Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Top Chef Masters: how the pros cook!

Sometimes it works in your favor to have too much going on, or a really bad memory... I had COMPLETELY forgotten that Top Chef Masters was starting soon. Soon, as in: tonight. So the dvr was not prepared and I rushed down to get it all fired up, only to have it record 9 minutes of the first showing. The second showing got bumped by reruns of New Adventures of Old Christine and current showing of SYTYCD. Many thanks to Bravo for having nothing else to run tonight: I finally got the third showing taped in its entirety.

What a lead in! Can the drama of TCM match the drama of Sher’s dvr? Undoubtedly not. And, my hunch going in (that this will be pretty civilized, these are professionals, after all) was more or less played out. But there was a bit of fun along the way. And some complete flops, to make those of us without a James Beard award feel much better about ourselves.

First off, new host. Not so much into her. It’s not a Padma thing, I’m not all fluffy for her… and maybe this one improve with time? We’ll see. She is Kelly Choi, completely unknown to me before tonight, but apparently best known for a TV show, Eat Out NY.

So the season consists of 6 episodes with 4 master chefs in each episode, and then, presumably, a finale.

The contestants for tonight, with their restaurant and their charity of choice (if they win!):
Hubert Keller. Fleur de Lys, San Francisco. Make A Wish Foundation.
Christopher Lee. Aureole, NYC. Autism Speaks.
Tim Love. Lonesome Star Western Bistro, Fort Worth, TX. March of Dimes.
Michael Schlow. Radius, Boston, MA. Cam Neely Foundation.

They get right into the quickfire with a favorite quickfire from Top Chef past: dessert. This time for Girl Scouts! The guys have 45 minutes to pull it off. The girl scouts rank the chefs and award stars:
Hubert: Meringue swans, the Coolest Glass Dish *ever* with fruit and sabayon. The girls loved it! 5 stars.
Michael: Brownie with honey ice cream and peanut butter chocolates. He tanked—ice cream messy and cake not cooked. Amazingly, he still got 2.5 stars. I’m not sure the girls noticed.
Tim: Strawberry milkshakes, chocolate-dipped strawberries, chicken-fried strawberries (really, chicken fried? I love fried like the next guy, but that seemed just too “Texas” for me. Ugh.). 3.5 stars.
Christopher: French toast with caramelized bananas and orange sauce. Seemed fairly unremarkable. 3.5 stars.

The best part was that the chefs got to watch the girls eat, but the girls didn’t know. So they were chatty and honest and fairly critical and the guys had a real good laugh listening to them. Some comments surprised, but others were just spot on. And, harsh as it was to see an established chef tank, it was also heartening. Stuff happens. To everyone.

Then on to the elimination challenge: Create a meal in a dorm room with a toaster oven and hot plate. Two hours to prep and cook three-courses. Holy cow. Grilled cheese on an iron, anyone? Some of these guys don’t even know what a microwave is! Or so they claim. There was a funny little interlude with Hubert Keller playing with the buttons on the microwave, saying, “I have one in my kitchen but I’ve never used it.” Really? Seems unlikely.

So they decide to cook:
Michael: Salmon crudo, cabbage soup, and pork a la apicius (I have no idea what that means)
Hubert: Scottish salmon, carrot and pea soup with cinnamon (that doesn’t sound good to me AT ALL) and macaroni and cheese with prawns
Tim: Scallop carpaccio, squash and corn posole, skirt steak and braised kale
Christopher: Red snapper ceviche, creamy risotto, pan roasted pork chop

I must say, it is nice to only have to keep track of what four people are cooking… this feels similar to the end of a Top Chef season when the riff-raff has been whittled away. These chefs really seemed like they were all good guys having fun together. Lots of mutual respect, joking, probably especially from Keller, who I would consider the “master of the masters,” as Christopher later says…

So off they go to cook IN the dorm rooms. WITH the students there. This would not be high on my list of fun things to try. But they are game and do a great job of jerry-rigging things as needed to make it work. The biggest oops of this round is that Tim accidentally froze all his ingredients. Stuck them in an empty “cooler” and came back in the morning to find it all rock solid. So we’ll never know just what he was planning on making, but as you can see from his menu, not a fresh thing in sight. Poor guy, that would be hard to recover from, but he just kept plugging along!

New info of the evening: Hubert Keller would be a DJ if he wasn’t a chef.

After they fed the students and judges—oops, “critics” for these chefs—no real “knife-packing” here—they went to the critics table. And one other difference from the “real” Top Chef—this stew room is amply supplied with alcohol and looks like a chef’s table in the middle of a kitchen restaurant; no back-of-kitchen supply closet to sweat in for these masters.

Critic’s table
James Oseland, editor of Saveur
Gael Greene, New York restaurant critic
Jay Rayner, The London Observer

They talk, they debate, they sort-of-don’t-like some things and mostly like others. But generally they are fairly mellow and respectful and award points to each contestant with the winner being Hubert Keller. No shock there. He just kind of owns the kitchen, if you know what I mean. Confident, and in that confidence he is able to be kind and accommodating of others. No arrogance (that we saw, anyway). Hurray for that. Oh, and you’d think he’d hung the moon the way they raved about how he rinsed the macaroni with cold water in the shower (to stop the cooking) and then heated it back up with hot water from the shower as well… come on, we’ve all done that, right? Ha. It just goes to show that many times a big part of the kitchen battle is problem solving.

Teaser for future episodes: Neil Patrick Harris and Zooey Deschanel as future critics. Really?! How fun. I know, what do they know about food? We’ll find out.

OK, I’ve rambled on a bit. Can you tell I’ve missed Top Chef? Sniff. I feel like my life has meaning, once again. Well, for six weeks anyway.

1 comment:

  1. I loved watching their reactions to the girl scouts, and that they were able to laugh at themselves.

    Chef Keller did an amazing job for the GS - he didn't cook "down" to them, but he did make it fun while still being sophisticated.

    And I enjoyed how supportive they were of each other.


Blogger Template By Designer Blogs