Top Chef Masters 6/10 Recap: Cooking with Kidz!
Welcome to Top Chef Masters! I really enjoy cooking, but I’m not exactly an expert in haute cuisine; as a matter of fact my supper last night consisted of a bowl of popcorn and liberal handfuls of peanut butter M&Ms. So my interest in Top Chef Masters is more cultural than it is culinary. However, I’m a faithful recapper of American Idol even though my musical knowledge is mostly comprised of songs that were on the radio when I was 16, and songs that have been featured on The Hills, so I figure this is pretty much the same situation. Plus, my popcorn was homemade; perhaps that will net me some gourmet cred? Y/Y?
Meet the Masters
Meanwhile, this new show! There is a stranger standing where Padma should be standing in the TC Kitchen giving out details about the show. Turns out instead of the lovely, laid-back Lakshmi, our host for the summer will be a singularly perky-eyed, peppy-voiced woman named Kelly Choi. Huh. And as for the details, well, it’s not your ordinary season of Top Chef. We’re dealing with masters here, people so renowned that you may even recognize them from such prestigious programs as Top Chef, and Iron Chef America. They’ve already proven that they can build golden reputations and restaurant empires, so the format for this spectacle is sort of tournament style: For the first 6 weeks, 4 different chefs will battle for a spot in the grand championship round. The grand championship round will play out in classic reality TV style; one master chef will be eliminated each week until we get our final two, who will throw down in the finale for the title of Top Top Chef, or whatever they’ll call it.
Let’s meet this week’s contestants, since that’s what the show’s doing now.
Up first is Michael Schlow. He runs Radius, along with a gang of restaurants with different names where he serves delicious Italian food for which he has won many awards. For those of who will miss Tom Colicchio on this show, I wonder at you. But, rest easy, because you can still see him giving a little preliminary info about some of the master chefs’ styles. On Michael Schlow: authentic flavors of Italy. Michael is playing this game on behalf of the Cam Neely foundation for cancer research. Michael says of this competition, “None of us are truly masters; I think we’re all still students.” Nice job covering your bases, honey.
And now Hubert Keller! Chef/owner of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco. I think he must be the odds on favorite; practically everyone who has ever mentioned him is head over heels in love with him and his classic French food. He’s playing for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and like everyone else he has an extensive litany of awards. His resume is packed with accomplishments, not the least of which is having been a guest judge on the first ever episode of Top Chef (he summarily dismissed Ken from his kitchen for dipping his filthy fingers in a sauce, and forever earned my devotion). According to Keller, he’s on this show because having been a TC judge, it’s only fair for him to experience the other side of the Judges Table. He’s a peach. Or an heirloom tomato.
Now walking into the kitchen is Christopher Lee of Aureole, also a Beard award winner and very highly pedigreed: he lists Daniel Boulud as a reference, but is careful to pay deference to the chefs who trained him. In his own words, he’s bringing excitement and bold flavors to the competition. Playing for Autism Speaks.
Last up and repping the South is Tim Love, aka BIG TEXAS. He cooks with his cowboy hat on, so I don’t think he’d mind that nickname. His flagship is Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth, which is not too on the nose at all; he too cooks with big flavors, did a massive cattle drive cooking tour progressive in honor of James Beard’s 100th birthday, and he’s playing for the March of Dimes on behalf of his two adorable daughters who were born premature but grew to be adorable thanks to the March of Dimes.
Okay, now to the cookery!
The chefs are all gathered in the kitchen, and Kelly comes in to begin the Quickfire. For TC Extra Crispy, each Quickfire challenge will be a revisiting of a classic Quickfire on TC Original Recipe. This week, we’re going back to the dessert challenge of season 4, which saw the birth of Richard Blais’s banana scallops. The challenge for our Master Chefs? Come up with something similarly inspired and delicious. Michael Schlow and Chris Lee look physically stunned by being asked to make a dessert, because nobody ever knows how to do them; Michael in particular confesses that he hadn’t thought to practice whipping anything up. This is Top Chef, not Top Planner for the Future.
They find that they’ll be preparing these desserts to be judged by 4 members of a local Girls Scout troop, because if you’ve ever had a Samoa, then you know Girl Scouts know their food.
Away they go; Tim Love confesses to feeling a little bewildered; he thinks his self-taught cowboy cooking makes him an underdog; I think his sculpted sideburns go a long way to making up the deficit. At least in my book. He’s making a strawberry milkshake, chocolate covered strawberries, and a “chicken fried strawberry.” I’m sensing a theme.
Also, wouldn’t that just be a fried strawberry?
Ponder that, as Hubert Keller mixes up some luscious looking chocolate ganache while expressing some doubt about his ability to make a dessert that children will like. I think the chocolate will help. It’s shaping up into a chocolate swan with meringue wings and raspberry sauce. Michael Schlow is going for a chocolate cake and ice cream, to serve alongside his peanut butter chocolate candies.
Christopher Lee is attempting to impress the judges while maintaining his integrity as a chef; he’s decided the best way to go about that is french toast with caramelized banana. I am morally obligated to call this a Nannerpuss. Moreso when he tops it with a maple flavored fluff.
Michael is facing oven and freezer malfunctions; his cakes aren’t baking and his ice cream isn’t setting. I don’t want to hear any complaints, because he is a master! He should be able to bake that cake with the heat of his passion for gustatory excellence! Make it work! Oops, wrong (ex-)Bravo show. To his credit, Michael doesn’t complain; he says he has new respect for all Original Recipe contestants and is resigned to serving the candy along with cake glop.
Girl Scout Rookies
Judging time! The girls are set round the table, and the chefs have a bullpen in the back about how “daunted” they were by the challenge. Everyone teases Schlow very congenially about his various failures. There’s a cute instant camaraderie among them; it’s so ding-dang sweet they could’ve served that to the girls.
They get Michael Schlow’s chocolate abomination first. One scout says his chocolate peanut butter candies remind her of Tagalongs, also known as Peanut Butter Patties, also known as cookie manna, although that last one is just my personal pet name for them. But the girls are not impressed by the melted chocolate he liberally spooned over the cake. The judges are refreshed and charmed by the girls’ honest opinions, and Schlow laughs as he frankly says, “I’ll be honest too; my dish sucked!” Take a lesson, all you whiny past contestants. Not that I’m mentioning any names. Jeff.
Next, Tim Love’s strawberry trifecta. His plate is beautiful, pristine white with these little portions of strawberry goodness dotted along it. The girls are split on the chicken fried strawberry – one plumps for it, but the same red-haired Girl Scout who slammed Schlow’s melted chocolate thinks that the frying process made Tim’s strawberry too mushy. The milkshake didn’t go down very well; one trooper thought it was too sour. Probably all the orange juice he dumped in the blender, making it not a shake, but a smoothie. Sorry, but I feel very passionately about the sanctity of dessert beverages.
Hubert Keller is so very going to win this. His plate might as well have a fanfare of trumpets attending it to the table. The girls’ faces light up when they see his meringue and chocolate swan and elegant fruit trifle, and they love the tiny mousse mouse that decorates the plate. Chris Lee gives Keller a congratulatory pat on the back when the little red-haired girl declares full-heartedly that she likes Keller’s dish. Chris’s French toast she doesn’t love so well; she thinks the caramelization is too crunchy, and “burnt.” Backstage they dub her The New York Times. I wish somebody would write them a spec script for a sitcom spinoff.
To determine the winner, the judges will give each dish star ratings out of 5, just like Michelin Guides. Cute. These will be added to the ratings they receive for the elimination challenge to determine who goes on to the CHAMPION’S ROUND. Sorry for yelling, but the CHAMPION’S ROUND seems so fraught with portent. Had to go for the all-caps.
Ratings: Michael Schlow gets 2 and ½ stars; Tim and Chris are tied with 3 and ½ stars, and HK earns a full 5-star rating heading into the elimination round.
The elimination challenge will consist of cooking a wonderful three-course meal for a group of students, without a proper kitchen. They’ll only be able to use a microwave, a tiny hot plate, and a toaster oven. The budget is $150, and speaking as a broke student, $150 is entirely too high.
So, the chefs go bumbling around Whole Foods with only their lists and expressions of mystification to guide them. They’re so unfamiliar with the layout of a modern grocery store it’s ridiculous, and ridiculously adorable. I imagine this is what it would look like if I made my grandmother try to navigate an Apple store.
Schlow ends up at the fish counter checking salmon for freshness; Chris Lee is wandering around the boxed grains thinking of ways to use food and techniques he doesn’t normally use. He picks up a few pork chops. If Bravo deigned to use sound effects, there would be lots of slide whistles and cymbals playing as Hubert Keller realizes he’s misplaced his cart. Tim Love had planned to make a ground pork chili, but WF doesn’t have any ground pork at his service. He improvises a whole new shopping list and leaves the store without a clear idea of his menu.
Incidentally, we’re only twenty minutes in, and I think this is already the bleepingest episode of TC ever.
Dorm Room Dish
The next morning, the chefs file in to prep their food and find out where they’ll be cooking, when suddenly, Tim Love discovers that he’s placed his bags in the freezer instead of the refrigerator. Whoops! Tim looks mightily chagrined; Chris Lee helpfully informs us that while frozen meat and fish is no big deal, frozen produce is pretty much a lost cause. They all trudge off to Pomona College anyway, and leave us to wonder how Tim will deal. Once on campus, the chefs find out that they’ll each be cooking in an actual dorm room! Cue more slide whistles, because how wacky is that? Interestingly, the ridiculous constraints only seem to make the chefs giddier and gigglier, like the increasing obstacles are a holiday from school. I love them, all 4.
Their cooking equipment is all laid out attractively among piles of books and hometown mementos. Hot plates and toaster ovens in the dorms? I’m going to have to speak to the RA about this. While you wait, have an impromptu anecdote from Hubert Keller: he never went to college, so if he weren’t a world class chef right now, he’d have been a DJ because he sees DJ-ing and cooking as two sides of the same creative coin. A candid shot of him behind the ones and twos flashes on-screen, and I’m tickling myself imagining what music is coming out of it. The smart bet says Henry Mancini. HK stares at his microwave in bewilderment, while Tim Love ponders his fate, and Schlow playfully chastises his room’s owner for not tidying up.
Menus: Michael Schlow is planning a salmon crudo for the first course, followed by a cabbage and bacon soup, and some sort of schmancy pork loin to finish. Hubert is preparing salmon for his first course, to be followed by a carrot and pea soup with cinnamon, and macaroni and cheese with prawns. I’m excited for that soup.
Chris Lee: red snapper ceviche, creamy risotto, and a pan roasted pork chop with mache and fennel salad.
Since Tim’s scallops got water-logged in the freezer, he can’t sear them as planned, so he’s turning them into a chili-lime carpaccio appetizer. He’s pairing that with posole sans hominy, and skirt steak with kale. So far I would eat everything these gentlemen have listed, so they’re all winners to me.
Meanwhile, Schlow passes a tub of popcorn around to his fellow chefs. Hubert Keller finds that there’s no mechanism for draining his macaroni in his room, so he dashes to the bathroom and jams the shower head into the pot to rinse and drain the pasta. I really hope a cleaning crew came through beforehand, because student-shower pasta would not play well on a menu.
The Splendid Table
Our judges for this new version of Top Chef are all respected food critics, to pay tribute to the established nature of the chefs’ reputations. Gathered at the table with various bright-eyed co-eds are Jay Rayner of the London Observer, Gael Green of lots of many publications in NYC, and James Oseland, editor-in-chief of Saveur Magazine. I know none of them, but they seem to have the chefs sweating a bit, so I guess their personas are pretty intimidating.
The first courses go out; the students seem to love Tim’s carpaccio, and the critics like the olive oil he used, but Jay Rayner expected much more heat when he heard “chili.” Yeah what’s up with that BIG TEXAS? Your flavors are supposed to be BOLD. Schlow’s crudo goes down well with students and critics; the students are awed that something like that could be produced in the boxy confines of a dorm room. Jay Rayner though, is again bringing doom: he objects to the raw crudo, since the challenge was cooking with limited means. Semantics aside, though, Schlow’s salmon is well-liked. Even Rayner approves of Chris Lee’s ceviche with popcorn and avocado though. He rates the snapper as the best element of the dish, and the other critics endorse it wholesale. Hubert Keller’s salmon with a grainy mustard sauce just generates a whole bunch of “mmm” and “this is delicious.”
Second courses: Michael Schlow hopes his cabbage and bacon soup to motivates the students to cook more, while impressing the judges. It impresses me, while motivating me to salivate, so I think he’s hit the nail. Gael Green particularly loves the mixture of flavors he accomplished. Chris Lee’s risotto went a little soggy, but the flavor is still good. Hubert Keller’s carrot and pea soup with cinnamon croutons is a split decision, some like the cinnamon and others don’t. Jay Rayner kind of backhandedly slams Tim Love’s posole – he says it would fit right in a dorm. James Oseland though, thinks it’s great football watching food, and he means that wholly as a compliment.
Final courses: Tim’s skirt steak and braised kale is pronounced refreshingly simple, but oversalted. Oseland also thinks the kale is too bitter. Schlow’s pork a la apicius (schmancy!) with broccolini and mushrooms rates a little better, but the pork is a little well done. I truly resent my television screen for coming between me and Hubert Keller’s prawn macaroni and cheese. It looks divine and is universally praised. I am seriously sitting here bitterly lamenting our lack of technological advancement. This is 2009! By all accounts we should be to the point where I can reach into my television and pick up that macaroni and cheese. Thanks for nothing, science. The judges all esteem Chris Lee’s pork chops with potatoes, and mache and fennel salad as a dish belying its hot plate origins. I agree; that meal looks entirely too polished to have ever come off a hot plate. This is far and away the best dinner service that has ever been presented on Top Chef. But I guess that makes sense.
Expect the Expected
Now it’s time for final judgment. The individual judges will rate each chef out of five stars, and then the collective of students will also give each chef a five-star score. So there will be 20 stars up for grabs here to add to the Quickfire scores and determine the winner of this round. I hope you got all that, because if I have to repeat it again I may lose the ability to tie my shoes.
The critics grill the chefs about their respective dishes, and Hubert relates his shower-head technique, which he was wise to save until after everyone had eaten. They question the choice of cinnamon with his soup, and he defends it as lending it a hearty, wintry quality. I agree; I put cinnamon in my carrot soup (along with nutmeg, mmm boy!). I don’t like peas, but I can imagine that adding sweet peas would only make the whole thing earthier. Anyway, they move on to Michael Schlow and compliment him on his lovely soup and the seasoning of his pork. Gael takes him to task for overcooking the pork though, and he reveals that he had to sear it twice on the rinky-dink hot plate before the sear would take. Gael backs off and congratulates everyone for being able to put out the food they did.
Tim goes through his freezer travails and chronicles the changing of his game plan in light of the ruined meat and produce. The judges seem duly impressed and compliment his posole, but ding him for the salty steak. The judges get Chris too speak on his soggy risotto, and laud his technique in keeping the pork chop moist with such limited tools. And then it’s done. The chefs troop back to the dining area and toast each other, and the critics chat about how hard it must’ve been for the chefs and grant them all kinds of amnesty for the few mistakes they made. This is remarkable.
They file in to get the final scores, and Kelly Choi just kind of reads them off in order. This ceremony is really a little tedious. Anticlimactic too, as it becomes clear that she’s going in order from lowest to highest. But here they are anyway:
Michael Schlow bottoms out with 2 and ½ stars from each of the critics, and 3 and ½ from the students, added to his 2 and ½ stars from the Quickfire. Total: 13 and ½.
Tim Love is next: he gets 3 from the students, 2 and ½ from both Gael and James Oseland, and 3 and ½ from Jay Rayer. Added to his Quickfire score that makes his total 14 and ½.
Christopher Lee wraps up second place: He socks away 4 stars from the diners, Gael, and Jay, and 3 and ½ stars from James. Added to his 3 and ½ stars from Quickfire time, he ends up with a whopping 19 stars.
And now to make even that total seem like nothing, are Hubert’s scores. He earns 4 stars from the student diners, James, and Gael, 3 and ½ from Jay, leaving him with a total of 20 and ½ stars, and winning $10,000 for the Make-A-Wish foundation.
So, there was precious little suspense at the end, and I still can’t eat that cabbage soup and macaroni, but still I say, good show. I didn’t once find myself missing the sniping and dramatics of people with reputations to build and egos to defend. Hubert Keller moves on the CHAMPION’S ROUND, and Chris Lee, Tim Love, and Michael Schlow each get publicity donations to charities they care about. Everybody wins.
Next week promises a mouthwatering match-up between Wylie Dufresne, Elizabeth Falkner, Suzanne Tracht, and Graham Elliot Bowles, as well as the return of the legendary vending machine amuse-bouche challenge! You will want to tune in.
What do you think is on DJ Keller’s playlist? All guesses entertained.
Re: Top Chef Masters 6/10 Recap: Cooking with Kidz!
Great recap! I really enjoyed this episode. No ego wars here.
The one thing I'd like to see changed is for them not to announce which chef cooked which dish until Judges' Table. For instance, is it possible that all the judges really loved Hubert Keller's dishes that much more, or did he have an advantage just because of who he is and his reputation?
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