Posts Tagged ‘top chef’

Top Chef Rundown: January 28, 2009

Friday, January 30th, 2009

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This week’s product placementaward goes to…The Super Bowl. As if it needed publicity from Top Chef.

The quickfire challenge this week was another product placement-fest: create a dish using randomly assigned ingredients and food groups. It seemed like a fair challenge, though. No one got stuck with something overly difficult or challenging, and a lot of the chefs turned out what looked to be tasty treats, especially for being based on oatmeal!

Stefan won the quickfire, and while immunity was no longer a prize, he did win an advantage in the elimination challenge: the chance to choose his own city and challenger before everyone else. Speaking of challengers…

This week’s elimination challenge brought back a whole team of “Top Chef All Stars” to compete against this season’s cheftestants in a Super Bowl themed cook-off.

I though the challenge was a fun one to watch, but probably not the fairest way to decide things. First of all, when you do these mini head-to-head competitions, people can end up at Judge’s Table who don’t really deserve to be there. There were people who did deserve to be there, don’t get me wrong, but from my couch, it looked like some not-so-great-chefs skated by with not so great dishes because they were the lesser of two evils, while other chefs who cooked better dishes were slightly outdone by their All Star chef. And that’s side-stepping the entire issue of groups of culinary students having the power to overrule the judges’ decision.

It was interesting to see Stefan face Judge’s Table–really, it was interesting to see him face the whole challenge. I do not think he expected to lose in any way, shape, or form. For a while, when he was the only one facing elimination, David and I worried that this would be the most undeserved elimination since Tre.

Luckily for Stefan, his two counterparts in the bottom three made worse mistakes than his. Fabio overcooked his Wisconsin venison, and Jeff, true to form, tried to do too many things at once, and didn’t do a good job on any of them. And went home for it. I don’t feel bad for him. He’s had the same problem all season, and if you can’t learn from your mistakes, it’s time to go.

On the winning side of things, Carla won two tickets to the Super Bowl with her 20 minute gumbo. It looked impressive, and she seemed to do a good job, but I think she’s probably going to be out sooner or later, because she’s very inconsistent.

We did have fun seeing the old All Stars, especially Andrew and Spike. Maybe they’ll drop by again sometime.

Top Chef Rundown: January 21, 2009

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

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Restaurant Wars.

It’s one of the most insane challenges on Top Chef and one of the most exciting. The cheftestants are divided into two teams and have to design and and open a brand new restaurant in 24 hours. Of course, in the real world, people spend months, even years, opening a restaurant, so 24 hours is basically just lunacy.

They used the quickfire challenge to pick “team captains.” The challenge was straightforward enough: make a dish that represents your concept for a restaurant. Oddly enough, two of the weaker chefs ended up with the strongest concepts, and the teams were lead by Leah, and Radhika, who are pretty much at the bottom of the heap at this point.

And in danger: It was said about 100 times in this episode, but it’s the truth–historically, the leader of the losing Restaurant Wars team is the one who goes home.

There were plenty of lows, but I was actually pretty surprised at how well these restaurants turned out. Compared to previous years, where plates were left off of the tables, heavily scented candles ruined everything, and things were generally so bad that the judges called a do-over and let them start again, a couple of bad dishes and a slightly unenthusiastic host seems like no big deal. (Speaking of candles, I thought it was cute when Stephan went nuts buying all the unscented candles his team’s Toyota could hold. I guess, sometimes, the chefs do learn from their forerunners’ past mistakes.

I was annoyed at all of the drama with Leah and Hosea, I won’t lie. First of all, those two have been ridiculous all season. Second of all, they are not single, and have significant others at home, and are happy to say so. Finally, Top Chef has never been that kind of reality show, and when it stoops to those kinds of hijinks (head-shaving, anyone?) it’s clearly at its worst.

The teams put forth relatively complete restaurant concepts, but in the end, Leah’s team won, despite her horrible contribution of raw, poorly filleted fish. Fabio was impressive at the front of the house, and Stefan’s desserts were lauded as some of the best Top Chef has ever seen.

Speaking of desserts, Carla tanked Radhika’s entire team with her melted frozen yogurt and flavorless chocolate cake. The rest of the food was actually better than the other team’s, from the way the judges spoke, but the combination of Radhika’s apathetic front of the house work and Carla’s desserts put Radhika’s team firmly on the bottom.

And like many a Restaurant Wars leader before her, Radhika took the fall for her team. I think they made the right call. Carla made mistakes, but Radhika made plenty of her own, and failed to correct Carla’s mistakes when she had the chance.

The only downside is that Leah lives for another week, and that means I’ll have to sit through more Leah & Hosea drama. Maybe they’ll shave her head.

Top Chef Rundown – January 14, 2009

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

This week’s episode focused on two completely opposite ends of a spectrum. Hung, winner of season 4, showed up for a Quickfire Challenge that had the “cheftestants” creating a dish from only canned, processed foods while the Elimination Challenge sent them all to the farm to start with the freshest, highest quality ingredients possible.

It was great to see Hung back for a Quickfire, since he’s pretty much the quickest chef in the show’s history. He ran around the kitchen like a maniac, and broke down poultry like a machine. In honor of his speediness, the chefs were given just 15 minutes to create a dish from a collection of canned and processed foods, like Spam, Velveeta, and pork rinds.

I always get a little annoyed when the chefs start whining about poor ingredients. The show is a game, and of course there have to be restrictions. If you’re not ready to be limited in six different ways, what are you doing on the show? And yes, of course fresh ingredients are preferable, but not every one has access to fresh ingredients all the time, especially not the home cooks that are such big fans of the show. It’s good for the chefs on the show to stretch their imaginations and get outside their comfort zones.

There were a lot of mediocre results, I thought (Note to Jamie: just because you put it on toast doesn’t mean it’s a bruschetta), but I think Hung picked the winners pretty well. Hosea and Stefan were on top with variations on Spam (Hosea: Split Pea & Spam soup, Stefan: Spam & Velveeta Grilled Cheese), but Stefan won the prize: Immunity for the Elimination Challenge.

This week’s Elimination Challenge was basically the opposite of the Quickfire. The chefs headed to a Blue Hill Farm north of the city, where they broke into teams and got up close and personal with the finest and freshest ingredients available.

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I thought that the Chicken team did the best. Everyone else was trying too hard. I think that if the ingredients really are fantastic, then you shouldn’t have to do too much to them to make them amazing, and everyone else tried to do too much.

The high points: Team Chicken’s strongest players, Jamie and Stefan butt heads, but get it together in time to put out a good meal. Carla makes dessert, again, proving that at least one chef has seen the previous seasons and came prepared to make a dessert.

The low points: Ariane butchers a lamb leg, both figuratively and literally. Watching her pound the leg of lamb with that saucepan, I actually felt bad for the cut of meat. Jeff forgets that some things (pork!) are meant to be fattening. Fabio buries what looked to be awesome ravioli under a huge dollop of pesto sauce. Radhika and Leah do nothing.

Team Chicken won the Elimination Challenge, and with uncharacteristic generosity, the judges voted them all winners.

Team Lamb ultimately lost, mostly due to Ariane’s lamb, and she went home for it. I think that was fair, since she took the lead on that dish, and that was the one that the judges liked the least. The new judge Toby doesn’t add a lot to the mix, in my opinion, but he was absolutely right when he argued to Padma that it’s not about what you cooked last week, or a month ago, but about what you cook tonight. The judges have to look at what’s in front of them now. Even if Ariane had done well in the past, she screwed up, and that meant it was time to pack her knives and all of that. I think the judges made the right call, though a poll at Bravo’s site seems to suggest that I’m in the minority on that one. (73% of voters think that Leah should’ve gone home). I wasn’t sad to see Ariane go, but I do believe that Leah doesn’t have too many more challenges in her. She’ll be gone soon.

Top Chef Rundown – January 7, 2009

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Do you guys watch Top Chef? If my blog interests you, then you probably should. It’s good TV. Yes, it’s a reality show, but it’s so much better than the average reality mess these days. It’s built on the model of Project Runway, and basically brings together a whole group of up-and-coming chefs to compete in a series of competitions. You’ll find it on Bravo on Wednesday nights. If you do watch Top Chef and haven’t watched this week’s episode, be warned. I’m going to spoil it.

At the season’s midpoint, the chefs are really beginning to stand out and show their true skills (or lack thereof), though I’ve yet to pick my favorite.

Before the holiday break, a Christmas special had the Chefs assigned themes from “The 12 Days of Christmas” to cater a gala event, and ultimately, the judges were so unimpressed with everyone that they decided not to send anyone home. When everyone is bad, it’s hard to pick the worst.

This week opened with a “Diet Dr. Pepper” Quickfire Challenge. (We have long been amused at the both the amount of and obviousness of product placement on Top Chef). The remaining Chefs were challenged to create a dessert without using sugar of any kind. We’re always surprised at this point in the history of the show that the Chefs don’t come prepared to make some sort of dessert, but right away, the typical moaning about how they don’t work with pastry and they aren’t a pastry chef started. Excuses, excuses. In the end, Radhika won immunity from the challenge ahead.

The Elimination Challenge was, quite simply, to make great food. The genius twist is that the Chefs were a part of the judging, and were able to taste each other’s food. They were harsh, but no where near as harsh as the new judge, Toby Young. He was fabulously snarky, but I feel like that may have been to the detriment of actually judging the food. We’ll see how that goes as the season goes on.

The best moment of the episode was when Fabio called out Jamie’s overuse of the scallop. “This is Top Chef! It’s not Top Scallop!” We actually laughed out loud. I do agree that Jamie makes scallops a lot, but I don’t really think it’s a problem. These chefs have personalities, favorite dishes, favorite ingredients, favorite styles. Marcel used foam, Richard souis-vide everything, Ilan cooked Spanish food, Radhika cooks Indian food…so what if Jamie likes scallops? As long as she’s cooking them well and impressing the judges, who cares? Speaking of impressing the judges, Jamie’s Seared Sea Scallops with Fennel won the whole thing. Good for her. I so hope she stops complaining about how she’s the best one there but never wins, though.

And then it comes down to elimination. Things were better overall this week, but there were some low points, notably Carla’s messy Bitter-Garlic Risotto, Eugene’s WTF Fish and Daikon “Pasta,” and Melissa’s Gross Fish Tacos. To counter the generous gift during the Christmas episode, two people went home this week, Eugene and Melissa. I think they got it right. Melissa seems to end up in the bottom more often than not, and when she’s not at the bottom, she’s solidly in the middle. And Eugene just seems to be out of his depth. Ultimately, it came down to too much creativity and too little. I think Carla was the right choice to stay–she’s got a few more weeks in her, but I don’t see her going all the way to the end. There are stronger players out there.

Cognac Cream Macaroni & Cheese

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

I live in a house without mushrooms.

I don’t like a dish to be overwhelmed by mushrooms, but I like to eat them from time to time. My husband and our roommate, on the other hand, have absolutely no interest in mushrooms of any kind. That, plus the fact that Perigord black truffles are approximately $700 a pound (frozen!) means that my take on Dave Martin’s Truffle and  Cognac Cream Macaroni & Cheese had to be made sans truffles.

I didn’t miss them.

Top Chef fans will probably remember Dave “I’m not your bitch, bitch!” Martin and this Macaroni and Cheese dish from Season 1. This was the dish that took Lee Ann Wong out of the running, the dish that allowed Dave to scrape on by to the next round. It looked amazing on television, and it pleased every one of an impressive group of judges. Top Chef is full of moments when every fan wishes they could be on scene, tasting each dish. Dave Martin’s macaroni and cheese was one of those moments for me. Imagine my excitement, then, when I found the recipe in my Top Chef cookbook. I was pleased to find, when I sat down to figure out dinner last night, that (aside from the truffles) I had everything I needed to make Dave Martin’s famous macaroni & cheese dish.

Cognac Cream Macaroni & Cheese
Adapted from the Top Chef Cookbook

  • butter for baking dish
  • 1 cup cognac (I used brandy)
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 6 roasted garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon sherry (I used a dry white wine)
  • 4 cups heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons fresh oregano (I used dried oregano, about a teaspoon)
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 6 ounces Parmesan cheese, finely grated (about 2 cups)
  • 2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
  • salt & freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound penne or other pasta, cooked al dente
  • 8 ounces Fontina cheese, finely grated (about 2 1/2 cups)
  • 2 cups seasoned sourdough crouton crumbs (I made my own, recipe follows)

A note on the cheeses: We did not have enough Parmesan cheese, so I used a combination of Parmesan, Fontina, and smoked Gouda, for a total of 14 ounces.

1. Generously butter the bottom & sides of a large,  deep baking dish. Set aside.

2. Place the cognac in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook until reduced by half, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

3. In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic and cook until they are softened, but not browned, about 3 minutes. Add the sherry and stir until evaporated. Add the cream, reduced cognac, oragano and thyme.

4. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is reduced by half and the flavors are infused, about 20 minutes. Watch the pot carefully so that the cream does not boil over. Add the Tabasco sauce, and salt and pepper to taste, followed by the cooked pasta and cheeses. (Reserve a small amount of cheese to sprinkle over the top of the dish). Set aside.

5. Pour the pasta mixture into the prepared baking dish and top with the crouton crumbs and remaining cheese. Bake for about 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees or until bubbly and browned on top.

Homemade Seasoned Crouton Crumbs
My Own Recipe

  • 6 slices of rustic Italian or sourdough bread, cubed (I used about half of a roasted garlic Italian loaf we had leftover)
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • kosher salt
  • fresh ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Spread cubed bread in a single layer on a baking sheet.

3. Drizzle the olive oil evenly over the cubed bread pieces.

4. Sprinkle the remaining ingredients over the cubed bread pieces and toss to coat.

5. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until browned and crisp.

6. When cool, drop into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until coarse crumbs, about 5 times.

Note: This recipe did not disappoint. Rich, creamy, decadent. The cognac cream adds to the richness, the fontina and gouda melted beautifully into a wonderful smooth texture. The top of the dish was crunchy and buttery. I served this macaroni and cheese as a side dish with some baked chicken breasts, and even though we rarely skip the proteins around here, this dish really could have stood on its own as an entree. It was that good.