Mixing Old Fashioneds
Top Chef All-Stars 3/23 Recap: Three Parts Pressure
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In this penultimate episode, we’re still in the Bahamas and one more chef will be eliminated, but not before they’re put through the wringer once, twice, and thrice. It’s not enough that they all had to strip down to bathing suits last week, but there’s an extra week of challenges before the final showdown.
Quick Fires Past
The chefs are greeted by Padma and Wolfgang Puck, famous chef, restaurateur, and purveyor of over-priced frozen pizzas. The producers have picked seven favorite QFs from seasons past, such as burgers, tacos, potatoes, and so on for the competitors to assign to each other. Mike won the last EC, so he gets to assign first; he saddles Antonia with canned and dry goods because he knows it’s a tough challenge. Antonia assigns hot dogs to Richard, which is silly since he just did a QF with a hot dog on the boat ride to Ellis Island. Richard then assigns Mike the one pot challenge, thinking that Mike needs every pot in the kitchen; Antonia thinks it’s the easiest one going and Richard is an idiot.
Mike picks a pressure cooker as his pot, Antonia wants to make a curry soup, and Richard will make his own bread and cook the hot dogs with a ketchup sauce. Before long, Padma comes in before time is up. There is another twist—they will have to assign each other either cooking with one hand, no utensils, or the double apron twist. Richard assigns Mike the no utensils, Antonia assigns Richard cooking with one hand, and she does the double apron twist with Carla. Mike tries to rile up Antonia, because he’s got nothing to do—it’s all cooking in the pressure cooker. Carla and Antonia work well together, but Antonia is still hampered by not being able to use any fresh ingredients.
Time’s up and Wolfgang and Padma return to taste Antonia’s curry coconut soup with shrimp, andouille sausage, peanuts and fish sauce (she says “andouille” strangely); Richard’s hot dog on handmade roti bread with curry ketchup, mayo and mint leaves; and Mike’s pork shoulder with black beans, chili paste, ginger and cabbage slaw. Wolfgang thought Richard’s was too heavy on the ketchup, Antonia’s soup too concentrated, and Mike had a nice balance but the pork could have been a bit more cooked. He ends up picking Mike as the winner, which brings with it a $5K prize.
The chefs head to a garden setting to learn of their next EC. As it turns out, they will have to cook the requested “last meal” of Wolfgang Puck, Michelle Bernstein, or Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. These “last meal” challenges always weird me out—there’s no back story on why they’re on death row at all. Mike, as the prior winner, gets to pick whom he wants to cook for and he chooses Michelle. He gets to assign the other chefs to Antonia and Richard. He messes with Antonia and assigns her Morimoto, and Richard gets Wolfgang. Padma pulls out an envelope and promises one final twist.
Richard talks over the final meal with Wolfgang; he wants goulash, strudel, and spaetzle, like his momma always made. Michelle wants fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, a childhood favorite that she always went out to eat. Morimoto, with a difficult accent to get past, wants rice that is of all equal length, miso soup, pickled things, and sashimi. Why with the early childhood foods? My mother now is a great chef, but when I was a kid, she didn’t have time to devote to preparing the culinary masterpieces she does now. I sure as hell would request her filet mignon en croute (her spin on beef Wellington) over any dish she made when I was a kid, aside from cinnamon toast, but that’s not a “last meal” kind of thing.
Back at the hotel, Antonia kids Mike for sticking it two her twice. Mike says that he and Richard have harder challenges, because he doesn’t make biscuits. Richard thinks he and Antonia have it harder, since the cultural divide between their dishes is greater than chicken and biscuits. The next day dawns and everyone is super-stressed out, manifesting in Antonia’s nervous laughter, Mike’s bravado, and Richard’s threat to puke.
In the kitchen, Mike takes a new twist on fried chicken, sous vide’ing it first. Antonia frets over the components of her dish, and Richard worries about the strudel and choking. Tom drops by to take a look at the progress; Mike’s making an empanada with an egg in it, instead of a biscuit. Tom has some doubt in his face at Mike’s sous vide and thinks he has the easiest dish. Tom asks Richard if getting to the finale before helps him; Richard says maybe but he wants to win. Antonia explains to Tom the level of detail that Morimoto went into; Tom thinks she wants a sense of redemption.
Antonia’s hamachi, when she opens it, is disgusting, so she substitutes the fish with regular tuna she found in the refrigerator. Richard bangs away at his pressure cooker to get it open. It’s total stress city. The judges—Padma, Tom, and Gail—arrive with Melanie Dunea, a photographer who has made a book of famous chefs’ “last suppers”. Wolfgang, Michelle, and Morimoto are there as well.
Antonia serves her tuna sashimi with pickled daikon, mushrooms and eggplant, miso soup and rice first. The miso was a bit too salty and the spice on the tuna blew out Gail’s mouth but the rice was done perfectly. Tom finds the dish to lack subtlety.
Mike then serves fried chicken with pea puree and an egg yolk empanada with mustard gravy. Michelle likes the take on the biscuit but the white meat on the chicken was dry for Wolfgang and Gail doesn’t think the batter stayed on the chicken all that well.
Richard serves up a beef goulash, spaetzel with sour cream, and apple strudel with tarragon cream. The temperature on the dish is a bit off, but the strudel was really tasty. Even Wolfgang’s mother would have approved of the dish.
The table discusses the dishes; Mike had license to be creative from Michelle, but Wolfgang thought he was overly creative. Morimoto appreciates the difficulty of Antonia’s challenge but her dish wasn’t the best. Richard’s dish was cooked beautifully, maybe not exactly what Mrs. Puck would have made, but really close. The chefs are called before the full table and Padma announces that Judges’ Table is starting now. Michelle reminds Mike that the chicken needed to be juicy and crispy; it wasn’t juicy and thought it was crispy, the breading was falling off. Wolfgang thought the flavors were spot-on but the spaetzel was tough. Morimoto says Antonia’s dish was interesting but the miso soup was salty. Tom then tells Richard he’s safe, which is what he wanted.
45 Minutes of Hell
Padma then pulls out the envelope, which invites Antonia and Mike to spend a night in the fantasy suite….wait, no, wrong show. Antonia and Mike now have 45 minutes to make a one-bite dish to determine who will go to the finale. Back to the kitchen they go in a mad dash. Mike goes with high-end product, and knows it is a close race. Antonia again goes with a coconut curry broth, much like the QF. The clock runs down, the “cousins” have a final hug, and it’s time for service.
Antonia serves her bite of seared grouper in coconut lobster broth with a yam, apple and dill pollen relish and Mike serves his tempura lobster tail over beef tartare with caramelized olives and chimichurri sauce. Gail likes the local ingredients Antonia used but thought it was powerful; Tom thinks that what she could be going for in one bite. Michelle loves the tempura of Mike’s dish but it isn’t as powerful as Antonia’s flavor. The table is divided—Gail, Michelle and Tom would prefer Michael’s; Morimoto, Padma, and Melanie prefer Antonia’s. Wolfgang becomes the tie-breaker—Antonia’s flavor is more memorable but Mike’s bite was more technical.
Mike and Antonia face the judges for one last time before the finale. Tom tells Antonia she had some great notes in her dish with a good use of vegetables. He says Mike’s tartare was a bit bland but the sauces were great and the split was 4-3. Ultimately, Antonia is told to pack her knives and Mike moves on to the finale. Padma nearly breaks down in tears but Antonia does. Antonia gets to go home to her daughter, who will be proud of her no matter what. So now it’s down to Richard, the “would-be” winner of his season had he not “choked,” and Mike, the misogynist middle-of-the-road runner to compete next week with the help of their previously cast-off friends. Hey, at least Jen and Elia will be back for a few minutes.
And now a bit of an editorial…
A few weeks back I heard this story about participatory journalism on NPR. The reporter set out to cover the USA Memory Championship (something that only NPR would cover) and decided to train for it just like countless other journalists have tried their hands at sports they’re writing about. As it turned out, the reporter won the contest and set a record in card memorization after training really hard. Now out of practice, he still forgets where his keys are or where he parked his car because, as he said, you have to remember to remember.
I see parallels to the reporter’s win and Mike’s winning streak. It’s not like Mike just wandered in off the street and ended up in the top three—he’s a competent chef who can do a really good job when he puts his mind to it, but, in a lot of ways, he’s coasted. That is, until he spent three months hard-core training for the finale and started a strong winning streak. While Richard and Anotina, and Tiffany last week, continued to cook their food, Mike has elevated his game based on practice. While I think that is fair—anyone could practice, like Richard did with the conch—it just seems like a little bit of more gamesmanship than cheffery has propelled him to the finals.
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