Top Chef Masters 7/15 Recap: Blowing Smoke
Previously on Top Chef Masters, we saw the divine Ms. L use her silent awesomeness to sail into the finals. Letís jump right into this weekís lineup:
Rick Moonen: owner and exec of RM Seafood at the Mandalay Bay in Vegas. Gael Greene informs us that Rick has also rocked the NYC scene with no less than three 3-star restaurants there. Heís all about conservation and sustainable food, so his selected charity is the Cape Cod Fishermenís Organization, which is also all about sustainable food. Seafood in particular.
The alliterative Nils Noren, who is the VP of Culinary Arts at the French Culinary Institute. That, my friends, is a credential. Anything more than 3 words in your title, and youíre official. I myself am slowly working my way up to Grande Vice Footwoman of Internet Punditry. But Nils. He fell into cooking because his reggae band didnít work out. Jay Rayner says Nils is ďvery much the Swedish Chef.Ē Nah. I can see Nilsís eyes. Also, bork, bork, bork. Heís playing for Friends of the FCI, which supports students who canít pay all the pate brisee it costs to be trained there.
Lachlan M. Patterson of Frasca in Boulder, CO. Heís young hotshot who trained with Thomas Keller and won that ubiquitous Beard Award. Heís quite pedigreed, but Jay Rayner doesnít say anything about his cooking. Maybe because he still looks like his mom doesnít let him touch the stove? Heís playing for the Denver Childrenís Hospital.
And then thereís Michael Chiarello: who you may already have seen on your television set some thousand times. Heís a well-established member of the Food Networkís corral of food personalities, but he has also long been a fixture of the Napa Valley restaurant scene. Jay thinks heís going to have a chip on his shoulder because people think TV chefs are wusses. He is playing for Clinic Ole in Napa, the same org that Suzanne Tracht endorsed a few weeks ago.
Quickfire: Weíre dipping all the way back to the first season, for the junk food jam, which is the task of elevating a junk food item into something restaurant quality. Season 1 champ Harold won this with a popcorn ceviche that I still donít fully comprehend. Chiarello chooses fish sticks, Lachlan picks hot dogs, Rick Moonen goes for the corn dog, and Nils winds up with fried shrimp.
Theyíre going to be judged by some particularly douchey looking scenesters, who turn out to be stars of some other show on Bravo called Flipping Out. I donít know, but apparently theyíre junk food experts. The chefs get 45 minutes to impress them.
Lachlan is turning his hot dog into a tomato stew with fresh handmade kielbasa. Moonen is determined to put out a shrimp dog with Asian slaw. Nils, for his part, is turning the idea of fried shrimp into poached shrimp with a lobster stock tartar sauce. Also croutons. Heís a little afraid this may be too refined for the judgesí tastes, but heís doing it anyway. Michael has turned fish sticks into some kind of zucchini meatball? For a reason? These guys ultimately prove to be as unfamiliar with making junk into cuisine as their predecessors were. Lachlan is also unfamiliar with how long it takes sausage to cook in a stew. His is still half raw by the time the clock winds down. Rick has time management issues too: his shrimp dogs arenít even in the fryer when Kelly walks in and calls time. He wonít have a plate to send out to the table.
At the table to judges do get Lachlanís raw sausage stew. They gingerly avoid the meat but declare the tomato-prosciutto broth very tasty. Next they try Michaelís swordfish and zucchini
meat fish balls. That does not sound at all appetizing but they look gorgeous on the plate. All the judges are happy to get something that was actually fried, and also they enjoy giggling at the word balls. Thatís Flipping Out, folks. Donít miss it!
Everyone is puzzled by the lack of fried-ness in Nilsís fried shrimp inspired dish, and the croutons arenít making up for it. They do really like the flavors of his plate though. The reality stars sneer a bit and are disgusting in general when Kelly tells them there is no fourth dish. Oh, shut it. You can hit the Burger King drive thru on your way home.
And while there get me a Whopper Jr.
Scores: Nils and Lachlan earn 3 stars, Michael pulls out a 4.5 which puts him way far ahead, because Rick Moonen of course earns 0 stars. Poor Rick is so much of an underdog Iím expecting to see Tennessee Tuxedo pop up any minute. I think that means heís going to turn it around and win, for the ultimate feel-good story? Thatís what it says in my reality TV bible anyway.
The Charm Offensive
Next Kelly gives up the elimination challenge details: each chef will have to independently prepare three different hors díoeuvres for a party of 100 people. Nice job springing this on people who probably havenít gone through a proper dinner service in years, show.
They raid Whole Foods. Nils picks up salmon because he is Swedish and proud. Rick is massively anxious about making a comeback, so heís going all out with the seafood thing Ė scallops, shrimp, and opakapaka, which Google tells me is a fish, along with a lemon custard dessert.
Lachlanís planning some sort of pineapple fritter, grilled short ribs, and a strawberry tart. Michael is letting the ingredients dictate his menu; in season strawberries make a strawberry and goat milk gelato, for one thing. Also shaved Brussels sprout salad and spicy ďpissed offĒ prawns. I think thatís an unfortunate title Michael has given those prawns. Nils is working on a diced scallop dish, the salmon, and a chocolate and goat cheese ganache for dessert. Heís also somehow smoking some tea to make a cream to go along with one of those things.
Prep, prep, prep. This weekís machine treachery: Michaelís gelato isnít freezing in the churn. Dun dun dunnnn.
The next day the chefs are given another hour to set up for service. Michael decides to stick his gelato in the freezer on Lachlanís advice. Rick Moonen is still rushing and nervous about getting everything finished and served without a kitchen full of help. Luckily for him a few servers come in near the end of prep to assist. Michael also takes advantage of the help, in hopes of getting far enough ahead to schmooze with the guests instead of constantly plating for them.
And then guests arrive, and first courses go out. I recognize Jerell from Project Runway among them. Hey, Jerell. Michael sets right off schmoozing the ladies who visit his table. He may actually be giving off some schmooze, heís schmoozing so hard. Lord, that is a disgusting word. And act. The critics make it to his table; everybody seems to enjoy his sprouts salad, even if itís a bit awkward to eat while mingling at a party. Lachlanís pineapple esotica Ė pineapple wrapped in ham and fried Ė isnít exactly wowing. Jay and James lament the texture of fried pineapple, but Gael and the guests do approve of the combo of pineapple and ham. Two great tastes that go great together? I smell a new candy bar in the works. Rickís opakapaka ceviche with avocado is a pretty big hit, as is Nilsí impressive looking diced scallops and curried apples with smoked potato cream. The swoony Swede seems to be a bit of hit himself too.
Second courses now. Michaelís area is a happening place to be, but that may be more due to his party banter than his spicy prawns with chili and rice flour gravy. His TV background is paying off in spades, but Gael is not pleased at being asked to use a knife to cut shrimp at a cocktail party. The plate is also too greasy, but Jay loves the taste of the shrimp. Rick is a little on fire with a scallop and shrimp brandade, which looks like a kind of croquette; Michael notes that heís probably super motivated after failing on the Quickfire. Lachlanís short ribs are pronounced delicious, and Gael likes the anchovy and horseradish salad he serves it with. The music changes from bright, tinkly chimes to kind of doom filled woodwinds and cymbals when Nils serves his smoked salmon and cream, but we donít hear much about it except how pretty it is.
And now for dessert: Lachlanís strawberry frangipane tart particularly impresses Jerell, but James Oseland finds it ďmeatyĒ somehow, and Kelly compares it to steak tartare. Iím not clear on whether thatís favorable or unfavorable, but I am pretty sure itís nutsy cuckoo. Michaelís basil and goatís milk gelato with strawberries is pretty complicated to plate, so he schmoozes a party guest into helping him, which is pretty ingenious I must say. I am really interested in having that dessert, even though Gael very witheringly says ďI donít like lawn cuttings in my dessert.Ē She seems to have a bit of a hate on for old Napa Style. The rest of the critics are delighted with the taste of the dish though. Rick Moonen is not at all a dessert guy, but he slammed together a slamming lemon custard topped with candied ginger, crumbled ginger snaps, and toasted coconut. I also would very much like to have that, if only this stupid TV werenít in my way. The critics all rave about it, and Jay wonders how Rick ever managed to get 100 different delicious mini-custards in the time he had. Nilsís ganache with smoked tea cream does not fare so well. According to various people, itís smoky, and bacony, and smoky, and smoky. Jay likes the addition of the goat cheese, however.
Settling the Scores
Back on set for judging time, everyone files in looking a little morose. Or maybe itís just exhaustion. They all chat about party happenings and whatnot, and the critics give feedback. Jay raves about Michaelís Brussels sprout salad. People keep saying Brussels sprouts can be tasty, can be roasted, can be pan-fried, but too many traumatic childhood memories of mushy, boiled, mini-cabbages conspire to make sure Iíll never find out for myself. Gael loved his shrimp but not the knife; Michael explains that he assumed guests would use the tail to handle the shrimp. Gael also came round on the lawn clippings and pronounces his dessert delicious.
Everyone praises Nilsís scallop starter and smoked salmon, except James who thought the salmon was two fishy. Gael and Jay razz him like theyíre going to pull his pants down on the playground, and then everyone tells Nils his dessert was an atrocity. Nils defends the smoked tea crŤme by explaining that back in
St. Olaf Sweden, they smoke a whole lot of different things, wink-wink, and thatís how people like it. James and Jay appreciate that he tried to bring a new experience to them, but it wasnít the most successful attempt.
Lachlanís ribs get high marks, but not much else. Rickís ceviche and brandade both earn raves from everyone, and then Jay congratulates him for making individual panna cottas under ridiculous conditions.
Scores: Rick Moonen earned a 4 from the partygoers, that plus a 4 from James and 4.5s from Jay and Gael give him a total of 17 stars. And thatís without a Quickfire score. Good show, Rick.
The party people gave Lachlan 3 stars, and he gets 3 from Jay, 2.5 from James, and 3.5 from Gael for a total of 15.5, and thatís with 2.5 Quickfire stars in there. Poor thing. Youíll think twice about serving a mushy pineapple ever again.
Nils collects 3.5 from the fans and Gael, 4 from James, and 3 from Jay. Added to his Quickfire score, that gives him 17 and ties him with Rick.
Michael scoops up 3.5 from the partygoers and James, 4 from Gael and Jay for 15; thanks to his killer Quickfire score heís racked up a total of 19.5 for the win and the ticket to the CHAMPIONíS ROUND. Rick departs but hopefully with ego intact. If heíd turned in anything during the Quickfire, he just might have pulled it off. I guess my bible was wrong; there is such a thing as a too far underdog. Interpreting bible verses is always so tricky.
Anyway, next week brings the final of these qualifying matches before we enter the CHAMPIONíS ROUND. Tune in to watch Art Smith, Roy Yamaguchi, Jonathan Waxman, and Michael Cimarusti fight to the death for the final spot; meanwhile Iím going to find something to eat. Either smoky tea or a meaty strawberry. See you next week!