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.
From 5 to 8 p.m. tonight (Oct. 28), there will be candy bars, carnival games and photos, as well as a chance to win the ultimate door prize: a VIP tour of the candy factory.
There also will be bite-size Halloween candy to buy for your own Oct. 31 event, with part of the proceeds from sales going to the Ronald McDonald House (with funds matched by Pearson).
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!
Last week Stewart and Heidi Woodman announced they were closing their six-year-old restaurant Heidi's at the end of December. But last night's sign on their door indicated a change of plans.
Today, via a press release, they announced that the restaurant was closed immediately and gave the reason: the end of their marriage.
The press release:
After 12 years of marriage, Heidi and Stewart Woodman have mutually come to the decision to divorce. With this news, they announce today that Heidi's Minneapolis, the restaurant they created and co-owned for six years, has closed its doors.
In a statement from the Woodmans: “We kindly ask that our privacy be respected. While we’ve made the decision to end our marriage, we share the same love and commitment to our two children. Our focus is on them at this time."
Last night a flurry of tweets indicated that something was amiss given the sign that was posted on their door (see photo above), which hungry participants in Restaurant Week had stumbled upon.
A little history: Heidi's Minneapolis was an instant hit when it opened in 2007 at 50th Street and Bryant Av. in Minneapolis. After its building was destroyed by fire in 2010, the Woodmans moved the restaurant to 2903 Lyndale Av.S., where it earned a four-star review from Star Tribune critic Rick Nelson.
The culinary couple -- she's an accomplished pastry chef -- landed in Minneapolis, Heidi's hometown, in 2003, where Stewart became the first chef at Levain, which earned a four-star review under Stewart's cooking.
The husband-wife team went on to open Five Restaurant & Street Lounge, an ambitious but short-lived effort. Their next venture together was Heidi's. They had also opened Birdhouse on Hennepin Av. S., which closed over the summer.
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.
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