Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gimme an H... Gimme an O

Yeah, I know. I haven’t posted anything in a really long time on this blog. That’s my disclaimer to my wife who is always encouraging me to post stuff. But having found inspiration in last night’s Top Chef Finale, I had to put something up.

And what a Finale it was…

Last season, I was a little bit bored through out. The contestants were only occasionally relatable and the finale was rather constricting. Chose your protein, make a meal, standard progression, yada, yada, yada. Last night, on the other hand, harkened back to the earlier seasons of the show, telling the chefs to make the best three-course meal of their lives. And in the first of two twists, prior season’s runners-up were brought back to serve as the sous-chefs. So welcome back Richard, Casey, and Marcel.

The second twist came with the adding of an appetizer with mystery proteins in the form of red fish, blue crab, and alligator. A King Cake was presented to the chefs, and whoever found the baby would be able to assign the proteins to all three contestants. Finding the baby in the cake, Hosea was able to assign the chefs their challenges taking the fish himself, giving Carla the crab, and leaving the alligator for Stefan.

Working with last year’s runner-up, the talented Richard, Hosea presented an impressive array of meals that were both visually appealing, and apparently very pleasing to the palate as well. Of the four dishes he produced, only one met with any manner of mediocre feedback. But per the rules, the contestants were not required to present a dessert. They were given carte blanche to make and present whatever they saw fit. And using this to his advantage, he made four savory dishes.

Stefan took the curveball of being assigned the alligator in perfect stride. That man has ice in his veins. He produced an alligator soup with the help of season two runner-up Marcel. But his food met with dramatic highs as well as lows. His Carpaccio was frozen to allow for a thinner cut, but gently damaged the quality of the salmon, and Tom noticed. Also, following a typical progression for dinner, he did make a dessert. But for someone who has made very impressive desserts this year, it failed to impress.

Carla…poor Crazy Carla. She came on strong when it mattered, but fell short tonight. She was talked into doing things that she normally doesn’t do and had little to no experience with. A $100k finale is probably not when you want to start winging it. Unfortunately, season 3’s Casey pushed her around, which is not to say she was rude or mean or didn’t work her tail off to help, but she pulled Carla out of her comfort zone, and it probably cost her. The initial idea of a cheese tart gave way to a bleu cheese soufflé, which even if it did work, doesn’t sound good in the least. She cooked it to hot, it didn’t come together, and I applaud her for not serving it instead of sending something out that looked and tasted bad.

If you hearken back to my very first posting about this season of Top Chef, I said that I didn’t think Carla had the chops to win it all. I guess I was right, but I don’t feel good about it. She went a lot farther than I thought she would. She was humble throughout, and she continued to evolve and learn. And whenever Bravo offers a shirt that says something about cooking and “sending out the love”, I’m buying one…especially if on the back it says, “That is my belief, Tom!” In that case, I’m buying two.

But I also picked Hosea to win it all, and he delivered.

Some of the comments on various blogs on the Top Chef site have been very critical of him winning. They said he was mediocre through out, he was this, he was that… Ultimately, people seem to think that Carla should’ve won, almost across the board. To these people, I ask, “What were you watching last night?” The judges have always been clear on this show in all five seasons past that the chefs are judged on that night’s food, and that night’s food alone. And they proved it this year beyond a shadow of a doubt. If people were judged on previous challenges, Arianne would’ve been tossed anywhere in the first three or four weeks. If you disagree with that, consider this; if you are giving merit for previous challenges, Stefan should’ve walked out of there as the hands-down winner last night. Neither of those circumstances makes Carla the winner, as entertaining as she was. She’s a shoe-in for the fan favorite though.

Until next time…

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Everyone expected me to win...

“Everyone on my team expected me to win.” Wow.

I loved this Quickfire challenge. Blind taste tests that force a chef to strictly use what they hope is a finely tuned palate always shows their mettle. What I don’t understand is why some of the chefs let the others get away with naming between three and five ingredients? It’s a sauce, so aren’t oil, salt, and pepper almost automatic? In any event, it was really fun to watch. The only Quickfire I like more is when they do the relay races. But again, my boy Hosea holds it down giving Stefan the stink and showing him that Americans know a little something about cooking too.

The Elimination challenge calls for the chefs to cook for Gail Simmons’ bridal shower…of 40 guests, a large number of which are colleagues of hers from Food and Wine Magazine. So finger sandwiches and instant coffee just isn’t going to get it done. And of course there has to be a theme and a twist. So to correspond with being a bride, the chefs draw knives to make teams of three with the themes “old”, “new”, “borrowed”, and “blue” to incorporate into their dishes as well as define the order of service.

Team “Old” consisting of Jeff, Stefan, and Hosea are the first to serve. They decide that a trio of tastings made from heirloom tomatoes is the way to go. In an effort to assert himself, Stefan really started to try to tell everyone what was what this week. He didn’t like Jeff’s idea of a tomato sorbet. He didn’t like another team’s concept for their meal. He made no effort to mask his contempt. He’s trying to get some action from Jamie? Hey, here’s to your efforts big guy but that’s going to be like trying ice skate uphill. Ultimately, though the guys did well and Jeff’s sorbet was well received.

Team “New” was just a comedy of errors. I think Eugene had a good idea working with a make-your-own sushi roll. But maybe not the best idea to make a bunch of well-dressed ladies make and eat their own food with no explanation as to how it was supposed to come together. Oh by the way, his rice was way overdone, apparently. Why he didn’t just make more, I don’t know? Danny seemed to be more in the way then anything else. And Carla just went to her place of Zen, I guess, and let it all happen even when Danny put mushrooms in her salad without her knowledge.

Team “Borrowed” drew on inspiration from various cuisines, particularly Indian. But I gotta say, when someone on your team is, in fact, Indian, you’re not really borrowing it so much anymore I don’t think. Their carrot puree was perfect, and the lamb was apparently perfect too.

Team “Blue” decided to do a meal inspired by the deep blue sea. According to Tom, there is no food in the world that is truly blue. But when you say “blue food” who doesn’t think of blueberries? And going last opened the door for a blueberry dessert. Seemed like a no brainer.

Teams “Old” and “Borrowed” ended up with the favorites across the board with “Borrowed” winning the day. But when picking the person who was the most instrumental in the win, you hear Jamie say something about wanting the win. Well, she didn’t get it, prompting her to say in the confessional “Everyone expected me to win”. I guess she thought that because it was her concept combined with her carrot puree, she deserved to win. Apparently, the judges saw it differently, and they should have. Ariane cooked the lamb, which was the focal point of the dish. Hell, I could’ve come up with the concept. Does that make me the winner? By the way, yet again, in spite of saying that she doesn’t want to be earmarked as just making Indian food, Radhika yet again makes Indian food.

Team “New” was called on the carpet for basically screwing up all over the place. Any of them could’ve gotten the boot, and Tom wanted to do just that. What seemed to save Eugene and Carla was that when their mistakes we pointed out, they owned them. Danny, by contrast, was utterly convinced that their food was great, and it didn’t matter what anyone said. Bye bye big guy.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I Don't Want To Be a TV Chef...

“I don’t want to be a TV chef” said the reality TV contestants. Last night, the chefs had to make a meal that could be condensed into a 2-minute demo that could be shown on TV. And according to most of them, they never had any aspirations of being on TV. Except, I suppose, for the purposes of being on Top Chef? Per the biographies of chefs that I have read, the cheffing community seems to have diametrically opposing views of the “celebrity chef”. They are either anit-celeb chef and it’s a travesty as well as an embarrassment to the profession, or they’re just kinda casually okay about it. In any event, chances are that you will be evaluated by a number of celebrity chefs in this competition, so perhaps it would be in the best interests of the contestants to keep their feelings about TV exposure to a minimum?

But a word about the Quickfire; Amuse Bouche is a bite. Last I checked, it’s like 1/4th of an appetizer. So what looks like a deconstruction of three components on the plate, no matter how good it tastes probably isn’t going to win the challenge. And for the love, I’m pretty sure that no matter how much Rocco Dispirito loves bacon, you’re not going to need a pound for two servings. Leah just grasped the whole thing, start to finish and delivered a one-bite, breakfast-oriented, challenge-winning dish, which makes two Quickfire wins in a row for her, and prompting my wife to choose Leah as her pick to win it all.

On to the elimination challenge…

The chefs had to prepare a demonstration that would fit well in two-minute slot on a TV show. It just seems like common sense to make something that fits several criteria; can someone make it at home? Will the ingredients be readily available in your average grocery store? Can the viewer pronounce whatever it is you’re trying to make? Can you knock it all out and have a finished product ready in the time allotted with enough information provided in the segment that people will feel comfortable making it? If the answer to any of these is no, you need to rethink your process. If I, as a viewer, need industrial grade equipment, can’t find the components, am too intimidated by the name, or don’t see a pro finish that dish, I’m probably not as likely to try.

For the second straight week, Ariane had a strong showing, winning the challenge. She was in good company too, seeing as Jeff has had a few strong finishes, and Fabio has a win. Furthermore, the announcement of her win was determined live on the Today Show by all the hosts. Her dish was simple, and she took a little heat from some of the other competitors about it. But she maximized flavor and presentation in two minutes. However, for each winner, there must be a looser, and Alex, Melissa, and Jamie found themselves in the bottom three for two reasons between three people.

Jamie and Alex ended up with the same problem; they just didn’t finish the dish in the allotted time. Jamie ended up serving a fried egg that still had some raw white around the yolk. The argument was made that people would consume undercooked yolk and have health concerns. Didn’t they see Rocky eat raw eggs by the half-dozen? And Alex, while I appreciate his bravado trying to make a dessert, should’ve known better. Crème Brule in an hour of prep time just won’t happen. And sure enough, it didn’t set up in time. Melissa made a dish so spicy that, per the blogs of the chefs on the show, couldn’t be eaten. I like spicy more than most. But having eaten a habanero raw and whole, you just can’t have people serving them in a meal who don’t know what they’re dealing with. Suppose someone serves something with habanero to someone with an ulcer? You may not kill them, but they’ll wish to God they were dead. In my mind, that should’ve been enough to excuse her from the show. But Alex’s runny Brule got the boot.

Two notes in closing; first, I was very glad to see Rocco on this episode. Last year he was only a guest judge for the season premiere, and I would’ve like to see him on there once or twice more. Hopefully, this won’t be the last time we see him this year. Second, there are all kinds of etiquette to being a guest on a TV show. If you read Tom’s blog about filling guest spots, he talks about it in detail. And they’re all good points. But there are some lines of decorum to be observed by the hosts as well. So for Kathie Lee to actually spit out Jeff’s dish was inappropriate on any level. Grow up.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thanksgiving in July-ish

How odd do you think that it must have been to be preparing a Thanksgiving meal for a Thanksgiving episode in what…July? Anyway, I know I’m late getting something posted about the show, but with the aforementioned holiday, my mind was elsewhere.

With the chefs breaking into two teams, the assignment was to make dinner for the Foo Fighters and their entourage of roadies that was consistent with a Thanksgiving theme, and fit criteria of likes and dislikes set forth by the band. Oh by the way, they had to cook outside with toaster ovens, microwaves, and one lone burner. I have to give credit to many of the chefs on both teams for quickly assessing the situation and not taking an hour to piss and moan about how lousy the circumstances were. So with a number of ideas in mind, teams “Sexy Pants” and “Cougar” were off to the races.

In a losing effort, Ariane started to take steps in the right direction. She had a strong showing in the preparation of her turkey in a toaster oven. I like to think that I know a thing or two about cooking, but I wouldn’t have had a clue where to begin? And though she found herself on the losing team, the judges were quick to tell her that she was safe from elimination for the week. Good thing too…I don’t think she could have taken the stress of being in the bottom two for the third week in a row.

Jeff found himself on the block with a weak dessert bringing him before the judges. Pumpkin foam and raspberries just don’t sound good together. But Jeff seems to have a mystique and charisma about him that compel people to follow him and trust him, even when they are in competition with him. So with that, he assumed the role of the head chef and did more traffic directing, as a head chef does, than cooking. His leadership, not his food saved him this week.

Richard made a mistake mentally that cost him his station in the kitchen. When reading what the band really liked, he got stuck on bananas. For some reason, he thought it best to pair that idea with S’mores. He just got locked into those two components, and couldn’t let them go.

Originally, I wasn’t a big fan of Fabio. But with the passing of each week, he impresses me more and more. Thanksgiving is an American holiday, holding understandably little significance to a lot of immigrants. But he took the idea of a pumpkin-based dessert and made something he knew in tiramisu. And he did it with toaster ovens and microwaves. Original, creative, and resourceful…exactly the traits that help people go far in this contest or even win it all.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Season 5 Elimination 2

The producers of the show wasted no time at all thrusting the contestants into hostile territory and a professional kitchen. I can appreciate Tom’s charitable nature to allow them to use the kitchen of his flagship restaurant to serve a meal to pissed of runners-up. But at some point he had to be gritting his teeth thinking “I can’t believe I let this go out of my kitchen!” They say no press is bad press, but considering Craft as a corporation has already enjoyed success, not to mention everyone who’s seen more than one episode of Top Chef knows that Tom owns Craft, he probably could’ve done without crappy food leaving his kitchen.

Touching briefly on the Quickfire, everyone was asked to make a hot dog. Some hit, and some missed, but Radhika ends up winning the immunity. And what did she make? After professing several times in the first episode that she didn’t want to be typecast as the chef that only makes Indian food because she’s Indian, what does she do? She draws on her roots to make a hot dog inspired by Indian cuisine! Go ahead and email your thoughts on the topic to www.youarefullofcrap.com. And no, that’s not a real link.

On to the elimination challenge, I was yet again confused by a number of people’s choices? Every single time there has been a dessert-oriented challenge in Top Chef history, everyone rolls their eyes or grinds their teeth, because by the chef’s own admissions, they don’t like doing desserts in general. Yet, as soon as the challenge was presented, a bunch of people jumped all over doing desserts. Why? Do they think that doing one now will prohibit them or win them favor when they will have to make one later? Or are they unsure about their confectionary prowess and figure they will take their chances now with more people around them thinking that they will hope someone else screws up and their dish can slide by being marginal? I’m thinking it’s the latter because as they are in the kitchen, a number of them kept reiterating in the confessionals that they didn’t like doing desserts. So why then did you volunteer for it?!

The challenge was to make dishes that were consistent with “New American Cuisine”. Read the blogs posted by the judges or Tom himself, and they will all admit that is a pretty nebulous idea. And unfortunately, a lot of the contestants fell short on meeting the judge’s expectations. Now, I can understand how they can be confused by the concept. But that’s no excuse to make food that just doesn’t taste good.

Highlights:
Fabio make a very impressive-looking carpaccio with olives, and won the challenge. Oddly enough, he didn’t win anything additional for winning the day? Didn’t they used to get stuff?

Crazy Carla made an apple pie with a piece of cheddar that seemed to go over really well too. But I just can’t get on board with cheese on apple pie?

Lowlights:
Good thing Radhika had immunity because an avacado dessert? Essentially sweet guacamole with chocolate chips? Well, and least you didn't do two Indian-inspired dishes in one episode.

Ariane yet again found herself in the bottom of the group serving a dish they she knew and freely admitted was too sweet before serving. She had time to manipulate it and didn’t. She sobbed in the back room saying she didn’t think she deserved to be there…and she’s probably right. She’s not long for the competition.

My boy Hosea… he’s still my pick but dude, canned crab? I mean, did he really think he was going to sneak that by the palates of the judges? Props though, on the line up. He took the judges comments. He didn’t piss and moan and woe is me. He didn’t make excuses. He just took it well.

Unlike Jill, who when put on the spot couldn’t remember her own name. Her ostrich egg quiche just didn’t seem to make sense. It seemed like she decided to shop for an ingredient and make the dish around it instead of putting a meal together then doing the shopping. And when asked “how would you go about doing better next time?” she may have well responded by saying “well, ya wanna play good…and ya hope ya play good. And ya just gotta go out and give 110% when the chips fall where they may.” Actually, when it came right down to it, her complete lack of coherent thought in her response may well have talked her right out the door.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Top Chef is Back!

The majesty and glory of the greatest cooking show on TV is once again upon us! Top Chef has returned with it’s fifth season from the culinary epicenter of the known universe; New York City.

17 contestants were welcomed into the new season, but with only 16 spots to fill, someone had to be eliminated right away. Slow knife skills proved to be the undoing for Lauren, the CIA grad. Sorry about your luck, but Jags still rocks. Having eaten there, I can say with all confidence that for someone to be able to cook there means there’s serious talent in them yet.

With 16 remaining contestants, I really don’t have the memory to have something to say about them all. That said, let me hit the highlights…or lowlights as the case may be.

Stefan- Got skills, but seems like a dick.

Fabio- Mediocre skills, but seems like a dick.

Ariane- Really? The best thing you can think to say when facing elimination is “when I’m cooking something I don’t know I have a book to look at”? Maybe you’d be better off commenting on something that doesn’t illustrate your utter lack of ability? Perhaps the glare coming off Tom’s head? Retard.

Patrick- Picking your first elimination challenge to use an ingredient that you’ve never worked with before was just not smart. You don’t have to have gone to CIA to know that. Also, adding steamed bok choi doesn’t automatically make something Chinese. Don’t need CIA for that either.

Radhika- It takes you 20 minutes to get your knives out and your spices arranged? Sweetie, you are on the wrong show.

Danny- Aside from the oddly cut facial hair, I liked this guy right away. But Tom caught him in a very uncomfortable situation. I know that with as many variations on this, that, and the other in cooking these days, fewer and fewer dishes are completely original. But the higher up the ladder of haute cuisine you go, the more likely you are to find these truly original dishes. Tom looked at the salad Danny put together, had a taste, and immediately said “I recognize this salad. Wolfgang Puck has been making it for 20 some-odd years.” At least he took his inspiration from the very, very best.

There are two caterers on this season, Stefan and Carla. Carla got a little kooky with her “spirit guides” statements. And while she’s entertaining, I don’t think she’s going to have the chops to hang around until the end. Stefan, however, seems to have some pretty sick skills, winning both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges. His kung fu is strong. However, previous contestants Brian Malarkey (season 3) and Richard Blais (season 4) have said in their blogs that a caterer will never win this competition. I guess we’ll see.

Personally, I like Hosea. He seems like a pretty even-keeled guy with strong knife skills and a good eye for presentation. After the first night, he’s my pick to win it all.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Bucket List Caramel Apple Dip

Again, I’ve hit a bit of a rut, and haven’t posted in a while. Actually, I haven’t cooked anything new, eaten anywhere cool, or read anything that great in a while. But all that is about to change. I’m reading right now, cooking this week, and Top Chef starts in another 2 weeks, so I’ll be in business with more crap to spin into good reading then I can handle!

Anyway, in light of the fact that it’s Halloween and clearly fall, I have something to offer. Fall means apples. Good, crisp, tasty, apples the size of a softball. Granny Smiths, Honey Crisps, Gala, and the nebulous and elusive New Zealand. Some are better for eating, some better for cooking, some better for dipping into large vats of gooey molten caramel. That’s not exactly right because any of them dipped into caramel is a good thing. That said, I humbly offer my newest post on apples and caramel.

Ordinarily, I would avoid posting a recipe that I hadn’t at least tried to make myself. But this one was just so good I just couldn’t help it. This comes courtesy of a co-worker of mine, Diane. She brought this plate of sin into our office today with a bag of apples, and now we all want to lie of the floor and take a nap.

Diane’s Bucket List Caramel Dip:
2 Bricks of softened cream cheese
2/3 of a cup of brown sugar
1 tub of Marzetti caramel dip (or you can make your own if you’re feeling ambitious)
1 bad of Heath bar pieces, available in the baking isle with the chocolate chips and stuff
Eat then die, per Diane’s original instructions.

Mix the cream cheese and brown sugar together, and spread it into two pie dishes. Heat the caramel for 30 seconds, and spread it over the cream cheese/brown sugar mixture. Top with the Heath bar pieces, and serve with apple slices.

It’s simple, easy, no cooking per se required, and only a small and minimal blast of heat. Good stuff.