Thursday, January 20, 2011

I’m Lovin’ It: The Top Chef All-Stars recap

About 15 years ago, I ordered a fish sandwich from McDonald’s. I was confused, because instead of the normal crappy McFish, it was made with panko bread crumbs, heirloom tomatoes, and a remoulade sauce laced with capers, lemon reduction, and dijon. It was served on a crusty French bread.

“Wow, Mickey D’s has really stepped up its game,” I thought. 

I went back a few days later, and it was the same old fish fry with bland tartar sauce. I thought perhaps I had dreamed the whole experience. Now I know it was during the Blais period.

Yup, Professor Blais, gastrobiologist to the stars, was once the fish fry guy for McDonald’s. One can only hope that the fast food chain is constructing an advertising campaign around him as we speak. “McDonald’s: Where sophisticated palates are born.” He can be their Jared.

Speaking of fish, this show may not be Top Scallop, but lately it has definitely been Top Fish. Last week, the cheftestants had to catch and kill their fish. This week, they have to butcher a giant fluke and cod in 10 minutes flat. (Next week—deep sea diving!). Kind of a lame challenge, but that’s only the half of it: The top four butchers (Marcel, Dale, Richard, and Mike) have to take the discarded waste of the fish—the head, the fins, the wings, et al—and make a tasty dish.
One can only assume that Richard’s experience at McDonald’s gives him an unfair advantage here with stray animal heads. After all, who can forget this? 

But turns out, Dale and his family were kind of dumpster divers back in the day, so he wins the challenge.

His prize is epic. Not only does he get immunity, he gets to be the team leader for the elimination challenge (a little thing I like to call Restaurant Wars) and pick the opposing team’s leader. He cleverly picks Marcel—pretty much guaranteeing that the other team will be trapped in a raging hell from which they can't return.

Marcel, of course, doesn’t realize that he has been strategically chosen for his suckiness and is flattered. Everyone tries to avoid eye contact and, one can only assume, makes silent bargains with their god. (“Please God, I will volunteer at the local soup kitchen if you let me on Dale’s team.” “I will do 200 sit-ups every day for a month. . “ “I will recycle more. . .”)
“Angelo,” Marcel says. A pretty good choice, since Angelo seems to be the only one who can actually stand him.

Dale picks Blais and it’s already kinda game over, right? The two strongest competitors on one team? As if that’s not enough, Dale also gets Fabio, the smoothest smoothie of them all. (If he had an Italian fruit drink chain, it would be called Signor Smoothie).

So the teams are:
Team Bodega: Dale, Richard, Fabio, Tre, and Carla
Team Etch: Marcel, Angelo, Antonia, Tiffany, and Mike

Normally, I’m hard-wired to root for the underdog, which is clearly Team Etch. But I can’t bring myself to root for Marcel. Just . . . no.

Things go as expected.
Team Bodega is a finely oiled machine, with Richard and Dale taking leadership roles and Fabio doing what he was put on this planet to do—run the front of the house.
Team Etch can’t even agree on a name. (Marcel wanted Team Medi.)

Marcel keeps trying to act like a “leader” but you see the problem is, leadership is earned, not assigned. He’s like the boss’s son, in shortpants and a propeller beanie, attempting to run a board meeting. It’s actually comical. He’s waving his arms, shouting, trying to act all authoritative, and the other cheftestants are literally talking over his head.

“It’s becoming rapidly apparent that no one’s listening to me,” Marcel sighs.

The cooking starts and Tom Colicchio comes in to check on everyone’s progress.

Now, here’s the thing about Tom’s little visits to the kitchen. They never come at an opportune time. Nobody ever wants to take 5 minutes out of their panicky preparations to have a little chat. Everyone is in the weeds. But he’s the head judge. When he asks you how things are going, you answer him. You don’t “shush” him.
But damned if that’s what Marcel does. He basically tells Tom Colicchio to go away.

Tom looks slightly abashed, but obliges.

“Marcel has that energy,” he muses. “Sometimes people can thrive on it, sometimes it’s a weird energy.” (Survey says? Weird energy!)

Team Etch just keeps fighting, with Marcel telling Tiffany how to cook an egg, and then Marcel telling Mike to keep cooking, and Mike telling Marcel to shudafuckup and Angelo trying to hypnotize everyone with his soothing voice and tight pants, and it’s just a hot mess.

Team Bodega is going great until Dale briefly falls off the anger management wagon and starts screaming at the waitstaff. Fabio gives him a little rub down and calmly steers him back into the kitchen.

This year Restaurant Wars has an interesting twist: The diners will decide who wins, not the judges. (To be honest, it might’ve been an even more interesting twist if they hadn’t added a ringer: Dana Cowin from Food and Wine magazine. They’re not fooling anyone. She’s a judge.)

Cowin starts at Etch first and is unhappy and grumpy. Her lamb is too rare, her asparagus salad with egg seems to have imploded. Not good.

Next, she’s off to Bodega and she pretty much wants to marry the place. Oh, who am I kidding? Like every other red-blooded woman who encounters his intoxicating man musk (a mixture of Drakkar, leather, and oregano), she wants to marry Fabio. She's eating out of his hands.

Then the judges arrive. They’re at Bodega first. 

Everything—from the handmade potato chips with sea salt that you get when you first arrive to the raw tuna in a can—is just oh-so clever and Blaistastic.

And Fabio is giving us the Full Fabby: kissing hands and kissing babies and giving pep talks to the waitstaff and giving his phone number to the ladies.

The judges float out on a happy cloud and get a major harsh on their mellow when they arrive at Etch, where Tiffany is overcompensating for her lack of control of the house by yucking it up a little too loudly with the guests.

“The fact that I hear the host’s laughter over anything else is disconcerting,” sniffs Padma.
They’re not loving any of the food, either. Angelo’s fluke crudo is too bland, and Antonia’s oxtail is too salty and Anthony Bourdain calls Marcel’s duo of peaches “a perfect storm of awfulness.” (I’m no meteorologist, but that doesn’t sound promising.)

All things being equal, they’d rather be at Bodega.

The meal is over and Marcel makes one last attempt to rally team spirit.
“I think we’re all proud of the food we put out!” he declares cheerfully. They all look at him like he has two heads.

Padma calls in Team Etch first. Blais being the fretful, pessimistic guy that he is, thinks Team Bodega has lost the challenge.
Fabio tries to reassure him. “It’s going to be okay,” he says, allowing Blais to smell his neck.

Team Etch is disbelieving: Could they have read the night all wrong? Were they, in fact, a smash hit?
As if. They got slaughtered. Time to spread the blame!

Here’s how it went:
Angelo’s crudo was not even a little Mediterranean (nice try with the peppercorns there, buddy). Plus, the judges noticed how disengaged he was from the other contestants.
“You know better,” says Colicchio.

Antonia’s oxtail was way too salty. “A crushing blow,” says Bourdain.

“Why foam? Why now?” Bourdain asks Marcel, something I have personally been wondering for years.

Mike’s octopus needed more charring and his pork belly needed more flavor.

Tiffany sucked at the front of the house and her chorizo with asparagus and egg was a total dud.

Marcel’s one attempt at Blais-style cleverness, the “reverse amuse bouche” was a “thumb in the eye at the end of the meal.”

Are fingers pointed? You bet they are. Marcel blames Tiffany. Mike calls Marcel a ticking time bomb. (True.) Angelo says that they all acted like children. Tiffany starts laughing nervously.

“There’s no laughing on Top Chef!” barks Padma (or something to that effect.)
Tiffany zips it.

They skulk back into the waiting room and break the happy news to Team Bodega: You rule, we drool.

So Bodega basically killed it.

And although Dale was technically team leader, it was obvious that the spirit of Richard Blais was in full effect, right down to the restaurant’s secret motto: “I’m lovin’ it.”
He wins the challenge, and the 10 grand.

Now for the bad news.
Will it be Tiffany for laughing too loud and offending Padma’s delicate sensibilities?
Or will it be Marcel for being the most irritating human being alive?
“Marcel, please pack up your knives and leave,” says Padma.
Marcel takes his ousting with surprising tact.
“First time I’ve ever heard you say those words before,” he says. “And I was hoping to never hear them.”
(That’s almost. . .mature?)

“My only mistake was picking the wrong team,” he grouses later.
Now there’s the Marcel we all know and love loathe.

“I’m sure this isn’t the last time you’re going to see me,” he threatens. And with that, he packs up his hairspray and leaves.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Something's Fishy: The Top Chef All-Stars recap

I know that when I drink I become more Jewish. . . I’m making jokes like a Borscht-belt comedian, I’m dropping Yiddish like it’s hot, I’m letting that old Lawng-Island accent fly free.

Apparently, when Marcel drinks he becomes more. . .black?
Not really black, of course, but the most horrible white-kid-who-thinks-he’s-a-gangstah display I’ve ever had the misfortune to witness.

He’s waving his arms in this embarrassing yo-boy way, he’s circling his prey like an emcee in a rap battle at the Apollo—he’s like some horrible cross between Vanilla Ice and Teen Wolf.

It moves beyond cringe-worthy and approaches the realm of impossible to watch. (And yet we must.)

The object of Marcel’s derision? None other than Dale, formerly nicknamed AngryDale ™—but now nicknamed GandhiDale ™—who just sits there like a Buddha, taking it.
(By the way, I have no freakin’ clue what Marcel was rambling about: Dale made too much food? He didn’t make enough food? Marcel could’ve made the same amount of food as Dale? Marcel was playing by the rules but Dale wasn’t? It was complete and utter gibberish.)

Anyway, I keep waiting for Dale to attack—like some sort of wild animal that remains eerily still before pouncing.
But instead, he gets up and. . .walks away.
“Marcel is lucky I took anger management,” he says, by way of explanation. So there you go.

Meanwhile, after Dale exits, stage left, Tre is still hanging with Marcel on the deck. And I’m thinking, “Is Tre actually on Team Marcel?” Could that even be possible?

Cut to a producer’s interview with Tre: “I’ve definitely noticed over the weeks that Marcel is kind of an asshole.”
So there you go.

As a coda to this little kerfuffle on the deck, Marcel actually barks. Barks.

Because Marcel’s display took so long, there is no Quickfire Challenge. . .also, because they didn’t want me to use my puntastic blog title: Moby Quick(fire). .

Instead, the bleary-eyed cheftestants have to make their way to Montauk at 5 in the morning—off to the Toyota Siena-mobiles they go!—where they meet Padma and Tom.

Their Elimination Challenge is simple: Split into 4 teams of 3, catch as many fish as you can, and cook the fish for 200 people at a beach party.
Good times.

By the way, can we again discuss how Tom Colicchio is the perfect man? So apparently, his favorite thing to do on a Sunday is catch a fish, go to the farmer’s market and buy accompaniments, cook a delicious meal, and rub my feet. (Okay, I made that last part up.)

The teams are as such:

Jamie, Tiffani, and Antonia (nicknamed Team Poor Antonia, What Did She Do To Deserve This?)

Dale, Carla, and Tre

Mike, Angelo, and Tiffany


Richard, Marcel, and Fabio

Amongst the cheftestants, there are varying degrees of fishing experience.
Fabio’s father was apparently on the national (fish catching?) team in Italy.
Dale’s dad is a professional angler.
Antonia, meanwhile, thinks the best way to catch fish is to shout, “Here fishy fishy!”
And Angelo is so irrationally afraid of sharks, he won’t go in a swimming pool.

They split up onto two boats:
Boat 1, which has Team Dale and Team Poor Antonia, is absolutely on fire.
They are catching fish like they, too, are on Italy’s National Fish Catching team. (The Flying Cioppinos?)

Dale, in particular, catches the “fish of a lifetime”—a ginormous striped bass that he immediately names Marcel.

They’re going to need a bigger boat.

Over on Boat 2, there are “no fish for Fabby today.” (Heh.)
But eventually, both teams adopt some sort of quasi-sexual method that involves climbing between each other’s legs and pulling.
As Richard puts it: “We have a weird technique that I’m not sure I’m proud of. We’re kind of sitting in Marcel’s lap, holding his rod.”

In the end, everyone has enough fish for the meal.
At the farmer’s market, Antonia notices that Richard and Fabio have become inseparable.
“It’s like the professor and the . . uh. . .strange Italian immigrant,” she says. (And that analogy had such promise at first.)

But once they start cooking, there’s some tension in the bromance, as Richard is spazzing out, and telling Fabio to hurry up, and pretty much being a tool.

Fabio says something in response and—for the life of me—I need help diagramming his sentence:

“I love him to death, but this guy’s going to get a
a. nut
b. knife
c. gnat
attack if he doesn’t
a. pace
b. peace
c. please
himself up a little bit.”

My best guess: “I love him to death, but this guy’s going to get a nut attack if he doesn’t peace himself up a little bit.” Which actually makes more sense than Marcel’s rant from the beginning of the show.

Marcel by the way, has the worst idea on the show since Spike decided to lead with his weakest dish on the U.S. Open Challenge: The boys are going to make one dish.

“That way, if the dish is no good, the judges won’t know who to send home,” explains Fabio. “It’s psychological warfare.”

Diabolical! And by that I mean, diabolically stupid!

Anyway, Tom Colicchio comes by to check on everyone’s progress and, as he is want to do, kinda freaks everybody out.

Turns out, bluefish is not only the Rodney Dangerfield of fish, it's very hard to make, and he’s not so sure Tiffani has the chops to handle it.

He also questions Team Fabio and their Single Entrée theory.

And he’s not so sure about Dale’s store-bought tortillas.

But he’s just trying to help.

Mealtime: Everyone’s sitting at picnic tables on the beach and eating this amazingly fresh fish and, not since the Top Chef Masters hamburger challenge have I so desperately wanted to be one of the judges.

Back in the waiting chamber. . .
Padma calls in Team Dale (with Carla and Tre) and Team Tiffany (with Mike and Angelo.)

“We could still be the top,” sniffs Marcel. It’s true, last week, Padma mixed things up and called out the bottom first. She’s crazy unpredictable like that.

“Your teams. . .had our favorite dishes of the night,” she announces, clearly pleased with her enigmatic ways.

In short, Dale’s fish tacos had gorgeous chunks of fish.
Carla’s riff on lox and bagels (smoked bluefish with bagel croutons) was clever and had a nice smokiness.
Tre’s striped bass with gazpacho salad was pleasingly refreshing.

Team Tiffany made only two dishes, but the judges dug both their pickled bluefish with shallots and striped bass with corn puree.

And the winner is. . .Carla! Again! Squee!
She gets an expense paid trip to Amsterdam, which she so doesn’t need, because Carla is high on life.

Carla is giddy with excitement and goes bounding into the waiting room shouting, “I won! I won! I won!”
And Marcel, oh-so-predictably ,says, “Sorry I’m not super ecstatic right now. It means we’re on the bottom.”

This, of course, upsets Carla, who really is just this sort of kind-hearted earth-sprite, and she castigates herself.
“I should’ve contained my excitement,” she says.
But everyone assures her that she did nothing wrong and Marcel is a total d-bag.

So Team One Dish, all looking twitchy as hell, are in the bottom because they tried to do a restaurant-style dish in an outside fish fry, and their succotash was muddled and laden with too many elements.

Team Poor Antonia, What Did She Do To Deserve This? proves true to form:
If Antonia hadn’t been saddled with Jamie and Tiffani, her open faced porgy po-boy (pictured, because it looks freakin’ delicious) might’ve won the whole ball of wax.

Jamie’s striped bass with cucumber salad and cucumber water was watery and bland.

Tiffani, it turns out, was not up to the challenge of the bluefish and her “bloodline” flavor (ewww) was overpowering.

It’s a double elimination, so the judges have a lot to think about.
Could two members of Team Fabio actually go? The way they described that succotash, it did seem to be suffering.

But no, the judges go the easy route and throw Tiffani and Jamie overboard.

And it occurs to me, with mounting horror, that Marcel’s stupid plan of only making one dish actually worked. The judges, in fact, didn’t know who to throw out from Team One Dish, so they went with two from the other team.

Oy. I need a drink.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Two left feet: The Top Chef All-Stars recap

As the show starts, Jack is clinging to the lifeboat, his teeth chattering, freezing to death, as Rose drifts away to safety. . .
Oh wait. Wrong Titanic. This is Titanic, Top Chef All Stars version. And boy oh boy, does it sink.

But first, to celebrate the show’s 100th episode, Tom Colicchio is participating in the Quickfire Challenge. Well, sorta.
I would’ve loved if Tom had actually gone head-to-head with the contestants, maybe even in a blind tasting. Now that would’ve been good. But, hey, when you’ve won multiple James Beard awards, you’ve earned the right to be the pacesetter, not the competitor.

So for the Quickfire, Tom has to make a dish as quickly as he can. He’s shucking clams, he’s braising black sea bass, he’s squeezing lemons like a man possessed. He’s even able to get out a little passive aggressive anger at Padma by hurling some pots her way. (Strictly accidental, I’m sure.)

In the end, his dish is completed in 8:37.

“Seeing Tom cook like us is RAD,” says Marcel, drawling it out in that strange fake-surfer-dude way of his. “I gotta give the man respect because I’ve seen it first HA-AND.” (Shut up, Marcel.)
“Are you frickin’ kidding me?” groans Antonia.
Chimes in Richard: “I make my daughter PBJ and it takes longer than that.”
(Yes, Richard, but we know it takes extra long to foam the jelly and atomically fuse the peanut butter into the bread. . .)

Now their challenge: Make an equally awesome dish in less than 8 minutes, 37 seconds.
Winner gets immunity and. . .a Toyota Prius.
“Immunity?” scoffs Marcel. “I don’t need immunity. Give me the Toyota.” (Shut up, Marcel.)

So the contestants are spazzing out. Marcel cleverly uses the rest of Tom’s fish, so he doesn’t have to get involved in the feeding frenzy in the pantry.

As is her “signature style,” Jamie pretty much serves no food—just one clam, because the rest of hers didn’t pop open.
“It happens,” she shrugs. (The only thing Jamie is quick with is a rationalization.)

Dale tries to make pad thai in 8 minutes and it goes horribly wrong.
“I have nothing and it tastes like doo-doo,” he says. (His “dish” is pictured above because it’s funny.)

Marcel’s sea bass is, indeed, good. Next Tom tastes Mike’s branzino—which is also good.

Then Marcel actually suggests that Mike’s branzino is only good because Tom still has the flavors of his sea bass on his palate. (Oh, for the love of God, do shut up, Marcel.)

So the Bottom 3 are Jamie, Dale, and Angelo, who thought he’d dazzle the judges with a crudo, even though Tom had specifically advised against raw food.

The Top 3 are Mike, Marcel, and Richard, who made foie gras.
And the winner is . . .Mike.
He is stoked. I mean, he is this close to breaking out a Jersey Shore fist pump, but manages to control himself.
Later, he promises to get the numbers 8:37 tattooed on his arm so if someone asks him what it means he can say, “That’s how long it took me to win a Toyota—boo-yah! How you like me NOW?”

Onto the Elimination Challenge, a.k.a. Dim-Sumpocalypse.

The cheftestants are going to take over popular dim sum restaurant Grand Harmony.
And in their case, it’s definitely out of tune. (Thank you. I'll be here all week.)

As usual, Fabio acts like the challenge is only happening to him.
“Oh, nightmare on Elm Street. Chinese food for Fabio.” (And the 12 other contestants, buddy.)

Conversely, Dale is delighted: He’s worked in a dim sum restaurant before.

Ditto for Angelo, because as you all know, he has the soul of an Asian man trapped inside the body of a Eurotrash man with overly tight pants.

So here’s how it works:
Dale and Angelo each decide to make two dishes, which is smart cause they actually know what they’re doing.
Jamie decides to make one-and-a-half dishes: A scallop dish (!) and long beans with Chinese sausage, with an assist from Antonia.
Casey and Carla will do front of the house, as well as make one dish each.
And Mike will cook a dish and run the show, since he has immunity.

They go a Chinese market, where Fabio is traumatized, because there are turtles in tanks, ready for turtle soup.
Oddly, Fabio has a pet turtle that he walks on a leash. (And, even odder, Bravo has file footage of Fabio walking his turtle.)

Casey decides to make chicken feet, which is either totally rad, as Marcel might say, or totally stupid. (Spoiler alert: It’s stupid.)
Gross factoid I didn’t need to know: Chicken feet have long nails on them.

Off to the Grand Harmony kitchen they go, where there are gleaming woks and giant pots and steam everywhere and it’s, well, complete chaos.
I don’t know if making dim sum for a bunch of hungry Chinese people is, in fact, the hardest Top Chef challenge ever, or if these particular cheftestants just really weren’t up to the task, but what follows is quite possibily the worst collective showing in the show’s history.

There’s a kind of strange inertia in the kitchen: No one is doing anything. Everyone is standing around pointing fingers. Dale is polishing his shoe.

The guests are forced to fend for themselves, grabbing stray bits of food off rolling trays. Like the actual Titanic, they are feeding the women and children first. Fights are breaking out.

When the few pieces of food do come out, the eaters are not impressed.
“Caucasian dim sum,” says one diner derisively. (Oh, 近义词!)

Tom Colicchio actually has to go back into the kitchen to scold his contestants.

“When your daddy has shown up where he’s not supposed to be, you know you’re in trouble,” says Carla.

But whose fault is it? Everyone is passing blame. No one thinks they’ve done anything wrong.
“Everyone sucked and everything sucked,” says Mike, pretty much summing it up.
It’s less Grand Harmony, more Grand Dissonance. (Still here all week.)

The whole thing sort of reminds me of the garage here at Baltimore magazine where I work. 
Whoever designed the garage probably got their architecture degree at the University of Phoenix (I kid, I kid. . .)
The entire lot is a series of death-defying 90 degree angles. Basically, if you are leaving the lot at the same time someone is coming into the lot, you’re going to end up in a near collision—pretty much every time.
But here’s the thing: No one ever thinks it’s their fault. No one ever says, “My bad. I didn’t hug the right side enough” or “I was clearly going too fast.” Driver A always thinks it’s Drive B’s fault and Driver B always blames Driver A.
So Grand Harmony’s kitchen is like my garage, only with woks instead of cars. (That analogy clearly worked better in my head. . .)

In the end, though, someone has to win and someone has to lose.
The judges (including Chef Susur Lee) call Jamie, Antonia, Carla, Casey, and Tre to the judge’s room. Usually, the first group called has the highest votes, but they aren’t fooling anyone.
Meet your bottom 5, ladies and gentlemen.

So. . Jamie’s scallop dumpling was dense and flavorless and her long beans with sausage tasted like bad greasy Chinese take-out.

Carla’s summer spring roll was perfect to look at and . . . perfectly bland.

Antonia’s shrimp toast was dim-sum kinda wonderful, but her role in the long bean fiasco doomed her.

Tre’s orange ginger dessert was runny and “insipid.” (Padma has nicknamed it “Tangerine Nightmare.”)

Casey’s chicken feet were so bad, they wouldn’t even turn on Rex Ryan. (And to the two readers who got that, you’re welcome.)

Before the judges deliberate, they call in the Top 4: Tiffany, Angelo, Dale, and Fabio.

Tiffany’s pork bun tasted like a savory marshmallow. (Yum!)

Dale’s sweet sticky rice with Chinese bacon was right up Tom’s ally.

Angelo’s spring roll had “textural integrity,” according to Gail. (Maybe he should’ve designed my office garage.)

Fabio faked his short ribs brilliantly. (Fabio called it “the first Top Chef miracle.”)

And the winner is . . .Dale! He clearly made up for his single noodle fiasco.

“I feel like I robbed a bank on that one,” says Dale. But he’ll still take the win.

Now for the bad news. . .
Casey is going home.
Yes, I said Casey, not Jamie. Apparently consistently making horrible food/no food is what it takes to stay alive in the competition these days.

Casey sorta kinda tries to blame Antonia for dropping the ball on plating her food, but even she knows that’s a weak excuse. (It wasn't Antonia who criminally undercooked her chicken feet.)

“I feel like it wasn’t my time to be eliminated,” sighs Casey. Just once, I’d like to hear a chef say, “This was so overdue.”

Next week, the bully (Dale) and the twerp (Marcel) finally throw down!!!
I have I hunch I’m on Team Bully. Can’t wait.