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Top Chef Masters: working with kids and animals*

*Ok, not animals. But kids. And college students. In dorms.

Bravo has perfected a certain competitive reality show formula and their Top Chef is one of the standouts. Top Chef Masters takes the TC concept, but with “the 24 most celebrated chefs in America” competing in the “culinary clash of the titans”. Masters adds in Kelly Choi, but unfortunately subtracts Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons (although previews suggest that Tom and Gail will make appearances at some point). Will Kelly be a suitable substitute for Padma? Will this format be bloggable? Will talented “name chefs” competing for bragging rights and a charity donation be as engaging as ruthless competitiveness?

Let’s find out, after the jump…

First up, Glad is sponsoring this season, so at least we’ll take away lots of cunning storage ideas.

Today’s contestants
Michael Schlow (rhymes with cow) – Radius in Boston.
Hubert Keller – Fleur de Lis in San Francisco and Las Vegas and a Burger Bar at the Mandalay Bay (and now I’ve got Robbie Williams’ “Me and My Monkey” in my head…).
Tim Love – The Lonesome Dove, Fort Worth, Texas, not formally trained – “just a cowboy”.
Christopher Lee (no, not the Saruman Christopher Lee) – Aureole, New York

I’m guessing we’re not going to see any late-night spooning in the Top Chef Apartment with this lot.

Quickfire Challenge

According to Kelly, they are “bringing back a favourite – dessert!” Our chefs moan, as Top Chef chefs seem wont to do when sweet courses are required. The scorers are Junior Girl Scouts. The chefs will be able to see the girls eating their dishes but the “girls won’t know you’re watching”. Creepy.

As soon as the chefs start hitting the shelves, we get a screen full of Glad. I guess it’s for a good cause…

Tim’s playing the “just a pup from Texas” thing hard, whilst juggling eggs. His kids love strawberry, so that’s what he’s going to offer. Chris is trying to please the customer whilst retaining his integrity. He’s doing this by making French toast, because apparently all kids love French toast. Really? I mean, I like French toast (had it this morning, in fact) but these days, just as when I was a kid, I’d be miffed if it was presented to me as “dessert”. Michael’s delicious-sounding brownie and chocolate-peanut butter idea has turned into a disaster with undercooked cake and under-iced icecream and his plate looks like something shat on it.

It’s time for judging, so the chefs gather to watch the Junior Girl Scouts eat (and, presumably, to wonder whether Kelly deliberately matched her shirt to the girls’ uniforms).

Michael’s dish is described as “Milk chocolate cake, peanut butter chocolate candies and honey almond cream”. And still looks like shit on a plate. Still, if the girls ignore presentation, they might just go for it. What’s not to love (apart from the presentation)? The girls are surprisingly articulate and they don’t like it. I’m suspicious of these children – what kid would complain that something is “too chocolatey”?

Tim’s strawberries three ways looks amazing. One of the girls loves the chicken-fried strawberry – which, frankly, sounds hideous – but the red-head doesn’t because she doesn’t like the texture. The chefs think she’s harsh.

Hubert’s Chocolate mousse swan, whipped cream mouse and fruit with orange sabayon looks so sweet and the girls all greet its appearance with gasps and a chorus of “looks awesome”. (I wish he’d done a mousse mouse, though.)

Last up: Christopher’s French toast with caramelised banana, orange sauce and maple syrup fluff. Nice breakfast. Not a dessert. The red-head thinks it’s burnt. The chefs think the red-head is a critic in training.

The scores are tallied and Michael has 2.5, Tim and Chris are on 3.5 and Hubert takes it away with a perfect 5. These scores will be added to the Elimination Challenge scores and the winner will go through to the championship round.

Elimination Challenge – “Back to college”

Our chefs must prepare three course meal for the judges and their student guests using a toaster oven, microwave and hotplate. They have $150 apiece to spend in 45 minutes at Whole Foods. Hubert reveals that the shopping part was difficult because chefs don’t shop retail. He loses track of his shopping trolley. Bless. He thinks he’d have been a DJ if he wasn’t a chef. DJHK in the mutha-frakkin house, yo!

The next day, Tim – who finished his shopping without having a clear idea of what he was going to make – pulls his bags out of the fridge to find… that the fridge is, in fact, a freezer and everything is frozen solid. The others commiserate as they head out to the mystery cooking location which turns out to be student dorm rooms. Fortunately, there are lots of Glad storage boxes, wraps and ziploc bags handy.

Michael banters with the rather geeky student whose room has become a kitchen. Michael’s right – the room is a mess. On the menu: Salmon crudo, Cabbage soup with bacon (yay – just what a dorm room needs – cabbage smell), and pork a la apicius (which I’d never heard of. Google returned only hits to Top Chef and commentaries on Top Chef when I searched, but I also came across a description of “Concicla a la Apicius” as being similar to a cassoulet).

Tim’s giving his host student a taste of his work in progress. His full menu: Scallop carpaccio (this dish is a make-do – the freezing of the scallops has meant that they’re too waterlogged for searing), squash and corn “pozole” (this dish apparently relies on honey, which he does not have, so he’s hoping to extract enough sweetness from the corn; so it’s another make-do) and skirt steak and braised kale. Despite all the setbacks, he’s happy with where he’s at.

Hubert’s menu: Fresh Scottish Salmon (that sounds like a product description, not a menu item), carrot and pea soup with cinnamon and macaroni cheese with prawns. The limitations of the dorm situation mean that he has to drain his pasta in the bathroom. All the chefs seem impressed with his resourcefulness, but… eew.

Saruman is serving red snapper ceviche, creamy risotto, and pan roasted pork chop.

Where’s my pudding! Seriously, if somebody offered me a three course meal, I’d be expecting something sweet to finish. I know the chefs all seemed to moan when the Quickfire was a dessert – and we’ve seen Top Chef vanilla contestants shy away from desserts – but c’mon! Pudding!

Meet the judges

Tim’s impressed (or terrified) when he recognises Gael Greene (NY Food Critic), and Christopher notes that she’s tough; Hubert gives some background on James Oseland (Editor-in-Chief, Saveur Magazine). Jay Rayner (Restaurant Critic, Observer) goes unacknowledged. I wonder how well known he is in the US?

First course
Tim’s Scallop – one of the students says “that’s interesting”, Jay doesn’t get the chilli and James comments on the “pretty decent” olive oil. Faint praise.
Michael’s Crudo – Students like it. Jay thinks not cooking a dish is a form of cheating, given that the challenge was to work within the limitations of stripped back facilities, but… isn’t that what he’s doing?
Christopher’s Ceviche – James likes the vinaigrette and James thinks the fish is the most successful of the three, so I guess he’s over the accusation that “not cooking = cheating” already.
Hubert’s Salmon – “delicious” according to James.

Second course
Michael’s Cabbage Soup – the students greet the bowls with “wow”. The judges think it has depth and “wonderful spicy aftertaste”. I’m guessing that it’s part of her “signature look”, but I wish Gael would take off her hat. She looks like an elderly lady on a British Rail seniors pass.
Christopher’s Risotto – “soggy and soft” according to Gael, “but it does actually taste pretty good” amends James.
Hubert’s Soup – “Per-fect-ly” cooked veggies, says James. Kelly likes the taste and Gael’s a fan of the crouton.
Tim’s Pozole – Jay says it matches the dorm environment, which sounds negative, but James says it’s perfect for “football watching” and calls it delicious. Maybe Jay’s comment was a compliment, then?

Third course
Tim’s steak – Simple (Gael), salty (James), bitter kale (the geeky student from Michael’s room. He adds that Tim should have added some extra zest. I’m not sure whether he means actual zest, or, you know, zest! zing! pizzazz!).
Michael’s pork – “peppery and sweet”, although the pepper was “aggressive” (Jay), not rare enough (Gael)
Hubert’s mac – the critics like it and the students agree. James breaks out “delicious” as praise once more.
Christopher’s pork – the only judge comment we hear is from James, who says that “considering he did that on a hotplate, he really pulled that off”, but was it good? Or just good for hotplate pork? We shall soon find out!

Critics table

Hubert responds to James’ question – “did you feel that your execution was everything that it could be?” – by not really answering it and, instead, telling his pasta-in-the-bathroom story. TMI, says James.
Jay didn’t “get” the soup and James found it overpowering. Gael loved the cinnamon.

Gael was disappointed that Michael’s pork was overcooked. He explains that it was hard to sear using the hotplate. She loved his soup.

Tim explains his freezer disaster and the critics are generally positive. Jay says the searing of the steak “was exactly what I look for in a piece of skirt” which is in the running for the line of the night award.

Jay loved the flavour profile of Christopher’s risotto but it wasn’t “al dente”. Kelly also liked it, but who cares? She’s not scoring. James thought Chris “pulled off” his pork. Hee!

Judge chat

As the judges chat – revealing very little more than what we’ve already seen and heard – the chefs are relaxing and ribbing Hubert about his “shower scene”. Michael just wants to clarify that Hubert had his clothes on.

Final Scores

Michael: 13.5, Tim: 14.5

Michael – “pack your knives”.

Christopher: 19

Tim – “pack your knives”.

Hubert: 20.5

Each chef gets a donation for their charities and all report that they had fun.  Hubert will return in the championship round. I guess he can also pack his knives.


1 Reality Raver { 08.08.09 at 6:01 pm }

Injera – Love your recap as usual you manage to observe all the nuances, however you did miss one which I thought was particularly relevant, or maybe you noticed and did not put it in.

The scene when the boy came into the dorm room to take a book off the shelf to read and then walk out, was Infinite Jest. How do I know I rewound it about 4 times to see it. I thought it ironic considering you have just finished reading it and wondered if you would pick it up.

I thought Keller actually dipping the shower head in the past was disgusting, how well would they be cleaned, and also if cleaned wouldn’t they have bleach on it.

Having said that I thought Keller’s food was by far and away the best, but if ever in Fort Worth (unlikely) I would definitely try and eat at Tim’s restaurant.

Yes I love the way Kim Choi said she enjoyed something, but I never actually saw her eat at anytime throughout the episode. I thought she looked so thin that she probably has some clause in the contract that she does not have to be seen eating on camera.

I kind of enjoyed it but it pales compared to the real Top Chef, as we will be unable to form any emotional attachment to any of the chefs as they won’t be on week after week.

So agree about the hat on the Gael Green. FFS take it off.

2 Injera { 08.08.09 at 6:17 pm }

Oh my god! I totally missed Infinite Jest, which is weird, because I was thinking about it throughout given the Glad sponsorship (“Year of Glad” is the opening chapter of IJ).

Kelly gave as much as Sarah did in Masterchef, which is to say nothing.

From the previews for next week, I’m afraid Gael persists with the hat. On a brighter note: Neil! Patrick! Harris!

Keller’s food did look great but I’m a sucker for BBQ and would also be at the Lonesome Dove in a heartbeat (unless it’s in Houston, because Houston’s not really a place I’d go back to).

3 Jacqui { 08.08.09 at 9:22 pm }

Agree the shower thing was very unhygienic- i would have refused to eat the pasta if i had known what had happened to it! Reminds me of the bait incident on masterchef where they knew what had happened but yet still ate it! Will see if this show gets better next week, it just doesn’t have the same feeling as masterchef!

4 Injera { 08.08.09 at 9:32 pm }

You’re right, Jacqui, it’s a completely different beast to Masterchef Australia. Having said that, when I first started watching MA I thought I’d hate it as it was so different to the original Masterchef. I guess it was a settling-in period for me and then I accepted that it was a different show and went with the flow. If, after a few eps, you decide you don’t like this iteration of Top Chef, check back when the regular version comes on as there is a bit more drama (more at stake!).

5 Laura { 08.09.09 at 2:42 am }

I loved Hubert! But I prefer the permanent cast of the original Top Chef.

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