Real Time Web Analytics Foodie Gossip: October 2013

Friday, October 25, 2013

Top Chef New Orleans Recap Episode 4: "Captain Vietnam."

After last week’s grueling Commander’s Palace challenge...

Louis is still shellshocked that he didn’t get sent home for under seasoning his entire team’s dish. Carlos, you know they only sent Bret home because his dish was a personal offense to Emeril right? 

Wait. They make phones that fold in half?
Mornings are meant for phone calls home. And either the show’s budget got seriously slashed or they’re not allowed to have smartphone for whatever reason because Nick is calling home on a flip phone. Wait. Is that a Motorola Razor?? Nick met his wife in Atlantic City, and got engaged 6 months later. C’mon Nick, if you’re going to tell us you met your wife at a city predominately known for casinos and strip clubs, we’re gonna need a little more details here. Then we see a picture of him with his family, and his New England Patriots’ jersey. Nick! Are you crazy? You do know they throw snowballs at Santa in Philly right?

Here comes Emeril and this week’s guest judge, Eddie Huang. Eddie Huang’s kinda like an Asian Bourdain-lite with an “urban” flair. He hopped on the pork bun gravy train and opened up BaoHaus in NYC, literally right around the corner from Momofuku Saam bar - the Grand Poobah of pork puns. After that he wrote a book, appears on various travel/eating shows, and is a darling to those who enjoys his “street” personality. Eddie Huang is someone who would use the word “swagger” a lot. Even Emeril gets into character, throwing up a little “gang-signesque” salute as they walk in. 

1991 Ice Cube called. He wants his style back.
The chefs gather around to find out that there will be no Quickfire today. That’s not necessarily good news, since that also means no immunity will be given out. Eddie drops some knowledge and tells us a large population of Vietnamese people came to New Orleans during the ‘70s and got into the shrimping industry. And with that, Vietnamese cuisine is now a big part of New Orleans’ food culture. 

For their Elimination Challenge, the chefs are divided into teams to create a Vietnamese menu. And because of the intimate connection between the Vietnamese population in New Orleans and the shrimp industry, one of the dishes must feature shrimp. 

Ok people. Prepare yourself for the pervy Travis Masar Asian Experience. *Shudder*

Law and Order: SVU.
For those of you who don’t remember, Travis Masar has an Asian fetish. He cooks Asian, eats Asian, and probably also cooks and eats Asians. So because of that, he is the self-proclaimed “expert” of all things Asian. While Eddie and Emeril are explaining this challenge, Travis is sitting there nodding and smiling like a pedophile leering at a playground. 

“I’ve been to Vietnam, and not just been to Vietnam…” Travis tells us, as the editors chose to pick this spot to show us a picture of Travis and his Vietnamese boyfriend. *Double Shudder*

As per every episode now. We’ll have at least ONE chef who’s never tried or had any sort of experience with the week’s theme. Say hello to Carlos! Carlos says he’s never eaten Vietnamese food in his life, his LIFE! And it’s not just him, Bene, who cooks and lives in New York City also confesses that he knows “zero” about it. Seriously, how are you people chefs?? Any self-respecting chef must have had a hangover at some point and that means a giant bowl of pho. Pho cures hangovers! #ProTip

"Stockholm Syndrome"
Just for the sake of dunderheads like them, Emeril and Eddie take the chefs out for a crash course on Vietnamese food. They’re going to spend the day sampling food from bakeries, get a tour with the shrimpers, and slurp down some pho. Now that’s a tour I’d like to be on!

Get your pimp-slapping backhand ready, cuz here comes egregious statement number one of the day from Travis, “No offense to Eddie or Emeril, but I can probably give them a crash course on Vietnam.” *slap*

Speaking of pimp, instead of the usual Toyota tie-in transportation, the gang gets on a limo party bus. This things got a TV, champagne flutes, and some fruit/veggie snacks. A chef’s eating tour is probably the most wholesome purpose ever for this bus because I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an optional for a “pole.” See, that’s how Eddie Huang likes to roll.
I wouldn't shine that black light in here...

On the bus Michael Sichel points out Dong Phuong Bakery and tries to bond with Emeril  over how great the famous bakery is. It’s actually the first stop on the tour. Nina finds Michael and his schtick super fake and compares him to Pamela Anderson’s breasts. 

Now this is how I know Nina is a force to be reckoned with in this competition. Obviously she’s been so busy cooking in the past 10 years that the only pop culture reference she can come up with hasn’t been relevant since Bill Clinton was in office. 

The chefs samples various buns, pastries, and desserts from the bakery and yuk it up with Eddie and Emeril. Stephanie tells us this was one of her best experiences ever. I’m sure it was, but it sure didn’t translate on television. Hey, at least some of them can now say they’ve been to a Vietnamese bakery.

I find you very creepy.
Back on the bus the Green Team is going over their menu. Travis wants to use romaine lettuce for a wrap when Sara flat out says, “They (Vietnamese cooks) would never use romaine…” When Travis tries to rebut by claiming that’s how they do it in Denver, Sara just condescendingly shakes her head ‘no.’ Awkward.

Stop number two, shrimp docks.

It’s always good for cooks and chefs to tour places like this. It’s important to know where your food comes from and how much hard work goes into sourcing them. It makes you respect your ingredients and makes you put some love into preparing it. The additional benefit of this particular trip though, is to get cooking tips from the people who grew up catching and eating shrimp.

Shirley wisely plays the “hey we’re all Asian” card and chats up some shrimpers’ wives. Apparently the New Orleans locals use butter when grilling the shrimp even though butter isn’t known to be in Vietnamese cuisine. You know what, I don’t care what part of the world you’re from, you cannot go wrong using butter. You know what Julia Child says, “With enough butter, anything is good.”

Janine tell us she knows a little bit about Vietnamese food because um, she worked in a Thai restaurant and spend four months in Thailand! Yeah. Ok. I understand Asian flavors sometimes cross over and all, but that’s like saying you know Spanish food because you spent sometime in Italy. Because, you know, European flavors and all. 
Why yes, I always wear strappy red tops in the kitchen.

Here comes Travis again, telling the team about a traditional central Vietnamese dish consists of spicy tomato sauce served with shrimp. Right. Because tomatoes are so abundant and traditional to Vietnam? Janine is skeptical. Stephanie and Bene are skeptical. We’re all skeptical. *Side note: Upon research I found out they actually do use tomatoes in Central Vietnam cooking.*

Carlos is very nervous since, before today, the man’s never even tasted Vietnam food before. And obviously he’s going on about it on the bus. It gets to the point where Nick basically tells him to make a damn soup and stop talking. Ah. Such support in the air.

Last stop, Kim Anh’s Noodle House. Pho time! 

You're going to need a LOT more beers.
The chefs basically feast on everything from the noodles with grilled meat, to the refreshing summer rolls, to the warm and comforting pho. All the while Travis seems have taken over the hosting role, and basically proceed to give his own version of a crash course.

Sara’s kinda over it, “Ok. You know what? We get it. If he’s going to be Captain Vietnam he better bring it. *Chuckles* We’ll see after we’re done tomorrow.” 

The gang raises their beers for a group “cheers” only to be interrupted by Captain Travis, as if he just can’t help himself, telling everyone that cheers, “in Vietnamese is ‘vo’” 

Shopping time. They’re at Hong Kong Food Market. Eddie tells everyone that this is the “premiere Asian supermarket and whatever they need, it’s gonna be here.”

No Travis. Not like that you perv.

I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to showcase my hair.
Meanwhile, Sara’s strong personality is taking over the Green team. She’s ordering people around and basically dictating the shopping exercise. Things are put into the cart and taken out of the cart. Always great to work with someone who says, “I don’t mean to be a bitch but I know what I’m doing...” *Slowly backing away*

Time to cook. The chefs arrive at Tan Dinh Vietnamese Bistro to prepare for service. 
The Red team’s (Justin, Nina, Shirley, Patty, Carrie) philosophy is not just focusing on traditional Vietnamese cuisine, they want to tell the story of Vietnamese people in New Orleans. Seems like a smart direction, although the next time anyone says, “classic with a twist” I’m going to scratch my eyes out. I think that’s right up there with “Go big or go home.” Ugh.

Green team’s (Bene, Janine, Sara, Captain, Stephanie) going traditional. Armed with their Captain’s intimate knowledge of Vietnam and its people, they are super confident. 

This is my exact chance of winning Top Chef.
You can have all the confidence in the world but you’re not gonna make tasty Vietnamese without lemongrass. And they can’t find their lemongrass. Apparently somewhere between the store and the restaurant, the lemongrass got lost in transportation. 

They’re scrambling around, trying to find this lemongrass to no avail. Meanwhile Justin (who’s on the Orange team) tell us that he bought way too much lemongrass and had the Green team just asked, he would have given them some. 

Isn’t that what Mr. White said about Jane, Jesse’s girlfriend ODing? “Had she asked for my help I would have helped her. But she didn’t so I watched her die.” Yes I dropped a Breaking Bad reference. You’re welcome.

Here comes Emeril and Eddie for the cook ‘n chat. 

Hey I'm Asian how come you don't like me?
Right away Eddie wants to know how Bene is making this tomato sauce “Vietnamese” and offered this advice, “If you need a little more Vietnamese I’m sure one of the owners will put their foot in it for you.” Ah and that’s the razor sharp wit Eddie Huang brings to the table.

Speaking of wit or lack there of, Travis tells Eddie and Emeril that he’s making a lemongrass pork sausage however, they “lost the lemongrass in ‘translation.’” 

Yes. I stole the lemongrass.
Smart move Sherlock. Not only did you admit to screwing up you’ve also botched the reference. Even Eddie is wondering how the hell do you lose something “in translation?”  And not surprisingly, Mr. Huang bust his chops a lil bit, “Vietnamese food with no lemongrass. (pause) This is the expert on Vietnamese food.”

And here comes egregious statement number two, courtesy the Captain himself, “Eddie is Taiwanese Chinese. He only knows a little bit of what he knows. Sorry Eddie, you’re kind of a douche bag.” *slap*

You know, there have been times when cheftestants disagreed with judges in the past, but this marks the first time someone called the guest judge a “douche bag.” Isn’t that grounds for immediate dismissal??

Do I look like a douchebag to you? Wait. Don't answer that.
Right about now everyone involved in Travis’ central Vietnamese tomato dish is second guessing themselves. Janine mistimed her shrimp so she threw the crispy shrimp back into the fryer to make sure they hot. And then she coats them said tomato sauce. What happens when you put liquid over something crispy? Yeah, it’s like what happens when you pour milk over cereal, after a bit it gets soggy. 

Justin the good samaritan is quietly watching this train wreck of a dish and not saying anything. “It’s a Napoleon quote, ‘Brilliance is winning, but also not telling your opponent they’re losing…” Um. Who knew Napoleon was so NOT eloquent? 

Actually, the quote Justin was trying to summon is “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake.” Um yeah Justin, stick to cooking buddy.

This weeks judges are Tom, Padma, Emeril, and Eddie. Gail’s here for tasting and comic relief.

Time for service.

Pho. Pronounce as you wish.
Orange Team (Nick, Michael, Carlos, Brian, Louis)

Black Pepper Fried Squid with Cabbage & Peanuts.

Gulf Shrimp & Pork Belly Spring Roll.

Fish Head Soup with Pineapple, Tomato & Tamarind.

Beef Broth Pho with Raw Eye Round & Ox Tail.

This team’s effort was summarized perfectly by Tom, “I love Vietnamese food, after I’m done here I want to go out for it tonight. Because this is not doing it for me.” 

The squid is lacking in fish sauce, the fish head soup is too sweet, the pho’s lacking in aromatics. The only saving grace for the team was the spring roll. Congrats people, you’re on Top Chef and what’s saving you are spring rolls. 

Red Team (Justin, Nina, Shirley, Patty, Carrie)

Nina & Carrie
Raw Beef Salad with Pickled Vegetables

Vietnamese BBQ Shrimp with Creole Spice Butter

Beef Pho with Rice Noodles & Lettuce

Lemon Custard with Caramelized Banh Mi.

Overall the Red teams dishes were a big step up from the previous team’s offerings. Justin’s pho was “light years” ahead of Louis.” Also Shirley’s BBQ shrimp with butter, authenticity aside, scored super high marks. See, don’t ever doubt Julia Child.

Green Team (Bene, Janine, Sara, Captain, Stephanie)

Vietnam via Italy.
Grilled Pork Sausage Lettuce Wraps with Pineapple Shrimp Paste

Sara & Stephanie
“Dim Sum Duo” Oxtail Rice Wrap with Pork & Shrimp Wrap.

Bene & Janine
Fresh Gulf Shrimp with Ginger Vietnamese Tomato Sauce.

Coconut Macaroon with Vietnamese Coffee Flavors.

To no one’s surprise, the Green team fails. That happens when you claim to be the expert and can’t deliver. The judges are going to judge you on a curve. To Travis’ credit his dish was passable. The sausage, lemongrass issue aside, delivered that pate-esque texture and flavor, though the shrimp paste was too strong. Thankfully, his mistake is our gain because the overpowering sauce lead to this wonderful exchange.

Gail: “It’s completely shrimp paste heavy. It just smacks you in the face.”

Padma: “But I was happy to be smacked in the face by something.”

Gail: “Nice. That’s how you like it…”

Eddie: *Gleeful laughter*

Me: *Gleeful laughter*

Oh Padma you saucy wench. I hope this sexual double entendre becomes a weekly tradition. And if you’re playing the Top Chef Padma Sexual Reference drinking game at home, this would be the time to chug.

Padma! You're making me blush...
The real downfall though, is that ill-fated tomato shrimp dish. The problem wasn’t actually with the tomatoes, it’s that the shrimp were poorly cooked and the entire dish poorly executed. Things are not looking good for the Green Team.

During the interlude, the chefs amuse themselves in the stew room by having a planking contest. In a Survivor-style endurance race, the person who can hold the planking position the longest wins. Shirley outlasts them all. In the editing business this is what we would call “foreshadowing.” Surely you’re not surprised. Ok ok, I won’t call you Shirley.

Planking contest over, the chefs agonizes in the stew room. Here comes the Flat Screen of Judgement. Nina says every time that TV comes on she wishes it was an episode of Seinfeld. See, another late ‘90s pop culture reference. Guess she won’t get that earlier Breaking Bad bit.

Out the three teams, it’s clear that the Red Team came out on top. Shirley’s BBQ shrimp was perfectly cooked and Justin’s pho was pretty unbelievable considering he only had two hours to develop the flavor. 

Later - blanket party.
Meanwhile the Green Team’s getting blasted. Everything from greasy mushy rice, to unbalanced flavor in the sausage, to an epic fail of a tomato shrimp dish. Travis disagrees. It’s your typical “the judges just don’t get it” response. You know what Capt’n, that’s why they’re the judges and you’re you.

In case you missed the aforementioned foreshowing above, the winner was clearly Shirley. By spending time and chatting with the shrimpers’ wives, she clearly captured the great combination of Vietnamese and creole flavors. See also: butter. 

Note to Bravo editors. Please get rid of the swish pans. They’re about as up-to-date as Nina’s pop culture references.

I have a question: "Why is Travis so creepy?"
And…here comes the tears. What’s with the crying this season? Sara breaks down in front of the judges partly because she knew that they could have done so much better. Yeah, coulda would shoulda - didn’t.

Sigh. Let’s talk about this tomato debacle some more shall we. Travis defends it by stating that he’s had this dish in Vietnam, three times. To which Tom retorts by saying there might be McDonald’s in Paris but that doesn’t make it Parisienne. Well played Tom, as always.

The Walking Dead. Sundays on AMC.
*Sidebar here* I did some research and Travis is actually not wrong. There are quite a few tomato based dishes that are served in Central Vietnam. So he’s not delusional or anything. But of all the dishes to try and showcase Vietnamese cuisine, this was a bad decision. Poor Bene and Janine are left holding the proverbial bag on this one. 

“I really sympathize with Bene and Janine because it’s almost like you saw an UFO and then told them to draw it.” This is why Eddie Huang so successful. That’s the perfect description of what went down here. Bravo Eddie.

With that said, Bene overcooked the actual tomato sauce and you do not want to serve Tom Colicchio bad gravy. And Janine made the mistake by throwing the shrimp back into the fryer. Like Eddie says, you don’t see “twice cooked shrimps” on any menu. 

I think I have pink eye. But that I mean I'm the worst ever.
With the way this episode played out, Travis really should be the one sent home. From his blind cockiness about the cuisine to the terrible conception of the menu, when the ship goes down - which it most definitely did - then the Captain has to be the one to blame. Alas, the bad guy never seems to be the one punished. It’s a difficult choice. Will it be Bene who put out as Emeril calls it, “Mama Bologne” sauce? Or Sara for serving mushy broken rice? In the end, “put the shrimp on the Barbie” one too many times blondie gets the boot. One by one the eye candies gets sent packing. 

The reaction in the stew room (and the producers’ room) is an overwhelming “NO!!!” Being pretty aside, she was definitely one of the more well-liked chefs. So sad faces all around. So long Janine. I’ll most definitely miss your charming personality and not clips of you cooking in short shorts and halter tops, not one bit. Ok that’s a lie. It won’t be same without you. 

Thanks for stopping by! We'll see you next week!

As always, go follow me on twitter @ChezWu

Friday, October 18, 2013

Top Chef New Orleans Recap Episode 3: "Commander's Palace."

We start once again, in the Top Chef stew room.

Ever notice I look like a handsome version of Milhouse?
No matter who won the night or who went home, the stew room after Judges’ Table is never a fun place to be. Especially not when someone like Bret Pelaggi blabbers on about why Jason Cichonski, went home, “Jason had the most noticeable mistake…(with the nori) being soggy…we never really had a group leader…”

Yeah nobody needs your postmortem armchair quarterbacking at this point. Especially not Jason’s best friend, fellow Philly Chef Nick Elmi.  Nick pretty much shuts Bret up by simply stating, “You never f#%king tasted anyone else’s dish…”

Meanwhile, Patty’s tearing up, again.

Next morning while everyone’s getting ready for the day, we get to hear about Louis Maldonado’s life choices. Chef Louis thought that by age 30 he would be further along in his career, perhaps having his own restaurant and being a “big national popular chef.” However he tells us he chose a different route, opting to get married and have a family. Um. Tell us how you really feel! While on the phone, his adorable son asks, “Are you coming back?” 
Life choices man...

Yeah kiddo. He’s coming back, perhaps real soon. Sheesh.

Enough drama. Time to cook.

Waiting in the Top Chef Kitchen is our host Padma Lakshmi, New Orleans’ own Emeril Legasse, and editor-in-chief of Food and Wine Magazine, Dana Cowin. Or as I like to call her, the “King/Queen Maker of the restaurant world.” 

This week’s Quickfire is all about trends. Specifically tiresome trends. Remember how “blackened” was a thing? Yeah, what was once a technique made popular by iconic New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme got ruined by the obscene amount of bad cooks who didn’t know the difference between ‘blackened” and “burnt.” Now, you’d be hard pressed to find this technique used in many “Top Chef” type restaurants.
I'd hug all of you if I could.

The challenge is to revive some of these overwrought culinary crutches and make them appealing again. Dana has picked out four of her least favorite food trends. They are: bacon, eggs over everything, smoked (the technique), and kale. And Dana says that while kale itself is ok, she’s more annoyed at the kale salad or kale chips. She specifically says, “I hate to give you advice, but I’d avoid those two things.” 

Oh by the way, this is an elimination challenge. Winner gets immunity and loser goes home. 

Might as well call this the “meta” challenge. I don’t have to tell you how many times bacon (or pork belly), fried egg on top, and kale have been used on this show and generally with great results. I remember last season joking about how they should have a season where they cannot use bacon - and here we are. 
Wait. Top Chef is sick of bacon as a trend?! What the??

Things you don’t want to hear yourself say, “I know Dana (Cowin) said don’t do a kale salad...I’m gonna serve a teeny bit of kale salad on top of a gazpacho,” says Bret Pelaggi, while making said gazpacho with canned tomatoes. You know what’s a great way to get kicked off the show? Doing something the judges specifically said not to do.

Our good friend Aaron Cuschieri is at it again. He tells us he’s not somebody who picked up on the big kale trend of 2012. So the first week he tell us he’s never cooked turtle (despite being a chef at The Slurping Turtle,) last week he says he’s never made gumbo, and this week he’s no expert in kale. Pray tell Aaron, what did you expect to happen on Top Chef? “This week, cook whatever the hell you’re comfortable with?”

Run for your lives! I'm burning the place down!
He’s going to fry up some kale and dredge it in soy/mirin sauce and hope that Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief a magazine about FOOD and WINE, has never tasted something like that before. Righhhhhht.

There were some other interesting choices made by the chefs during this Quickfire. Carrie created something described by Dana as “egg salad over green beans.” Michael built a smoke signal that nearly blinded Justin while trying to smoke oysters. The Asian guy (Brian Huskey) and the guy who likes Asian guys (Travis Masar) both made bacon and scallops. Yep. Talk about cliches.

You know what? I’m surprised no one just said “what the heck” and just made a dish with all the ingredients: Kale salad with smoky bacon vinaigrette topped with fried egg! Actually, overwrought trends aside that sounds pretty delicious. 

The top dishes: 

Wait. Is that bacon on top?
Nina - Egg on Top
Quail Egg on Confit Potatoes with Leek and Potato Puree

Shirley - Egg On Top
Rice Congee with Shirred Egg, Soy Sauce & Sesame Oil

Stephanie - Bacon
Pasta with Lightly Candied Bacon & Flash Fried Sweet Potatoes

All three thought outside the box and made something unusual. Nina basically made vichyssoise with a scotched egg. And for Stephanie to make fresh pasta in 30 min alone placed her on top. However, it was Shirley’s congee that took home the immunity. You know what would have made that dish even better? Some crunchy bacon.

Now the bottom dishes. Can you guess? Of course you can.
Green goo.

Bret - Kale
Kale Juice & Gazpacho with Kale Salad

Aaron - Kale
Fried Kale dredged in Soy, Mirin, Rice Vinegar & Yuzu Sauce.

Louis - Smoked
Smoked Trout with Lime & Olive Oil Vinaigrette

Despite serving up a kale salad, Bret dodged a bullet. Poor seasoning trumps stupidity (almost) every time. It’s hard to survive if your dish is so over seasoned the judges can’t eat it. Aaron goes home for his way-too-salty crispy kale. Off to Last Chance Kitchen you go. Maybe there you’ll find something you know how to cook.

Elimination Challenge.

First of the iconic locales of the season. One of the most famous and revered restaurants in the city, Commander’s Palace. 

Talk about a New Orleans institution. Located in the Garden District, Commander’s Palace has been around since the late 1800’s. Historical figures like Mark Twain and Jefferson Davis have entertained here. Iconic chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Legasse have both helmed the kitchen here. This is one of those restaurants where tourists would go just to take pictures of the outside. A culinary monument of New Orleans cuisine, if you will. I’m glad Aaron got eliminated. Because I’m sure he has never heard of it.
Commander who??

The chefs arrive at Commander’s Palace not knowing what the challenge is, and that’s making them uneasy. Not to mention the all the awards and custom made china is just a little intimidating.

In walks Executive Chef Tory McPhail to explains the challenge. The chefs will have to recreate some of the dishes they’ll be tasting tonight. The key here is to get both the taste and the presentation exactly right. There are no recipes, no Instagrams, just your taste buds and your attention to detail.

Poor Justin Devillier’s sitting there, listening to Chef McPhail explain the challenge while thinking, “if only I had won the Beard Award…” He tells us for the past two years he was nominated for Best Chef South, and this year Chef McPhail took it home. Things might be a different had Justin won. Alas, now he’s just a cheftestant who can’t even manage to win a gumbo challenge. Sad face indeed.

Here are the dishes they’ll need to recreate:

23 Ingredients in this dish. 
First Dish. Shrimp & Tasso Henican, created by Chef Jamie Shannon.

Second Dish. Black Skillet Seared Trout, created by Chef Paul Prudhomme.

Third Dish. Veal Chop Tchoupitoulas, created by Chef Emeril Legasse.

Fourth Dish. Strawberry Trio, created by Chef Tory McPhail.

Since the chefs were already separated by tables, the dishes are assigned by table groupings as well. Each chef will only have to recreate the dish assigned to their table. 

Wait. Beard award has nothing to do with beards? Damn!
Just like Carrie Mashenay says, many chefs have a hard time delivering the same plate night in and night out with their own food, let alone recreating someone else’s plate after only one sitting? It does seem impossible. Not to mention the added pressure of having the creator of the dish being there to critique your effort? And um, this is only week 3 people!

It’s time to cook.

Most everyone is cooking on their own. You know, they’re do their own thing because this is not a team challenge. However, the table assigned the Black Skillet Seared Trout decides to go half team/half individual. Janine, Louis, Carlos, and Nick all take and prep one component of the dish. Janine’s doing potatoes, Carlos is prepping the vegetables, and Louis is making the spice mix seasoning - for the entire group! So I guess then they divvy up and go cook separately? Yeah that’s got disaster written all over it.

I dunno what I'm doing!
The dessert table has got their work cut out for them. They have to make a mini shortbread biscuit, a strawberry cocktail, and a beignet for their Strawberry Trio. I guess flavor wise it’s not as complex, but to know biscuit and beignet recipes when you’re not a pastry chef? That’ll be impressive to pull off.

The key to any chop (steak/veal/pork) is to make sure it’s cooked correctly and there’s a nice char on the outside. Everyone assigned to the veal dish knows this and next thing you know, the grill is full, leaving Bret the odd man out. He decides there’s no room for his chops and opt to grill it later and go straight from the grill to the plate. He knows it’s risky but feels good about it. He shouldn’t. #foreshadowing

While the cheftestants are attempting these dishes, the executive sous chef of Commander’s Palace will also be cooking and presenting what would be considered the “control” dish. His plate will represent the “original.”

Nothing but love in this room.
Heartwarming moment of the day. Seeing long-time proprietors Lally Brennan and Ti Martin greet the judges, Emeril and Paul Prudhomme. It was like watching a family homecoming.

We’ve got a crowd this week. Along with the aforementioned proprietors and two hometown celebrity judges, we have Dana Cowin, Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Commander’s Palace’s own Tory McPhail.

Here comes the dishes. First up, the Shrimp and Tasso Ham.

Each member of the group manages to get part of the dish right, but no one manages to recreate the exact dish. Bene’s sauce was good, Nina’s shrimp was cooked best, and Michael had the best presentation. So if you combined those separate components, it’ll come close to the original.

Yeah. You know why this is so hard? I found a recipe for this exact dish off in Saveur magazine. This dish contains 23 different ingredients. TWENTY THREE! So consider it pretty damn impressive that they even came close.

Next up, the Black Skillet Seared Trout from the group who decided to “do it together.”

Unfortunately, their team effort experiment didn’t fare so well. Between Carlos’ “blackened,” to Nick’s uneven cooking, to the last of seasoning on everyone’s dish, it seems like this team is doomed. Tom even had to tell the guests that these chefs must have been so paranoid to emulate the dish that they forgot how to cook properly because most of the foods presented prior to this challenge has been well prepared and well seasoned.

Back in the kitchen, Shirley’s yellow beets are missing. Reminiscent of season 7’s case of the missing Pea Puree, someone seems to have walked away with her beets. Chances are someone did mistakenly took her beets. However since she’s got immunity, nobody really seem to give a damn. 

You know what Bret’s giving a damn right about now? His meat. Since he decided to grill the chops later than the other chefs, he was unable to let the meat rest before plating. At the end he was basically throwing components on the plate. 

Whatchu talking about Willis??
The chefs from this group have various degrees of success. Brian’s dish came the closest but unfortunately his Brussels sprouts were raw. Surprisingly Patty’s chop was cooked perfectly and her presentation was spot on. Bret however, got slammed for not having any grill marks on chop and presented a messy plate presentation. When the creator of the dish deems your dish as having “no love,” you’re in trouble.

Hugh Acheson jumps in and points out if you’re not familiar with these dishes, one hour is not a lot of time to execute them perfectly. To which he gets a shot from Tom. However, unlike “Take Home Chef” Curtis Stone, Hugh’s got a few James Beard awards of his own and is not intimidated. 
You wanna rumble?

“Well...I’m not saying it’s not possible,” Hugh responded to Tom’s stink eye, “you wanna roll up your sleeves and do this right now? C’mon, I’m game…” he adds, with a twinkle in his eye. Tory McPhail laughs nervously. Even though Hugh’s obviously kidding, there was a little “top dog” moment and just slightly awkward. 

During the interlude we’re treated to a great story of Emeril’s interview with Ti’s mom Ella Brennan some thirty years ago. Ella told Emeril to come to New Orleans but he had to stay at least three days in order to meet everyone in the family. And when a walk-through of the restaurant reminded Emeril of his mom’s kitchen, he never left. This was another genuine moment where everyone around the table was glued to Emeril’s telling of this story. By the look in everyone’s eyes you can tell just how and why Emeril is one of the most magnetic and charming chefs ever. His love and passion for everything related to food and cooking is so contagious that you can’t help but hang on his every word. Good stuff.
When Emeril talks, people listen.

Lastly, the dessert dish.

Surprisingly, despite the outward appearance of the chefs being totally in the weeds, this group faired the best. The judges’ consensus was that everyone did very well, with Stephanie’s biscuits even surpassing Commander Palace’s! 

That’s when Dana Cowin shocked everyone (especially Tom) by confessing to be a “whipped cream whore” that it all tasted good to her. *blink blink*

Judges’ Table.

In the end, it was the dessert group that wowed the judges. By not being experienced in making dessert, they focused on doing things correctly, i.e. execute. Meanwhile, the chefs on the savory courses tried too hard to get the flavor just right, in doing so they forgot the basic fundamentals.

Winning dish. Dessert of all things.
The winner was Justin’s beignet and thus his dessert course took home the win. It’s a fitting win for the home town chef. After failing to win the gumbo challenge he finally redeemed himself. 

On the bottom, it was the two flavorless and overcooked fishes and Bret, the man with the loveless chop.

Louis and Carlos tell the judges about their ill-fated plan to prep as a group, and Tom is appalled. However, that also explains why everyone in that group’s dish was totally under seasoned. And the fact that none of them tasted the spice was just as troubling.

Is that the exit? Maybe I can just sneak away...
No. You pack your knives and go!
The writing was pretty much on the wall. This is Emeril’s town, Emeril’s old restaurant, Emeril’s dish, and no matter what the reason, if he feels that you didn’t give enough love into something he cares so deeply about, you’re going home. The combination of not properly handling the chop and basically throwing things onto the plate gets Bret a one-way ticket to Last Chance Kitchen, where he’ll be seeing Ramon, Jason, and Aaron. Judging by his lack of fight in and out of the kitchen, I predict an early exit for him there as well. So Bret, I’d wish you luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Phew. It’s been a tough 3 weeks. Next week, larger than life chef/author Eddie Huang will be joining the gang. No matter what the challenge is, I can guarantee that if Eddie’s around, it won’t be boring.

Thanks and see you next week!

[ Follow me on twitter! @ChezWu ]

Friday, October 11, 2013

Top Chef New Orleans Recap Episode 2 "Rebuilding New Orleans."

There’s no crying in cooking. Especially when it’s Top Chef.

It’s embarrassing enough having to stand in front of Chefs’ Table, pleading for your culinary life. What you don’t want is to return to the stew room and show your fellow cooks that you’re weak. Picking up right where last week’s episode left off, Patty Vega is  failing to hold back her tears as she returns to the stew room to be consoled by her fellow chefs.

“Did you feel like the right person went home?” Bret Pelaggi asks.

Way to kick the girl when she’s down. 

Where there's gumbo, there's a celebration.
With the tears still streaming down Patty’s face, in walks Padma. There are only a few reasons why a judge would come into the stew room after a challenge. It’s either Tom coming to tell you how disappointed he is, or it’s Padma with another challenge.

Hey remember how you haven’t had a Quickfire challenge yet? Well here you go.

It’s gumbo time.

Originated in Louisiana in the 18th century, gumbo is one of the most popular and revered foods in New Orleans. Like Michael Sichel says, “Being a chef in New Orleans, you don’t have gumbo on your menu you’re’re going out of business.”

However, to properly prepare a gumbo takes time. So this will be the longest Quickfire ever. The chefs are to head home and start their gumbo tonight, and they’ll have 15 minutes tomorrow to finish it in the Top Chef Kitchen.

Oh yeah, and they’ll be serving their gumbo to guest judge and local legend, Leah Chase

That’s right. After a long and intense day of working with ingredients you’re not familiar with in a setting you’re not comfortable in, you now need to create one of the most iconic New Orleans dishes for literally the Queen of Creole Cuisine herself. Good luck.

Winner of this Quickfire gets well deserved immunity.

Here we go. I totally called it. Judging by last’s week showing of all the chefs who knew they were going to New Orleans and yet didn’t learn to cook with gators/frogs/turtles, I knew there’ll be at least one yahoo who’d say this:

“I have never made gumbo before…”Aaron Cuschieri confessed.

Really?!? At some point before the competition someone must have given you a hint on what city you’re going to right? Unless it’s a blindfold kidnapping situation there is no excuse on why a chef this season wouldn’t practice making gumbos, boudins, po’boys. That alone should be grounds for dismissal.

The chefs head back to cook. As big as their townhouse looked, 18 people cooking under one roof that’s not fit for professional use is a challenge in itself. Everyone gets a crock pot. Enjoy.

With gumbo being such a personal dish, each chef is asked to incorporate part of their personal history or heritage into the stew. Hey! What a perfect way to introduce some back history for our cheftestants!

Did you know (Blitz edition):

-Carries Mashaney is from Iowa but her husband’s from Trinidad? 

-Jason Cichonski ‘s restaurant is named after his mom, who passed away when he was 3 years old?

-Michael Sichel is a cancer survivor, but we’re not told what kind.

Yeah. All semi interesting. The only interesting thing is that despite being the chef of Galatoire’s and having (self-proclaimed) 10 years of experience cooking gumbo, Michael Sichel dumped his first batch and decided to do something different at 1:30 am.

Next morning our blurry eyed chefs cradle their crock pots into the Top Chef kitchen. Prepared to serve Leah Chase their personal gumbo.
Nothing sexy about this mess.

Let’s start with the least favorites.

Jason’s Polish-inspired gumbo with beets and potatoes came up short. Leah thought it would have been better if it was more of a borscht. To which he responds, “Bullsh%t! I know that dish tasted good.”

This guy. So basically people usually think you’re a douche until you throw down some skills in the kitchen and then if they still think you’re a douche you’ll just curse at them? Such disrespect to one of the legendary chefs of this region. Son, she was making gumbo probably even before your dad was born. Sheesh. Talk about grounds for dismissal.

Michael’s drunken chicken gumbo was a failure. He found a chicken and a six pack of beer at 1:30 in the morning and decided that was the way to go. I suspect it wasn’t the chicken who was drunk.

Mr. President, this Jason kid's got an attitude problem.
Surprise surprise. Patty’s plantain-filled mofongo inspired gumbo went nowhere. Once again the critique was basically “Good idea, poorly executed.” It’s the second challenge and already this sounds like her own personal broken record.

On the good side…

Aaron’s hot and sour Asian style gumbo with the crispy prawns fried whole was a hit. You know what’s even a bigger hit? Having Padma asking with no expression whatsoever, “So you want me to put the whole head in my mouth?”  You Top Chef aficionados will remember that Padma said almost the exact same thing last season during the episode of “Chefs at Sea.” Oh Padma. You cheeky girl you.

Winner: Heartland meets Caribbean.
Carrie’s Iowan-Trinidadian gumbo with coconut, green mango & corn crumble also landed on top. It reminded Leah of one of her “Holy Thursday” gumbo z'herbes. High praise indeed.

Shirley’s braised pork belly with Mexican rice gumbo get a nod. Once again, pork belly when done correctly can usually carry you to the top. 

Winner of the Quickfire? Carrie with her coconut and mango gumbo. I guess if your dish can remind the judge of one of her own then you’re probably going to win. Immunity for her.

Local boy and James Beard nominee Justin Devillier looks disappointed for not even being named top three. I would be too if I was from NOLA and failed to win this one. You only get so many local challenge advantages!

No time to breath. Let’s start the Elimination Challenge.

The guest judge for this week? Susan Spicer, another member of New Orleans’ culinary royalty. She’s the owner of Bayona, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the city. The HBO show “Treme” features a character, Janette Desautel that’s loosely based on her. 

The first team challenge. Always interesting to see how each chef’s personality and leadership plays out during these collaborations. 

Food trucks are all the rage nowadays and New Orleans is no exception. With a smaller menu and low overhead, food trucks are the best way for up-and-coming chefs to show off their skills without too much risk. 

Today, they will divide into 4 teams and serve lunch to the volunteers of Habitat for Humanity, one of the great organizations that is helping New Orleans and surrounding areas to rebuild. Since Katrina hit, Habitat has help built or rehabbed 557 homes. If anyone deserves a nice lunch, it’s them.

Yellow Team:
Aaron, Carlos, Travis, Carrie & Brian

The Yellow team is going with a taco truck. Gonna give them credit for originality! #Sarcasm Along with tacos, they’ll have ceviche and Carrie is going to make fresh dough for empanadas. Talk about ambitious.

Blue Team:
Jason, Patty, Nicholas & Bret

They made a bandana just for her?
This team’s got problem written all over it already. You have the buddy dynamic between Jason and Bret (both are from Philly) versus the inferiority complex duo of Patty (who’s always on the bottom) and Bret (an out of work cook.)  So you tell me whose ideas are gonna fly here? They’re going with a surfer theme partly because Jason looks like a surfer. I’m shocked they didn’t just puree some beet juice and go with the True Blood theme. 

Green Team:
Louis, Sara, Shirley & Stephanie

With items like shawarma, lentils and chickpeas , Green Team is headed for a Mediterranean theme with a smile. More specifically Louis’ smile. Frankly I had no idea who Louis is. Up until now unless you’ve gained some notoriety through food or personality, you’re a mystery to us. However, Louis does have a nice smile. So there’s that.

Red Team:
Justin, Bene, Janine, Michael & Nina

Miami meets the deep south. On paper this team looks strong. You have Nina who won the first challenge, Justin the James Beard nominee, Michael who beat cancer and of course Janine who is pretty. Oh wait. There’s also Bene who’s doing his best Alan Arkin impression of the forgotten man. Yeah nobody’s listening to him or his suggestions. 

The two locals who lost the gumbo challenge.
Time to cook. They’ve got 2 hours to prep before service.

Most of the teams are humming and cooking away. Everyone’s getting along and working together. Perhaps it’s still early in the season where everyone’s real personalities aren’t out yet. However, in any kitchen there are natural hierarchies that develop and you can tell right away who are the alpha and who are the betas.

Nicolas on the Blue Team is giving directions to Patty and Bret so they won’t “over-think” the dish. Read: “Follow my direction you minions.”  Meanwhile, they’ve decided that since Jason is the pretty one who looks like a surfer he should stand outside, expedite and chat people up. Because of that Jason is pre-making all of his salmon hand rolls ahead of time. 

She got more screen time than most chefs!
Over on the Red Team invisible man Bene, with no headlining dish of his own, has been delegated to an assistant. They say if you don’t know who the sucker is at the poker table, chances are you’re it. Well, the good news is Bene knows he’s the sucker. 

The focus shifts back on what is really important here. The continuous effort to rebuild the city of New Orleans. Throughout the episode we see how each local chef was affected by Hurricane Katrina. Susan Spicer, Leah Chase, Michael Sichel, and Justin Devilllier all lost their homes or restaurants in some capacity. Even at the time of filming, Gail Simmons says there are still 50,000 houses that needs to be rebuilt. All the more reasons to feed the volunteers some good food so they can keep on working right?

Time to check out the food.

Yellow Team 

(Travis & Brian)
Dorado & Shrimp Ceviche with Tomato

Crispy shrimps' head.
(Carrie & Aaron)
Beef & Pork Curry Empanadas with Watercress and Mango

(Carlos & Aaron)
Tilapia Tacos with Chipotle Aioli & Cabbage

Blue Team

Salmon Hand Roll with Quinoa, Honey Mustard Miso & Cucumber.

Grilled Shrimp with Melon-Sungold Salad & Crushed Wasabi Peas

You're not going to win Top Chef with tuna sliders.
Coconut Ceviche with Read Snapper & Bay Scallops

Tuna Slider with Crispy Pancetta, Avocado & Tomato

Red Team

Green Gazpacho with Pickled Shrimp

Lobster & Crab Fritters withe Corn Puree & Bacon Jam

(Nina & Bene)
Jerk Chicken Sandwich with Mango & Crispy Plantains
Lots of green foods today.

Ricotta with Burnt Honey, Stone Fruit & Toasted Coconut

Green Team

Crispy Chickpeas with Watercress & Radish Salad

Tuna Burger with Sprouts, Avocado & Watermelon Rind Pickles

Spicy Grilled Lamb Salad with Cucumber & Asian Pear
Little Bo Peep's looking for you...

Service is over and everyone’s pretty confident. Bret (Blue Team) even commented that he felt good because the other team ran out of a bunch of stuff and his team didn’t. Yeah, think about that for a bit. 

The important thing is that hard working ladies and gentleman out there got a good meal from somebody. And the rebuilding of New Orleans will “Keep on keepin’ on.”

Time for the Flat Screen of Judgement. This season in their new and improved stew room, the chefs will get a preview of who might have done well and who faltered. Everyone gets to watch. Some gets to gloat, others agonize.

The Yellow and Green team both scored high. Both team’s dishes made sense, their theme’s cohesive, and most importantly it was well executed. 

This is when being "flaky" is a good thing.
On the flip side are the Blue and Red teams. At this level, the smallest thing can put you in the bottom. Each team’s dishes had either poorly thought out concept, or made choices that resulted in a bad dish.

The Yellow team gets called to the winner’s circle. The secret to their success? Working together. You can see that each dish took collaborate effort between two members to make. That’s team unity and the key in a challenge like this. However there can be only one winner. And that person is Carrie. The fact that she used a wine bottle as a rolling pin to make empanada dough on the spot in the truck pushes her over the edge. Despite having immunity, she didn’t let up. With two straight wins and an appearance in the winning group every time so far, she’s establishes herself as a front runner.

The losing team is the Blue Team. Although we’re not even at November yet, it might as well be Festivus. Because Tom has a lot of problem with you people.

You might as well have served me okra!
Where do we begin? Nicolas’ wasabi garnish made no sense, Bret’s ceviche was under seasoned and not cold enough, Jason’s hand roll was mushy, and Patty’s tuna slider had the misfortune of a bad tomato which ruined the whole dish.

Jason explains that he knew a mistake was made, but he premade the rolls so he can stand out front and chat people up. When Jason is pressed to explain why he sacrificed his dish just so he can interact...Bret pulls a deft move of this young season.

Knowingly or not, he “no-looked” Jason under the bus. Bret tells the judges that the reason Jason made his hand roll ahead of time was since it was a “surf” truck and he looked like a surfer, it was only fitting that he was “the host.” That little inception right there drove the stake through Jason’s heart. (Hey it’s probably last time I get to use a True Blood reference.) 

Good luck with Last Chance Kitchen True Blood!
At this point though I think even Patty is resigned to get sent home. She’s been on the bottom every single challenge. There’s no more fight in her. Meanwhile, Jason is literally pouting. Alas, that pretty blond hair and surfer good looks can’t save him now. If there’s anything Tom cannot stand (aside from skin on his red peppers and the slimy taste of okra) is a bad attitude with misplaced priorities. What the sexiest chef in Philadelphia seems to have forgotten is that in the kitchen, “It better to taste good than to look good.”

Good luck in Last Chance Kitchen, Jason. Here’s $10 bucks that Patty is right behind you.

Next week. Commander’s Palace and Paul Prudhomme. Kids, do yourself a favor and click on the links to familiarize yourself with these two legendary names. Then, unlike most of the chefs this season, you'll have done some research on the legendary food city of New Orleans.