Thursday, December 10, 2009

Champion Eater: The Top Chef Vegas recap

As the show starts, Padma and her resplendent pregnancy boobs bring out the fallen cheftestants. One by one they march forward: There’s Jennifer and Eli and Robin and Michael I and Ashley and a bunch of other chefs whose names I have long forgotten. The three finalists have to draw knives to choose sous chefs.

Gallant draws Jennifer and Ashley. Well played.
Goofus draws Jessie and Eli. Not half bad.
Kevin draws Ash and. . . Preeti. Cue the “you lose” game show music.

Can we just establish something upfront? Preeti sucks. If there’s one thing I love about chefs, even mediocre chefs, it’s their knifework. It might take me 5 minutes to cut a tomato, but it will take a good chef 15 seconds flat. It takes Preeti an hour and 12 minutes. I timed her once.

So Kevin is justifiably upset that he’s been saddled with such crappy sous chefs—although, as Preeti struggles with the twisty tie on a loaf of bread, Ash does step up to the plate and handles about 12 different assignments.

At this stage in the game, the finalists think they are dealing with three courses:
One free-for-all, where they can make anything they want.
One dessert.
And one dish prepared from a mysterious box that may or may not contain a button that will kill a complete stranger. (Actually, the box has Dungess crab, rockfish, Meyer lemon, and matsutake mushrooms.)
The courses will be served in front of some major foodie players at the 2 star Michelin-rated Cyrus.
“This meal can make your career,” Tom Colicchio says. Like, duh.

Back at the house, the boys are understandably twitchy. Because there’s always a twist. So there’s a knock at the door—and suddenly Kevin is hugging a middle-aged ginger. And then the Volt boys are hugging their own middle-aged woman in mom pants. It’s the moms!

As Kevin’s mom gives him a “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you” pep talk, Mrs. Voltaggio buttons her boys’ chef coats and smartly cuffs their sleeves. It’s pretty much the cutest thing ever.

Kevin is so inspired by his mom’s visit that he turns directly to the camera and says, “Winning Top Chef is a matter of personal pride. I’m going to fight til the very last dish!” However, his speech would’ve been a lot more inspirational had he not burped at the tail end of it. Couldn’t Bravo have edited that out? (Also, if someone can create a .gif for me of Kevin’s gassy proclamation, I would sure appreciate it.)

So just when it seemed like there was no twist at all, just moms and hugs and moonbeams, Tom Colicchio shows up it the kitchen. Goofus looks like he’s been sent to the principal’s office, which I’m sure is a familiar setting for him.

The twist, as twist’s go, isn’t half bad: The fourth dish has to be inspired by something your mom made you. It would be funny if Goofus and Gallant made the same thing.

But they don’t.

Gallant is making sardines in panka bread crumbs, inspired by tuna noodle casserole.

Goofus hated broccoli as a kid, so he’s making fried broccoli and prawns.

Kevin’s mom likes chicken skin (who doesn’t?) so his fourth dish—actually, the first of the courses to be served—is crispy chicken skin.

For the first course, the moms are at the table. We find out that Goofus was a very picky eater as a kid, so much so that when he ate all his food for a week, his mom would give him a “Champion Eater” trophy. Gallant, who always ate all his vegetables, never got a trophy. (Foreshadowing?)

All the first courses are well received, although the judges, who include both Gail and Toby Young, found Gallant’s sardines to be under-seasoned. Kevin’s chicken skin was tasty but not very complex. The judges were divided on Goofus’s broccoli. Some raved, some thought the shrimp were undercooked.

“Which [son’s] dish did you like better?” Padma says mischievously to Mrs. Voltaggio. I had no idea she had such a mean streak.

On the one hand, I thought it was kind of rude that they kicked the moms out after the first course—Taco Bell, here they come!—but on the other, I was kind of glad. Hearing the moms extolling the awesomeness of their sons was getting a little tiresome.

Round One (I think): Kevin

Course two is the Mystery Box—so it was three variations of rockfish.
Apparently, Kevin doesn’t know how to cook matsutake mushroom and—while I’m very surprised Preeti didn’t step in and show him how it’s done—it made his dish less successful.
Gallant was slightly under-seasoned (again), but Goofus’s flavors were complex and wonderful.

Round two: Goofus

Course three is the wildcard.
Kevin made pork belly with brussel sprouts.
Gallant made venison saddle.
Goofus made squab.

Everyone agreed that the pork belly was slightly undercooked. And while Goofus’s squab was excellent, Gallant’s venison was sheer perfection.

Round three: Gallant.

Course four is the dessert.
Kevin made banana with a bacon/chocolate mousse and bacon brittle.
(I wonder if Kevin sneaks pictures of bacon into the bathroom with him? The man loves bacon like Tiger Woods loves . . .golf.)

Gallant made a sheep’s milk cheesecake with fig sorbet and dolce de leche sauce.

Goofus made chocolate caramel coulant (essentially a molten chocolate cake) with toasted pumpkin seeds. But his coulant was overcooked and not as moist as it needed to be. And he knew it.

The judges agreed that Goofus would have won if his coulant had been moister, but . . .
Round Four goes to Gallant, by default.

So to the judge’s table we go, where each of the boys is asked why he deserves to be Top Chef.
While both Kevin and Gallant give an answer about their passion for all things culinary, Goofus says, “ I just don’t want my brother to be Top Chef.”
Which is funny. And probably true.

So Padma sends them away with a “That’ll be all for right now”—although she should’ve said, “That’ll do, pig,” for Kevin’s sake.
And the deliberations begin.

The funniest moment is when Toby Young is lobbying for Kevin’s rockfish. Chef Tom points out that the dish is a failure because the mushroom was too tough.
“Easy fix,” says Toby. “Just don’t eat the mushroom.”
(Clearly, his judgment has been clouded by Kevin’s bacon.)

So they all agree that Kevin has amazing potential but just had an off night and that Gallant’s venison was possibly the best dish of the night, but that Goofus has a way of creating complex, unfolding flavors that really distinguishes him.

They brings back the finalists and dismiss Kevin right away. Sniff.

So it comes down to the two brothers. I mean, of course it does right? How did we all not see this coming? Goofus, a culinary bungee jumper of sorts. And Gallant, super skilled, but a little safe (or as he would say “smart”)—always going for great, but maybe not quite going for extraordinary.

And the winner is. . .Goofus!

So Goofus actually cries and describes his emotions as a combination of exhausted, proud, happy, and sad: “I didn’t know you could actually feel every emotion at the same time,” he says, which is a cute thing to say. And Gallant is sad but very gallant and proud of his kid brother.

And Mrs. V comes in and doesn’t know who to hug first. She hugs Goofus but looks over at Gallant, as if to say, “You’re still my first.”

And in the end, both Voltaggio boys should be damn proud, but you know that Gallant is bummed. And a lesson is learned for all of us: Sometimes in this life you eat your vegetables and are nice to old ladies (or at least Robin) and do everything right. . . and you still don’t get the damn trophy.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Grapes of Wrath: The Top Chef recap

As first reported right here in this blog, tonight’s episode was all about hair. Kevin went to the barber and apparently asked for “The Keebler.” Padma inexplicably decided to rock pregnancy bangs. Jen continued her grand tradition of “I don’t give a shit” in a ponytail and “I don’t give a shit” down on her shoulders. Gallant looked exactly the same, because steadfast consistency is one of his most Gallant-like qualities. And Goofus asked his stylist to make him look like a contestant on Chef Academy. Unfortunately, she misunderstood and made him look like a contestant on Tool Academy.

(Speaking of hair, did you know that there was a Facebook page devoted to Kevin’s beard? People are strange.)

So the 4 remaining cheftestants are in Napa Valley and the Quickfire involves cooking on a train. Trains are bumpy and Kevin gets motion sickness, so this does not bode well. Thankfully, any vomiting, if it occurred, took place off camera.

Guest judge is Michael Chiarello, and if you watched Top Chef: Masters you know two things: He’s a damn fine chef, and he has been known to go a little Rambo (or should I say Ramsay?) on his employees.

The challenge is to make a dish using the grape. Grapes figure heavily in tonight’s episode. (By the end of the episode, we will all feel graped.)

Gallant makes a mistake, cooking with a Concorde grape, even though the Concorde grape is not indigenous to the region.

“You used the Concorde grape?” ask Chef Chiarello, staring pointedly at Gallant.

“Yes,” says Gallant, staring pointedly back.

(I’ve decided that it’s really hard to have a
quien es mas macho moment when you’re discussing a grape.)

Anyway, Goofus wins the challenge with his grapeapalooza (he even used grape leaves). And he also wins a 2010 Prius, which he will probably rename “The Victory Mobile” and drive around Gallant’s neighborhood whenever he gets a chance, honking his horn triumphantly.

The Elimination Challenge is to make 2 dishes, one vegetarian, using all local ingredients for the annual Crush party, which celebrates—what else?—the harvest of the grape.

Jen decides to cook her duck on hot coals, even though she’s never cooked with coals before. (Why, cheftestants? Why?) Goofus is doing something fancy with egg custard and says quite possibly the most modest thing he has ever said on the show: “It’s up to the egg at this point.” (Goofus ceding control of anything is a major step forward for that boy.)

Time to serve. Padma is wearing an outfit so inappropriate—tight black dress, shiny red boots—that her unborn fetus is actually embarrassed by it.

Other judges: Tom, Gail, and Chef Chiarello.

So everyone applauds Jen’s duck dish (which she ended up roasting, not coal grilling) for being appropriately ducky but her goat cheese and radish dish is too salty. Kevin’s undercooked brisket is too “toothsome” but his roasted beets and carrots are sublime. Goofus’s egg has, indeed, let him down, as it’s too runny, but his magical turnip/pear/foie gras trick seems to be delicious, except when the foie gras runs out the whole illusion falls apart and you are just left with yucky green sauce. Gallant could’ve used some of Jen’s salt but, besides that, everyone seems to dig his short ribs and pumpkin ravioli.

And Gallant wins!

And the loser is Jen. Sigh. Kind of fitting I suppose in a season where the first 4 cheftestants to get the ax were girls.

Gallant tries to have a tender moment with Goofus, but Goofus decides to mock him instead. But Gallant is having none of Goofus’s tomfoolery and pulls him in for a brotherly embrace.

And all I can say is, Kevin, you better win this thing, or that may be the last embrace the Voltaggio boys share for a loooong time.