Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes! I think for the most part everyone watching this series has let out at least a little sigh of relief at the master chef contestants of this series being so professional, so congenial, and so very cool. But, for those of you out there who were missing the whining and the carrying on, you should be bellying up to the table tonight, because Top Chef Masters is serving up a bellyful of bellyaching, just for you! Belly is a fun word, isn’t it?
Competing this week:
Wilo Bennet: the exec. chef and owner of Pikayo in San Juan, Puerto Rico. According to Tom, Wilo was Puerto Rico’s first celebrity chef. Wilo himself feels pressure at being on the other side of the judging table after telling Antonia she made slimy plantains back in season 4. He’s playing for San Jorge Children’s Foundation which is a children’s hospital. I just love hearing about what charities people are invested in. I’m nosy. And judgy.
Cindy Pawlcyn: proprietor of Mustards Grill in Napa, and a bona fide specialist in Cali cuisine. She has known she wanted to be a chef since age 13; that is both adorable and enviable. She’s playing for Clinic Ole, a clinic that provides health services to underprivileged folks in the Napa Valley area, which is awesome.
Ludo Lefebvre: Runs Ludo Bites in LA. French, French, French, and he’s worked with tons of important French people. Only nominated for a Beard award though. Amateur! Ludo is playing for C.H.A.S.E. for Life, which educates ordinary people on proper CPR procedures. Nice. Also? He don’t like to lose. Foreshadowing!
Aaaand Rick Bayless: He has been on every sort of food competition type thing ever, so I don’t think there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know who he is? So I will say, he rules, and he knows more about Mexican cuisine in particular than anyone else you know. I assure you. Also everyone loves him. He’s playing for Frontera Farmer Foundation, which does microfinancing for families in Mexico.
So they meet in the kitchen. Kelly Choi’s existence gets to have a point here, as she asks the chefs if they have butterfiles. Rick Bayless confesses that he always feels a little disoriented in a kitchen that’s not his own. Those butterflies are probably working like mad as Kelly invites each chef to draw knives. Wilo gets orange, Cindy yellow, Ludo red, and Rick draws green. You know where we’re going. Season 2’s “color” Quickfire! They’re pulling a lot from season two, have you noticed? That season blew, but they did have some awesome challenges. Anyway, none of these chefs look pleased. Wilo owns that he’s extremely anxious, because a one-color dish is visually unappealing. And the judges? A food blogger, a cookbook author, and a food stylist, all people who pay an inordinate amount of attention to how food looks. Ha!
They’re getting 30 minutes to get this together, and now it’s Cindy’s turn to get the nerves out; she’s worried because she’s not as fast as she used to be. But who is, really. Not Rick, self-proclaimed “King of Slow Food,” so he’s sharing similar concerns. Ludo likes his pull of red, because red is intense and so is he. He’s planning a red beet gazpacho along with a whole pile of raw red meat. His French training makes this seem like a cakewalk. Pun intended.
Cindy’s working on a “celebration in yellow”: grits topped with a yellow curry of tomatoes and peppers. Rick’s going green with veggies roasted in a banana leaf with mole verde made of tomatillo and cilantro. We’re getting orange from Wilo’s smoked salmon tartare, and a carrot brunoise. He’s added some edible flowers; it’s totally not the kind of thing he likes doing, let him remind us and me remind you, but he’s doing it anyway, because the judges are ladies and ladies love the flowers. Boy do we.
Time ticks down; in a sweet moment Ludo learns to share space with Cindy despite his background of Superior Frenchy Frenchness, Cindy helps him plate his tartare, but even so he forgot to put his tomato on the plates before they go out. Whoops! (Translation: Sacre bleu!)
Ludo’s very unhappy about this, and you shall know it by the many profanities with which he profanes the air. Also, the waiters left his beet juice accoutrement behind for no reason so he’s really screwed. Rick’s chuckling about how hard the challenge was because he’s adorable. They serve Ludo’s plate and the judges dig in, but when the waiters return Ludo whines until they turn back and bring out the beet juice too. I’m fully on his side there; the beets were done and it was the waiters’ error. No need to whine, though. So they interrupt the lunching ladies to add the missing component, meanwhile the ladies had already decided that his dish was very tasty, and they’re not impressed by the addition of the sauce because it makes the plate look bloody. Ludo is dismayed at this news. I believe you’re familiar with how his dismay is expressed.
Cindy’s yellow extravaganza of grits and curry looks darn tasty and goes down quite well because of the different shades and different textures it presents. Rick Bayless is staring at the video screen in amazement as if this new technology of watching people eat his food will change his life as well as bringing peace to the world. And you know what? It just might. *lifts chin appreciatively* The judges are all wowed by the banana leaf presentation, and they like the complexity of his flavors as well. Wilo’s smoked salmon with carrots and gets points for the color, but he forgot unmold his salmon and the judges find the rings off-putting on the plate.
Scores: Ludo earns 3 stars, Cindy earns 3.5, Rick racks up 4, and Wilo wraps up the win with 4.5, despite the whole ring mold fiasco. He breathes in a bit of relief, Ludo looks at him like half a hater, and Rick smiles hugely and says “Wow.” So Wilo’s in first, but only by half a point. This is the smallest lead we’ve had yet going into the elimination round.
Speaking of the elimination round, bring it! Because we’re talking the street food challenge. But! we’re also again going to the second season well, because we’re not only talking street food, we’re talking street food made of offal. Cindy’s pumped. Wilo not so much. Dismay is also etched on Ludo’s face, but we don’t hear it. Yet. Wilo will be working with beef hearts. Rick lucks out and pulls beef tongue, which he happens to love, and Cindy winds up with tripe. Ludo pulls pigs’ ears, which are a thing I’ve never even heard of cooking, and which threaten to spoil my next state fair experience if I wander past an elephant ear stand. Rick’s eyebrows shoot up at the sight of the pigs’ ears, and to the camera he says “Better him than me.” I know, right? But Ludo’s not worried because he knows how to use pig ears. Not only that but he can also cook the tripe, the hearts, and the tongue. And the chicken feathers. And the scum that lettuce leaves in your crisper drawer too. So there! And according to Ludo, “if you want to be the master you have to know the food.” So I guess here’s our master! We can stop tape now. Wait, why are y’all still filming?
The chefs get $350 to use during this week’s trip to Whole Foods. Ludo instantly decides to turn his ears into quesadillas, because who doesn’t love those. Rick gives a little imminent doom face and tries to offer advice because Ludo is French and what do they know? Wilo wants to turn his beef hearts into a certain sort of traditional Puerto Rican sandwich, only with pita; and Cindy is using her tripe to hook up a menudo. At the checkout Ludo finds that Rick is planning tacos; he is displeased because Rick “copied him.” Yes, Ludo. Because everything has to do with you, and not, you know, what training or expertise someone may have. Yes, you are exactly right. Yeah, and also I really want to eat your pig ear quesadillas. Really, super badly.
Cookery montage: lots of unnecessary shots of raw organs, Cindy is befuddles by pressure cooker lids and Rick stops to help her, Ludos planning on tenderizing his ears in a delicious broth, and Wilo’s trying to minimize the heart-ness of his beef hearts by slicing them very thinly. Rick’s calling out the time, but Ludo’s behind everyone; Rick offers to help him box up his prepped materials but Ludo bristles because he is bristly.
They pack it in and head off to Universal Studios to hawk their wares to people who are going to be at best curious and at worse, totally grossed out. They set up their stations; Cindy titles hers “Yummy Tummy,” which is darling, and Ludo finds that his ears have gelatinized so he has to dice them again which loses him even more time.
So far Wilo’s sandwich station looks the most appetizing; he’s mixed his hearts with a combo of chicken and ham and lots of veg and condiments. A sea of people are at the park gates waiting to be fed on TV, and Ludo hasn’t fried a single quesadilla. Oh no! (Translation: Oh non!) The sea of people floods in an each booth gets pretty busy pretty quickly. Gotta love those adventurous tourist palates. Rick’s trying to charm his customers, and some guy charms him by referring to this experience as Rick “slipping him some tongue.” Our lovely critics wander over and Rick singles out Gael as a particularly tough cookie. She gets her tongue taco first. That man knows his work. They all love the tacos, but Jay Rayner, Lord love him, wouldn’t want to snog anyone after he’s eaten. Huh. Now I want to taste that taco.
Wilo’s sandwich seems to be winning over the crowd. He’s trying to get a block party atmosphere going like back in San Juan. The judges amble up and get served; they find there’s too much salad action going on and not enough beef heart. Gael loves the blend of salty, spicy, creamy he worked out though. Ludo’s still backed up; he’s working the customers, charming them and promising them his food will be hot. When the judges arrive he stalls with a detailed narrative of his cooking process, but they can clearly see he’s flustered and rushed. Jay needles him a bit because, as Ludo says cheekily, “He is English; I am French.” Honestly I am getting a little Napoleon vibe from Ludo. Jay’s not giving me much Lord Nelson though. The critics’ verdict: the ears turned out tasty, but were too smothered with cheese.
Cindy’s menudo station is buzzing as she regales her customers with tales of her cooks making this to chase away their hangovers every Sunday morning. She serves the judges with a spiel about the different layers of spicy and sweet flavor, and the mixture of raw and cooked elements in the soup. They seem to like it all right, but Jay and James think it’s a bit underseasoned.
The crowd gives their ratings, and the chefs pack up. We hear Ludo saying he really wants his quesadilllas to beat Rick’s tacos, because Rick is the king of such things, and to take him down would make Ludo king by default. Yup, that is how cooking works. Cooking works like Macbeth. Also, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go; give me the scores and tell me I win.”
Everybody Loves Rick
Meanwhile, at the critics’ table. Everyone has on rather grim faces, which is weird because they seemed to like everyone’s food well enough. But that’s reality tv for you. James wants to know what was in Ludo’s broth because he didn’t really pick up much complex flavor from the pig ear. Jay grills Cindy about her menudo broth and her goal of appealing to “the masses” because for him it was lacking so much character. Cindy concedes that it might be true that she backed off on the seasoning to appeal to a more pedestrian crowd. And she concedes it awesomely, with a shrug. Rick is adorable about his tacos and how much fun he had making and serving them; Kelly loved the sharp cheese he chose to pair the taco with, but Jay wanted more acidity than Rick’s side of tomatillo-lime guacamole offered. James loved the whole thing outright though. As far as Wilo’ssandwich, James wishes he would’ve toasted the pita bread and made the beef heart more distinguishable, but Kelly’ loved the textures and Gael loved his spicy mayo mixture, so it’s kind of a wash for him.
The chefs retreat to their booze fest, and the judges reiterate all the things they loved and hated about everybody. Jay particularly stands up for Ludo who got the suckiest ingredient and managed to make something cool with it. And then we regroup for final scoring.
Ludo is on deck first so you know he won’t be moving on to the CHAMPION’S ROUND. He earns 3.5 stars from the diners, 4 from Jay, and 3 each from Gael and James for a total of 13.5. Added to his 3 stars from the Quickfire, he totals out with a 16.5. I can’t say I’m too broken up about not following him for 4 weeks in the CHAMPION’S ROUND.
Cindy rated only 3 stars from the diners, and James slams her with a 2.5 for her underseasoned soup. Jay gives her 3 stars, and Gael give her a 3.5. Her final total is 15.5, which is the lowest cumulative score yet. Poor Cindy. She could’ve used a Pepper Monkey in her arsenal today.
Rick picked up 4 stars from the diners, and cleans up with 5 stars from both James and Gael, and a very respectable 4.5 from Jay. Added to his Quickfire score, that brings his total to 22.5 (which ties him with Suzanne Tracht for highest total so far). So it’s down to Rick and Wilo.
Wilo had the lead coming into the elimination round, but it was only half a point. His diner score is also a 4; he also earns 4s from Jay, but only 3 from James, giving him a final total of 19.5. Quite admirable, but not enough to win.
So the ever lovable Rick Bayless is moving on to the CHAMPION’S ROUND, and $10,000 is going to the Frontera Foundation to fund family farms. Fantastic! The chefs toast Rick; Ludo smiles and declares he wants to be on Masters 2, and Cindy vows to practice her menudo. Rick has his eye on the big prize, but there’s another Frenchman standing in the way.
There’s no new episode next week, but persevere patiently, my food competition loving friends, and when you return, Neil Patrick Harris will be here to reward you! See you then.