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.
Who's that setting the pace for Team Dooley in the Great River Race Saturday on the Mississippi? That would be Lucia Watson, chef/owner of Lucia's restaurant in Uptown. She and 270 others paddled 27 canoes in the fundraiser for the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures outdoor program for kids. The fundraiser, which raised $75,000, was a collaboration with Wilderness Inquiry, the National Park Service and the Mississippi River Fund. UWCA has brought more than 35,000 youth to urban waterways.
Canoers raced between Hidden Falls, on the Mississippi, and Harriet Island. Team Dooley came in 10th out of 27 canoes. Mortenson Construction came in first.
What's with the Team Dooley name? The canoe was sponsored by Beth Dooley (who often writes for the Taste section and who is now communciations director at Wilderness Inquiry).
Also seen in the canoes: Michael Keller, CEO of Pearson Candy Co. of St. Paul (which provided mini-Salted Nut Rolls for the participants), Chris Coleman, mayor of St. Paul, and Don Shelby, former anchor at WCCO. There may have been a food editor in the canoe, too.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak stopped by, to remind the participants that the Mississippi River is our Central Park (of NYC status), and, in fact, is a national park.
Farmer Jason Amundsen -- the egg producer from Wrenshall, Minn., featured in last week's Taste -- is headed to the Twin Cities area on Friday, for a pair of meet-and-greets at two natural foods co-ops.
From noon to 2 p.m., Amundsen (that's him, pictured above, at his farm in mid-June, during one of the farm's twice-daily feedings) will be talking pasture-raised eggs from his Locally Laid Egg Co. at the City Center Market in Cambridge. From 2:45 to 5 p.m., shoppers can get a face-to-face with Amundsen at the Linden Hills Co-op in southwest Minneapolis. Both events are free and open to the public.
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.
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