Top Chef Episode 3: Kids, Monkfish and Hoity Toity Chefs

The theme for this week's Top Chef episode titled Nasty Delights, was making food that looks disgusting into something delicious. But the other theme, which seems to be developing as a major emphasis in this series, was the importance of the chef as a marketer and promoter of his goods.

The Quickfire Challenge was to cook octopus within 1 hour. This is when I really thought Smell-o-vision would be helpful, because several contestants said how disgusting the food hidden under the domes smelled. Now, octopus may look rather odd but it shouldn't smell that bad if it's fresh, and I highly doubt that the show producers would give them rotten octopus to deal with. So what's the deal? I was especially disappointed by Candice's reaction, since with a surname like Kumai I'm fairly sure she's of Japanese origin. Then again, when I was growing up in Tokyo I had a super-picky girlfriend who not only would not even touch things like octopus and squid, but would turn pale at photographs of raw meat. So who knows.

Anyway, most of the contestants didn't seem to have too much of a problem with their octopus. Again, the Sommelier Stephen produced a chi-chi dish of various bits of octopus arranged in a grid pattern with artistic squiggles of sauce. I love beautifully presented dishes but this style is too much for me, and of all the really top-level restaurants that I have been to, I've never seen dishes that are that precious. Nevertheless, the guest chef, Laurent Manrique of Aqua in San Francisco, chose Stephen's dish as one of the top 3. The other 2 were Lee Anne and Tiffani's dishes, and Tiffani won, thus gaining immunity. She surely needed that immunity later on. I must say that I would have liked to have tasted Lee Anne's dish over Tiffani's, which was bordering on the precious for me. But alas, the disadvantage of just watching...we can't taste. Oh well.

On to the second challenge, which was to make a lunch menu centered on monkfish for a group of 8 to 12 year olds at a local Boys and Girls Club. This was an interesting assignment that raised a number of questions. One is, how sophisticated are the palates of kids this age? Was the assumption held by several of the contestants that kids only liked junk food true? I really don't know. When I was around that age I know that I already liked great food, though I couldn't stand some kinds of food that I've grown to love as I got older. Bitter things for example, like bitter leafy vegetables, and things with difficult textures like cooked kombu seaweed and liver. (One traditional kombu dish that I still dislike, and which I disliked even when I was 4, is kobumaki - kombu wrapped around dried sardines and cooked in a broth.) There are some things that I used to love back then that I no longer can eat - Twinkies are on top of that list. In Nigella Lawson's first book How to Eat, she has a section on cooking for children. She says she encourages her two children to try all kinds of things, and is surprised at what they do like - pesto for example. My parents were quite similar to Nigella in the sense that they never just assumed that us kids couldn't or wouldn't eat something (raw squid sashimi, stinky cheeses) because we weren't adults, so we grew up eating quite a variety of things. Perhaps many parents don't do this. Not being a parent myself, I don't know, though from what my sister (who has 2 kids) says each child can be quite different in what they do eat.

Anyway back to the show. The contestants were split into two teams for this challenge, making this a test in teamwork too. In the beginning of the challenge 52 year old caterer Cynthia decided to leave the show to be with her dying father. I don't think we really got to see Cyntha at her best, since she was obviously preoccupied with her father's condition. As another contestant said, it's impossible to produce good food when your mind is elsewhere. To replace Cynthia, they brought back natural chef Andrea, who was eliminated in the past week. Yipes. Luckily for her team, by the time she got there they had already decided on the menu, so they probably were spared from her trying to serve the kids sandy cabbage or something.

Team Red was comprised of Stephen, Miguel, Cynthia (later replaced by Andrea), Candice and Lisa. They had an advantage in having the only parent (I think) of all the contestants, Lisa. Their menu included deep fried monkfish corndogs (aka Monkey Dogs), handmade waffle potato chips, fruit kebabs, colored yogurt and a mango ketchup for dipping. I'm a bit sceptical about those Monkeydogs, but I'm sure the kids loved it. Come to think of it, corndogs are another food I used to love until I was about 16, then suddenly went off of. (In Japan they are sold as American Dogs.) There was a lot of silly squabbling on this team between Stephen and Candice, but Lisa with assistance from Andrea and Miguel took charge of them and the menu, and they proceeded fairly well.

Team Blue had Lee Anne, Tiffani, Harold, Brian and David - all professional chefs who worked in restaurants, except for personal chef Brian. They made cornflake-crusted and baked monkfish, a strawberry-apple sauce (made by Tiffani), tater tots, and some sort of mushy looking carrots (made by Brian). They made a fundamental mistake in that they seem to have aimed their food at toddlers or something instead of 8 to 12 year olds. These older kids have teeth and have developing palates, and like crunchy textures. Team Blue made two kinds of food which had the texture of baby food. The baked monkfish looked okay, and were probably about equal to the Monkey Dogs. The tater tots were a non-issue, though I don't know..tater tots? Can anything say "bad kids food" more than tater tots?

The big deal with this assignment though was the ability of some of the contestants to get down with the kids and entertain them. Miguel was the star at this: seems he can entertain kids at a youth club as well as drag queens at an S & M theme party. I'm really growing to like him - he can cook, and he doesn't take himself too seriously. Brian was doing well entertaining the kids too, and Candice, mom Lisa, Lee Anne and Andrea seemed to be enjoying themselves also. One of the funniest moments in the show was this scene where Stephen was trying to explain waffle potato chips to the kids:


Harold, Tiffani and Stephen all seemed to have great trouble with even the notion of entertaining the kids, and stood on the sidelines looking somewhat disdainfully at their teammates.

At the end, the combination of the mushy apple sauce, awful (according to all accounts) overcooked carrots, and the lack of entertainment support did the Blue team in. The whole team was then called to the elimination judging. The most surprising factor there was the terrible, stuck-up attitude shown by Tiffani, who had up to this point been one of my favorites. She said that she, as a professional chef was above cooking for kids with no tastebuds or making things colorful. Oh dear. I guess she hasn't related to kids lately, nor does she remember her own childhood.

This reminded me of a time when my mother took my sister Mayumi (the same one who now has two kids of her own) and me on a bus trip to Germany, when we were living in England. At one rather fancy restaurant my sister, who was 4 at the time, burst into tears because she couldn't eat the regular dinner. The waiter couldn't have been nicer: he very quickly brought out a lovely looking omelette and a plate of fries. I don't even remember what the regular dinner was, but I still remember my sister, still sniffling, munching down that omelette. While many parents may leave their kids at home when going out for dinner, plenty more don't, and kids are valuable customers for a restaurant. As Tom Colicchio pointed out, the main job of a chef is to make his or her customers happy. It was fairly certain that if Tiffani hadn't had immunity, she may well have been kicked out. I'm not really sure if she learned anything, judging from her defiant expression throughout. I was very disappointed in her. On the other hand, my opinion of Lee Anne went up a bit more when she refused to name any one of her teammates to take the blame.

In the end, the too-soft carrots and his trying to put the blame on David, saying he was the leader (when clearly earlier on the whole team had said there was no leader) did Brian in, and he was eliminated. I was a bit sorry to see him go, but of the choices they had I think the judges picked the right one.

Footnote: some commenters have complained about the host, Katie Lee Joel. I don't have too much of an issue with her presentation style per is rather wooden, but then I've survived two seasons of Heidi Klum as host of Project Runway. I was rather wondering about her credentials for hosting the show though - I've read and enjoyed Gail Simmons' writing, but where did this Katie person come from, and why was she a judge on Iron Chef and things suddenly? Heidi is at least an acknowledged supermodel. Reading the Bio page on the Bravo TV site reveals her prime credential though: she's the wife of Billy Joel. Now what was that running theme about marketing/personality being important in the food world? (And my friend Emiel thinks she's hawt.)

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