* Nobody really did poorly here, although I thought the final order was pretty clear. Sheldon’s was too spicy, and the tamal did nothing for his dish. Brooke ends up the winner. It seemed like her dish showcased the habanero best and was the most balanced overall, and Muniz Zurita didn’t hide that that was his favorite.
* Elimination challenge: Jeremiah Tower is there; he’s a California chef who now lives in the Yucatan, which seems like a pretty good place to retire, actually. He has a new book, Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America, coming out on April 4th (that’s a preorder link), as well as a related documentary about him produced by Anthony Bourdain.
* The challenge is to make a dish entirely of local ingredients and cook it over an open flame, with no access to electric devices whatsoever, They get to keep their knives, though. This is way too gimmicky for the semifinal challenge, in my view. Just let them cook.
* The challenge will take place in Playa del Carmen, about halfway between Cancun and Tulum on the Yucatan coast. I don’t know if Mexico’s Tourism board paid for all this airtime, but holy crow, I want to go there immediately.
* The three chefs get a tour (from Muniz Zurita and Tower) of some traditional Mayan instruments and ingredients, like a metate, a molcajete (which they called a tamul) mortar and pestle, and the giant herb hoja santa (also called yerba santa, so “holy leaf” or “holy herb,” although if you listen to a lot of hip-hop you might think “holy herb” means a totally different plant).
* When they get to the site of the challenge and see the array of ingredients, there are no alliums and no citrus. The three of them seem like they’re collaborating to try to get their heads around the pantry, given the handicap of lacking any traditional aromatics. I also didn’t see any proteins other than fish; all three chefs end up cooking fish, at least.
* Sheldon is burying sweet potatoes in the coals of the pit, burning the outside, and then scooping out the centers to make a mash. It’s a brilliant method of cooking them without needing too much time.
* Brooke tests one fish fillet on the grill to see if the skin will stick to the grates because she doesn’t think the coals are hot enough. (There’s no open flame, actually, just glowing coals.) She says she’s just “trying to build layers of flavor with no actual dish in (her) head.” Meanwhile, the fish did stick, so she ends up wrapping the fish fillets in hoja santa leaves to grill them safely.
* Sheldon is grilling the fish whole, but never tests the grill like Brooke did … and it sticks. At this moment, I was sure Sheldon was going home. You can’t fuck up a protein, serve it to Tom Colicchio, and think you’re sticking around. But what a lousy way to go – it’s not like Sheldon screwed up the fish while cooking on a plancha or in a skillet. Making a mistake in an unfamiliar environment is just normal.
* I watched this episode with my wife and one of our friends from the bus stop (another mom), and they both commented on Padma’s cleavage before I said a word. So, Padma’s cleavage. How about that.
* Brooke serves first. She did steamed yellow snapper with bean and corn ragout, jicama and papaya relish, and fresh avocado. The sweet salsa (relish) consisted of “lots of stuff.” She used tomatillo juice to try to add some acidity to the two sides, since there was no citrus available. The snapper is perfectly cooked; the judges disagree on the salsas, although Tom says they complemented each other, and we know his vote is the one that counts. The one criticism seems to be that the dish doesn’t have huge flavors, but it’s fish. If you overpower it with big flavors, they’ll ding you for overshadowing the main ingredient.
* Sheldon serves what is basically shredded snapper with annatto crab sauce, Yucatan vegetables, and a habanero salsa on the side. One of the diners thought the hot salsa was too hot, and the sauce in the middle tastes completely of crab, although another diner – they’re all star Mexican chefs – thought that the technique of using masa to thicken the sauce was smart.
* Shirley made steamed grouper, crustacean and roasted habanero-tomato sauce, and dragonfruit and corn salad, along with shrimp salt sprinkled over the top. She chose grouper because she wanted a fatty fish that could stay moist over the direct heat. Tower says “that girl can cook,” and that it says “I know what I was doing at the beginning and then I did it.” Tom praises her for editing.
* Shirley wins, with Graham saying it was “the most composed of the three.” (It certainly looked the prettiest.) Hers was the only dish that didn’t get any criticism from the eight people at the table.
* What happened next seemed a little contrived to me. Sheldon totally blew the fish, unfortunately, and the hot salsa and the crab sauce blew out the diners’ palettes. Brooke’s dish was a little mild or “timid,” and Tom said it was overly complicated with too much going on. How the judges could present this as a very close decision is beyond me; the criticisms of Brooke’s dish may have been entirely valid but they’re hardly equivalent to the criticisms of Sheldon’s. If you botch your protein, you go home.
* And Sheldon is indeed eliminated. I’m sad to see him go, because he’s talented and funny and has definitely become a different person since the last time we saw him (in a good way), but this was the only decision that would have made sense given what else we were told about everyone’s dishes. That leaves Brooke and Shirley in the finals, and I’ll say Brooke is the 3:2 favorite.
* Unrelated to this episode, but while looking into Jeremiah Tower, I saw he co-authored a short book called Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother, which came out in October. The title makes it seem dated and fussy, but the descriptions afterwards actually seem kind of modern and relevant. Have any of you read it? I’m hardly the lost son of Judith Martin when it comes to table etiquette, but I’m intrigued by this.