Last week we met, for the first time, this season’s sixteen contenders, and there were a few stand-outs: Dale, for his arrogance; Andrew, for his mastery of salty language; Nimma, for her lack of mastery of salt content; Richard, for his molecular gastronomy; and Stephanie, for having a shaky but winning touch. There are still a few too many cooks in the kitchen to really spot a winner or even identify all the contestants successfully. With any luck, tonight will cause a few more stand-outs, either for good or for bad.
To market, to market, to buy a fat pig.
Morning and reality dawn on our sleepy cooks as they rise to greet the day after the first elimination challenge. Stephanie and Valerie found the workout room and are doing some exercises as they catch up; it turns out they knew each other from a restaurant they both worked at in Chicago a few years ago. Mark is a bit haunted by his bad showing in the prior challenge and vows, like many contestants before him, to do much better. With the Elves at the helm of this production, please feel free to take this as your very first foreshadowing clue. Meanwhile, Zoi and Jennifer are trying to work out how to deal with being a couple in the competition. They have decided to keep their distance a bit and treat it as a job, though Jennifer thinks they’ll be good at a team challenge.
It is soon time for the Quick Fire Challenge; the cooks are taken to an outdoor green market and given thirty minutes to shop. Padma tells them that they will have to create an entrée from ingredients bought at the market, but the dish can contain no more than five ingredients total, whether from the market or the kitchen’s pantry. The use of salt, pepper, sugar, and oil will not count toward the five total, but anything else will. As a bonus, the winner of the challenge will get immunity.
With thirty minutes on the clock, the cooks dash like mad to the green grocers’ veggie stalls, knocking down children, old people, and dogs. Spike decides to take the easy approach to shopping, stopping along the way to patronize outdoor guitarists and enjoy some other entertainment. On the complete opposite of the spectrum is Mark, who runs around a crazy person and demands quick service from the vendors. He is in such a hurry, he pays a guy and runs off without his lettuce. Meanwhile, Richard shows his fondness for cooking for koalas and buys some eucalyptus to infuse in his dish. Dale tries to find some meats but is shown only frozen stuff and he can’t handle the dubious quality of frozen meats.
Thirty minutes go by fast, and it is back in the kitchen for these cooks. Padma is around and introduces the guest judge for the episode, Wylie Dufresne; he’s a famous molecular gastronomist chef and his presence sends Richard into a happy place. I like Wylie for his soft-spoken nature and full-on embrace of the geek look. There’s the usual drama of cooking quickly, such as Mark finding out he lost an ingredient, Spike realizing the beef tips were not tenderloin but dog food meat, and Valerie trying to edge in on a burner in a cramped kitchen.
Before you know it, it’s tasting time for Padma and Wylie. Richard made a chicken soup with chicken, apples, apple cider, eucalyptus, and butter. Wylie comments that the eucalyptus is subtle. Ryan made a dish of lettuce, radishes, potatoes, sirloin steak and Dijon mustard. Wylie comments that it was properly cooked, simple, tasty and nice. At least it wasn’t a picatta. Dale plated a combination of mushrooms, shallots, radishes, eggs, and butter. Wylie really enjoyed the mushrooms. Valerie produced a plate of rib eye steak, peaches, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and arugula. Wylie liked the juicy sauce. Spike expected to have real beef tips, but found out that they were all chopped up so he ended up making the “tips” plus apples, bread, apple cider, and rosemary in one dish with the bread as crispy bits on top. Wylie thought it was a sandwich, but it was just a mess on a plate. Erik did a pan seared lamb chop next to a stack of baby carrots next to a little pile of new potatoes garnished with mint and including some garlic. Mark prepared a sirloin steak with turnips, mushrooms, peaches and butter. Wylie like the peaches and turnip combination, as well as Mark’s sideburns. Andrew made a dish comprised of lamb chops, peaches, onions, mint, potatoes, and balsamic vinegar. What?!?! Padma stops him and makes him recount the ingredients. Andrew is disqualified for using six ingredients because the balsamic vinegar counted as an ingredient, though Andrew thought it was in the “excluded” list. At least Andrew cops to being a dumbass for his screw-up.
Wylie gets the honors of announcing the winners and losers of the Quick Fire. Wylie didn’t like Spike’s dish because he thought the beef should have been used in a sandwich, Erik’s because the plate wasn’t composed but just three ingredients lined up on a plate, and Richard’s chicken because it was oily. Needless to say, Richard was disappointed that one of his heroes didn’t really take to his plate. On the plus side, Wylie liked Ryan’s dish for being moist and juicy, Valerie’s for bringing out a lot of flavors, and Mark’s for the great turnip and peach combination and for overcoming the problem of forgetting one ingredient at the market. Wylie then announces Mark as the winner and he gets immunity. So, we have now learned the Elves were being nice, not setting up Mark for a fall. Way to mix it up, guys!
Lions and penguins and bears, oh my!
No time like the present to jump right in to the Elimination Challenge. The chefs are asked to draw knives; as they pull out the knives, they say: lion, penguin, gorilla, bear, and vulture. Essentially, this divides the fifteen cooks into five groups of three, all designated by a zoo animal. As luck would have it, they don’t need to risk going to the slammer for cooking gorillas and lions, but will be catering a party for 200 employees of the Lincoln Park Zoo. The teams need to base their zoo party dishes on the diets of the animals drawn on the knives. They will shop, have three hours in the kitchen to prepare, and one hour to set up at the catering venue.
Luckily, the zoo has provided the diets of the animals so the chefs don’t have to guess. The teams are broken out like this: da Bears are Nikki, Spike and Dale; the Gorillas are Stephanie, Valerie, and Antonia; the Vultures are Mark, Zoi, and Manuel; the Penguins are Andrew (despite his ability to growl like a big cat), Jennifer, and Lisa; and the Lions are Ryan, Richard and Erik. Mark discovers vultures have a similar diet to his own, not tires and roadkill. The gorilla girls are a bit thrown off but the complete vegetarian diet; Antonia and Stephanie decide to add some crab and other meats to the menu but Valerie isn’t too thrilled at the prospect. The bear group has a bit of a struggle with leadership because Nikki wants to assert herself and Dale doesn’t play well with others. The penguins focus on little fish dishes, and toss around the idea of crab cakes.
The next morning, the cooks get ready and debate such topics as vulture vs. bear; Mark thinks vultures will win because bears hibernate while Dale thinks bears will win. Next up in this intellectual struggle: Superman vs. Batman! Stephanie, despite owning her own restaurant, is nervous about catering for such a large group. Off they go shopping and, once again, it’s a free-for-all grabbing vegetables and demanding proper cuts of meat. Lisa wipes out on what appeared to be a tomatillo, but is all right. Nikki wants to spend some of the budget on decorations for the table, but Dale disagrees saying he’s no interior designer.
Back in the kitchen, the three hour cooking frenzy kicks off with gusto. The menus the teams decide on each have about four dishes in them. The gorilla team will serve lamb and edamame lettuce cups, banana bread, crab salad on celery root chips, and black olive blinis with mascarpone cheese. The lion team will serve bison tartare, beat salad with goat cheese foam, chicken sate, and prime rib with horseradish foam. (Marcel is somewhere enjoying all these foam dishes.) The bear team has a menu of venison loin with squash, seared salmon, stuffed mushrooms with blueberries, and cheese and honeycomb on pecan bread. The penguin team will serve Thai shrimp and crab salad, roasted zucchini, squid ceviche (oh no, not ceviche!) and a yuzu and mint “glacier” than Andrew came up with. It’s a frozen dish, set with a stabilizer to sit out at room temperature. Finally, the vulture team will serve braised chicken on tostada chip, Moroccan lamb meatballs, and an anchovy on quinda croquette.
Erik is enchanted with Richard’s cool tools—cooking tools, that is—keep your mind out of the gutter, folks! Erik wants to impress Wylie with the molecular gastronomy gadgets. Stephanie thinks a gorilla team must use bananas, so she’s using her mother’s banana bread recipe. Tom comes in for a visit half-way through the three hours, checks around a bit, and leaves. By this time, Nikki’s stuffed mushrooms are done and they look, literally, like crap. Dale wants to chuck them entirely and Spike agrees; Nikki convinces them to wait until the event and see if they can dress them up a bit, because they don’t taste awful. Meanwhile, Stephanie made some chips to serve the crab on, but they didn’t fry long enough and are soggy. She tries to refry them, but it is looking more and more like a lost cause as time runs out.
Feeding the animals.
The cooks arrive at the party venue, which is inside a nice, wood-paneled hall. Each team has a station of several tables and chaffing dishes. Once they start setting up, Antonia is not happy with Valerie’s blinis and Stephanie’s chips are not crispy so Antonia suggests making a salad with the crab and celery. Nikki’s mushrooms are still disgusting looking, so Dale decides to put a bunch of cheese on them. Soon enough, the guests start to arrive—including judges Padma, Tom, Wylie, and Gail—and it’s time to taste the food.
The two hundred guests swarm in and get to eating the food. The mushrooms are still cold, so bear team decides to hold them back and see if they’ll warm up. Tom and Wylie pay a visit first to the lion team’s table and sample their beet salad with yuzu ras al hanout and goat cheese foam, which they like. At that same table, Gail and Pamda sample bison tartare with tarragon coulis, which is also nice. Their chicken dish is a hit as well.
Gail and Pamda then make their way to the vulture team’s table, where Mark gives them the marinated anchovy on a quinda croquette; they are skeptical of the anchovy at first but end up really liking it. They next sample Jennifer’s Moroccan-spiced lamb meatball with ricotta, pomegranate syrup and pistachio nuts; they think it is delicious.
At team gorilla’s table, Wylie and Tom sample Stephanie’s roasted pear and crab salad with celery root. Tom finds out that the chips didn’t work so Stephanie didn’t serve them. Wylie wasn’t a fan of the salad so Stephanie is worried she’s going home. No more successful was Valerie’s black olive blini with fennel mascarpone, rutabaga and beets. Despite it sounding delicious, Wylie is visably unimpressed and wonders why the blinis weren’t made fresh. Gail and Padma also pay a visit to the gorilla team and sample the minced lamb and edemame lettuce cups and banana bread with salted caramel sauce and meringue. The judges like the last two selections much better.
Next up, Padma and Gail make their way to the bear team’s station. The first sample the chimay cheese and honeycomb on cranberry-pecan bread, which they love. Next they taste the salmon a la plancha on lettuce cups with pickled vegetables and peanuts. Despite it being a bit to big to eat in one bite, the judges have no complaints. Gail then asks about the mushrooms and Nikki says that they aren’t as hot as they should be but hands them out anyway. Spike didn’t want them going out at all, but Nikki kept handing them out, saying they weren’t as hot as she wanted them to be. Wylie and Tom also sample the mushrooms—stuffed with blueberries and walnuts and topped with pecorino cheese—and heartily agree that they weren’t warm enough to eat.
Finally, Wylie and Tom stop by team penguin’s table. They are intrigued by the yuzu and mint glacier palate cleanser, which they quickly down after the nasty mushroom. Then they sample the charred squid ceviche with soy-balsamic tapioca, which Wylie thought was nice, to Andrew’s delight. And finally, they sample the Thai shrimp and crab salad with watercress.
The crowd reaction was fairly mixed, but the judges focus down on the bear team’s bad mushroom, the lion’s team good beet dish and tartare, the penguin team’s excellent squid, the vulture’s yummy anchovies, and decide the gorilla team’s table was the worst with a bad blini and watery crab salad. The party winds down, the cooks pack up, and the judges head to their Table.
Gorillas in the weeds.
With the cooks safely tucked in their cage-like waiting area, Padma arrives to call in the vulture and penguin teams to stand before the Judges’ Table. There, Tom tells the vulture team that Mark’s anchovy dish was a hit and Jennifer’s lamb meatball was also delicious. The judges also liked the penguin team’s glacier and liked how they stuck with a black and white scheme for their dishes. Wylie once again has the honors of picking the winner and it is Andrew. The successful teams are sent off with instructions to call back the gorilla and bear teams.
With the bottom two teams in their places of shame, Tom gets down to business right away and says that there were three dishes out of these two teams that sucked. The bear’s mushroom dish was awful and the gorilla’s blinis and crab salad were pretty damn bad. The bear team gets to defend first; Dale says he didn’t want to serve the mushroom and tees Nikki up for the blame. Tom asks who put the overpowering cheese on top of the mushroom. Dale cops to putting the cheese on to disguise the ugliness of the ‘shrooms. Then it comes out that no one on the team tasted the mushrooms after the cheese was added. Nikki tries to deflect blame for the dish, but Dale calls her out as having made it up until the point of the cheese.
Turning to the gorilla team, Stephanie admits the salad was watery because she mixed it up too early. Valerie also admits that the blinis were not as fresh as it should have been—it would have been better to prepare them to order so they wouldn’t get soggy and soft. Tom also had a problem with the rutabaga on the blinis being undercooked. Gail couldn’t find a connection between the blinis and the topping, though there was supposed to be a fennel mascarpone that connected the two. As Antonia was the only one on that team that didn’t have a failing dish, the judges ask her who she’d hire out of Stephanie and Valerie. Antonia picks Stephanie, and Valerie privately complains about Antonia stabbing her in the back.
The teams leave for the final deliberation; Wylie can’t believe anyone would try to cook a blini ahead of time. Tom had serious issues with the soggy crab salad dish, but Wylie points out that Stephanie redeemed herself with the awesome banana bread. (Stephanie should call her mom and thank her right about now.) The judges then ponder what was worse—Dale adding the cheese to the mushroom, the mushroom at the point Nikki created it, or that no one on the team tasted it after the cheese was added. Gail goes for the scatological, noting that the mushroom looked like something a bear would produce, not eat.
The gavel is about to drop and the two bottom teams are called back in. Tom, as dour as having a goofy soul patch can allow one to be, tells the bear team they are there because of Nikki’s mushroom and their collective failure to stand behind the dish. He then tells the gorilla team that Stephanie should have known not to mix the salad ahead of time and Valerie should have known to make the blinis to order, but, even so, the flavor combination did not work. Padma takes her cue to wrap this up and tells Valerie to pack her knives and go. Unlike Nimma who didn’t want to make friends, Valerie departs saying that she’s made some great friends in the short time she was in the competition and is disappointed at not going further.
This challenge was okay, but if you, like me, would have preferred that the chefs actually cook for lions, bears, penguins, gorillas and vultures, drop me a PM.