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Top Chef Masters – offally nice food

This has been a long time coming! Much longer than expected, thanks to Raver’s aforementioned visit and some over-enthusiastic explorations of local bars. The hangover has finally been overcome and I reached a place where watching *spoiler alert* offal creations became once-again possible.

Wilo Benet is the Chef/Proprietor of Pikayo in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Tom makes his contractual obligation appearance to tell us that Wilo is Puerto Rico’s first celebrity chef. He judged Top Chef Chicago’s Puerto Rico episode and is anticipating the pressure of being on the other side of the judge’s table.

Cindy Pawlcyn owns Mustard’s Grill in the Napa Valley. She’s the “queen of Napa cooking” according to James Oseland. She interviews that she’s nervous.

Ludovic Lefebvre tells us that he’s the chef-owner of Ludo Bites in LA. For some reason, the producers decide that we will need subtitles to understand him. Humph. He doesn’t like to lose, so he’ll probably be pleased to have already sewn up the category for “most tattoos”.

Rick Bayless owns Frontera Grill in Chicago. He developed a love for Mexico at 14. As with the other chefs, he’s won numerous awards. He’s “so ready to get started”!

Kelly Choi has a quick chat with our contestants, asking them if they are nervous. When Rick says he is, we get a shot of Ludo raising an eyebrow, as if to say “ha! Weakling! I’ll crush you like a gnat!”. Kelly Choi says “Why are you nervous, Rick Bayless?” and her delivery suggests that she doesn’t realise that “Rick Bayless” is his full name. She makes dramatic gestures and crazy eyes.

What will this week’s Quickfire Challenge be? Find out, after the jump…

Quickfire Challenge

The chefs must prepare a single colour dish, to be judged by food stylist Chris Oliver, cook book author Joanne Cianculli and food photographer Christina Peters. Knives are drawn and the results are: Orange – Wilo; Yellow – Cindy; Red – Ludo; Green – Rick. They have 30 minutes, which scares “slow food king” Rick Bayless.

Ludo is intense! Red is intense! He’s gone through the high-pressure French training environment and, although he shed some tears along the way, he survived! Then again, so did Cindy, who has made it in a male dominated environment. She’s very calm, though, so Ludo probably doesn’t rate her as competition.

Green is Rick’s favourite thing to cook with. He’s so happy! I would be, too, if I’d grown up in an Oklahoma BBQ restaurant. I’d be much fatter than him, though.

Wilo is designing his dish to appeal to his female diners.

Ludo shares a corner of his bench with Cindy and, in return, she helps him plate up. Masters is so nice and collaborative, which still doesn’t help Ludo, who has forgotten the tomato. Merde, indeed.


Ludo – steak tartare with watermelon, red onions and red beet gazpacho (sans gazpacho, since the waiters forgot to take it). Ludo freaks out, despite the fact that the judge comments are positive. Finally the waiters take the “sauce”. The judges dislike the blood-like sauce.

Cindy – yellow vegetable curry over sweet corn grits and fried corn tortillas. It’s VERY yellow. The judges like the different shades and textures. Cindy’s happy because they didn’t spit it out. She’s very self-deprecating.

Rick – roasted vegetables, mole verde with tomatillos, green chilies and pumpkin seeds. “It’s complex. For sure” judges Joanne with a grin and an eyebrow raise.<

Wilo – smoked salmon tartare with coconut milk and tomato paste sauce. This one sounds the least appetising, and doesn’t look particularly appealing on the plate. Chris likes the colour and texture but thinks the ring should have been taken off the tartare. Joanne loves the flavour and decides not to limit herself to a mere taste.


Ludo – 3; Cindy – 3.5; Rick – 4; Wilo – 4.5

Ludo looks pissed off and Wilo is relieved that more points weren’t deducted for leaving the egg ring on the plate.

Elimination Challenge – Create a dish that can easily be served on the street

The “street” is at Universal Studios, but that’s not the twist. Chefs draw knives to find out which, presumably kooky, key protein they’ll have to convince people to eat.

Wilo gets beef hearts, Rick gets tongue, Cindy gets tripe and Ludo gets pigs ears. Ludo interviews that masters should know how to work with these things. I’m not sure that any of the other chefs were disagreeing with him in the slightest, here, but were probably more concerned about trying to tempt the public with offally dishes. Ludo reveals that he has no experience of street food, as that’s not a French custom. He mulls it over and then decides on a quesadilla. Rick reveals that he’s making tacos, and Ludo assumes that this is because he was tipped off to the Mexican idea by the quesadillas. Somebody less paranoid might assume that a chef who cooks Mexican food for a living might focus on that for a street food challenge. He doesn’t seem to think that Cindy’s choice of a Mexican hangover soup is a copy of him.

The chefs have three hours and are stressed about the time constraints. Cindy realises that she’s going to have to use a pressure cooker in order to achieve the required tenderness for her tripe and Rick steps in to help her with it. He seems so sweet. With five minutes to go, Wilo, Cindy and Rick have all finished but Ludo’s still frantically working. Rick offers to help and is quite rudely rebuffed. You know, because Ludo has three stars. He finishes just in time.

The chefs have an hour to set up their stations at Universal Studios. Instead of being allowed to euphemise their way to victory, each chef is provided with a chalk board headed with the name of their protein. In enormous letters. Poor Cindy’s doesn’t even say “tripe”, it says “stomach”. She thinks she’s making the best of it by naming her dish “yummy tummy” but… of all of the options, I’d be going for something called Stomach last. Wilo seems to be hoping that his diners will overlook the “heart” and see the ham and chicken description that follows in his description. Ludo greets every mention of the ticking time by swearing, which is not subtitled. Why is it that the producers think we need subtitles for his interviews and conversation, but they bleep out when he swears?

Let’s Eat

The crowd comes in and Rick is serving and chatting up the customers, offering to “slip them some tongue”. I want him to win. Here come the critics – will they like his chorizo, bacon and tongue tacos with guacamole and pickled onions? I think they sound yummy, but Rick’s concerned because Gael is “unpredictable” (although we can rely on her to support the milliners of America). James says it’s “brilliant”; Jay thinks it’s “powerful… not the sort of thing you’d have a date after”; Gael would “definitely have a second”.

Onto heart. The crowd is lapping it up and Wilo is hamming it up for the diners. “You can’t even tell that it’s heart” is probably the most useful criticism here. Still, it’s what the judges think that really matters, so will they like the beef, ham and chicken “tripleta” in pita bread? James thinks there’s too much topping, but the heart is nice and tender. Jay notes that there are lots of textures.

Ludo is under pressure. He’s not getting the food out and his banter is of the I’m-usually-better-than-this variety. Will the judges buy that? Attack is always the best form of defence, of course, so he launches into a long-winded description of how he made his pork quesadilla with chorizo, pinto bean puree, lime aioli and smoked paprika to stave off any awkward “but where’s the food” questions. James asks if he’s made quesadillas before and he says he has, but it’s not a very convincing yes. Of course, he’s most worried about Jay’s comments because Jay’s English and would obviously put his reputation aside to carry on with some anti-French nationalism. That old chestnut. He thinks he’s charming Gael with his accent, but I’m sure she didn’t earn a reputation as a fearsome critic by letting the odd dropped “h” get under her guard. Stereotypes, accents and charm aside, what’s the food like? James likes the texture of the pig’s ear, but he thinks it’s like a grilled cheese sandwich with pig’s ear. I can’t figure out if Jay is finding it a “satisfying mouthful” or “satisfying mouthfeel”, and whether that is a skimpy compliment either way.

Cindy reminds me of the Homesick Restaurant – providing food she feels people need. Her customers give good feedback for the hot and spicy menudo but Jay thinks it’s under-seasoned. James and Gael both like the tripe itself, as it’s “sweet and tender”, which is not necessarily how I’d think of describing tripe (some sour, rubbery tripe snuck its way into a recent pho and I had to pick it out).

Critics table

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. Give me my score and tell me I win” – Ludo

Gael thinks Ludo’s choice was wonderful given his potential diners. James didn’t taste the ingredients Ludo is listing.

James and Gael provide positive feedback for the tripe, and the idea of a stew for a cold day. Cindy describes her dish as “the world’s most introductory menudo” and wonders whether she shouldn’t have dumbed it down so much.

Jay wonders if the taco was missing an acidic zing, but Rick thought that should have been covered by the tomatillos in the guacamole.<

James wonders how the meats are cut in a traditional “tripleta” and Wilo admits that they’re not usually cut so fine. Not heating up the pita seems to have been an oversight. Will it be a game ender?


Cindy celebrated her main ingredient, rather than hiding it as the others did, but she soft-pedalled the actual dish.
Wilo cooked the heart very well, but sliced it too thinly, and the pita idea was great for walking and eating.
Rick’s choice of chorizo and bacon was smart, since “they transform a dish”.
Ludo’s pig’s ear was well cooked, but it didn’t really go with the quesadilla. Jay breaks free of the English vs French rivalry and asks the others to consider the fact that Ludo had the “short straw” ingredient.

Final Scores

Ludo: 16.5, Cindy: 15.5

Cindy, pack your knives.

Rick: 22.5

Ludo, pack your knives.

Wilo: 19.5

Rick wins and will go through to the final! He gives credit to his chefs back at the restaurant who encouraged him to play to his strengths and Ludo defers to “the master” as they all leave.


1 Coco { 08.26.09 at 11:52 am }

for future episodes, try to work out if you ever see Kelly put food in her mouth

2 Injera { 08.26.09 at 12:06 pm }

To be honest, Coco, Kelly just kind of drifts in a place beyond my notice. I got quite a shock when she actually made a comment on somebody’s dish this episode (although you’re right – I didn’t see a morsel pass her lips. She won’t be bothering wardrobe for a size up by the end of this!).

I’ll be scrutinising from here on!

3 Sooty { 08.26.09 at 7:22 pm }

Enjoying your recaps Injera, and am warming to this version of Top Chef. Offal! Glad that’s out of the way.

Every episode the nicest chef wins! I’m happy. Is it a subtle further stick-it-up Stefan?

I miss Padma, and Tom; that Kelly is spookily angular in the face and so tense – someone needs to strap her down and feed her.