Top Chef Masters 6/17 Recap: The Meek Shall Inherit the Uni-verse
This is the city: Los Angeles California. Our second group of master chefs are strutting into the kitchen, most of them looking markedly different from the first crew. We’ve got a bleached blonde buzz cut, a sleeve tattoo, and a stylized geek bob. Oh, and Suzanne Tracht, too. You may have missed her because her hair’s not very loud.
Here now are our critics and Tom to give some vital stats on this week’s superstars.
Graham Elliot Bowles (who owns the aforementioned sleeve, and who bursts through the kitchen doors like “Bring the Pain” is playing in the background) owns and runs Graham Elliot in Chicago. He sums his culinary aesthetic up as “punk rock,” which, yeah. Screw the establishment by serving them fancy food. Anyhoo, Tom and James Oseland do a better job of describing him as a hotshot whippersnapper with a very urbane style. He’s playing for the American Heart Association.
Suzanne Tracht, chef and owner of Jar, right there in LA. She describes her style as simple, elegant, local, and seasonal. Tom calls her straightforward and unpretentious. Jay Rayner terms her a “west coast chef,” which to him means she focuses on good ingredients and not complicated presentations. She’s playing for SOVA, and LA-area food bank.
Wylie Dufresne, internationally known face of molecular gastronomy, or massive kitchen geekery. He owns WD-50 in NYC, thinks the label “molecular gastronomy” isn’t sexy enough (perhaps he’d prefer kitchen geekery?), and is a Top Chef regular. Everyone is always wowed by his experimental creativity in the kitchen – I personally will always be awed by the tilapia noodles he created during his battle with Batali on Iron Chef America. He used to want to be a sports superstar but decided cooking was kind of the same, and he wouldn't have to run so far. Playing for Autism Speaks.
Last to arrive is Elizabeth Falkner: owner of the blonde buzz cut, as well as Orson Restaurant and Citizen Cake in San Francisco. She strolls in wielding a gigantic rolling pin (?) and uses it to show off some of her fight club skills. She refers to herself as “kind of a rock star,” but Gail Simmons returns just long enough to refer to Elizabeth as an avant-garde pastry chef, so I see her suffering on this boat. But she’s playing for Edible Schoolyard, an org that teaches sustainability and such to children, and that is awesome.
Okay, to the cookery!
Vending, Vidi, Vici
It’s Quickfire time, and our non-entity of a host presents each chef with a roll of quarters, clueing them in to the awesomeness that awaits – Season 2’s vending machine amouse-bouche battle royale! This is really one of my favorite Quickfires, not least because the original contestants were so brattily appalled by it. These guys though, seem excited. GEB in fact was hoping he’d get this challenge. Oh, and the judges? Three of the biggest toolbags of that second season: Ilan Hall, Betty Fraser, and Michael the Goon. The masters troop to the vending machines and confess varying levels of familiarity with its fare (Wiley: fascinated by snack food, Suzanne: blank stare) as they pick out their products. Wiley grabs some sandwiches and nuts; Suzanne gets Fritos because her children like them. Elizabeth spends her dough on beef jerky, OJ, and Dr. Pepper, and GEB winds up with a couple candy bars, a ham sandwich, and orange coke. He’s frequently lambasted for using junk foods in his cuisine, so he really wants to win this one and show up his critics. Oh, I smell doom emanating from that ham sandwich. For a couple reasons.
Meanwhile, they cook like demons for the half hour they’re given. GEB is frothing up his orange coke to use in a tuna salad, and Wiley’s turning his sandwiches into croque-monsieur with Dr. Pepper reduction instead of béchamel, and he’s turning snack peanuts into beer nuts through the use of some sort of beer powder in his arsenal. He and GEB name each other as their biggest competition; I guess the ladies are just set deco.
Set Deco Suzanne zeroed in on shallots in the pantry, so she’s preparing shallot rings coated in a Frito flour, and served with a Dr. Pepper aioli. Boy, everybody really does want to be a Pepper. Elizabeth is kind of treading water; the camera keeps catching her looking like she’s wondering what to do next. She’s braising her beef jerky and she’s going to pair it with an orange juice, lemon, and horseradish ice cream, which to me sounds like something out of a New Yorker cartoon parody of a fancy restaurant.
Elizabeth wrassles with a huge liquid nitrogen tank that I don’t think was there last week, while GEB and Wiley dart around “like lunatics” and Suzanne moves purposefully from place to place. Elizabeth and Wiley are both caught off-guard by the time elapsing, and Wiley makes his frustration known with several self-flagellating f-bombs.
The judges get Wiley’s dish first; his grilled cheese goes down fine, but his Dr. Pepper sauce kind of caramelized and Betty finds it frustratingly thick. They all totally love Suzanne’s Frito rings and aioli, but the verdict is split on Elizabeth’s beef jerky. Ilan says something hipsterish about the journey the dish takes him on, and Michael thinks it’s two great tastes that taste great together, but Betty pulls a really exaggerated disgust face and laments that Elizabeth got jerky in her ice cream. GEB’s orange tuna salad goes out topped with a beef jerky miso powder, and everyone thinks it’s grand. Kelly Choi appears from her cryogenic chamber to deliver the scores; they pretty much match up with the critique: Wiley bottoms out with 3 stars (“%@*!”, he says in response), Elizabeth rakes in 3.5, GEB gets a very respectable 4.5, but Suzanne schools them all by earning the full 5 stars.
Now they’re told to leave the kitchen for the setup of the elimination challenge, and they return to find a wanton display of carnivorousness. Big hogs heads and lances of beef and fish everywhere you look. This has something to do with Lost, somehow. I haven’t seen a minute of that show, so I’m pretty lost myself! Ahaha, and a few seconds later Wiley makes the exact same joke. But apparently being stranded on a desert island entitles you to massive meat buffets. The chefs will have to prepare a dish for some of the show’s writers and producers using only what they see in front of them, and things from a list of canned and preserved ingredients. Nobody seems too thrilled by the canned angle, but Suzanne is way excited because she’s a Lost superfan.
They mill around the grocery store with their $200 budget; GEB and Wiley try to work together on their game plans, but GEB keeps bumping his head on the “canned” stipulation. Suzanne calls them Mutt and Jeff. She is fantastic. She’s also worried about not having access to fresh herbs. Elizabeth thinks her seasoning instincts will see her through, and GEB talks about how he was almost a rock star but decided that being a chef is the same thing. What is it with this group and rock stardom? Oh, and GEB and Wiley still really want to beat each other.
Montage of preparation, island-style: Various sea creatures and rough chops meet the business ends of a few knives, Elizabeth struggles mightily to crack open a coconut with a cleaver. She’s planning a beer and ancho braised boar loin, a coffee scented boar loin sous vide, and a yam papaya pudding. Wild. GEB is working on a tuna trio to express his “global” perspective: seared a la plancha, tuna nicoise, and a tuna and pineapple maki roll. Suzanne wants to show off and incorporate as much of the variety as she can. She’s doing wild boar with oyster sauce, mango corn salad, and a risotto featuring uni which, the Google has just taught me, is some sort of sea urchin. Wiley’s buzzing around like a bee, into this and into that, getting opinions on techniques he wants to try, and making me worry about him. He’s putting out a nervous energy, but he wants to produce a whimsical plate, so he’s playing with the chicken and egg conceit, and something called an immersion circulator that probably does something really cool.
Desert Island Dish
It’s time for the service. Our critics sit down to table with a bunch of Lost folks, and the Lost folks confess an obsession with Top Chef. One guy says there’s been a dip in quality ever since TC started. So now you know who to direct your letters to, Lost fans. Last minute plating scrambles are plaguing everybody but Suzanne; Wiley’s frantically dishing up what turned out to be this neat looking custardized egg and mumbling about running out of time. A group of storm troopers or some such come in to carry plates away before Elizabeth can finish saucing her meat. Tragedy!
Out at the table, she presents her boar duo and yam pudding. Some like but some are put off by the boar meat, and everybody thinks pudding is too reminiscent of baby food. Too bad, it sounded really good to me. Jay Rayner wishes there were sauce on the meat. D’oh!
GEB (who Kelly Choi calls “Graham Elliot Bowl”) is next to talk up his Tuna! Tùna! Toona! for the table. He takes them from Japan with the tuna maki roll, to the Mediterranean with the nicoise topped with canned green beans, and finishes up in South America with his coffee crusted tuna a la plancha with hearts of palm. Everyone loves the plancha and the nicoise, including the green beans, but they think he could’ve kept the maki roll.
Wiley’s chicken and egg conundrum appears. Whenever I see him cook I think his food looks exceedingly cool, but I can never convince myself that it is also tasty. He has here roast chicken and his immersion circulated egg, along with a banana mustard that I can’t wrap my mind around, a coffee and plantain puree, and a corn and beet salad. Tragedy again strikes, when Jay Rayner discovers his plate is empty of chicken! Awkward. Luckily, some other guy ended up with a double serving so it gets redistributed and all is well. One Lost guy pronounces this the best piece of chicken he’s ever eaten, and Jay Rayner applauds WD for staying true to himself. Gael loves the egg, but someone else thinks it’s more like an art piece than a piece of food he wants to eat.
Suzanne brings up the rear with what she calls her “holiday” plate; she’s piled her uni risotto, oyster glazed boar, and mango corn salad onto a plate just like I do at Thanksgiving. And she also threw in a baked yam, because what can’t be made better by a baked yam? This is also officially the first plate of the evening that I want to dive into head first. The guy who was dissatisfied earlier with Elizabeth’s boar loves Suzanne’s take on it, and everyone thinks that even though the ton of things she made don’t look like they should be jammed together on the plate, the presentation ultimately works to make the dish feel hearty and warm.
The Hipsters Get Hip-Checked
Judgment hour has arrived. The chefs are back in the kitchen laughing about how ridiculous it felt to be calmly presenting their food after rushing around like maniacs for two hours, and then they file into the critics table. Suzanne Tracht looks like she’s going to keel over right into a pool of her own ennui, but in an adorable way. Wylie looks defeated. Elizabeth has a blonde buzz cut, and GEB looks very punk rock (just insert your own picture of that).
The critics start with Wiley; Jay Rayner asks how he made that egg so awesomely, and Wiley gives up his slow-poaching secret. Gael admits that she always finds molecular gastronomy preparations suspect, but she loved his chicken. Everybody nods. GEB talks more about being well-traveled, and Jay compliments both the coffee crust and the sear on his tuna. James Oselund loves what he did with the green beans and the nicoise; GEB describes his process of working with a homemade onion, garlic salsa mixture to season, since there were no herbs to be had. I would’ve liked to hear more about how he managed to turn canned green beans into anything other than gross. Oh well.
Elizabeth talks about using her pastry techniques in the savory world, and building a sauce for the boar out of ketchup and chiles. She admits that the texture of the pudding might not have played well, and Gael tells her it was too sweet in addition to being baby food like. Jay Rayner brings up the saucing issue and she goes through her time issues. And then they ask Suzanne why she put those huge heaping helpings of everything on one plate. Her thought process: if you’re stranded with a bunch of people on a desert isle, you’re probably going to be eating family style, sharing from large dishes of food and whatnot just like how her dish turned out. They loved her boar, and she reveals that she had time to brine it and take away some of the gamy boarness with pineapple juice and Chardonnay (What kind of desert island fare is that? Mrs. Howell would’ve killed Ginger for some Chardonnay.) Jay Rayner also loved her risotto and all the flavors from the rest of the dish that ended up melting into it.
The chefs wander back to the kitchen to toast themselves with free liquor and marvel at how laid back the judging process was. Elizabeth jokes that she and Wiley were definitely meaner to the contestants when they were judges. The judges reiterate among themselves everything they loved about everybody and remind us that Elizabeth’s boar was dry, and Wiley’s cooking style is weird but wonderful. Then we get their final scores.
Graham: he nets 4.5 from the diners, 4s from Gael and James, and 3.5 from Jay Rayner for a total of 16. Added to his Quickfire that makes his score 20.5.
Wylie: earned 3.5 from the people at the table, a full 5 from James, 4 from Gael and 4.5 from Jay. Added to his 3 from the Quickfire, his cumulative is 20. He’s done. Graham is pleased.
Elizabeth: the diners give her boar 3.5. Jay and James give her 3, and Gael pulls out a 3.5 making her total for the day 16.5. Ouch.
And finally Suzanne. 4.5 from the diners, 4.5 from Jay and Gael, and 4 from James. Added to her Quickfire total, that gives her a butt whooping 22.5 stars. She wins the spot in the CHAMPION’S ROUND and $10,000 for the SOVA food bank, but you won’t see any other confirmation of it on her face than a small little smile. Two teeth were shown, I think. Suck that, rock stars, and congrats, Suzanne! You can cook a holiday meal for me any time.
The rest of you meanwhile, be sure to tune in next week for the return of the “Colors” Quickfire and the street food elimination challenge. Everybody’s Grandad Rick Bayless will face off against Cindy “No Pepper Monkeys” Pawlcyn, Ludoc “Not the Geographer” Lefebvre, and Wilo “Don’t Call Me Willow” Benet. See you then.
Re: Top Chef Masters 6/17 Recap: The Meek Shall Inherit the Uni-verse
Great recap MotherSister!!!
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