Friday, October 30, 2009

Top Chef Las Vegas, Ep. 10: I Gotta Take a Leek

I finally caught this week’s Top Chef on DVR. I had the chance to be out eating great food and chose that over watching people on TV cook food. So this week the chefs had to take a crack at TV Dinners. Although I watch a lot of TV while eating dinner, I have never been a fan of the traditional frozen TV dinner, so I was interested to see what they would whip up. To add to the fun, each chef drew a knife and got a TV show to base their dish on. I thought this was cool and was even more excited about this Quickfire Challenge. Unfortunately, very few of the chefs actually did much with the theme. Most of them weren’t even that familiar with their shows.

Here’s what they got and what immediately came to my mind:
- Kevin: The Sopranos- A great one. Make an Italian feast, feature something from the pork store and of course, some Capicola (gabagool). Kevin does meatballs. I doubt he’ll be the one to get whacked.
- Eli: Gilligan’s Island- This one is easy. Coconut cream pie, radioactive carrots & spinach and wash it down with some Spider Cider. Or The Skipper's favorite meal; a nice, thick, juicy steak. Eli admits he’s a bit young to really know Gilligan, so he does island themed macadamia shrimp. I can live with that.
- Jen: The Flintstones- Oh man, so much here. Obviously giant ribs, a bronto-burger, a bowl of Fruity Pebbles and any drink on the rocks. Unfortunately, Jen does not have any big beef to work with, so she does a lame chicken dish with little relevance to the show. Yabba dabba dull.
- Robin: Sesame Street- There are so many possibilities. Obviously cookies, but how about cooking a big bird? Or say your dish was brought to you by the letter “C” and make all foods that start with “C”. Also, make something with sesame seeds, for god sakes. While Robin does not know Sesame Street that well, she does at least make an attempt to link the color and look of her food to the show.
- Bryan: MASH- The first thing I thought of was mashed potatoes, which actually Bryan did. And I could not argue with his choice of Korean food. He does meatloaf & mashed potatoes. Henry Blake is yawning in his grave.
- Mike I.: Seinfeld- Perhaps the best one to get. So many funny possibilities. Mutton, mulligatawny soup, jambalaya, scrambled eggs with lobster, pretzels to make your mouth dry, Kenny Roger’s chicken, a Twix, Poppy’s handmade pizza… the list goes on and on. But Mike I. confesses that he never watched Seinfeld. WHAT? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I never really liked this guy and now I know why. I hope he gets kicked off tonight. He makes sausage and peppers. He could have won this event by simply saying at presentation: “No soup for you!”
- Mike V.- Cheers- Bar food comes to mind, which is what Mike V. does, but I would have at least served a beer in honor of Norm. I also would have done a Boston themed meal… maybe some chowdah or baked beans.

Jennifer and Robin end up as the losers, and Kevin and Bryan are on top. Kevin ends up winning, but as I said, I was very disappointed by the lack of relevancy the food had to any of the TV shows. Kevin also wins the honor of his dish being featured as one of the new Top Chef frozen TV dinners. It’s the brand his grandma buys, and he says he hopes someday she can buy one with his picture on the box. I like Kevin, but my god man, you’ve won a lot of money already on this show. Step up and buy the damn meals for your grandma yourself. What kind of grandson are you?

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs get to take over Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak restaurant at the MGM Grand. That night, the chefs eagerly plan there carnivorous platters, only to be surprised by guest judge Natalie Portman, who is a vegetarian. This throws a wrench in most people’s plans, but Robin is psyched because she is at home with vegetarian meals. Surprisingly, Kevin reveals that he and his wife take a vegetarian break each year. You’d never know it by looking at him. I guess potato chips and ice cream are not considered meat. His veggie break is probably why he’s still alive, after watching the segment where he eats everything in sight at the contestant’s’ dinner.

It’s apparent that there is no fight left in Jen. Her performance is starting to slide and each interview has her less confident than the last. The opposite is true of Mike I., who assumes that he'll keep moving on, no matter what he does.

I think my favorite part of this challenge was Tom Colicchio’s reactions to the dishes and the contestant’s explanations after words. A few words to describe it would be confounded, condescending, baffled, disgusted and annoyed.

The winners are Mike V., Eli and Kevin. Eli might have done better, but a judge got a piece of his lavender garnish in a bite and equated it to eating soap. Having tasted those soap ball decorations as a curious kid, I know how bad that can be.

Kevin ends up as the big winner again. He also wins a suite of GE kitchen appliances. Hey, maybe he can actually cook his grandma a meal or two now, instead of letting her eat frozen dinners.

When all is said and done, it’s Robin, Jen and Mike I. on the bottom. Mike I. was convinced he would win this challenge, but a pot of slow heating water drowns his hopes. He serves undercooked leeks. However, Robin seems to have finally written her ticket out of the kitchen. Not only does she attempt to cook two dishes she’s unfamiliar with, but she under serves her beans by three plates. Meanwhile, Jen has become Eeyore from Winnie the Poo. She practically concedes the contest at Judge’s Table.

Just as we all expected the knife to come down on Robin, a bomb is dropped instead. Mike I. is eliminated. The man many deemed as the wild card in this contest is gone. He’s shocked, Robin is shocked and so are the rest of us. Sure, he’s a cocky S.O.B., but Robin did not get all of her food served. Those must have been some bad leeks. Or maybe the judges just agreed with me that anyone who doesn’t watch Seinfeld should just pack their knives and get the hell out of the kitchen. In Seinfeld-speak, he’s just not sponge-worthy.

So Robin dodges a bullet and there is finally only one Mike that I have to write about.
See you next week. Bon Appetite.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Top Chef Las Vegas, Ep. 9: What a Revoltin’ Development

Top Chef picks up this week with the crew lamenting the loss of Ash. He may have not been the best chef, but he was a nice guy and a pleasant presence in the kitchen. But make no mistake, this is not just a kitchen, it’s a battlefield. Luckily, the Voltaggio brothers keep reminding us of this with their constant fighting. And as we will see, the battle has really only just begun.

The Quickfire Challenge was a tag team cook-off with a few twists. Each chef drew a knife, but only Jen and Mike V. got to choose the teams. This quickly turned into a playground game of kickball, where the cools kids were all picked first and one poor soul gets picked last. Naturally that soul was Robin, who was not surprised in the least.

The teams were, in order that they cooked:
Blue: Jen, Laurine, Mike I. and Kevin
Red: Eli, Robin, Bryan and Mike V.

Kevin and Mike V. batted clean-up and it was clear that both teams tried to put their stronger chefs toward the end of the line. But the Blue team wisely harnessed Jen’s organizational skills and had her lead off. It paid off, as she laid out a variety of ingredients and options and set the Blue team off in a good direction.

This was a great challenge. As I mentioned, there were a few twists. The chefs were not allowed to speak to each other, and they were all blindfolded until it was time for them to take their ten minute turn. Kevin brought up a good point when he mentioned that going last meant that you could possibly take the blame for the team’s poor showing. But he had nothing to worry about; the Blue team delivers a wonderful fish dish. The funniest thing was the way Jen set up a pot of oil for poaching the fish, and each chef reacted differently to it. At first Laurine thinks it’s there to fry the garnish before realizing it’s for poaching. Mike I. ends up dumping it and starts it over, and Kevin abandons it altogether. Instead he cooks the fish in butter. I like the way this guy thinks.

The Red team did not do too badly either. Eli leads off and gets some steak started along with some other things. Robin jumps right in and continues to build the dish. Then Bryan steps in and sets the stage for his brother to succeed. Mike V. jumps in, finishes the steak dish. It’s good, but the Blue team clearly pleases the judge more.

The Blue team also wins $10K that they can split, or let ride in hopes of winning $10K each if they win the Elimination Challenge. They let it ride. You can see the confidence beaming from the Blue team. Meanwhile, the Voltaggio brothers are seeing red.

For the Elimination Challenge, the battle breaks out into all out war. Restaurant Wars, that is. While Restaurant Wars is always a highlight of each Top Chef season, it was a bit of a letdown that this year d├ęcor would not be part of the contest. To me, that’s half the fun of this challenge. But they will still be judged on their food, menu and service.

- The Blue team names their restaurant Mission and the Red goes with a combination of their names; Revolt. I guess naming a restaurant is a bit like your golf swing. It’s easier to see the mistakes when you are watching someone else. I knew it was a “revolting” name and so did you. And so did the judges. But in the heat of the moment, they thought it was a keeper.
- Laurine and Ash volunteer to take the front of the house of their respective restaurants. This is always a sexy option, but it has often spelled doom for past contestants as you become the face of the losing team, and often the fall guy.
- When Eli decides to leave his shirt untucked, I cringed. Even as a mostly untucked guy myself, I know there is a time and a place to tuck, and this would be one of those times. The judges also mention it later on.
- The Blue team thinks they are being clever when they decide to skip dessert, since it is usually the dish that gets someone sent home. However, it’s pretty much the judge’s first complaint when they see Mission’s menu. I am still astounded by how hard dessert seems to be to so many accomplished cooks.
- While at the Restaurant Depot, Mike I. and Laurine playfully block Robin and Eli from getting out of the car, and eventually beat them to the sparkling water. This sets Robin off, and she playfully pushes Laurine. The push is just barley playful.
- Later, in the Revolt kitchen Robin nearly stages a revolt when Mike V. begins to hound her and actually starts to adjust her dish. Robin stands her ground but Mike does belittle her something good. Mike V. claims he has the biggest heart of the group, but he also has the biggest mouth, temper and ego. But Robin knows the old saying about taking the heat in the kitchen…
- The Mission group’s night quickly goes to hell as soon as the guests arrive. Jen falls behind on her dishes and Laurine is overwhelmed by the house. Laurine also forgets several times to explain the dishes to the judges. Tom Colicchio mentions that Lauine seems to be hiding, and also pins some the blame on her when subpar food starts to appear at the table. I sense trouble for her.
- The Revolt team may have friction in the kitchen, but Eli does not let that spill out onto the floor. His shirt may be untucked, but he is quite buttoned up as a host.
- It was obvious that the Mission team did suffer from a bit of overconfidence. However, the dark horse that emerged tonight was Robin. Her pear dessert was the big hit, from a menu that was considered the best in Restaurant Wars history. Not bad.

It was hard to tell who was going to go home this week. Kevin undercooks the lamb, Jen fails with two dishes and Mission’s food service is dreadfully slow. All indicators point to Jen being sent home. Except, I keep remembering Tom Colicchio’s comments about Laurine. She’s definitely the weakest chef on Mission, and they don’t want to let Jen go too soon. Thus it is Mission Impossible for Laurine, and she takes the hit for her team and is asked to leave. Note for future contestants; Hiding from the judges is not good move when you are the hostess.

Meanwhile, Mike V. is the ultimate winner from the Revolt team. He is also awarded the $10K that Mission had just lost. As he had mentioned, he has a big heart and offers to split the money with his team. However, Bryan refuses to take his money out of principle. Mike V. can’t buy his way out of inappropriate behavior with his brother. I love it. I have not seen brothers like this since Wolverine and Sabertooth. (If you happen to have seen the latest Wolverine movie, you know what I mean.)

This is setting up nicely, huh? It certainly will be a let own if both of the Voltaggio brothers are not in the final four. I’m sure we have nothing to worry about. I’m guessing they will be there along with Kevin and Jen, with Mike I. being the wildcard.

Next week things heat up, thanks to Star Wars hottie, Natalie Portman. In Top Chef language, I’d say she’s quite a dish.

Bon Appetite.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Top Chef Las Vegas, Ep. 8: Kiss Your Ash Goodbye

Things are heating up in the Top Chef kitchen, as the field is narrowing and there are fewer places for people to hide. This week, at the beginning of the show, we learn that Eli still lives with his parents and Robin does Pilates every morning. It illustrates my impression of these two. Eli is a spoiled brat and Robin has to work for everything she gets.

Mike V. reflects on his poor showing from last week and then confidently points out that even Babe Ruth struck out every now and then. (Perhaps all that flattery from Ash last week has gone to his head?)

When we get to the Top Chef kitchen, Padma introduces the guest judge, Charlie Palmer, a great American chef who has ties to both Voltaggio brothers. Bryan worked for him for 10 years and Mike worked with him for one year. The Quickfire’s theme this week was “pairing”. The chefs had to pair a dish with a selection from the Alexia frozen food collection. I had never heard of Alexia, and I’m afraid their advertising scheme worked on me. After watching this challenge, I not only looked them up online, but I have scoped out supermarkets in the area where I can find it. Some of those things sounded good, like those onions or BBQ chips. They even have spicy sweet potato fries, which I’m sure will appear in my dreams tonight. (Naturally, Padma will be feeding them to me in that dream, but that’s none of your business.)

The chefs go to it with mixed results. Kevin takes the fried onions and does a spin on the classic green bean casserole. Laurine takes a page from Dr. Lecter’s cookbook and incorporates fava beans into her dish. She should have paired it with a nice Chianti, if you ask me.

Jen makes pork chops, and quickly realizes that they are over cooked. That’s one of the differences between the better chefs and the rest. They tend to recognize their mistakes. How many times at judges table has Ash or Robin been surprised by the judges reaction to their food?

Sure enough, Robin, Ash and Jen end up on the bottom. Jen is there for poor execution while the other two simply made subpar dishes.

The top finishers are Eli, Bryan and Kevin. Eli scores his first win. I’m sure his parents are proud. Unfortunately, it was not a high stakes challenge, so he does not win any money, and he won’t be getting his own place anytime soon.

Then the Elimination Challenge is announced. The group will be cooking for the Pigs & Pinot event, which involves pork and Pinot Noir. I gotta tell you, if that Alexia food did not make me hungry enough, now they are working with two of my favorite things in the world. As a matter of fact, if I had written that song about “a few of my favorite things”, pork and Pinot Noir would definitely have made it into the lyrics. So would peanuts, baked potatoes, candy corn and mint chocolate chip ice cream among other things. But I digress…

After the contestant draw knives to determine which cut of pork they will use, they return to the house for the evening. Here, through the magic of video editing, we are treated to the non-stop chit chat of Robin and its adverse effect on the rest of the group. Kevin wisely stays out of the fray, but Mike I. and Eli’s distain for Robin is on display front and center. It must be weird for these people to watch the shows afterwards and see all the crap that is said about them behind their backs. If I were on this show, I’d be really careful about what I said about others… after all, all of these folks own really big knives.

- Bryan gets ribs, perhaps the most classic of pork dishes, but one that usually takes a long time to cook properly. His work is cut out for him.
- Kevin gets leg, and is thrilled to be working with pork. He even boasts a pig tattoo. This guy has the love. He comments that with his extensive experience with pork, it would be a major disappointment if he did not win this challenge. (Kind of like when Scarfy did not win the French cuisine challenge.)
- Ash gets tenderloin, perhaps the most delectable dish on the pork menu. When he takes advice from Mike I. and decides to serve a cold pork dish, I knew he was in trouble. Ash is clearly in over his head in this competition.
- Eli gets pork bellies, which always makes me think of Trading Places. Jen draws a wildcard knife and also chooses pork bellies. She wisely avoids a cut that’s susceptible to overcooking. She’s ready to redeem herself from her dry pork chops.
- Laurine gets pork butt and decides to make rillettes. Unfortunately, she does not properly prepare her dish and the judges compare it to cat food. To be honest, I can’t believe she survived this round.
- Robin makes pork chops, which are described as “slimy”. Unless you are cooking for the Adam’s Family, that is not a good word to describe your food.
- The brothers get into a tiff in the kitchen and Mike tells Bryan to go “F” himself at one point. The sibling rivalry is always interesting with these two, as is their loyalty when they are faced with an outside threat.

The top four turn out to be Mike V, Bryan, Jen and Kevin. It was Mike V. who compared himself to Babe Ruth, but it is Kevin who steps up to the plate and hits it out of the park. And, similar to Babe Ruth’s famous called shot, Kevin had pretty much predicted that he would win this challenge. Kevin also is awarded the honor of returning to Pigs & Pinot next year. I am seriously thinking of booking a ticket myself.

On the bottom we have the usual suspects; Robin, Ash and Laurine. I really thought this was it for Laurine, but when Ash starts talking he digs his own grave. He basically admits that he had second guessed himself again and had failed to execute what he calls “his food”. So Ash is asked to pack his knives and go.

Next week things continue to heat up as it’s time for everyone’s favorite, Restaurant Wars. I can’t wait to see how Robin does working in a team setting with this crew. As for me, I’m off to find me some pig and Pinot.

Bon Appetite.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Top Chef Las Vegas Ep. 7: Ashes to Ashley, All Fall Down

Sorry this blog is late. I missed this past week’s Top Chef, but thanks to the miracle of DVR, I was able to catch it today. I think DVR is the best invention of the past 20 years, along with GPS and Lasik surgery. Now I can find my way home faster so I can watch television, watch my favorite shows at my convenience while skipping commercials and I can also see the TV a whole heck of a lot better.

So this episode featured Tyler Florence as the guest judge. Tyler is a staple on the Food Network. I always wonder the relationship between Top Chef and the Food Network is. Are they competitors? I mean, we often see chefs and personalities from one on the other, like Ted Allen, for instance. So what’s the deal?

This week we saw some contestants have to deal with tough breaks. In the Quickfire Challenge, it was Jen who had to deal with a tough situation. She was sick. But there are no sick days on Top Chef, so Jen just had to power through it. (I have to admit, if I was a judge, I would not be crazy about a sick person preparing my food. Is it rude to gargle with Purell after you eat?)

A slot machine was rolled out and each chef pulled the lever to reveal three keywords that would be the inspiration for each dish. One of the words that kept popping up was “Umami”, which I had never heard before. Rather than explain it to you, I have simply linked you to the Wiki entry on it. After reading it, I’m still not sure I fully get it. That’s why I eat more than I cook, folks.

Along with term Middle Eastern, Ashley got the words blue and cheesy, but did not use bleu cheese in her dish. I guess that would have been too obvious. Robin also got Middle Eastern as one of her words, and then was practically bitch slapped by Padma, who had to remind her that curry is not a Middle Eastern ingredient. We are all wondering how much longer Robin will last.

Eli gets the word Umami and proceeds to hog all of the mushrooms, but it does not matter. He still ends up on the bottom along with Robin and sick Jennifer. Meanwhile, Mike I, Michael V. and Kevin are the top three. Kevin ends up winning. His words were stressed, hot & spicy and Asian. (With those words, he should have been cooking for Jackie Chan.) Because it’s a high stakes challenge, Kevin get to choose a prize of $15,000 or immunity in the Elimination Challenge. He wisely chooses the money. For a guy who regularly finishes strong, it would have been nuts to pass up that cash.

The Elimination Challenge had the chefs drawing knives and pairing up in order to cook family style meals for the judges, who would provide them with unique bags of ingredients to work with. They also had to use a section of the contestant’s house to prepare their food. Eli snakes a spot next to the stove, similar to the way he hoarded the mushrooms earlier.

Jen is feeling better, as well she should be, because she gets paired up with Kevin. They make a dish with Kobe ribs and some kind of tomato sauce that just plain looks delicious.

Ash and Michael V. set up in the dining room with a variety of electric appliances provided by the good folks at Macy’s. It was pretty clear that Ash has a little crush on Michael, to the point where it eventually made Michael uncomfortable. (And me too.) Meanwhile, there was no love between Mike I. and Robin. He only took breaks from berating Robin in order to blow his own horn. Yet, it was Robin who knew how to work with Asian flavors, not him.

Michael V. and Ash are the victims of unfortunate circumstances in this round. The electric appliances they use cause continual power outages, resulting in the overcooking of their fish. As they battle the fuse box, Ashley and Eli attack some gnocchi and shrimp. Unfortunately, their shrimp ends up undercooked and their gnocchi is too salty.

So when it’s all said and done, the winners are Laurine/Bryan and Jen/Kevin. Jen and Kevin end up winning, with Jen being named the ultimate winner. She walks away with a $10,000 Macy’s gift card. I was happy to hear her say she’d at least buy Kevin a suit or something… since he did have a big part in her victory.

Then the losers were brought to judges table. Ash/Mike V. and Ashley/Eli are matched before the firing squad. Although Mike V. had served overcooked fish, he’s too good to send home this early. Besides, he did all the work while Ash set the table and made google-eyes at him the whole time. Then Ash goes into a monologue about how dreamy Michael V. is and even compares him to Michelangelo. (The painter, not the ninja turtle.) Ash basically says he held the brushes while the artist did his thing. Michael V. had to have gotten a Glenn Close/Fatal Attraction vibe at this point, judging from his uneasy reaction.

I had a feeling Eli or Ash might go, but I was wrong. Ashley is held responsible for the raw shrimp and salty gnocchi and is asked to pack ‘em up and go. I thought she would last longer than a few other people on the show. Robin and Ash in particular, seem to have dodged a bullet.

So now I am caught up on Top Chef, and you are caught up on my blog. I’ll see you next time.

Bon Appetite.