Three of our competitors on “Top Chef Masters” are bursting with personality and pithy quotes, while one is so quiet and flat that I wonder if she’s OD’ing on Valium. Guess who wins?
This week’s crop of master chefs:
Restaurant: Graham Elliot (Chicago)
He’s the youngest contestant on the show, and the talking heads describe him as punk rock and possessing a “snazzy urban” quality. He’ a Chicago chef, so I’m predisposed to root for him. He’s good friends with…
Restaurant: WD-50 (New York)
The high priest of molecular gastronomy and a frequent judge on Top Chef. Love him. Love that he and Bowles are so close — and so competitive.
Restaurants: Citizen Cake and Orson (San Francisco)
She’s “one of the great avant-garde pastry chefs” (hi, Gail!), and she talks about her rock-star attitude. The hair tends to back that up.
Restaurants: Jar (Los Angeles) and Tracht’s (Long Beach)
She’s a West Coast chef who’s all about fresh, farmers market ingredients, making good, simple, unpretentious food. She’s also really, really quiet and reserved. We’ll see how she does with the wackiness inherent in the Top Chef Master challenges…
The Quickfire challenge
Create an amuse bouche using ingredients from vending machines — and serve it to former Cheftestants Ilan, Betty and Michael, who lived through the same challenge in season 2. Dufresne immediately starts sweating — he’s afraid that some of these folks might hold a grudge from his stint as a guest judge.
Falkner gets beef jerky and Dr. Pepper, then heads toward the ice cream machine. Evidently she’s never watches Iron Chef, or she’d know that the ice cream maker is the downfall of more chefs than I can count. It doesn’t serve her any better — and it doesn’t help that she decides to make orange juice/lemon/horseradish ice cream to go with her Dr. Pepper-braised jerky. Betty takes one bite and pushes the plate away, while Ilan says he can appreciate the concept, but not the actual food. 3 1/2 stars.
Dufresne runs around like a chicken sans head and drops more f-bombs tan Gordon Ramsay in his quest to make a grilled cheese sandwich with Dr. Pepper reduction. His sauce solidifies on the plate, and the sandwich itself is a bit big for an amuse. Dufresne bleeps again, some more. Dude, breathe. 3 stars.
Bowles does a tuna salad with frothed orange soda, which the judges like: “Like tuna salad that same from an Ivy League school.” What, state schools can’t make great tuna salad? Harumph. 4 1/2 stars.
Tracht has teenage kids, so she knows her way around the Ito trinity — Fritos, Doritos and Cheetos. She uses Frito crumbs to coat her fried shallot rings, which she serves with Dr. Pepper aioli. The judges adore it — 5 stars.
The Elimination challenge
It’s time to get “Lost“! The chefs will be cooking for the producers and writers of Lost, using ingredients that they’d be able to find one the island (wild boar, fish, papaya, psychically projected polar bear) and preserved food from the Dharma Initiative pantry. No fresh herbs, no tender new veggies, nothing you’d find in a farmer’s market. I start writing off Tracht — yeah, she did well in the quickfire, but this is so out of her depth that she’s bound to be toast, right?
Dufresne and Falkner both break out the sous vide cooking methods, with varying results. Dufresne makes poached egg that has an almost fudge-like consistency, and makes some of the best chicken the judges have ever eaten. Unfortunately, he accidentally gives one plate two pieces of the divine chicken, and one plate — food critic Jay Rayner’s — remains chickenless. A bit of swapping means that Jay gets to taste the bird, but Wylie is shaken. I really thought he’d handle the pressure better.
Falkner’s sous vide boar is a bit bland, and there’s not enough sauce on the plate to tie everything together. She meant to sauce the plate, but the waiters whisked them away before she could do so. Damn you, Dharma Drones! Plus, she’s got a papaya and yam “pudding” that is straight-up baby food. Blech.
Bowles draws on his childhood as a navy brat, traveling the world and eating bizarre things, to construct his trio of dishes. The tuna maki roll with dehydrated pineapple isn’t stellar, but the tuna nicoise garnished with Dharma’s stock of canned green beans is a hit. Saveur’s James Oseland declares it one of the best bits of seared tuna he’s ever had. The mushroom and lamb risotto draws raves as well.
Tracht goes crazy with the cheez whiz (note: No actual Cheez Whiz involved) and sends out plates nearly overflowing with food. Huh — I guess the lack of fresh ingredients didn’t phase her after all. She’s got uni risotto, mango salad, boar strip loin with oyster beer sauce, baked yams… everything but a partridge in a pear tree. This is the island’s holiday meal, she says, and the judges are all over it.
Falkner’s lack of sauce and baby food pudding hurt her — she’s sent off with only 16 1/2 total stars. Ouch. Dufresne makes a heck of a comeback, winning over the critics and civilian diners. He even converts Oseland to the cult of molecular gastronomy. He ends up with 20 stars. Good… but not good enough. Bowles beats him by half a star — his lead from the quickfire pushed him over the top. I guess he’s got the bragging rights now.
But once again, Tracht steals the show — the judges doubted the food on her overflowing plate would mesh together, but it all did, and it was all delicious. They can’t think of anything to criticize. She ends up with 22.5 stars and a ticket to the champion’s round.
Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends
- In the beginning montage, Tracht says she can “erupt like a little volcano.” We see absolutely no evidence of that. She’s SO quiet, SO soft spoken — almost emotionless — that she hardly registers on screen. Goes to show that outsized personality isn’t a necessary ingredient for Top Chefdom. Still, I don’t think I’d be able to stay awake during any cooking show she starred in.
- I loved the interplay between Dufresne and Bowles. They genuinely like each other, but they genuinely wanted to kick the other’s ass. they bounced ideas off each other in the car on the way to Whole Foods, but then Bowles ran off with the entire stock of one ingredient they both wanted. Bowles had Dufresne taste one of his concoctions, but then mocked him in the aftermath — his wine “tastes like tears,” he said. If THEY collaborated on a cooking show, I’d watch.
- Dufresne recovers from his chicken-plating mishap: “my hope is you’ll find some sweetness, some sourness, some bitterness.. and in some cases, some chicken.”
- I love interstitial cookie backing scene. Falkner proposes making cookies, and Dufresne worries that baking them will take to long. “Can you microwave a cookie?” he asks. Falkner laughs and says no. Undeterred, Dufresne keeps offering alternatives: “Deep fry? Pan sear? I’m good with a sauté pan…” I like the way this man thinks.
- Was Dr Pepper the only soft drink available, or just the only one they were allowed to mention by name?
- Dear Top Chef producers: Writers have names too! So why do producers Damon LIndelof and Carlton Cuse get introduced by name, while everyone else is just “the writers of Lost”? Harumph.
- Apparently, the producers and those anonymous writers are big fans of Top Chef. They spend Thursdays in the writers’ room dissecting the previous night’s competition. In fact, “there’s been a big dip in the quality of Lost since Top Chef, actually.” SO THAT’S why we had some dodgy episodes there!
- Hey, Ryan — did you see any clues to the next season in the place settings or writers’ commentary on the meal?