For those of you placing bets at home, it only took until the second episode of Top Chef: New Orleans to center an entire Elimination Challenge on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Of course the show at some point has to acknowledge the events of the tragedy as to not appear completely tone deaf to the devastating impact it had on the region, but I can’t begin to stress how refreshing it is to see the series avoid the melodramatic impulses that lesser reality shows wouldn’t when addressing the topic, instead creating an episode that rather sneakily speaks to just how restorative the power of food and community has been to a state that’s still struggling to pick up the pieces a full 8 years after disaster. This episode is built all around teamwork, both in respects to the week’s food truck group challenge, as well as the Habitat for Humanity volunteers our cheftestants are tasked with feeding. Lest this episode get a little too much on the “Kumbaya” side, there’s a fantastically cruel elimination at the tail end of it, but we’ll get to that in a minute
The episode starts exactly where the last one left off. Contestants have barely had a minute to discuss Ramon’s exit before Padma struts in to inform everyone that they’re immediately going to participate in the “longest Quickfire Challenge in Top Chef history.” They’ll be making gumbo inspired by their heritage, and since gumbo takes longer than 15 minutes to cook, the contestants will get a head start back at their apartment before heading into the kitchen in the morning. As New Orleans native and Cosmo Kramer look-alike Michael says of his home city, “If you don’t have gumbo on your menu, you’re going to go out of business,” a food motto I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing adopted in the Twin Cities.
While Aaron seems confused about what exactly constitutes a gumbo base (maybe a little research before boarding that plane?), most contestants appear to impress Padma and adorable guest judge Leah Chase. Unfortunately, our Minnesota gal Sara Johannes doesn’t fare quite as well as some of the others, although she avoids landing in the bottom with Jason’s poor attempt at mixing his Polish roots and this summer’s beet craze. Sara’s crab and silken tofu gumbo (right) is inspired by her time in Shanghai, and while it certainly appears to be one of the more ambitious dishes of the batch, it ends up being too difficult and too salad-like for Padma and Leah to eat, with each commenting on the unusual serving style that made it challenging to land food on their utensils.
Shirley and Carrie’s dishes both get high marks, but Carrie grabs the win and immunity by combining her Iowan roots and Trinidadian husband’s culture to create her pea-green gumbo with coconut, mango, and corn crumble. Guess which part of that is the Iowa.
By the way, it’s worth noting that contestant Brian Husky is now 0 for 3 in getting his dishes shown in detail at this point. Keep trying, Brian!
Padma divides the cast into four groups based on where each is standing during the Quickfire deliberation. Sara ends up on the Green Team (below), along with Shirley, Stephanie and Louis, the latter of whom I’m pretty sure didn’t exist at all in the last episode. Guest judge Susan Spicer tells them they’ll be in charge of creating menus for food trucks that will be parked outside 2 different Habitat for Humanity construction sites, two places Padma and Gail Simmons bravely face in white pants. Shirley informs us she once had a food truck but now calls it “the biggest paperweight in the world” after she couldn’t get the proper papers in order. Hopefully that’s not a chilling omen of things to come for Nicollet Mall.
Of the four teams, green’s concept is by far the least defined (“light but refreshing”) especially compared to some of the others (Surf, Tacos, Miami and Caribbean), but the chefs seems to have an easy chemistry from the get-go, with Sara teasing Louis by telling him they’re banking the challenge entirely on his megawatt smile. Louis also says he likes working in a kitchen full of women, which was a tidbit I liked hearing nearly as much as Gail's defense of peanut butter and jelly.
Jason, on the other hand, is near insufferable on Team Surf. I neglected to mention Jason in the first episode recap, but he’s clearly an editors’ favorite, which has everything to do with his extreme ego and willingness to remind everyone he was once voted Philly’s Hottest Chef. At one point, Jason says “I’m probably going to end up at the [truck’s] window because I like chatting people up,” however the pause after “because” is so long that you know he had to fight everything in his power to avoid saying “because I’m so just so damn handsome.”
Ultimately, Jason shortcuts his salmon hand roll by preparing it too far in advance to make more time for flirting with female customers and flipping his Hitler Youth haircut, a mistake that leaves him with both a soggy dish and a plane ticket back to Pennsylvania. It’s a fairly shocking elimination considering how much screen time he’s received thus far (not to mention in light of Patty’s third consecutive appearance in the bottom, this time including a random tomato on a tuna slider that she referred to as “nothing special,” a comment that just about gave Tom Colicchio a conniption), but it will be nice to see less preening and more cooking in future episodes from here on out.
But how did Sara and the rest of Team Green do? Well, just like last week, Sara’s never a bride, always a bridesmaid. Green is highlighted in judges' deliberation as one of the top two teams (including mostly high marks for Sara’s tuna burger with sprouts, avocado and watermelon rind pickles, right), but it was Team Taco and Carrie yet again specifically who earned the week’s top honor. Carrie has shown real ingenuity thus far in the competition, this week dazzling the judges with her and Aaron’s beef and pork curry empanadas. In this week’s try it at home moment, Carrie used a chilled wine bottle in lieu of a roller to keep her freshly made dough cold and resistant to gumming up with hot, sticky butter. Really, is there anything wine can’t do?
With Carrie (below) and her aw-shucks Iowa-by-Seattle charm on a roll and Sara not far behind, one thing is certain so far into this young Top Chef season: Midwest girls are definitely holding it down.
Did Sara impress you in her second outing, or are you too distraught by having to say goodbye to Jason’s chiseled jawline to notice?
New Orleans is such an obvious choice for a Top Chef location that you really have to wonder why it took the producers 11 seasons to get there. While the season premiere predictably conflates the whole of the Big Easy into the most marketable aspects of the French Quarter (contestants actually compete for Mardi Gras beads while reminding themselves to “Let the good times roll”), Top Chef has built up enough goodwill over its long run that we have every reason to believe this season will eventually dig deep into NOLA’s diverse and distinct food scene. Still, I’m half expecting to see Paul Prudhomme wheel up behind host Padma Lakshmi any episode now, most likely while being serenaded by Harry Connick Jr. in a feather mask.
As if the prospect of seeing mouth-watering crawfish and gumbo on your TV screen each week wasn’t exciting enough, this season of the venerable cooking series also has a Minnesotan contestant (excuse me, cheftestant) by way of Sara Johannes, who’s currently making a name for herself as Executive Chef at Shoyu, a modern Japanese restaurant in the Minneapolis- St. Paul International Airport (Concourse G).
Sara is the first chef we meet in the jam-packed initial hour and she leaves quite an impression with her self-proclaimed “rockabilly” look, Rosie the Riveter bandana, and no nonsense demeanor. During her prep time one-on-one with head judge Tom Colicchio, we learn that Sara has worked under the esteemed Wolfgang Puck at two different eateries in the past (including 20.21 at the Walker Art Center), and is finally ready to make a name for herself by stepping out of his shadow. Colicchio reassures her that Puck won’t be making a guest judge cameo during this round, but can you really expect reality-show producers to hold onto that straw for the season’s entire duration?
With 17 other chefs competing in the first round, the episode doesn’t even have enough time to introduce each contestant (seriously, Bret’s sole contribution to this episode is commenting on Janine’s decision to wear Daisy Dukes in the kitchen), let alone have time to hold a Quickfire Challenge. Instead, we get right to the Elimination Challenge, in which each chef is assigned a strand of Mardi Gras beads that informs them whether they’ll be working with frog legs, turtle, or alligator meat as their dish’s main protein.
To make things even more colorful, the chefs are also asked to prepare and serve their dishes for a crowd of people at a swamp soiree, a location that places a few of them within spitting distance of real life alligators. There’s also some business about making the chefs actually assemble the dining stations when they arrive on the scene, a random bit of stumbling-block filler the producers seem keen on ever since they had contestants break through blocks of ice to get to their ingredients on Top Chef: Texas. Sara gets a nice character moment when she’s shown cursing at a bent rod, which already puts her in a better light than Travis, whose major contribution to this episode is loudly declaring that he has an Asian fetish. Moving on.
A few chefs express worry about having never worked with their protein selection before, but the best of the bunch are able to adapt to their own styles and the challenges with the set-ups.
The top three scoring dishes this week belong to the all-female trio of Sara, Nina and Carrie, a sight that’s promising to see this early on considering female chefs have won Top Chef only two out of 10 times, and that's not even counting the Top Chef: Masters spin-off. Carrie gets over her crippling nerves and self doubt to deliver poached frog legs served with an oyster emulsion and cold zucchini salad, a decision that’s praised by the judges as a smart and unusual antidote to the swamp’s sweltering heat.
Sara also impresses with her “unapologetically spicy” General Tso's-style deep-fried alligator with smoked chiles, sweet-and-sour sauce, pickled veggies and pea shoots. Padma yelled out “Holy s---, it's hot!” when tasting this dish, so it really must have packed a wallop. What better place to go bold than New Orleans? Fortunately for Sara, these judges can handle a little extra spice.
Sara was close to squeaking out a win, but instead that honor went to Nina, who made her native Saint Lucia (where her father was once Prime Minster) proud with her curried turtle meatball, chayote slaw and chutney with raisins. She’s definitely one to watch.
In the end, Ramon, Patty and Aaron were in the bottom, a dishonor that was made even worse by the show’s new decision to allow contestants to hear the comments that judges make during the deliberation process as they wait in what is now colloquially known as “The Stew Room.” Aaron gets criticized for cold pasta, Patty is blasted for having an emotional breakdown, and Ramon gets torn to shreds for adding ice to his dashi to bring its temperature down, a decision Tom calls “crazy talk.” Ultimately, Tom Colicchio can’t suffer fools and the judges decide to send Ramon home, where he will surely go back to his undefeated reign as a Muay Thai boxer.
With a solid start under her belt, do you think Sara has what it takes to become Top Chef?
Marcus Michalik is a pop culture writer who watches just about every TV show, including this one. He hopes this season of "Top Chef" inspires him to step away from the frozen food aisle, but he is not counting on it.
Ready for a road trip? Public television is.
"Farm Fresh Road" -- a 30-minute show about Minnesota foods from farm to table -- premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6, on TPT's Minnesota channel.
The program features Mary Lahammer of Twin Cities Public Television as she wanders the state in a progressive meal kind of trip looking for food experiences that are the equivalent of "courses" -- an appetizer in Minneapolis through dessert in St.Peter.
Not free on Sunday? Be assured the show will reappear many times in the scheduling at TPT.
The Midwest will be getting the spotlight as our Minnesota writer Amy Thielen heads to the Food Network in a six-episode program,"Heartland Table." The show debuts on Sept. 14 at 9:30 a.m. (just following the network's "The Pioneer Woman."
Amy, whose stories in the Star Tribune Taste section won a James Beard award, also has a new cookbook, that will be published the end of September. "The New Midwestern Table," focuses on regional traditions, from fish frys to booyah and braunschweiger.
Find out more about both next week in Taste.
Update: Here's the interview with Amy that appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of the Star Tribune Taste section.
There were local winners among those who won James Beard awards for their broadcast work.
Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine (in green shirt and with camera) won an award -- their first -- for their video webcast program, "The Perennial Plate." The award is specifically for their "World Food Tour" program.
Andrew Zimmern won an award in the category of best host/personality for his"Bizarre Foods America" program on the Travel Channel. (He's pictured here with last year's award.)
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