By MARCUS MICHALIK
For a short while, it looked like this season of Top Chef was setting itself up for an intense and long-simmering rivalry between the two New Orleans native sons, Justin and Michael. That didn’t happen. It didn’t even get close, really. While Justin broke away from the pack early on, thanks in part to his quietly determined and focused resolve, Michael just couldn’t stop talking without showing any real receipts.
I probably should have realized this back in episode one when he proudly assumed the role of New Orleans tour guide to helpfully explain to everyone else that they refer to neighborhoods as wards in NOLA (gee, thanks!), but I suppose that’s all moot after tonight’s episode, in which Michael gets sacked for his forgettable arancini (Sicilian-style fried rice balls). Michael had essentially turned himself into the human equivalent of picking at a scab, so I can’t say this is particularly a sad turn of events. What’s actually depressing, however, is just how unremarkable the rest of this episode was, made even worse by some less than stellar food outings for Minneapolis’ own Sara Johannes.
Before we get to the dud of a main challenge, I have to admit the Quickfire Challenge this week was pretty amusing, albeit very cluttered.Never a show to back away from its own history, Top Chef recreates the Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil challenge (sponsored by Reynolds Wrap!) from a few seasons ago, only this time with the added twist of Gail and Padma’s mothers picking out all the foil-covered ingredients and cookware for each of the two teams. This makes absolutely no sense, but our adorable judges have predictably adorable moms, so it’s probably best not to think too hard about it.
The challenge is mostly problem-free other than Carrie not having a whisk for her sabayon and Nina having to make due with using cherries, carrots and beans for her potpourri of a soup. Over on Team Simmons, Sara and Stephanie also appear to end up with all the bastard stepchild ingredients nobody else wanted (everything picked up by the moms had to be used) and end up serving lamb and fonduta with sharp cheddar and roasted mushrooms.
Padma’s mom gives Sara credit for not overcooking the lamb but later admits that the dish didn’t fully come together for her, which is probably to be expected when you’re dealing with both lamb and cheese at the same time. Team Lakshmi ends up winning and gets to split $10,000 among themselves. Considering there are, like, seven people on this team, I hope they all enjoy having enough extra cash to spring for airplane Wi-Fi on their flights home.
Despite this episode probably filming sometime during the middle of last summer, this week’s challenge is all about Halloween and is hosted by Top Chef superfan, Lea Michele of Glee fame, who graciously takes some time away from her day job as Anne Hathaway’s dark side. You really get a sense of how exhausting it must be to work as a caterer after hearing this challenge’s stipulations. Lea is normally a vegan (missed opportunity for Halloween sound effects at this reveal, based on the chefs’ reaction shots) but is willing to give herself a break to indulge in her passion for cheese for a change. From the way she talks about it, it’s safe to assume this girl loves cheese even more than she loves Barbra Streisand.
Lea also wants the food to have a scary theme, maybe touch upon her Italian ancestry, and of course be delivered in an easy finger-food package. At one point she actually says “I’m not a big sweets person, so make it spooky and fun and cheesy.” With this many random caveats, three chefs (including Sara) wind up taking the easy route with arancini, all of which get presented as if they’re eyeballs. Shirley makes noodles and claims they are worms. Surprisingly, nobody asks Tom Colicchio to close his eyes and stick his hand in a plastic cauldron full of peeled grapes.
In contestant personality updates, the always-hilarious Stephanie loves Glee like it’s 2009 or something and wonders if it would be creepy to ask Lea to hang out with her. Sara graciously serves as the obviously smitten Carlos’ wingman, effortlessly following up his “Do you like Mexican food?” question with “Do you like Mexican men?” Meanwhile Michael informs us that he once dressed up as a pregnant nun for Halloween and got laid because of it. That's quite enough of that.
That insanely creepy comment sets the tone for the rest of the episode. Nina gets stuck with Michael as her partner and the two instantly clash. Michael keeps communicating with Nina via pet names like “Boo Boo” and “Babycakes,” but she’s more pressed by what she sees as Michael taking the opportunity to coast off her talents. The episode sets them up to be in the bottom, where they are joined by canon fodder Brian and Bene, who serve two different vegan salads under the banner of “Spa Food.” Lea -- who’s actually a pretty smart judge for all the grief I’m giving her -- is not impressed, as both of their dishes get slammed for being boring and equating the vegan lifestyle with bland quinoa. Tom rightfully says to Bene that no one is going to win Top Chef making tomato salad. Still, Michael sucks and his arancini is both dry and doused with an overly sweet and heavy sauce. Nina is spared because of good gnocchi, but not before Michael accuses her of latching her star to his wagon in the Stew Room. Bye, Michael.
The judges like Nicholas’ butternut squash cannoli and Patty’s lemon arancini with smoked mozzarella, the fact that each went with an autumnal theme instead of a horror one seemingly irrelevant despite the challenge’s clear guidelines. Padma gets in some expert shade at Patty’s expense by asking her what it’s like “to be on this side of things,” just going to show that Patty has a little bit more atoning to do before she can land a win. Instead, half of that honor goes to Travis, another contestant badly in need of redemption. He and Carlos win for their Dia De Los Muertos-inspired vegetable ceviche and goat cheese fondue. There was liquid nitrogen involved. It was all very alluring and apparently tasty, too.
That leaves me a tad worried about Sara. It’s been a while since she’s been on the winning side of anything, and while her evil-eye arancini with Moroccan tomato chutney certainly wasn’t the judges’ least favorite dish of the night, I’m starting to think she really needs the confidence boost of a win in order to compete with the more obvious front-runners again. As this episode proves, fortunes can change back in just one challenge. Just ask Travis.
Before we get into all the grisly details of this particularly brutal episode of Top Chef, let’s take a moment to step back and applaud the show’s producers for so far displaying a real willingness to tread off the beaten path and dive headfirst into some of the more overlooked and less obvious aspects of New Orleans’ rich and storied culture. I made a few jokes at the expense of the series when it started (there is, after all, a fleur de lis emblazoned on each of the chefs’ uniforms), but devoting an entire episode to NOLA’s Vietnamese population is certainly a welcome and unexpected detour from a show that could easily have taken all of its cues from Anne Rice novels. Even Treme, HBO and The Wire creator David Simon’s New Orleans magnum opus, took until the third season to introduce Vietnamese immigrant characters, so color me doubly impressed that Top Chef went that route in just four episodes.
This week’s challenge, like Vietnamese food itself, is deceptively simple. After being split into 3 teams (seemingly at random by Emeril, who just sort of lumps bodies together), each group is asked to make a Vietnamese meal for a Vietnamese crowd, with at least one dish highlighting shrimp. In lieu of a Quickfire Challenge, the chefs are instead taken on a crash course of the culture by Emeril and guest judge Eddie Huang to places like shrimp docks and Vietnamese bakeries. While Carlos confesses to never having eaten Vietnamese food before, a few of the other chefs are much more confident, including Sara’s teammate, Travis.
I was already creeped out by Travis when he proudly declared his strict “Asian men only” dating policy back in week one, but he’s comes off even worse this episode by announcing himself “Captain Vietnam” and repeatedly reminding everyone just how much of an expert he is on the subject because of his three previous trips to Asia. The whole thing smacks of quasi-colonialism, a quality no more evident than when he tries to school Eddie Huang in a talking head segment by saying, “Eddie's Taiwanese-Chinese. He only knows a little bit of what he knows. Sorry, Eddie, you're kind of a douchebag." Poor Sara.
Sara herself should have had an advantage in this challenge because of her background cooking Asian food during her time with Wolfgang Puck, but it was clear very early on in the hour that the Green Team (also including Jeanine, Bene and Stephanie) would be self-destructing their way into the bottom, with each of Travis’ “it tastes like home” comments gleefully thrown in the mix by the editors in order to score maximum hubris points.
Basically everything that can go wrong for Team Green does. The most egregious miscalculation comes from Travis, who insists that Bene and Jeanine make a dish with tomato sauce because he had tomato sauce in Vietnam a few times. What a weird thing to fixate on. There’s also the matter of missing lemongrass. A quick shot makes it look as if it may have been Sara’s fault why this key ingredient didn’t make its way out of the grocery store and into the kitchen, but Travis only makes it worse when he spills the beans about its disappearance to Eddie Huang with a weird, kinda-icky “lost in translation” joke. Sara and her theater background extol the virtues of improvising, but Travis is on a warpath, and that means proving to Eddie that he’s well aware of how important lemongrass is to Vietnamese cooking. He’s been there three times, after all.
Sara is clearly annoyed, and it’s hard to blame her. She attempts to take lead of her motley crew and even reads a page from the reality TV classics with that “I don’t mean to be a bitch” line, but there are just one too many mistakes made by the entire team to salvage the challenge, despite almost uniformly disappointing results from the entire cast. On the bright side, Sara’s oxtail rice wrap is mostly spared from criticism and Stephanie’s coconut macaroon with Vietnamese coffee is awarded the funniest line of the night, when Huang praises it for being in the tradition of “janky, ratchet Asian desserts. “
However, that leaves Jeanine and Bene’s bad idea shrimp with the ginger tomato sauce to receive the lion's share of the scathing reviews. The sauce is too Italian for the judges (“I’m telling you, it was straight from Central Asia,” Travis protests), but Jeanine ends up taking the bullet for flash-frying her shrimp and allowing it to grow soggy under Bene’s misguided sauce. This is a bummer, as it was Travis who led his teammates in this direction to begin with. Huang makes note of this (“it’s like you saw a UFO and told them to draw it”) but I guess the dish Travis was responsible for was good enough to spare him. Sara’s is crying throughout all of this and appears to really care about the well being of her team. It’s sad!
In case you’re wondering, Shirley wins this challenge, mainly because she was humble enough to admit she didn’t know everything about the region’s food and took the time to ask the fisherman, and more importantly, their wives, how they actually like to prepare shrimp at home. Justin is also praised for his excellent pho, a dish that the judges note is difficult to pull off in just two hours.
Perhaps this challenge is the shot in the arm Sara will need to vault herself back up into the company of Shirley, Justin, and Nina. She almost went home for taking credit for Jeanine’s rice that Tom Colicchio said resembled baby food, which just goes to show that even the most minor mistake is cause for termination in the Top Chef world.
Next week: Lea Michele for some reason!
Let’s start with your superhero origin story. What first inspired you to become a chef?
My grandmothers were a big part of it. My Italian immigrant grandmother on my mom’s side was a big inspiration. She was this old-school Italian. She had every inch of her yard cultivated, she grew the majority of her own foods, and she had all of her kids trained to go out foraging for mushrooms. I swear whenever we came over she’d walk into the kitchen, the door would swing open and food would just start flowing out of it. I don’t know how she did it, but she was magical.
Where did you begin to cut your teeth in the restaurant business and how did you get to where you are now at Shoyu?
The very first job I ever had in the restaurant biz, I was fifteen and a half years old. My dad was very strict and insisted that us kids learned the value of work so he insisted we get jobs at that age. McDonalds just happened to be within walking distance of my house. Say what you will, but it teaches you a lot. It teaches you how to work in a kitchen, it teaches you how to multitask, and it teaches you speed. All of the things that will help you down the road in the kitchen.
At what point did you decide to make cooking your career?
That really came much later in my life. I was a theater major at the University of Minnesota for many years and I think that’s probably where a lot of my managerial skills came from. I was focusing more on things like stage direction and there are a lot of the same type of organizational skills needed in those types of things that there are running a restaurant. The two kind of blended for me. I wouldn’t say I became disenfranchised, but I’d say realistic about career opportunities in that particular field but I realized it might be harder for me to make an actual living [in theater]. I started to look around and what really inspired me and what I loved to do, and I found that I just felt right in a kitchen. At 26 I put myself back into culinary school and started at the Nicollet Island Inn, of all places.
So far on the show you've shown a lot of Asian influences in your food. How would you describe your overall style of cuisine?
I had a lot of experience cooking Chinese and Asian food while cooking for Wolfgang Puck. My first real job outside of culinary school was at 20.21 at the Walker Art Center and that was an Asian-inspired restaurant. Chef Lee Hester was the executive chef at all of Wolfgang Puck's fine dining and he has a love affair with Chinese food and it was really easy to be inspired by him because he's so passionate and knowledgeable. I went from line cook to sous chef to executive chef at two of their restaurants all within their Asian genre. It was a very cool experience.
You mentioned in the first episode some of your experiences working with Wolfgang Puck and how you were hoping the show would allow you to step out of his shadow. Have you heard from him or Lee Hester since the show started airing?
I have heard from Lee Hester. He wished me good tiding and good luck. I won't tell you exactly what he said [laughs] but it was very similar to advice he has given me in the past.
You're currently working at Shoyu in the airport. In the first episode you mentioned you were hoping to change the perception people have of airport dining. What's it like to cook in that atmosphere and what recent changes have you seen in that subgenre?
OTG Management [which runs Shoyu] has gotten a lot of press for what they're doing in the airport. They've taken over G Concourse and put a ton of new restaurants in there. It's very different if you haven't been to the airport in the last year or so. There are 5 fine dining restaurants now, all chef-driven, all inspired by local restaurants throughout Minnesota. We're running restaurants just like any street restaurant would be. We work with local farmers, and we have purveyors that source artisanal ingredients for us. Everything is made is made from scratch and chef-driven by the seasons. There’s anything that you would expect a regular brick and mortar outside of the airport and I think that's a nice change of pace. Normally, it's dominated by fast food and chain restaurants that have nothing to do with the city that they're in; so to be able to get a real taste of local food in Minneapolis and never actually have to leave the airport is a very cool thing.
Did you every feel any level of condescension or lack of understanding about working in an airport restaurant from any of the other contestants on Top Chef?
I think all of us were there because we love to cook. One of the coolest things about that experience was that everyone there was just as excited to learn from the person standing next to them as I was. You have to be kind of humble in this industry and realize you don't know everything and never will know everything. It was this great little workshop of some of the heavy hitters in the industry in the trenches and it's neat to be a part of a group like that.
Did you have any strategies going into the show or any level of self-awareness about how to present yourself for the cameras and producers?
In all honesty, you don't have any time to think about how you're presenting yourself. Things move so quickly there. The best advice I was given about being on the show was to be yourself, because it will come out on its own no matter what. I hope I can say I was myself or that I came off how I actually am in real life.
Have you been watching the show as it airs? What's it been like to see yourself on TV?
It's really fun. The rest of the contestants and I have been tweeting each other back and forth and it's been hilarious to watch some of these conversations unfold. For example, the episode this week, we couldn't shut up about Shirley's beets and what happened to them, which became this running inside joke between us. The show is done. There's nothing you can do except sit back and watch and if you don't have a good sense of humor about it, you probably shouldn't have gone on Top Chef to begin with.
It sounds like you've kept in touch with a lot of the contestants since you've wrapped filming.
Oh absolutely. They're like war buddies at this point. No one else understands what you've been through at this point!
What was it like to cook for Tom Colicchio and the rest of the judges? Did that ever get easy as it went along?
No! [laughs] No, it never gets easier! To this day it's not easy. I was sitting there watching judges' critiques this week sweating and nervous as I was when I first heard those words come out. You're not only cooking for them, but for any number of luminaries that might walk in the door at any particular moment. You go into a place like Commander's Palace for a nice meal and two hours later you're suddenly cooking for the head chef and every chef that's come before him. It's a trip.
How different is the cooking process in this environment compared to your own restaurant?
The best way to describe it is that it's highly concentrated. The way I like to formulate menus and go about my dishes is to do a lot of research and experimenting, and then run dishes as specials for a while and familiarize your staff with what the dish is and how it works. After that, you still workshop it a little bit more before it gets on the menu. In this particular case, you're going from concept directly to judges sometimes in just 30 minutes.
And then they throw in the team challenges too!
You know, the team challenges are realistic. I've always said that no one runs a restaurant on their own. You always have to work on a team, no matter what. You have to have that as a skill that you're just as good at as your culinary ones.
What are some of your favorite places to eat at in the Twin Cities?
A lot of the places I like are the smaller places. A really good friend of mine, and someone who's doing amazing things in the Twin Cities right now is Thomas Boemer over at The Corner Table. It's been really cool to see his journey from where he started in the Twin Cities to now. He was actually a sous chef with me at 20.21 and it's really cool to see what he's turning that place into. He's amazingly talented and someone I very much look up to and admire.
Do you have any advice for those who may be watching the show and are inspired to become chefs themselves?
My number one recommendation is to work in a restaurant before you decide to dedicate your life to it. I'd much rather you have some experience in a restaurant before you go into culinary school instead of doing it the other way around. I think people are sort of waylaid by the purported glamour of television. You're going to work long hours, all the hours you're friends are out playing and holidays too. It's down and dirty. People who are there are there because they can't visualize themselves anywhere else.
What's your favorite guilty pleasure convenience store junk food?
[Laughs] This is kind of embarrassing, but those Flaming Hot Cheetos. Oh my god, they're delicious. They have that little bit of lime in there too - so good.
Finally, we've been trying to keep track as the show's been airing, but exactly how many headscarves did you bring with you to New Orleans?
All of them. Very rarely do I get to dress up and look like a girl. As a female in the kitchen, nine times out of ten you're wearing chef's clothes cut for a man, so the opportunities you have to look girly you sometimes have to embrace and just go with. Today I'm wearing a red one.
Everyone is calling you Rosie The Riveter online!
It's an honor to be compared to one of those gals. There are a lot of insanely talented ladies on this season too.
Top Chef: New Orleans airs Wednesdays at 9pm on Bravo.
Grub Street (New York magazine's online food presence) offers its list of Top 25 food memoirs,prompted by the large number of that genre to be published this fall.
Missing from the list are the books I would put at #1 and #2. "A Day of Honey: A memoir of food, love, and war," by Annia Ciezadlo and the very recent "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking," by Anya von Bremzen (reviewed in this week's Taste section).
What would be on your list? Remember that these are food memoirs and not cookbooks.
Here is the Grub Street list:
25. Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang
24. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
23. The Devil in the Kitchen by Marco Pierre White
22. The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti
21. A Tiger in the Kitchen by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
20. The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz
19. Born Round by Frank Bruni
18. Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen
17. The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin
16. Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey
15. Shark's Fin & Sichuan Pepper by Fuschia Dunlop
14. Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
13. The Raw and the Cooked by Jim Harrison
12. The Man who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten
11. Alice, Let's Eat by Calvin Trillin
10. California Dish by Jeremiah Tower
9. When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman
8. Heat by Bill Buford
7. Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
6. Between Meals by A.J. Liebling
5. My Life in France by Julia Child
4. The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher
3. Toast by Nigel Slater
2. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
1. Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
What would New Orleans cuisine be without Paul Prudhomme? I joked previously in the premiere recap that he’d be the grand marshal of the New Orleans clichés I expected Top Chef to parade out throughout the course of the season, but there would truthfully be no reasonable justification for leaving out someone who so distinctly put a face to New Orleans and Cajun cuisine. Not only are we graced with his presence, but I also apparently missed the memo that Prudhomme has lost what appears to be over 300 of the 500 pounds he once weighed, as his appearance tonight sees him on his feet and no longer tethered to the motorized wheelchair he once still managed to cook like a pro from. For an episode centered on the history of the titular city and the legendary Commander’s Palace, Prudhomme couldn’t be a more welcome sight. Now if only they had let him speak more.
Before we get to the main challenge, this week is terrifying double elimination week, a plot twist that I’m sure was created when producers realized there were still 17 chefs left in the competition. Editor-in-chief of Food and Wine Dana Cowin makes her annual resurfacing for this week’s Quickfire, and boy is she mad! She hates all these newfangled food trends! She hates them! She’s tired of hearing about all the bacon you’re eating in your man cave, she’s over putting eggs on top of every dish like they’re a star on a Christmas tree, and she’s most certainly doesn’t want to eat anything smoked again for at least another 5 years because apparently smoking stuff is a food trend as well. Most of all, she doesn’t even want to lay eyes on kale chips or kale salads anymore, a statement that I’m sure made Gwyneth Paltrow cry.
The challenge is for the chefs to make these expiring trends new again, and while our local hero Sara Johannes (pictured) is bummed that eggs have been forever been tainted in this competition by Dana Cowin’s disapproving glare, most are able to look past the egregious culinary sin of being passé and come up with some clever, tasty dishes. The egg concoctions fare best, with heaps of praise poured upon Nina’s tiny scotch quail egg on a leek and potato soup, and Shirley’s immunity-winning shirred egg congee. Sara also gets some praise from the judges with her smoked tuna tataki and arbol chile vinaigrette (below), which Emeril likes for its hints of orange flavor.
No surprise that the worst two dishes involve kale (in what world is kale more fun to cook with than bacon?) and Bret inexplicably defies the explicit wishes of Cowin by making a kale salad to go along with his gazpacho and kale juice side. Despite this bizarre lapse in strategic judgment, Bret is spared elimination by Aaron’s fried kale that is both overdressed and deemed “too salty to finish” by Emeril. Aaron was quietly charming and seemed terrified of TV cameras, so I think I’m going to miss him.
The chefs are then whisked away to Commander’s Palace - a legendary New Orleans eatery that served as a launching pad for the likes of Prudhomme and Emeril - where they are told they must replicate one of the four dishes they are treated to by executive chef Tory McPhail. There’s a lot to unpack in each of these dishes, and while McPhail is certainly correct that recreating complicated dishes will test each of the chefs’ palates and attention to detail, it’s ultimately a bit of a letdown to have to watch our contestants parrot the dishes of someone else instead of flexing their creative muscles with food of their very own.
Still, precision is key here and the stress of the whole ordeal appears to have sent the kitchen into chaos. At one point Shirley loses track of her beets (I think because of Patty, who finally gets some kudos from the judges in both of her dishes this week) and Nina finds herself on the wrong edge of Michael’s competitive streak after he dumps the okra she mistakenly places on his plate all over the place.
Sara finds herself in good company (Carrie, Stephanie, and Justin) but she’s given the dreaded Top Chef dessert course that has notoriously sent many talented chefs home in past seasons. She’s tasked with recreating McPhail’s strawberry trio, which includes a biscuit, beignet and cocktail, and unfortunately, its Sara’s first real miss in the competition. Padma says her beignet is greasy and that the top of the biscuit was “obliterated” when served to her, while Tom notes a lack of white chocolate in his portion entirely.
Although she’s not in the bottom three, Sara’s faux pas is made even worse by the fact that Stephanie and Justin both nail the same dessert course. New Orleans resident Justin eventually wins the challenge (a sweet note of pride and victory considering McPhail just recently beat him out for a regional James Beard award) and Stephanie overcomes her flop sweat and panic to produce a biscuit that Hugh Acheson claimed was better than the one from the Palace. Stephanie’s terror has made her something of an audience surrogate at this point (who else wouldn’t feel like vomiting if they were thrown into Top Chef?), but it will be interesting to see how long it takes for her self-effacing comments to become annoying to the other chefs the more and more she succeeds in the competition.
Most of the other chefs aren’t able to escape critiques this week (even Nina’s top 3 shrimp and tasso henican gets dinged for messy plating), but Louis, Bret and Carlos are ultimately the ones who end up with this week’s worst 3 dishes. No one from the group responsible for Prudhomme’s black skillet seared trout did very well, as the team foolishly decided to divvy up the prep work amongst the four of them, leaving poor Louis in charge of the entire team’s seasoning despite him making no qualms about not knowing much about Cajun seasoning. The bland result lands him in the bottom for the second time in the episode, where he is joined by Carlos, who botched the balance of his fish by worrying about losing crust to overcooking.
Thankfully, Bret is the one who is told to pack his knives and go home courtesy of his poorly grilled veal chop tchopitoulas (what even is that word?) and general sense of meekness. Bret, who reminded me more and more of someone Elaine from Seinfeld would have dated and eventually grown to hate, kept making bad decisions throughout the night, none worse than his confounding choice to wait until close to plating time to cook his veal because he couldn’t find space on the grill earlier in the day. Emeril said it best: “no sear, no love.”
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