You’d think Top Chef Masters would do something to make up for a two weeks’ absence. And you’d be right, because this week not only do you get to see Neil Patrick Harris being charming and geeky about magic, but this week’s episode also sports pretty generous lashings of Tom Colicchio. I know MFWalkoff is somewhere being happy about that.
Egg In Your Face
Last time we met, we watched Rick Bayless genially triumph over his foes, and we wondered why Ludo didn’t just show up in a beret and a striped shirt, holding a baguette. Now for this week’s lineup.
Douglas Rodriguez: pioneer of Nuevo Latino cuisine, and proprietor of a restaurant in each region of the country. Except the Midwest. Poor us, so culinarily maligned. He calls his style “tortilla-free” Latin American. I find that intriguing. He’s playing for AYUDA for the Arts, an org which provides culinary school scholarships for Latinos.
Anita Lo: illustrious owner of Annisa in NYC. Anita is one of few super famous successful chefs who still frequently work the lines in their kitchens. Anita is also a master of delicious pan-Asian foods. She’s playing for SHARE, a support group for breast and ovarian cancer patients, survivors, and allies.
John Besh: also super famous and successful; he owns a lot of restaurants that range from fancy to schmancy in the New Orleans area, and he represents the NO to the fullest with his French-Cajun fusion. You may also remember him almost winning the top slot of Next Iron Chef on Food Network, except for how he lost. His charity is the Make It Right Foundation, which is dedicated to a fair and just post-Katrina rebuilding. Shout out to all my family and friends back home who do still really need that help.
Mark Peel: owner and exec chef of Campanile in LA. Mark trained under Wolfgang Puck and then became his own master of California cuisine, winning multiple Beard awards, and also the hand of the beautiful princess. The End. He’s playing for Doctors Without Borders.
So, all the friendly chefs meet and are friendly with each other, until Kelly Choi bops in and gives them this week’s Quickfire. You may remember it from the Season 3/All-Stars battle: cooking a delicious egg dish with only one hand. The judges for the Quickfire will be Terry Reish, an egg rancher, Monica May, exec chef for an upscale diner, and Gail Simmons of TC Classic, whose violent distaste for “burnt, rubbery eggs” may still be ringing throughout your head in perpetuity like it is in mine.
The chefs have 25 minutes to get things done, but Mark Peel decides to make fresh duck egg noodles anyway. Douglas Rodriguez is going for a traditional Latin-Am breakfast bread of some sort. John Besh is going for a kind of baked egg custard with asparagus that he makes every morning. He’s so chill about it that he spares time to help Anita shave the tops off of a few egg shells so she can use them to plate. Anita and John both saw this challenge on [iTop Chef[/i] and acknowledge that it’s a lot harder than it looks. It looks pretty ding-dang difficult to me, so I guess I shouldn’t even try to imagine. Anita’s prepping soft scrambled eggs flavored with oyster sauce and truffle oil, to be served in the cleaned shells. Everything sounds good right? However!
Tragedy suddenly strikes when, with only a few minutes to go, Besh discovers that his egg casseroles have not in fact baked at all (Hmm, shades of Schlow’s cake not baking weeks ago. Sabotage!). He scrambles (…eheh) to get at least one ramekin cooked over a stovetop burner before time runs out. He is unsuccessful; his final product looks … hmm. What can I say? Horracious. I think that gets the point across.
Mark’s rushing too; he’s barely gotten his cream sauce together before he has to plate everything, and unfortunately in his haste he forgets to top the pasta and cream sauce with the fruity olive oil. Let’s just count them both out right now.
All the plates go out to the judges. They seem to really like Douglas’s open-faced egg sandwich with ham and Anita’s delicate scramble. Everyone is impressed by Mark’s being able to fashion noodles with one hand, but Gail notes that his dish is pretty bland, and wishes there were some more complex flavor to cut the egginess. Like maybe olive oil. Maybe. John’s dish of course is treated like the abortion it is. Hlf of it is raw, half of it is just a fried egg. Gail picks up a taste of burnt grease. I can’t believe they ate it at all.
Scores: Mark’s pasta earns 2.5, John nets only half a star and is not shocked or insulted by that. Douglas earned three stars, but Anita owned them all by earning the full 5 stars. Shades of Suzanne Tracht. Because Anita’s face hardly ever moves either, and yet somehow she rules.
Oh, Oh, It’s Magic
Next, Kelly lays out the plan for the Elimination challenge. She informs everyone that the chefs will be cooking dinner for Neil Patrick Harris and friends. I also have to note that she introduces him as Neil Patrick Harris, star of How I Met Your Mother, but Douglas Rodriguez is immediately thrilled to be cooking for Doogie Howser, M.D. Poor NPH. I myself like to think of him as Lance the white intern from Undercover Brother. I think he’d appreciate that.
The dinner will be at a place called The Magic Castle in LA, because Neil Patrick Harris is gaga for gags. To drive that home, enter stage right certified, bona fide, A Wizard in full spooky garb, except without a pointy hat. He does some sort of hoodoo and get the chefs to choose one of four magical elements to add to their dishes. Mark pulls “mystery,” John “surprise.” Douglas chooses “spectacle,” and Anita picks “illusion.” These are all kind of the same thing, am I right?
Even if I’m not, the chefs go off shopping and pondering how to deal with these words. John knows he’s in the weeds so he’s figuring out how best to redeem himself. Douglas is going to make something that he knows effectively wows people. Anita feels her challenge gives her license to do something more freeing and creative than usual. Mark knows Anita is the one to beat, and he confesses to briefly flirting with sabotage, but then he laughs and smiles, so I guess he doesn’t want you to think he is the saboteur he is. I’m on to you sir! Also he gives a swift finger, the middle, to everybody who thinks you have to have a successful restaurant in NYC to be a successful restaurateur. Nice.
They get two hours for prep. Who walks in around the halfway point? Why, it’s Tom Colicchio. I wonder why he isn’t doing this show. I would love to see that. He chats up all the chefs and reassures them that he isn’t here to judge. He basically interviews, getting John to share that he’s using liquid nitrogen as part of his surprise, and letting Anita give details about her “illusion” of scallops using steak tartare and her design for a seascape on a plate. And then he says some stuff about how much more awesome these professional people are on the whole than all the whinybabies we get on TC Classic.
Also here’s an obstacle for you: the kitchen doesn’t have any Bacardi 151 for Douglas so he has to use that off-putting sterno stuff to make his coconuts into flaming coconuts. I would like to be part of a band called Flaming Coconuts. A band or a passel of superheroes. Either way.
Never Believe It’s Not So
The judges and Kelly all mingle with NPH and the magician we met earlier, and another man named David who is apparently Neil’s partner. Gail Simmons is apparently sitting in for Jay Rayner this week which is really too bad. Then food comes.
Mark’s “mystery” dish is up first. He’s made a papillote of thai snapper with mashed potatoes and stewed leeks inside of a cute little parchment package. On the side a spoon of scallion puree and a little palate cleansing shot of sake. The judges are all pleased with the combo of flavors once they get into the little gift bag; NPH is particularly happy about the sake.
For “surprise” John Besh is dishing up salmon tartare with a cauliflower blini, a cucumber salad, and tempura lobster. He enlists NPH’s assistance to help him concoct a cold cauliflower crème fraiche at tableside with the liquid nitrogen. Neil balks a bit at how frigging uncomfortable it is to be holding a bowl of liquid nitrogen. Once done, the crème fraiche is more like a sauce than a crème, but it tastes nice on the salad even if the magic fizzled. Gael Greene approves of the gusto with which Besh threw himself into the whole magic portion of the challenge.
Anita’s “illusion” plate goes down like gangbusters: she braised daikon and then stuffed it with her steak tartare to make it look like a perfect scallop. That plate sits atop a larger of plate Rice Krispies “sand” and mussel shells, an she serves it with a dish of salty shellfish “sea” broth. Gangbusters, like I said.
Douglas is making a “spectacle” with a big pile of duck. He’s done an oyster ceviche in duck broth, duck empanadas with figs, duck breast on butternut squash puree, and a tasty looking herbed duck confit broth in the aforementioned sterno-fied coconut shells. Gael thinks he met the spectacle challenge well, but NPH isn’t a fan. The magician loved the taste of Douglas’s duck breast so much he doesn’t think he’ll be able to use ducks in his act anymore. That’s not as altruistic as it might sound at first. Think about it.
Anyway. Judging happens now. Gail high fives John for his ice cold blini, but Gael found it too cold to enjoy. His lobster was perfect though. Gael and everybody but Gail also loved Anita’s seascape (shades of Hung’s magical cereal wonderland back in season 3) wholesale. Gail thought it needed salt, which I think is a direct result of her not realizing that the broth was to be poured over the dish. Like everyone else at the table did. Douglas isn’t too pleased with the way his coconuts came out; he thought it should’ve been more flaming. But his ceviche ws definitely a star. Everyone was charmed by Mark Peel’s little package, and they compliment him for reaching a bit outside of his Mediterranean style to come up with the delicious stuff he did.
They send the chefs back to the boiler room where they toast each other and decompress and talk about how they’d totally do this show again. The critics talk it out a little more, and then we get the scores.
The Scores: John Besh earned a 2.5 from the folks at the table. From everyone else he recieves 3 stars. Added to his whopping half a star from the Quickfire, his total is an unimpressive total of 12 stars, easily beating Cindy Pawlcyn for worst. Score. Ever.
Mark Peel scooped up 4 stars from the diners, 4.5 from Gael, 4 from Gail, and 3.5 from James. 16 plus his 2.5 from the Quickfire leaves him 18.5. More than respectable.
The diners gave Douglas Rodriguez 3 stars, and he gets 2.5 from Gail and Gael, and only 2 from James. Ouch. None of them seemed to hate it that much before. Way to say it to his face, critics! None of them would succeed on The Real World. Douglas’s final score is 13, by the way. At least he beat Besh.
And finally, clear winner Anita Lo. She nets a cool 4.5 from the diners, Gael, and Gail, and 4 from James. She wins! Spoiler. I guess all those long nights spent cooking in her restaurant paid off. 22.5, again just like Suzanne Tracht. Man, they have a lot in common. I wonder when we see them in the same room if they’ll assimilate each other like algae.
So, $10,000 goes to SHARE. Anita is a little leery of making it into the CHAMPION’S ROUND, but I’m sure she’ll rock hardcore once she’s there. Next week tune in to see Michael Chiarello, Lachlan MacKinnon, Rick Moonen, and the beautifully named Nils Noren try to cook three courses for 100 people. Cakewalk.