Thursday, February 12, 2009

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 12

Down to five! Next stop: New Orleans and the finale.

As is to be expected, when the stakes go up, the Big Guns Judges come in. No newcomer, Wylie Dufresne, molecular gastronomer wunderkind, arrives to preside over the quickfire. Apparently he could eat breakfast for every meal, and eggs Benedict is his all-time favorite (more on that to come...); now that’s my kind of cook. While I’ve never been a big fan of the molecular leanings, and I ALWAYS want to give Wylie a haircut, he is suddenly endeared to me. Eggs and hollandaise are a very happy combo to me!

Wylie asks the final five to make him breakfast, with eggs done perfectly! I'm surprised there isn't some Incredible Edible Egg logo behind them all...

I’ve heard said before, and Wylie said it again, egg cookery is a good way to see what someone is capable of in the kitchen. So here goes. And they have an hour. Where did all this time come from? Seems more like a mellow-fire, not a quickfire! I seem to remember quickfires as 15 minutes… maybe 30? This season it seems like there have been a number of longer ones.

They all run around whipping up this and that. There were some creative attempts—Hosea with his tempura egg—and some more mainstream menu choices—Leah, Fabio… Stefan got a kudos mention for his technique and his handling of both savory and sweet for breakfast, but then there was Carla, rockin’ it old school with her clever green eggs and ham. That could have gone either way in my humble opinion… and luckily it turned out great and Wylie loved it. Hilarious that the only meal that DIDN’T have any molecular elements was the one that won! Good for Carla. She’s in the zone. (Seth was watching with me again, and was very happy with her win!)

For the elimination challenge, out comes the ever-present knife block: Each of them has a course to cook for a judge, with 2 hours to cook and prep and cook at Capitale in Lower Manhatten. The judges, top-notch all, were told to request their “last supper.” I was surprised with some of their choices, but it made me ponder what MY last meal would be… but that’s a whole other post.

Fabio picks Lidia Bastianich: Roast chicken, roasted potatoes, caramelized onions and leafy salad
Hosea picks Susan Ungaro (president of the James Beard Foundation): Shrimp scampi with tomatoes provencal
Stefan picks Marcus Samuelsson: Salmon with spinach (“There’s nothing I could possibly screw up with this dish.” I knew when he said those words that he’d regret them… famous last words…)
Leah picks Wylie Dufresne: Egg benedict. I'm sure she's thinking, really, didn't I just do eggs?
Carla picks Jacques Pepin: Roast squab with peas

Carla was given the option of choosing one of the other chef’s meals, if she liked them better that the one she drew. She liked what she picked, and stayed with Jacques Pepin. (Have I mentioned that I’ve met him? At the French Culinary Institute in NYC, I had him sign a cookbook for a friend. It made me very happy. He told me that he has a daughter who lives in Portland. He was very friendly in a nice fatherly way and I was a wee bit star-struck.)

Fun snippet between quickfire and elimination: The crew went Perilla, Harold’s restaurant. He won Top Chef, Season 1, way back when, and was sympathetic and encouraging for their Top Chef journey.

The next day they headed out to cook! The courses were staggered 30 minutes apart, Leah went first since she had the breakfast-y dish.

Suddenly there’s a commotion and it appears that Fabio has broken his finger. Pretend this is in an Italian accent: “To the hospital? No way. I would rather chop this finger off. Sear it on the flat top and deal with it tomorrow.” He gets wrapped up and continues on. It’s a little painful watching him peel potatoes…

Tom comes into the kitchen with his suit on, dressy dressy. Says don’t embarrass me out there tonight. Wow, that’s a lot of confidence… I don’t think he’s ever said that before, sounds like he doubts they can do it. There have been plenty of gold-weight judges on the show before… why say that now? Does he think this lot is a bunch of losers?

Leah goes first, hollandaise a little thick. Fairly traditional. Egg white a little watery, doesn’t have the textures down.

Stefan: Thinks he could win (of course!). Salmon with potatoes, spinach. It’s unanimous: salmon horribly overcooked. Dill sauce good, well seasoned. Spinach pretty so-so.

Hosea: Initially the comments are that he did a fine job between creativity and traditional. But Pepin says he didn’t cook from the gut. And there’s some question whether his version of scampi was traditional or HIS version.

Fabio: Had a real hard time butchering the chicken with one hand. But they love it. Chicken is awesome. This is the first course where the cheftestant channeled their chef. Not so much on the salad (was called “airplane food”). Lydia was very happy with her last meal.

Carla: Temperature of squab concerned her as it was going out. Pepin loved it—it was true to what he wanted. Comfort food for him, memories from childhood. Butter tarragon peas, everyone loved. Really simple, but breast overcooked a bit for Marco. There was audacity in serving something so simple. Jacques could die happy with that meal.

Off they go to the judges table; Jacques is in the final along with the usuals. Toby is pretty mild these days. Less scripted, less interesting.

They called the whole group in to talk about the food. From the comments at the dinner I thought they could have just called in Carla and Fabio for the top two and left Stefan, Hosea and Leah to stew before they came out as the losers. But no, let’s talk all together!

When they all came back in, I thought it might actually go to Carla. Everyone loved those peas. But peas win it? Really? Say it isn’t so. Thankfully it wasn’t. Fabio! Whew. In spite of his broken finger, he won it!

Carla sees herself as the tortoise picking up speed! She’s safe and going to New Orleans. And Carla and Fabio are dismissed so the judges can talk to the bottom three.

Stefan the stress ball, all curled up with his arms folded across his chest; he looks like he thinks it’s going to be him. For a minute I think so too. Hosea and Leah are both pretty deadpan. I bet cuddling on the sofa feels like a million miles away. And luckily, for me anyway, it’s Leah that is sent home. Whew.

For the finale, it's Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans. This is kind of an odd choice, considering Emeril’s reputation in the food world. His restaurants are considered top-tier, but his style on his cooking shows is considered pretty low-brow by most established chefs, and I am just surprised that Colicchio and Co. are going there. Will be interesting to watch…

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