Let’s start this post with some personal information, which has now become relevant. I am a cook. I went to cooking school and I cook for a living. The people on this show are so far above me they wouldn’t hire me to wash dishes, let alone prep vegetables or otherwise create food in their kitchens. They are, in fact, MY Idols in a way that no singer (or drag queen) could ever be. But it does mean I have some idea about their thought processes and the techniques they use.
The other bit of information that is now relevant is that I am Orthodox Jewish and therefore I keep kosher. I came to it as an adult (born Jewish, just not raised religious) so I do remember how things like shrimp and lobster and bacon taste from twenty years ago. I do NOT know how other things taste because I never got the chance to try them before I swore them off. I have a decent palate and I am adventurous in my food, but there are limits I cannot pass.
(The religion will also come into play the next couple of weeks, as I prepare for and then observe the holiday of Passover, which means a great deal of time away from my keyboard.)
Enough about me!
We begin with meeting the twelve chefs, all of whom are established and well-known in the field, several of whom are celebrities in their own right. This isn’t Top Chef with people just starting, or even just getting recognition. These are established names – so much one wonders how much actual cooking they’re doing at the moment.
They’re playing for the glory, but also for their charities. They don’t need money to open yet another restaurant.
The host is Chef Curtis Stone, who is adorable.
In previous seasons, they winnowed a large field of chefs down, four at a time, until they were down to a final group, who then competed in challenges like the original Top Chef. In this season, it’s twelve chefs to start, and they’re Top Chef right away.
They jump right into the Quickfire. The chefs will compete head to head, with the one standing next to them. They each pick from fifteen boxes, which contain an ingredient. Each pair must both complete a dish using both ingredients. And the pairings are pretty much beyond my imagination, which is why I cook for a kosher group home instead of my own high end restaurant. Just saying.
We have canned corned beef and marshmallow (nightmare!), fresh sardines and dragonfruit, cockles and marmite, black liquorice and Marmite, and frog legs and cottage cheese. Yeah. I can ALMOST taste some of those.
We have salads and soups and hors d’ourvres and fried cottage cheese cakes, and we also have two chefs who didn’t bother plating anything at all, and one who forgot one of his required ingredients.
The judges are James Oseland and Ruth Reichl. Major players in the food writing world, both of them. Me, I’ve had ONE article published. So, I’m an insect with them, too.
Frog legs and cottage cheese. Mary Sue made fried cottage cheese cakes with frog legs while John C. made buffalo frog legs. He forgot his ranch cottage cheese, though. The judges preferred the cakes even before then, so Mary Sue wins.
Marshamallows and canned corned beef. I can honestly say I’ve never had canned corned beef and I can’t even imagine this combination at all. Neither, apparently, can anyone else because Suvir (by the way, I love Suvir) made a disgusting chaat (a sort of roadside snack) and Celine made an empty plate. Suvir, um, “wins.”
Sardines and dragonfruit. Hugh made panseared sardine and dragonfruit salad, which the judges thought was delicious. Naomi made an empty plate. Hugh wins (no quotes because he actually made something good.)
Cockles and Marmite – Alex made cockle and leek soup with Marmite, light on the Marmite. Floyd made Marmite soup with cockles. SOUP BATTLE! Floyd had more Marmite taste, so he wins.
Liquorice and Peanut butter. Traci made TWO salads, one with each ingredient, but they were tasty both apart and together. John S. made hors d’ourves, with too much liquorice, so Traci wins.
The top two dishes were Mary Sue’s cottage cheese cakes and Traci’s salads, and Traci wins. She gets immunity and $5K for her charity, which jumpstarts people, especially immigrant women, starting their own food business. She also gets a Lexus.
What was very cool with this challenge was that the judges had NO IDEA who cooked what. Blind tasting. I LOVE that.
Elimination challenge is RESTAURANT WARS. This is amazing right now, but as they point out, these people have all started multiple restaurants already so it’s more a matter of working together. The winning chefs are the red team, the losing chefs are the blue team. Every chef has to make one dish and the diners will choose the winning team.
The two teams confer. Naomi (she didn’t finish her dish) pretty much takes over the red team immediately, deciding they’ll do one big sitting with all the food coming out at the same time for all thecustomers (“banquet service”). The other chefs don’t like it, but since she’s in charge (which they ALLOWED her to do) they go with it.
Traci also takes charge, but gives Floyd the job of chef d’cuisine and everything is arranged according to classical lines. She’s doing front of the house because she has immunity – not her favorite position. These are strong personalities, though, and all are used to running things – chefs, after all – so there is some collision.
Each team divides into two, one going to Restaurant Depot and the other to Whole Foods. There’s some phone company product placement, too.
Hugh looks at a can (!) of scallops, and decides that even though they’re very large, he’ll use them.
Back at the kitchen, we find that the blue team has named their restaurant “Leela” – or, rather, one of the chefs suggested it as meaning “moment of enlightenment” and Naomi liked it. John C. is making peanut and sweet potato soup, Alex is doing a fricassee of celery root, potato and spinach, John S is making lamb, Sue is making halibut and scallops, Naomi is doing a flourless chocolate cake and Celina is doing a pistachio cake semifreddo.
Right away, the dish I want to eat/cook is Alex’s.
The red team, since it’s very diverse with several styles and nationalities of chefs, decides to call itself “Mosaic”. Floyd is doing braised short ribs, George is doing a slow-poached salmon, Traci is making a warm bread salad with artichoke, Hugh has scallops and grits, Suvir is making a berry cobbler and Mary Sue is making a chocolate cupcake.
Alex talks about his charity, Faster Cures, a cancer charity. He’s a survivor himself, diagnosed with colon cancer when his wife was 8.5 months pregnant with twins.
Naomi notices that the Red team, who have all worked in Europe, is organized on classical brigade (everyone has a station) lines, while blue team isn’t.
They have three hours to finish cooking for fifty people. Suvir notices that the younger chefs use more garnish, while the older ones (“true masters”) do more with less.
Mary Sue can’t find unsweetened chocolate for her cake, so she has to figure out how much sugar to use, and knows it will change the texture of the cake. She says if you can’t find a solution, you’re just a cook. I agree with this statement.
Suvir, unlike most chefs, has no fear of desserts. Note that he’s making a very “chefy” dessert – cooked fruit with a biscuit topping. Biscuits are a relatively easy baked good, although you still need to get the measurements right, and cooked fruit is cooked fruit. It’s not pastry, is what I’m saying. And, yes, most savory chefs just don’t like cooking desserts, especially pastry. It’s too fussy and slow.
Naomi, true to her word, works front of the house by greeting each guest. All are seated at once. This is what she does in her own restaurant. Mosaic is doing staggered seating so as not to slam the chefs too much. Naomi’s restaurant is probably organized in a way to make such seating work. Is Leela?
The critics include Danyelle Freeman. They like the intimate setting. They do NOT like Hugh’s huge and salty scallops, but they love Traci’s salad, which she took the time to plate herself.
Just a note here – one of the mistakes made during Restaurant Wars is the front of the house person doing a dish that needs elaborate plating or last minute cooking because they would have to depend on someone else doing it for them most of the time. Last season, Fabio made a dessert that could be plated ahead of time so he wouldn’t have to worry about it. Naomi went a similar route, with a simple plating, while Traci chose to make a tossed salad dish. This is the way to do it. Even when she did the plating herself, it took seconds.
They think George’s salmon was pretty, but they’re divided for Floyd’s dish. They like the short ribs just fine, but half of them love and half do not like the steel-cut oats risotto. They love Suvir’s cobbler because it was not too sweet and had some spice. WANT. Mary Sue’s cupcake tasted supermarket to them, although the diners like it.
The general seating at Leela makes the place feel very, very crowded. Curtis makes a point that he’d fire a front of the house person who did that.
Behind the scenes, the place is very confused, with unlabeled checks and a confused seating chart. However, everyone loves Alex’s fricassee – to the point of licking the plates. They find John C’s soup to be too spicy, though – a palate killer that would make the rest of the meal untasteable. Or it would be but they have a very long wait for the next course. The team is flustered. The critics do like the halibut and scallops but find it very hotel like, whereas John S’s lamb is RAW and the apple salad has labels in it. They adore Naomi’s chocolate torte but find the pistachio cake fussy and dry.
However, Leela’s DINERS love the meal and the diners decide the winning and losing teams, not the critics.
Suvir is exhausted – like most of the chefs, he hasn’t worked this hard in years. But he’s loving it. I really like Suvir.
Critic’s Table. While they preferred Mosaic, the diners preferred Leela, so Leela wins. The choice for ultimate winner is between Naomi and her torte and Alex and his fricassee. Alex wins.
I was going to go on a whole thing about how great it was that Alex won with a VEGETABLE dish, not a protein or a dessert but then I looked at the recipe, which is expensive and delicious looking, and require mascarpone and parmesan cheese, chicken stock AND chicken jus from a pound of chicken wings. So it’s very rich and there’s no way I can make it EVER. If it were just chicken stock, I could sub vegetable stock but there’s no substitute for the chicken jus (or, maybe…mushroom? I’ll have to think about it.) Anyway, plenty of protein and fat there. As someone who keeps kosher, I do not combine meat and dairy products ever, and chicken counts as meat.
Anyway, Alex gets 10K for his charity and he’s very, very happy.
The critics then call in Mary Sue and Hugh as having the worst dished from Mosaic. They found the scallops salty – Hugh blames the Malden salt with its large flakes – and too big, and the cupcakes dry – Mary Sue blames the air in the kitchen – and too safe. She’s made those cupcakes for years in her own restaurant. They had been innovative but now they’re old hat. Lots of excuses fly around. Not a good move, guys. Defend your dish, but admit its faults.
The judges like that Hugh took a risk ,but the food wasn’t edible. Mary Sue’s was, but it was boring. Edible wins, but Hugh goes home with a donation to his charity, Wholesome Wave, which encourages healthy eating for low income kids.
I’m excited for this season, my darlings. This is what master chefs do.