Top Chef: New York was all about rock stars this week. First, the guest judge was culinary rock star Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea. Second, the cheftestants prepared a Thanksgiving dinner for rock-star foodies — in the middle of summer, and in a town with no Whole Foods. The horror!
With spoilers, it’s al dente. With potatoes, it’s undercooked.
The cheftestants meet the guest judge (Grant Achatz, which: Squeeeeeeeeeeee!) and are assigned a recipe from the top Chef cookbook, which need to do their own spin on it. Well, that doesn’t sound too exciting… Which is why I’m glad when Padma rushes in mid-prep and tells them to stop what they’re doing — she and Grant have decided they’d rather have soup. The cheftestants need to switch gears and make their recipe work in a more liquid format.
Jamie and Carla opine that soup is (1) a great challenge and (2) what they do well — it’s all about building flavors. "Of course, the special ingredient is love," Carla simpers. God, I hope she’s being sarcastic. Otherwise, I may have to fling something.
Fabio doesn’t do so well with his mushroom and asparagus soup with salmon — Grant proclaims that the flavor is a little flat. Ariane’s diced lamb is overcooked, and Melissa’s Italian wedding soup "blurs the line in not necessarily a good way." Which line? I don’t know, but if Grant says it should not have been blurred in such a fashion, I believe him. Richard made a black bean and pepper soup, but ran out of time before he could add extra lime juice. Pity — Grant and Padma agree it needs acid.
Grant picks out Leah, Jamie and Daniel as the best. Daniel took a ham-and-egg dish and turned it into a hearty, rustic soup that was a "very complete vision." Jaime’s deconstructed falafel chickpea soup was a great presentation and a very balanced dish. But it’s Leah’s chilled white asparagus soup with tuna tartar that wins — white asparagus is a difficult, delicate flavor to deal with, and she made sure it shined. Leah gets immunity.
The Elimination Challenge
The chefs are broken into two teams and get to cater a Thanksgiving feast for the Foo Fighters and their 60-odd-person entourage. What does it say about me that I squealed much more at Grant Achatz than at Dave Grohl and Co.? Hmm.
As the quickfire winner, Leah gets to pick her team. She scoops up Jamie, Hosea, Stefan, Melissa, Fabio and Rahdika. They dub themselves Team Sexy Pants. The remainder makes up Team Cougar, and Ariane is the figurehead. She’s just fine with being known as the sexy older woman. Rowr!
The teams are dismayed to find that their "kitchen" consists of a single burner and a raft of microwaves and toaster ovens. The caterers of the group are less concerned than the kitchen-bound chefs — Stefan, Ariane and Carla all have experience dealing with adverse situations. That’s good, because Team Cougar has given Ariane the turkey, and that’s not something you want to screw up for Thanksgiving dinner.
Jeff takes control again on Team Cougar — he makes sure everyone is organized and divides up responsibilities. He doesn’t seem to be doing it in a bossy way, though. I’m concerned that he decides to do a whole bunch of dishes — I wish he’d just pick one thing and do it well.
Eugene endears himself to me yet again by building a makeshift grill out of a chafing dish and charcoal. Go, Eugene! Ariane is on top of the turkey — and getting a little pissed that everyone seems to be worrying about her. Well, you have been falling apart rather a lot in the last couple of challenges. You can’t really blame them. Daniel discovers his roasting potatoes aren’t cooking properly, but he decides to incorporate them into his creamed potato dish regardless. That seems like a bold choice…
Over on Team Sexy Pants, Stefan contrasts with Jeff by assuming he’s the leader, even though no one else on the team has ceded him that position. Stefan grates. Fabio freaks out a bit when it starts to rain — how DARE nature mess with his tiramisu! Heh.
The Foos proclaim Ariane’s turkey succulent and delicious. Thank god! Dave Grohl praises Alex for adding bacon to the mac and cheese, which I also have to respect. They love that Eugene went all MacGyver and built a grill for his maple-smoked pork loin, and praise Radhika’s vegan stuffing.
Daniel’s potatoes are undercooked. Drummer Taylor Hawkins jokingly calls them al dente, but we know what he means. Jeff’s spoon bread with figs is dry and inappropriately figgy — just let the stuffing be stuffing and don’t mess with it, Grant says. Wait, Grant Achatz recommends not messing with a dish? My world is officially rocked.
Things get ugly come dessert time. Everyone enjoys Fabio’s pumpkin tiramisu, and the two cobblers are fine. But Team Cougar fires a couple of blanks: Jeff’s fruit "barf-fait" does not impress. But the worst is Richard’s banana s’mores with vanilla foam and chocolate ganache. They’re no longer warm by the time the judges eat them, and the vanilla foam looks more like vanilla phlegm. "Did someone offend the s’mores guy, because I think he spit on mine," Dave says. Ouch.
The teams are pretty close, but the Foos pick Team Sexy Pants as the winner. Team Cougar is PISSED. At the judging table, Jeff says he’s amazed they didn’t win, since they had to deal with obstacles and u-turns and rain and trauma … True, says, Tom, but what did you face that the other team didn’t? Um. Yeah. He’s got them there.
Tom asks if the team had a leader, and the Cougars endear themselves to me by not attempting to pin all the blame on Jeff. Yes, he took charge, but just in a get-organized way, not in a screw-everything-up way. We’re all responsible for our own execution, says Alex. That was remarkable classy.
Eugene, Alex and Ariane are praised for their dishes and sent away, safe. The judges say Carla’s cobbler was nothing special, but it was the best of the iffy desserts, so she’s safe, too. That leaves Daniel, Jeff and Richard. Daniel actually does try to pass off his undercooked potatoes as al dente — come on! Jeff gets spanked for both of his offerings — you spread yourself too thin and failed in your reinterpretation of classic dishes. Richard gets the most scorn – if you’re going to call it a s’more, it needs to be warm, gooey, and chocolaty. Plus, foam on a catering line? Not a good idea. Richard is out.
Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends.
- Can I even begin to tell you how excited I am that Grant Achatz is judging? I was bitterly disappointed that he wasn’t a judge for the Chicago edition of Top Chef, but I’ll give him a pass because he was recovering from cancer of the mouth. One of these days, I’ll sell a kidney or knock off a couple of liquor stores so I can experience the tasting menu at Alinea.
- We had another random snippet between commercials — Daniel made himself a PB&J in the stew room, and he dripped peanut butter on the floor. Jamie snots that this is why there are flies in the room, and Daniel takes offense — what’s she picking on me for? "Maybe the stew room is really getting to her. Maybe it’s her time of the month." Or maybe, Daniel, you’re a pig.
- Richard tells us how some of the other chefs are being defined. Jeff is known as "Don Johnson," Fabio is "the cute Italian," and Leah is "the fun, flirty one with the nice rack." Knife rack? Pot rack? He doesn’t specify.
- The Foos specify that some members of their entourage are vegetarian or vegan. Hosea interviews that he lived in Boulder, so he’s dealt with plenty of veggie types. Of course, he’s wearing a shirt that proclaims "Bacon is a vegetable" as he says this, so I have to wonder…
- I’m so glad that Ariane pulled this off. I like sexy, confident Ariane a lot more than whimpering, dishrag Ariane. Keep it up!
- I groan a bit when Carla says that they’re the people who haven’t been chosen. I’ve spent WAY too much time covering The Biggest Loser, where the trainers foster the "We were LEFT to ROT in the DESERT!" mentality far too much. Not here, too!
- Dave Grohl is a man of definite food preferences. "I’m digging the yams, because they burnt the marshmallows. You gotta burn the marshmallows, man!" Word.
- Hey, Rahdika produced a dish that was not at all Indian! Finally!