Top Chef Episode 2

First off, an apology to regular readers...I've had a pretty bad cold this week, which meant mainly staying in bed with a box of tissues, drinking gallons of herb tea and feeling sorry for myself. But even though I don't have much of an appetite I still enjoy watching food shows. So here is my episode 2 review of Top Chef. (This is the cooking contest show that airs on Bravo TV in the U.S., and is also available for purchase/download from the iTunes Music Store. My first episode review is here.) I'm focusing mostly on the food and cooking aspects of the show rather than the personalities, though they do come into play of course.

The theme of episode 2, titled Food Love, was food presentation skills. It started out with a "Quickfire Challenge" in which the contestants had 30 minutes to turn a big bowl of fruit into a dessert presentation which represented their creativity, knife skills and presentation. The guest jude was Elizabeth Faulkner, a Los Angeles pastry chef. I thought that this was a really good challenge, and the personalities of each contestant came out very well. Although the winner of this round, sommelier Stephen, comes off as a snotty jerk, his presentation was really attractive: little tasting portions of fruit presented in little espresso cups. This is a presentation trick that's useful to remember for amateur cooks too - when you present little bits in a symmetrical manner. This is why compartmentalized bento boxes make the food put in it so nice. I was very skeptical about the actual flavors he gave to his fruit (emulsion of watermelon with olive oil, strawberries with salt and mint, raspberries, tarragon and orange juice were described, and none sounded too promising to me), and it also didn't really show off his knife skills. Tiffani was the only one who addressed the flavor of the fruit (she said it looked a bit out of season) by blow-torching them and caramelizing them. Harold's plate was beautiful; it's clear that he has an eye for beautiful presentation and definitely has knife skills.

One issue that came up is the use of inedible garnishes. Several contestants used a pineapple top to provide a focus to their plate, and the judge objected to this. I'm sort of of two minds on the subject of inedible garnishes, or garnishes in general. Remember when most restaurant dishes came with that little ruffle of parsley on the side? Do you know anyone who ate that? For a buffet or something though, a sturdy garnish can keep things looking fresh.

On to the second part of the show, which was an assignment to make a sexy dessert for a fetish party at Mr. S, a sex boutique in San Francisco. Looked like fun! This was a test not only of food presentation skills but of personal presentation skills too. Nowadays to be recognized as a good chef, you have to have personality on top of cooking skills; you have to be personally sellable. It helps if you are cute and/or beautiful. Otherwise you have to be a showman.

Thankfully, no one did the obvious and made anatomically shaped chocolates and the like, though a couple did make some that referenced nipples and such. None of them looked remotely like real boobs though. The most literal representation was by the model/student Candice (who, because she is cute, had a leg up on the others when it came to the personal presentation part) who made cakes shaped like underwear. They looked quite amateurish and ugly, but since she herself was an attractive dessert to the party guests, she was going to be safe.

Tiffani made an interactive dessert - cookies on a string, which the guests had to wear around their necks so that they could be eaten off by other people. It sounded and looked fun, but was said to taste horrible. Lee Anne (still my favorite personality-wise...her clash with the intense Tiffani in the kitchen was quite fun) made some sort of Asian thingie - she said Asian is sexy, which it is, but she seemed to lack pizzazz both in her dessert and in her presentation. Stephen's "bubbling orgasm" looked gorgeous, with a floating rose petal and champagne, but Tom Colicchio commented that taste-wise it was not quite there. Personal chef Brian made a "strawberry apple crisp", which also looked very pretty; it was judged to be sensual because of the differing textures of creamy and crispy. It's also evident already that he has a charming personality.

Quite a few of the contestants, including last week's winner Harold, seemed to have trouble figuring out that you cannot serve temperature critical things at a cocktail party. Anyone who's had a buffet/cocktail party at home knows that you can't have things like ice cream or best-served-piping-hot fried items. I do wonder about the lack of common sense of these so-called professionals.

The winner was Miguel, who not only made a whole tasting menu of desserts, ending with a hot chocolate shot with cayenne, but went all out in the personal presentation area, even kissing the hostess Madame S's ass (literally) while feeding her his tidbits. This helped his cause quite a lot since Madame S was the one who chose the top 3. (The other 2 in the top 3 were Stephen and Brian.)

In the end, the natural food chef Andrea, who did the really horrifying sounding signature dish in episode 1, again produced a plate of food that was judged to be not sexy (basically it was nuts and chocolate) and was sent packing. It's a shame, because healthy food can be beautiful and tasty, and the fact that the only person who specializes in such food is eliminated so early seems to send the message that healthy means tasteless. It's just Andrea who showed no evidence of having any taste or skills.

And holy cow, RuPaul is tall! She has a blog, by the way.

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Elizabeth Faulkner is based out of San Francisco, as is the show. She is the owner of the incredible Citizen Cake.

For what it's worth, I always eat parsley garnishes. I started doing it just to be weird, but I really got to liking them. :)

Also, I'm pretty sure it was an edible orchid petal in Stephen's "Bubbling Orgasm"

feel better.

i failed to catch the first episode, but was swayed by your blog into tivoing the second. i can't wait for next episode's cat fight.

I am with you on being disappointed with the fact that Andrea was a natural foods chef, and that it made the whole movement seem to be not based on taste or presentation. It was too bad. She came across very hippy dippy too which bummed me out.

I actually am rooting for Tiffany at the moment. I know she's hard core, but she's impressive.

Elizabeth Faulkner is a bad ass chick. It was fun to see her on this show.

Did you catch the look on Stephen's face when Miguel was named the winner? It's not secret that he clearly thinks he is the best in all things on this show!

I am really enjoying the format on this show, with the quick-fire challenge followed by the longer cooking assignment. I do wish they'd tone down the drama a little and focus on the food, but that's American TV for you.

Also, the female presenter has such a stilted manner of speaking, it makes me cringe.

Thanks for doing these reviews, Maki. It's fun to read another person's take!