Friday, November 14, 2008

Overcooking your protein is unforgiveable.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Not long ago, when I decided that my blog would no longer be devoted to only two pursuits, my love of literature and my passion for cooking, I thought that perhaps what I might also enjoy writing are recaps for my fave reality show, Top Chef. I do have to confess to enjoying reality television-I mostly like the classics, Survivor and Amazing Race, though I often descend into the madness that is the Bachelor. I was only recently introduced to Top Chef, and I was immediately addicted. The contestants are all professionals, in some capacity, so it's not as though the average home cook could even fathom participating, but watching those crazy chefs is equally inspiring, motivating, and horrifying. I think that recaps are a fairly young development in the television world-I suppose we're all watching more television than ever. I've grown extremely attached to the recaps of a few Entertainment Weekly columnists, Dalton Ross and Josh Wolk, and one of my favorite blogs,, is full of the most hilarious and deftly comedic recaps (of the Bachelor) I've ever read, courtesy of blogger Lincee Ray. My recaps cannot aspire to the work of these fine writers, but I know I'll enjoy reliving the Top Chef episodes.

I am disappointed to acknowledge that this batch of chefs does not include one that I immediately felt an attachment to-every season I've watched so far has had stand outs, right from the beginning. Crazies and snobs? Quirky and clueless? Yes, most definitely. I'm just not feeling a Tre or a Stephanie or a Harold among them. We have two international chefs, Stefan and Fabio (yes, a Fabio) who, incidentally, seem to be the most arrogant of the group. Arrogance runs rampant throughout the chefs on this show, and there is always one that the cameras seem to focus on the most. What's interesting here is that almost inevitably, one of the most arrogant chefs is actually able to back it up with great food. Stefan seems to be that example this season.

I was filled with joy to see Padma and Tom awaiting the chefs on Governor's Island. It's just been so long! We were barely able to glance at the buckets full of apples before being slammed with a proverbial reality show twist-the loser of the Quickfire would be sent home immediately, without ever even stepping foot into the Top Chef kitchen! Heavens! The nervous, weirdly sunburned chefs stepped up, however, preparing to peel 15 apples, sans peeler. Well, they had a paring knife, but apparently, peelers are readily dispensed in culinary school, so many of the chefs felt "out of practice" with the knife. Stefan blazed through his apples, thus winning individual immunity.

Now, I should stop for a brief minute to share my initial, often wary, impressions of some of our contestants, or "cheftestants", as the Entertainment Weekly columnist likes to call them. We have Lauren, doomed from the start, stating that she doesn't want to "waste her life away" while her husband is stationed in Iraq. Seems a bit heartless. Then Radhika, the "global small plates" chef, who immediately states that just because of her Indian heritage, everyone will assume she will just make "spicy curries and rice." That's fine Radhika, but don't expect anyone to take you seriously when your VERY FIRST DISH is a chutney. I'm not hating on Radhika, as she may turn out to be lovely. Just a bit weird to bash a stereotype and then actually make it true! I can't forget Crazy Carla, who later in the episode informs us that she is led by "spirit guides" to her dishes, because she made the cardinal sin of comparing catering to working as a restaurant chef. If I've learned anything from watching every season of Top Chef, it's that caterers, personal chefs, and anyone else who hasn't actually experienced the pressure cooker that is a restaurant will never win the final prize. Sorry, Carla.

Ok, let's get back to the quickfire. Despite the fact that one batch of apples were doused in Richard's blood, from an untimely cut, every batch was deftly peeled in a timely fashion except for those of Radhika, Lauren, Patrick, and Leah. Well, there were a few more who had to partake in Round 2 of the quickfire, which was to "brunoise" the 15 apples. I've learned a new culinary term! To "brunoise" is to finely dice. The losing four had to prepare a dish with apples, with only 20 minutes to spare. I immediately doubted Radhika (see above complaint) and Leah, who decided to use scallops. Somehow scallops and apples just don't seem to be the most appropriate combination, but then again, I wasn't there to taste it! Patrick and Lauren both made a salad, and both ended up on the bottom. I guessed correctly that Lauren, who made a delicious-looking but decidedly ordinary and classic spinach salad with balsamic dressing, blue cheese, and bacon, would be the one who departed without feasting on the sight of piles of Gladware and Whole Foods products in the Top Chef kitchen.

For the elimination challenge, the chefs drew from the knife block, each selecting the name of a New York neighborhood. I am proud to say that I knew several of the associated cuisines-I would not have been stumped to draw the Brighton Beach knife! Ha! Borscht and caviar! The challenge was similar to the last season, when two chefs went head to head on a popular classic dish (like shrimp scampi or crab cakes). This time, two chefs would face off, preparing an ethnic dish based on the neighborhood they drew.

Problems rose a collective ugly head almost immediately as we saw the chefs depart for the neighborhoods. Dr. Chase, er, I mean Jeff, raced about the market in Ozone Park, totally confident of his ability to cook Latin food because he's from Miami. Hey, Dr. Chase, have you met Radhika? Self-proclaimed "country mouse" Melissa admitted that she has little experience with Italian food. Seriously?? This is Top Chef-how could any of them not have a basic go-to dish representative of every major cuisine? At the very least, I would think that go-to list would include Italian, Japanese, Indian, and some sort of Latin dish. Good lord! Ariane wandered around the Middle Eastern grocery in Long Island City attempting to read the labels, looking forlorn and piteous all the while. Ariane, pull yourself together! I felt a teensy bit suspicious of Patrick's demise when I heard him confidently share that he really knew Chinese food, because at the Culinary School of America they have a "Cuisines of the East" course. Sheesh, Patrick, "Cuisines of the East" will certainly not get you through even one episode of this show. It's serious stuff! Also, it is NEVER a good idea to decide, on your first elimination challenge, to cook something that you've never worked with before.

By the way, as I'm watching the show a second time to add to my notes, I'm gradually growing fond of Fabio. Something about the accent, I think.

As far as the actual challenge went, nothing monumentally shocking occurred during the cooking, except Dr. Chase crying as he chopped onions. I erroneously believed you develop an immunity to that kind of problem the more you cook.

I should mention that the chefs had the extremely stressful misfortune (and/or honor) of having freakin' Jean-Georges Vongerichten as the guest judge. Of all the judges! If Patrick wasn't doomed before...

The highlights of the judging were with the unassuming Hosea and eager yet self-conscious Eugene. Padma stated that Hosea's dish was an example of "culinary eloquence" and Tom seemed equally taken with the mild-mannered, sheepish bald guy. I'm going to have to start calling him "Humble Hosea." Maybe he'll be my favorite. Eugene was worried when he drew "Little India" (is that really a neighborhood name? what about Curry Hill?) because he has no experience cooking Indian food (see my note about Melissa). However, he proved to be a perfect example of "cooking by mouth", my spin on "playing by ear", cooking what Padma called a perfect "curds and rice", a classic Indian dish, even though he mistakenly referred to it as a tzatziki. I actually really liked that Tom, Padma and Jean-Georges weren't too bothered by that mistake-proves they really loved the food. As far as what dish sounded the best to me, I would have to go with Jill's jerk seasoned scallops with plaintain fritters and three sauces. The winning dish, Stefan's lamb chop with tabouli and beef skewer with onions also sounded very good, and I can't deny that I would probably have happily devoured Richard's lamb slider with dill, feta, and orzo salad, even though the judges felt it was overcooked.

In the end, Patrick fell victim to his own inexperience. While Ariane made an elementary cooking error (and, horror of horrors, admitted a reliance on cookbooks!), Patrick revealed, with his first elimination dish, that he has a lot to learn. He is simply not on par with a host of professional chefs. Bless his heart.

Hopefully, the second episode will show us the more favorable, lovable sides of the chefs...I want to have a favorite!

Quickfire Winner: Stefan
Elimination Winner: Stefan
My Top Four Predictions: Hosea, Jamie, Stefan, Fabio

Check out the subway tile-style Top Chef logo on the wall!

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