Sunday, November 22, 2009

Merci, Bocuse

Top Chef - Season 6, Episode 12

Previously on Top Chef: Padma stayed in bed. Robin stayed in the way. Toby stayed delusional about the notion that he's qualified to judge this show. Michael stayed in the winners' circle. Robin's stay was cut short. Five chefs remain. Who will be eliminated tonight?

Opening credits. Not much in the way of food, but I'm all for trying out a new wine, large quantities of which were consumed in short order. Also, I have to say that I'm rewatching this episode online, and whoever uploaded it has goofed the audio, so everyone sort of sounds like they're in an episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Hehe.

Monday Morning Quarterback session. Bryan worries about how his restaurant is doing back home without him. Kevin misses his wife. Eli says that they're down to the five strongest chefs in the competition. I don't particularly agree with that assessment, but realize that it takes a lot longer to say: "We're down to the five people who didn't perform the worst in several off-kilter, severely-time-limited challenges," so I'll let it slide. Eli hopes to win for his mentor, Richard. Jenc once again vows to find her focus. Let's hope she means it this time.

Quickfire Challenge. The chefs are met in the Kitchen by Padma and guest judge Gavin Kaysen, who won the James Beard Rising Chef award. Getting one of those must pile on the pressure to succeed. Padma tells us that Gavin represented the United States in the 2007 Bocuse d'Or, which is basically the culinary Olympics. I read a little of that Wikipedia entry, and it's worth checking out what happened to Gavin in that competition. Oops! It also looks like an American has never even medaled in the Bocuse d'Or, let alone won. As to the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs will be recreating a version of one of Gavin's entries (a chicken ballotine with crayfish in the middle, and surrounded by chicken liver and more chicken). These chefs are to create a dish in ninety minutes that includes a protein within a protein within a protein. It's an appropriate time of year to do it. I've never eaten turducken, but I'd like to. No immunity for the winner, but Padma promises an advantage in the Elimination Challenge.

Ready? Go! Everyone scatters. Bryan is planning to put sausage around loin of lamb. He's worked with the technique before, and seems confident. Michael is going to put bacon inside of turkey inside of chicken. He's going in more of a terrine direction than a ballotine. Kevin thinks the brothers' dishes are too complicated for the time limit, so he's sticking with his signature simplicity, and making Scotch eggs. He insists that he and Eli are the ballsiest chefs, because they dare to make home-cooked food for a competition like Top Chef. Well, yes and no. I mean, sure the judges tend to reward complicated techniques, but let's not forget that Carla made it to the final three by sticking to simplicity, and Stephanie outright won without making frou-frou dishes, so let's not pretend you're breaking down any walls, here. Jenc returns to the welcoming bosom of seafood. Michael, who is to spend the entire episode sucking a lemon and generally acting like a teenager whose mother has confiscated his Game Boy, sneers that Jenc may have started off strong, but has gone as far as she can. Time runs out.

Gavin and Padma go down the line. Eli has made bacon-crusted sausage that has a six-minute egg in the center. Sounds tasty. Michael's terrine has chicken with turkey and bacon mousseline. Jenc has a calamari steak that incorporates scallops, salmon, shiitake mushroom, and shiso. There's also a rice noodle salad on the side. Gavin asks why she made seafood, and Jenc responds that it's always been her strong suit. "Welcome back," Padma says. Well, that's encouraging. Kevin winks at her. I didn't care for that wink; it seemed a little condescending. Bryan has made rack of lamb with sausage, which is then wrapped in caul fat. There are a couple of nifty sauces served in a colorful circle underneath the meat. Kevin has gone back to his roots again, with cornmeal-fried catfish surrounding scallops and shrimp. Bryan notes in interview that Kevin's food leans towards the simple, but that it's a fine strategy, as long as it's done correctly.

Results. Gavin found Kevin's catfish overcooked and the breading dry. Upon finding himself on the bottom for perhaps the first time ever, Kevin does not cover himself in glory. He begs to differ, saying that Gavin and he just have different tastes. I mean, it's fine to think that, but it makes it sound like there's no room for any less-than-stellar view of Kevin's food. I know he's a Golden Child, but if I'm not going to accept "If you like my food, it's because it's good. If you don't, it's because you don't get it," from other chefs, I'm not going to accept it from Kevin. Bryan's lamb tenderloin was cooked very well. Eli's concept was well-thought and well-executed. Jenc's calamari had the potential to come out tough, but didn't, and her dish was very successful. Michael is called on making a terrine instead of a ballotine. Michael sourly notes that the challenge was to wrap three proteins around each other, and if the challenge was "Make a ballotine," that's what he would have done. As with a lot of other things he's said this season: 1) He's right. 2) I completely agree, and 3) He's so snotty about it that it's tough to back him up. I wish he'd stop doing that. Anyhow, the winner of the challenge is Jenc, whose prize is an extra half hour to cook in the Elimination Challenge. Michael sucks another lemon.

Elimination Challenge. The chefs will be taking part in a Top Chef version of the Bocuse d'Or. I'm surprised it's taken six seasons for the idea to come up. Probably because unlike other reality programs, the contestant pool is getting more accomplished over time, instead of less. In this challenge, the chefs will create a presentation platter using one protein and two garnishes. They cannot just be simple side salads or grilled vegetables, but should be as intricate as they can be. Gavin gives the example of zucchini strips being woven into a basket. Yikes. The only proteins to choose from are lamb and salmon. I wonder why they imposed that limitation. The food will be served on a traditional mirrored platter, and the chefs will have four hours to cook (except Jenc, of course). There will be twelve diners, including advisors to American Bocuse d'Or competitors (who apparently aren't doing the best job), and culinary luminary Thomas Keller. The chefs are already jittery with nerves.

Shopping. Kevin has no specific dish planned, and is winging it as far as which ingredients he's buying. Once everyone is checked out, they head back to the house to plan their dishes. Well, Michael goes straight to bed, but everyone else plans their dishes. They watch a provided DVD of past Bocuse d'Or competitions to get an idea of how they need to present their food. Kevin wants to sous vide his lamb, and asks for detailed instruction about how to go about doing it. Bryan kindly gives him some advice, not wanting to be a prick about it. I like Kevin, and if it were up to me, I'd award him the Top Chef title right now, but he is really getting on my nerves tonight. There's a vast middle ground between being friendly with your competitors and doing their work for them. Someone who's won a buttload of challenges shouldn't have to get instruction from a competitor. I love Bryan for wanting to be a nice guy about it, but I wouldn't have seen anything wrong with "If you don't know how to do it, you probably shouldn't risk it for this challenge." Bryan surmises that Michael wouldn't have done the same thing in his position. Yeah, I don't think many of us would disagree.

The next day, the chefs head to a kitchen at the Wynn and get cooking. Eli says that everyone is being super-focused, and trying to catch mistakes before they happen. Ptom drops by to Ptimewaste in that unfortunate purple chef coat that makes him look like Violet Beauregarde. He's accompanied by Thomas Keller, who offers some trite platitudes about putting your head down and getting to work. The chefs take him at his word, and go back to their stations. Michael is confident, having taken part in some culinary competitions in the past. I'm having a good giggle picturing him at the Pillsbury Bake-Off. He pulls bones out of his salmon. Jenc is a ball of nerves. Bryan is pushing his limits, and worries about getting his meat braised in time. Kevin looks after his sous vide. Michael whines that Kevin's food is good, but overly simple, snotting that the food Kevin makes is the food Michael makes on his day off. Oh, sorry we can't all climb to the culinary pinnacle that is hot wings with blue cheese dressing. This is not the first time Michael has sulked when Kevin outperformed him, and it's extremely unattractive. If you're so much better than him, then you'll beat him. It's that simple. Also simple: Five is more than three. That's how many Elimination Challenges Kevin has won compared to Michael's wins. Maybe you should take more days off, chief.

Ptom comes back to Ptimewaste even more. I'll spare you, except to say that all the chefs describe what they'll be doing. Post-walkthrough, he tells us that "details separate a good dish from a great dish." If Season 4's subtitle was "Challenge Parameters Are Beneath Us!", then this season shall surely be: "Top Chef 6 - DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUH". Ptom ducks back into the kitchen to pile even more pressure on by announcing that the challenge's winner will receive $30,000. That'll put marzipan in your pie plate, Bingo! The chefs all have mini-freakouts. Out in the dining room, the judges and other diners get seated. Kevin knows that Bocuse d'Or is often about complex presentation, but he's hoping to squeak by on complex flavor, instead. He will be first to present, and goes out to face the firing squad.

We meet the diners. They're more Names. Kevin has made lamb loin poached in olive oil and caramelized fat. His garnishes are sherry-glazed golden beets with pickled Swiss chard stems, and baked asparagus with sunchoke cream and buttered toast. It all sounds delicious, but as far as presentation, I think he's gone beyond homey and simple, and into basic. It's a very plain plate of food. The judges agree, saying that everything tastes great, but is very elementary. Michael is up next. He introduces his food by saying it's a Mediterranean-inspired platter, and serves up salmon loin with crab and zucchini, a cauliflower/chickpea cake , and tzatziki with salmon belly tartare. Once he's gone, a Name calls the platter very pretty, but disparate, flavor-wise. A bone is found in his fish. Overall, the plate lacked harmony. Bryan struggles with time. Jenc is flush with time, and helps him get his food plated. That's the kind of nice-guy behavior I can get behind. She wants to beat him on flavor and technique, not a rule technicality. As he goes out to present, Bryan notes all the little mistakes he's made, which leaves him frustrated.

He pulls it together to present his food to the diners. He's made lamb loin crusted with parsley, a crepinette of lamb shank, garlic chips, and orzo pasta with sheep's milk cheese. The Names find the idea compelling and the presentation lovely, but the execution was off. The lamb is undercooked, but the judges feel that if Bryan had more time to work, it would have been spectacular. Eli has made pistachio-crusted lamb sausage wrapped around three different loins, ras-el-hanout with carrot puree and yogurt foam (that burps up a gas bubble), and tomato/pepper marmalade with capers on top of a brioche crouton. The lamb has a tarragon/asparagus coulis on top. The Names find the lamb undercooked and butchered poorly. The raw lamb fat ruins any benefits his platter may have had. His yogurt foam was good (better than Michael's tzatziki, in fact), but there's no overlooking his disappointing lamb.

Jenc nervously emerges, convinced that her food isn't up to snuff. Her protein is poached salmon topped with caviar and mushrooms, and her garnishes are shrimp flan with peas/chervil/truffles, and celery root squares with shiitake mushrooms. She's asked if she's done any food competitions before, and she admits that she hasn't. Her food is received with shrugs. Everything tastes fine, but there isn't much thought behind it. One of the Names' piece of fish is undercooked, but everyone else's is fine. The shrimp flan similarly varies from diner to diner. Each person seems to take a different view of her platter as a whole.

Despite all the criticism, Gail is proud that the chefs were able to put together what they did in the twelve hours since they've first heard the words "Bocuse d'Or". The chefs come back to the table and are applauded and congratulated. It turns out that there is yet another twist. The chef who wins will get to compete to be part of the American Bocuse d'Or team in 2011. Crikey. As they clean the kitchen, Bryan tells Michael that this may be the last time they cook together for a while. "Why, you think I'm going?" Michael sneers. "No. Me," Bryan says. Jesus, who pissed in Michael's cornflakes this morning? He either needs to start coming to some realizations about what revolves around what in this universe, or he needs to shut the fuck up for a while. Kevin tells us that no matter who gets eliminated, nobody need feel ashamed for going home on such a tough challenge.

Interstitial. Now that stupid, useless Robin is gone, all the chefs love each other.

Judges' Table. Padma summons everyone to the dining room. Odd Asian Music and Gong are back from their vacation. I'm glad they didn't get laid off in this tough economy. Michael's salmon, caviar, and cauliflower didn't fit his Mediterranean theme, not to mention the bones in one of the Names' portion. Bryan's lamb was undercooked, but the judges agree that with more time, he would have done a better job. Kevin's food was too simple. He tries out his usual line about how the techniques may be simple, but that's only so he can put out complex flavors. It doesn't go over as well as it has before, and Ptom thinks that he veered too far into basic cooking. Jenc's salmon didn't cook as slowly as it should have, thanks to thin pans. Her uneven cuts led to differing levels of doneness, as well. Eli's sausage had unappetizing gobs of fat in it. Before the chefs are dismissed, Ptom wants to reiterate that all five of them have done a great job, overall. The chefs thank him and trudge off.

Deliberations. Kevin rues not putting more technique into his food. Gail loved Eli's sauces, and wishes the lamb underneath them could have supported them properly. Padma thinks it was the worst of the lamb dishes. Jennifer's garnishes were fine, but her salmon was inconsistent. Kevin's dish was overly simple, but tasted great. Michael had good technique. He's never done a bad job with flavor... Until this challenge. Plus, that fish bone pops up again. Bryan had problems with his cooking that were brought on by the strict time limit. I'm all for allowing Bryan to continue in the competition, but they're selling this argument a little too hard. Bryan knew in advance how much time he'd have to cook, and if he was unable to execute his food properly within that time limit, he may have done better to have come up with a different idea. I don't know why I'm so cranky about these people tonight. Maybe there's just too much rule-bending in this episode for my tastes. Don't know how to do something? No problem! Just ask your competitor how to do it. Can't finish your food on time? No problem! We'll just judge it as if you had. You see what I'm getting at? The judges reach a decision.

Elimination. The winner of the $30,000 and the chance to compete to be on the American Bocuse d'Or team is... Kevin, whose superior flavors are deemed more important than his weak technique. Michael sucks yet another lemon. Jenc gives Kevin a hug. On the way out the door, he tells the other chefs that they all did a fantastic job. Thank you, O Golden Child. Ptom tells the remaining chefs that it's getting harder to cut each one. I'll buy that if it turns out the Final Four wasn't written in the stars long ago. Eli. Please pack your knives and go. Huh. I guess I must be psychic, as are a number of other internet denizens. Eli is satisfied that he has lasted this long, and that he went out on something of a high note. That's true. He's in a bit of mild shock, and figures he'll process all of those icky emotions later. Eh, don't worry about it, Eli. Nostradamus saw this boot coming.

Overall Grade: C


Tina said...

Nice Buffy reference. :)

I actually thought Kevin's wink was meant to be encouraging rather than condescending. Plus in the stew room he was really complimentary towards Bryan's dish despite mistakes (he said something like "They could see that you knew what perfect was."). I don't think he's really very acquainted with condescending; he's more the 'finding the bright side' type of guy.

I can't argue that his decision to do sous vide and ask a competitor was a little strange, but I can see why for this challenge he might feel a need to try something different, and presumably if no one would've helped him he would've been able to come up with something else, so I don't think he was floundering or anything.

I'm starting to pull for Brother Bryan lately. It's not that I've soured on Kevin by any means, but I've really started to like Bryan now that he's, y'know, showing some personality, and I think his food ideas are pretty cool. His willingness to help rather than (in his words) be a prick had something to do with my liking him but it really started way back when he was clearly over the treatment of Robin. Which is all to say that may be why I didn't react strongly to his screwups.

Limecrete said...

Yeah, I try to be objective about everyone, but it's pretty clear when I'm feeling stabby, isn't it? Like I said, I still like Kevin and thinks he deserves the win right now, but I did find the wink and the "Good job, guys!" off-putting. It'd be like if you got a B- on a test, and some straight-A student peered over your shoulder and said "Aw, that's great! Good job!"

All that said, I'd be satisfied with any of the final four winning. All of them are either talented, likable, or both. If forced to choose right now, I'd say Kevin gets it on merit, but like you, I find myself pulling for Bryan a bit.