Warning: this entry contains major spoilers for the first episode of Top Chef.
Top Chef is a new reality show that airs on Bravo TV in the US. It's a cooking contest show where contestants vie for the privilege of being crowned Top Chef. (And some prize money too.) The first episode is being offered for free on the iTunes Music Store. (Note, it's free but you still need a U.S. credit card to download it.)
I am rather addicted to reality TV shows. I loved Project Runway (I have the season 1 DVDs and season 2 is also available via iTMS), which is by the same people who produce Top Chef. Combine food and reality, and you've got me hooked. I loved the British MasterChef show enough to try out one of the challenges for myself for seven &$!*#! weeks. And most of all, Top Chef's chief judge is Tom Colicchio. Just in case you don't know, Tom Colicchio is a Food God. His restaurants Gramercy Tavern and Craft in New York City are amongst the best in a city full of great restaurants. His mere presence gives the show credibility.
I'm not going to spend too much time talking about the typical reality TV aspects of the show. I understand that the producers have to entertain the audience first and foremost, and this is why they have selected a very photogenic girl as the host and another one as the food critic. Someone like Jeffrey Steingarten would have leant the show even more credibility, but he looks a bit less attractive I guess in low cut dresses. For what it's worth, as a show it's quite entertaining. But I'm going to focus on the food and cooking aspects.
Once more, before you read further, Warning: this entry contains major spoilers for the first episode of Top Chef.
Unlike the British MasterChef where the participants are all amateurs who aspire to becoming professionals, the contestants for Top Chef all work in the food industry already: some are restaurant chefs, and others are teachers, personal chefs, and so on. For this reason my expectations for the Top Chef guys and girls was much higher.
Let's put it like this: the first show left me gasping. Mostly with horror.
Some of these so-called food professionals seem to have absolutely no taste buds.
The first challenge, to work on the line in a busy French restaurant in San Francisco, was fairly predictable so I'll skip over that. Basically the ones with restaurant experience who could hold their nerve did well. The second challenge was to produce a "signature dish". They had 1 hour for shopping, and 3 hours to produce the dish. (3 hours! The MasterChef amateurs had to do a 3 course meal within 90 minutes if they got through to the quarter-finals! But I digress.)
So anyway, let's review some of the signature dishes produced by the contestants. I've quoted how they described their dishes verbatim as much as possible.
Natural Food Chef (or something) Andrea produced "shrimp and broccoli stir fry with spicy plum sauce and brown rice, steam kale with tahini dressing and carrot flowers, and a sesame maple coleslaw".
My reaction: WHAT???? Plums with broccoli??? Tahini with kale??? Sesame? Maple? Cabbage? WHAT???? To make things worse, she apparently overcooked the broccoli and her kale was full of sand! Oh. My. God.
At Durgin Park (a famed lobster-and-prime-rib joint in Boston) they used to have a vegetable dish named "Bales of Hay". (They may still have it but I haven't been there in some time.) The above combo sounded like Bales of Hay that were turning into compost.
Moving on, here's Irish born "classically trained" chef Ken's signature dish, though he said "I don't have a restaurant, so I don't have a signature dish." Duh. Anyway he made "pan-seared Alaskan halibut, soy bean, green onion and parsnip purée, heirloom tomato compote, and (here I couldn't really catch what he was saying despite rewinding several times) toute-something of fig Asterique(??? Asterix? Dunno.)"
My reaction: What a pretentious, overblown and pile of crap is this? This is "fusion" at its very worst. This is what turns people off fusion. He deserves to die, in the culinaric sense.
It seems his execution of this high-fallutin' menu was lacking too. He was kicked, and deservedly so, even discounting his outrageous rudeness and general signs that he was not in his right mind.
Those two were definitely the worst, and both were deservedly in the bottom three. The other bottom three dish was by model slash cooking school student Candice, who am I pretty sure got selected mainly on her looks. She produced "chicken shiitake roulade with apple tonkatsu sauce, wasabi mashed potatoes, blanched asparagus and soy-ginger cashews". It seems she had some major execution problems, which if she can't overcome will probably mean an early exit for her unless she agrees to cook in a bikini or so, but I didn't think her dish if executed well would have been too awful. But making watery mashed potatoes when you have three hours to prepare it is inexcusable. And the soy-ginger cashews are one item too many.
Let's see, here's one of the dishes from the sommelier dude Stephen (described as a "professional bullshitter" by another contestant, Lee Anne, who so far is my favorite character). He presented a "Threesome of Colorado lamb: braised short rib (one teeny one), rack of lamb seared to the fourth power with rock salt, mirin, soy sauce and white miso paste, and a soup of lamb sausage and fava bean." This one actually ended up in the top three, but I don't know. That poor baby lamb rack (it was really a little lamb cutlet), assaulted four ways, with four strong flavors. This also smells like Bad Fusion to me. Mirin, soy sauce and miso are flavors from my culture, and seeing them used at abandon makes me shudder. And that Colorado Lamb part. I know, that it's quite the in thing in many American restaurants to describe the heritage of your food to you, whether it makes any difference or not. It reminds me of that cow in Douglas Adams' The Restaurant At The End Of the Universe who comes up to diners and suggests which part of her body you should order for dinner. But I digress.
(Incidentally, the Sommelier also presented a Spanish wine, a Pintoresco made from the Tempranillo. This is actually basically a table wine which may or may not be a notch above a standard house wine in Spain; Tempranillo is one of the common grapes there. It didn't merit the fuss he made over it by any stretch of the imagination, but I do give him credit for trying there, especially within a $30 budget for the while thing. (I'm not really much of a wine person but we happen to have, in our small Swiss village, a wine merchant who specializes in Spanish wines.) Scroll down on this page to the Pintoresco section for a link to a description.)
Only a few dishes sounded even remotely like I'd want to try them. One was the "orange-sage pasta with pumpkin and Parmesano Reggiano filling, with golden raisins rolled up in (something apple-related)", created by the very intense looking Tiffani. It sounds a bit too sweet, but the tasters liked it and it was certainly different. The presentation in the pumpkin shell was really nice. The "braised lamb enchiladas with triple-chili enchilada sauce made with handmade tortillas, and a mash with black beans and sweet corn, plus a chipotle cream-something" by ex-IT guy turned chef Dave sounded a bit twee and California-Mex, but intriguing nevertheless. The "smoked sturgeon salad with saffron fingerling potatoes, lemon confit and balsamic reduction" by Lee Anne (my favorite, remember) sounded refreshing and restrained. I think I probably wouldn't mind personal chef Brian's "chargrilled jerk chicken with coconut mashed potatoes and mango-papaya relish": good, honest and uncomplicated Caribbean food, yay! The "Duo of Beef" by Miguel was halfway intriguing: I'd want the short ribs but I'd skip the filet mignon, which is to my mind a very boring and overrated cut of beef.
Finally, the winner, the "steamed Thai red snapper with brussel sprout leaves, rock shrimp, chanterelles and fall squash sauce" by chef Howard did sound simple, sophisticated and tasty. Using a whole nice butternut squash to produce a dribble of yellow sauce sounds - well, a bit wasteful, to me, but I guess that's the Chef thing. The Bravo TV site has a very simplified recipe.
I do hope those contestants with no skill get kicked ASAP, and that the standard of cooking improves. A LOT. Will I be downloading the following episodes? You bet.
[Edit:] Tom Colicchio and the resident Food Critic Gail Simmons have an episode by episode blog (click on Blogs, then choose the episode) on the BravoTV site, though boo to you Bravo for not providing RSS feeds for them. Gail's blog has some specific comments about the signature dishes. She says that the raisin thing was too much for Tiffani's pumpkin pasta, and says Candice's food was sort of like airplane food, among other things.
Complete list of my Top Chef reviews:
- Episode 1
- Episode 2
- Episode 3
- Episode 4
- Episode 5
- Episode 6
- Episode 7
- Episode 8
- Episode 9
- Episode 10
- Episode 11
- Episode 12, the finale.