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Top Chef Masters – food even Kelly can get behind

Still catching up on the Masters. We’re getting closer and closer to the champions round – this episode will see the fifth spot in the final sealed. Who might take it?

Rick Moonen is the Owner/Executive Chef at Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay (or, at least, that’s what I think he says. I must be wrong – surely that restaurant name contains way too many self-references than is practical). Gael tells us that he has brought three restaurants to three stars. One of them is RM’s Seafood, so we’ll go with that as the name, shall we?

Nils Noren is the Vice President of Culinary Arts at the French Culinary Institute. As he enters the kitchen, Rick greets him as “Niles”. Jay tells us that Nils is “very much the Swedish chef. He’s very precise, very calm and very cool.” Clearly, Jay didn’t grow up with the Muppets. Those of us who did do not equate precision, calmness or coolness with the Swedish Chef.

Mmm, Swedish meatballs

Lachlan M. Patterson is the chef and co-founder of Frosca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado. On arrival, he notes that he’s further from the stoves than Nils and Rick and Rick tells him that it’s because he’s younger. They all chuckle. Neither Rick nor Nils looks old enough to be expecting any advantage based on age, though. Jay’s introduction indicates that age is going to be Lachlan’s tag for the episode; he tells us that he’s really very good, “despite the fact that he’s really very young”.

Michael Chiarello owns the Bottega restaurant in the Napa Valley. He’s wanted to be a chef ever since he was in the third grade. Jay wonders whether Michael feels that “he has a lot more to prove than the others”, given that he’s only recently returned to being a chef after years on TV.

Now that we’ve met the chefs, it’s time to see what Kelly’s wearing this week. It’s a navy blue mini dress with aqua trimming and a rather frightening shiny detail that looks like armour plating. Perhaps the armour trim is a signal that she’s planning on eating – it looks to be wipe-clean. She’s here to introduce the Quickfire Challenge. What do our contestants face this week? Let’s find out, after the jump…

Quickfire Challenge – Junk Food

Knives are drawn to determine the order in which the chefs can choose their dishes. Michael goes first and chooses fish sticks and tartare sauce. Lachlan will be finding inspiration in a hot dog. Rick’s going with a corn dog (mmm, corn dog!) and Nils selects the fried shrimp.

Who will judge this challenge? Jeff Lewis, of “Flipping Out”, and his “crew”. The “crew” consists of Jenni, Ryan and… Carrie? Carrie the Real Estate Agent? I’m bitterly disappointed that Zoila isn’t there. Still, it’s not as though Jeff ever lets anybody else air their opinions, so I guess it doesn’t matter who makes up the rest of the panel.

“You have 45 minutes to turn junk into genius!” says Kelly, exiting to allow a flurry of shots of Glad products and GE wall ovens. Oh, and chefs running. Jeff interviews that his team lives on junk food because they don’t have time to eat in restaurants. Speaking of time, our chefs are running out of it. Except for Nils, who claims he’s always on time because he’s Swedish. Reality television embeds enough stereotypes without participants actively creating them, Nils.

Time’s up, and Rick’s corndogs are still in the “Fryalator”. He’s embarrassed that he’s not going to have anything to present to the judges.

Judging

Lachlan – Hot Dog (Proscuitto stufado with pork sausage). It looks like a soup, so I’m not sure that the judges are going to rate its hot-dogginess. Ryan and Jenni like the soup, but Jeff seems to be pushing the sausage around reluctantly and comments that it’s a “little rare”.

Michael – Fish Sticks (Swordfish meatballs with fisherman’s sauce). Jenni’s enthusiastic about the appearance of these, as she “loves anything fried”. Jeff and Ryan both like it. Jenni decides to elaborate on her judgment and I think that’s only so she can say “there’s three perfect balls” to make Jeff laugh.

Nils – Fried Shrimp (Poached shrimp with creamed corn and pickled cherry tomatoes). I hope he’s caned for this. Seriously, how is this a “take” on a junk food classic? Oh, that’s right, there’s a tiny fried crouton. Jeff likes the look of it and Ryan agrees that “it’s beautiful, but I don’t see the fried“.

Kelly explains that there is no fourth dish and Jeff feels ripped off. Michael’s pleased, though. “With Rick out of the picture, I have at least a 30% better chance of winning!”, which… no. You don’t. It’s not “luck of the draw”, it’s judged, but even if it were random, your chances would have been 25% and now they’re 33%.

Scores:
Lachlan – 3
Nils – 3
Rick – 0 (Kelly screws up her face apologetically as she delivers this news, like it was unexpected)
Michael – 4.5

Elimination Challenge – A three course meal for 100 people

The reaction shots show the chefs trying to look brave, but not managing too well. Lachlan interviews that he immediately started calculating: “3 courses, 100 people, that’s 300 plates!”. And excellent mental maths. Kelly lets them stew for a bit, then delivers the “twist” we viewers have come to expect: the chefs must create three different hors d’oeuvres based on appetiser/main/dessert. Nils and Michel are relieved, although Rick acknowledges that it’s going to be a difficult task. The chefs have $1000 to spend, three hours to prep, and then another hour “tomorrow” to set up their stations and get ready for service. Rick’s under pressure due to his dismal performance in the Quickfire.

Frantic prepping and not a lot of psychological warfare compared to what’s been dished out on Great British Menu. Rick declares he’s not going down without a fight, and Michael’s worried that his lead might be in danger since his gelato isn’t freezing. Still, in an un-Top-Chef-Masters way, he hopes that somebody else screws up more than him so that he wins.

Time ticks down towards service and Nils is fretting that’s he’s forgotten something, since he’s so under control. He offers to help the others and Rick’s happy for the assistance. “Niles is a great guy. No matter what they say about him in New York, he’s really an okay guy.” Oh, Rick, you jester!

Party time!

Guests arrive and Michael does some rather skeevy flirting: “If I had a smile like yours, I wouldn’t have to cook for a living.” Kelly arrives in a one-shouldered taffeta looking number that seems a bit 1987 and she introduces the judges to Michael. Gael’s lid tonight is a darkish pink, bordering on a red, that seems to match her outfit more successfully than in previous episodes.

Appetisers
Michael hands out his appetiser, which is a shaved brussels sprouts salad with citrus vinaigrette and marcona almonds. There are some positive comments from diners and Gael also seems to like it, although she and James agree that it’s not really a standing-up-and-eating dish.

Next up is Lachlan’s “fritta esotica”, which he says is a Northern Italian specialty: pineapple wrapped in speck and deep fried. Sounds hideous. Diners and judges are underwhelmed. Somebody says “it’s like a Hawaiian pizza”, which is never a something a chef would want to hear, surely.

Rick is serving an opakapaka and barramundi ceviche with yuzu, avocado and grapefruit. The diners rave – “heaven in my mouth” – and the judges also seem pleased. I’m just surprised that there’s barramundi in the US. I know people who won’t eat barramundi in Victoria because it’s too far from the source…

Nils’ offering is a scallop with smoked potato cream, apple and curry oil. More positives from diners and James seems to give him the win for this course.

Mains
Michael – prawns with rice flour, chilli and garlic oil. Michael’s bantering with the guests and Lachlan gives a rather stony-faced interview in which he notes Michael’s popularity and showmanship. Ah, well. Gael doesn’t think that cocktail party food should demand a knife, and almost gets into a brawl over the point with James. Jay defuses the argument by giving his opinion on the food (oily but tasty).

Rick – brandade of scallop and shrimp, fennel salad with truffle vinaigrette. The judges and diners are enthusiastic about it, but the biggest excitement is…

Kelly's eating!

Kelly's eating!

Now I understand why they invented this silly hors d’oeuvres challenge – this is a full meal to Kelly!

Lachlan – grilled beef short ribs with anchovy parmesan vinaigrette and horseradish. Yum! Although I don’t know that I’d be wanting to munch on ribs at a cocktail party. The judges are ecstatic, and Gael is even eating the salad with her fingers. I’m obviously just a wimp, then.

Nils – slow-cooked salmon with napa cabbage, chorizo, broccoli puree and madeira sauce. The diners are pleased and the judges are reduced to appreciative onomatopoeia.

Dessert
Lachlan tells the gathered diners that his dessert “doesn’t need a spiel”. I guess he’s trying to parry Michael’s tactic. He’s offering a strawberry frangipane tart with yoghurt semifreddo. “It almost has a meat-like taste,” says James. “Like steak tartare!” says Kelly. How awful!

Michael’s having trouble plating up his dessert as it has “more elements than I have hands, or patience”. It’s balsamic marinated strawberries with basil gelato and chocolate creme fraiche, which sounds a little confused to me. He “flatters” a “cute girl” into helping him out. “How’s this cheating? Women helping me is never cheating! Ah, maybe to my wife!” I don’t like him. It gets mostly positive comments, however Gael doesn’t like “lawn cuttings” in her dessert.

Rick is serving a lemon panna cotta with ginger, macadamia, coconut and pineapple. Jay tells Kelly that a good panna cotta “is meant to wobble like a woman’s breasts”. It might be more helpful at this point to point out to a number of the people assembled that a woman’s breasts should wobble like a good panna cotta. It would be news to most of them, I fear. The judges agree that this is a good panna cotta, although I think I catch Kelly glancing at her breasts for confirmation.

Nils’ dessert is a chocolate goat cheese ganache, cara cara orange gel and lapsang (sic) cream. Diners are divided – one woman doesn’t want to take a second bite, but its “challenging” nature gets a tick from another. The smoke is giving James sense-memory of bacon and I understand him on this. There are still bottles of Belgian smoked ale in the cupboard from a brew years ago – I can’t drink it as it reminds me too much of cheesy-bacon-balls. I need chocolate to clear my memory now.

Critics Table

Michael is praised by James for the starter, but Gael notes the knife issue with the prawn. Michael’s response is that he left the shell on the tail to use as a handle, which makes sense. Why didn’t Gael think of that, or was she saving her meat-hooks for Lachlan’s salad? Gael recycles her stupid “lawn cuttings” comment again and Michael laughs sycophantically. Seriously, Gael, you’re a food critic – do you really think of herbs as “lawn cuttings”?

Nils seems taken by surprise by Jay’s glowing assessment of his starter. He explains the technique for the fish and James comments that it was a bit “intensely fishy”. Gael and Jay immediately kybosh that idea. The judges agree that the dessert was the least successful part, but Nils explains the smoky-Sweden connection and, whilst they’re not persuaded to change their opinion, it seems they appreciate the idea behind the dish more now.

The judges let Lachlan rave about his appetiser and offer no comments, then he’s encouraged to talk about the ribs. Jay asks whether he thought strawberries were an improvement over the more traditional pears for a frangipane and seems satisfied with the “seasonality” answer.

Rick doesn’t blow his own trumpet, just acknowledges that it was a challenge and he’s relieved that it’s over. Gael praises the ceviche and Kelly gives props for the brandade. The judges are all blown away when Rick tells them that he created each panna cotta individually. Their little bowing gestures aren’t nearly as queasy-making as when Gary and George did the same to Poh in Masterchef Australia.

Discussion

  • Michael has converted Gael with the basil icecream and she forgives him for the extra oil on the shrimp
  • All Nils dishes were beautiful. He demonstrated his fundamental intelligence. They still don’t like the dessert, but Jay’s impressed that “he fought his corner”
  • Jay “can’t get behind the deep frying of the pineapple”. They’re divided on the short rib and James reiterates the “meat-like quality” he got from the dessert.
  • Rick gets a “blew my mind” from James on the brandade and Gael reiterates her love for the ceviche. We know how they felt about the panna cotta.

Has Rick done enough to overcome his dismal start? If this Rick-centric montage is anything to go by, I’m guessing that he has.

Rick: 17
Lachlan: 15.5

Lachlan, pack your knives

Nils: 17

Ooh, this could be interesting. Or it means that Michael’s through, which will be disappointing.

Michael: 19.5

Michael goes onto the champions round, but Rick has decided that he’s the People’s Choice winner. Whatever gets you through, buddy.