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Top Chef: Sara Johannes stuck in the middle

Posted by: Marcus Michalik under Minnesota newsmakers, On the national scene, TV food shows Updated: November 21, 2013 - 2:18 AM

Sara starts this episode of Top Chef complaining about how she thinks she’s become the gooch of the season. Urban Dictionary informs me that this word apparently actually means something far too crass for print (even internet print!) but Sara uses it in this context as a summation of her growing sense of unease in the competition, namely her fear that she’s bringing bad luck to all of the team challenges. As she has in weeks prior, Sara laments her fading success in the contest thus far, noting her singular early brush with the top and reminding us just how much she hates landing firmly in the middle of the pack.

So where does Sara wind up at the end of this week’s elimination challenge? Well, the middle, but let’s not lose the forest through the trees here. Yes, Sara is once again absent from the better half of the judge’s table, but it also occurs in a week that Tom Colicchio calls one of the best in 11 seasons of the show and one where even all three of the dishes in the bottom have elements to them that are universally praised. There’s not a lot of attention placed on Sara or her dish this week, but we can safely presume from the blanketing praise that her dumplings were more than impressive. That’s not a bad place to be in at this stage, at least not when the crucial component of confidence comes into play. Sara still can’t trump the Ninas of this season, but knowing that she’s still capable of scoring a hit is hopefully all it takes to push her into overdrive.

My criteria for weighing the success of this season has been how much the individual challenge components speak to New Orleans culture, and this week delivers a one-two punch. First up is a supremely entertaining (and refreshingly simple) Quickfire that has jazz legend Dr. John asking the cheftestants to make him a hot sauce. Actually, he asks for a hot sauce with a “hip tang” to it and continues to use words and phrases like “flavorocity” and “Trinidadily too hot,” much to the contestant’s chagrin and my sheer and utter amusement.  It does not get more N’awlins than Dr. John.

There’s a lot of flavors in the air here including pineapples from Shirley, apricots and coffee from Nicholas, and anchovies from Justin, but ultimately it’s Brian who wins for his green jalapeno and serrano hot sauce with lime and yuzu juices. I’ve criticized Brian before for being too eager to skate by on complacency, but two weeks of immunity in a row have made him into a bit of a dark horse, even on a topsy-turvey challenge that saw Nina land in the bottom for seemingly no concrete reason other than the seemingly random whims of Dr. John. At one point he uses “clipped my wings” as a method of praise, which practically throws all my bad middle school poetry asunder.  We don’t get to see Sara’s (or Travis’) hot sauce on TV, likely because those precious seconds were needed to lovingly linger on shots of Dunkin Donuts coffee and Keurig machines. Sigh.

The main challenge starts immediately when a 300-pound dead pig is wheeled into the kitchen. It’s a pretty grotesque image that feels strangely fitting of NBC’s Hannibal, but the contestants are downright giddy to start hacking up the ill-fated oinker as part of the New Orleans tradition of boucherie, in which members of a community come together to butcher a pig and utilize every single one of its parts. There’s a bit of drama involving Sara when Louis accuses her in a talking head segment of being bossy without contributing to the butchering, but it also appears that Sara didn’t pass Justin’s “raise your hand if you’ve butchered over 10 pigs like I have” test to actually get her hands on a knife like she clearly wanted to. Justin is increasingly grouchy and later almost burns the entire set to cinder.

Each chef is responsible for a different part of the hog and will have to prepare an individual dish for 250 outdoor diners. As already mentioned, Sara’s har gow (a type of Chinese dumpling served in dim sum) with pork, shrimp and crab barely gets any screen time, but it looks delicious and Tom calls it “really good.” As tasty as it is, Shirley also makes dumplings out of freaking pig kidney and upstages Sara. Shirley ends up in the top 3, a place I always want to see her. Nina’s also up there with her roasted pig’s head ragu, which Tom says should be the national dish of “Ninastan.” Carlos ultimately gets his second win for his pozole verde with fried chorizo tacos. Tom wants the recipe. If Sara doesn’t make it to the end, the combination of Shirley, Carlos and Nina is probably the ideal top three scenario.

Stephanie, Justin and Louis are the night’s worst three dishes (although Travis justly gets called out for not making his own ramen noodles), despite the judges finding something to like in each of them. Justin is absolutely incredulous that his pork breast is called dry (worth noting that Padma seemed much more mad about this than anyone else) and releases a string of expletives about it in the Stew Room. The judges love the flavor of Stephanie’s brodo (broth) but felt her pork belly was overworked and that the dish was missing a few ingredients. And while Tom says that a good dish is going home no matter the outcome, he didn’t seem to like any component of Louis’ pork leg except for the pork, critiquing both the texture of the melted corn and questioning the addition of popcorn to the dish. Louis goes home feeling he didn’t get to leave a mark of his own on the competition, which is probably what happens when you make people cook with cream cheese for entire challenges. If you’re following Last Chance Kitchen, Louis is the first person to beat Janine, so there’s a chance we could be seeing him again. I keep forgetting he has a Michelin star.

Next week – Restaurant Wars! Sara is front of the house, a position that should send a shiver down the spines of any veteran Top Chef viewers.

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