If there’s one lesson to be learned from last night’s pen-penultimate episode of “Top Chef,” it’s that yummy always wins. The judges may ask you communicate the principles of Aristotelian tragedy with Fig Newtons and soy sauce, but as long as that piece of meat is cooked and salted properly, you get the first call to judges’ table.
So, as we begin our last day in the suburban McMansion, things are looking up for the remaining five. Jen has apparently discovered a product that combines the best qualities of Xanax and Tresemmé hair conditioner, and she is fine fettle. Kevin misses his wife but is glad he’s had hometown bud Eli for the ride. Eli, for his part, wants to win for his mentor Richard Blais (cue shot of teary, came-so-close Blais). Bryan admits the recession has taken a turn on his business and could really use some winnings.
Are we ready to do this thing? Chefs: start buttoning your coats.
In “Top Chef” kitchen, Padma awaits in the company of one Gavin Kaysen, an American chef who won big at the Bocuse d’Or. What’s that? Why only France’s biggest competition of pretty food bits arranged on ginormous mirrored slabs, duuuuuhhh….
Kaysen entered this competition (named for octogenarian chef Paul Bocuse) with a chicken ballotine, a mousse- and crayfish-stuffed poultry football. He, however, did not win because a dishwasher had eaten two chicken wings intended for side dishes. (This is true.)
But, still, the chefs must recreate his not-quite winning dish in spirit if not to the letter for the:
QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Prepare a Protein Inside a Protein Inside a Protein (or: All the World’s a Turducken)
BroVolt candy! These techie chefs could stuff proteins inside proteins inside proteins all day long!
“Those of us who can make a ballotine will prevail,” says Bryan, shoving lamb loin inside merguez sausage mush.
Kevin knows he is at a disadvantage against these culinary dandies, but he must remain true to his downhome self and starts frying catfish.
Eli makes a bacon-crusted scotch egg, while Mike whomps through a poultry terrine.
But Jen is the chef who “pleasantly surprises” Ballotine Boy with her pretty calamari steak, shiso and salmon surprise. “Seafood is what I do best,” she says.
Padma takes a bite, rolls her eyes in pleasure and says, “Welcome back.”
Of course Jen can’t win immunity, but she does get an extra 30 minutes for the:
ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: “Top Chef” Version of the Bocuse d’Or: A Regal Presentation With One Protein and Two Side Dishes. (or: What’s Your Excuse for Serving Raw Lamb?)
So, what we have here is the French version of the meat-and-two. Just think Mary Mac’s, and one should do fine.
The chefs must choose lamb or salmon, shop at Whole Foods, and then spend four hours putting their mirrored platters together for a group of 12 august judges. These include Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Paul Bocuse’s son Jerôme, Ballotine Boy, Tracy des Jardins, and the Swedish Chef from “Sesame Street.” High stakes, indeed.
The winner not only earns the right to compete in the Bocuse d’Or in 2011, but he/she also gets $30,000 from the M Resort. In what form? Unexplained. It’s not a poker chip, and it’s not an oversized check. Perhaps a 30K chit at the buffet.
Padma informs our starting-to-freak-out fivesome that they will be judged on “taste, creativity and execution: every element must be perfection.”
At Whole Foods, Kevin stares at carrots looking for inspiration. (”Speak to me carrots, please!”)
Back at the ranch, Eli pulls out a Bocuse d’Or DVD. Bryan munches on a bag of those chips (What were they called? Stevia crisps?) and considers the likelihood of a four-hour braise. Kevin asks for help on cooking lamb sous vide, which gives Mike the opportunity to make the bouchedag statement of the season:
“The food that Kevin cooks is the food I cook on my day off.”
Excuuuuse me? Oh, no you didn’t.
So, Mike, on your day off you cook the food that you’d actually want to eat, right? When you’re behind the line, you just make those soulless fancy bits with squiggles and smears of weird sauce, right? OK, just asking…I wonder if this statement is going to come back and bite you in the ballotine.
The next day, the chefs are busy beavers. Kevin freaks a little because Tom keeps giving him “funny looks.”
Tom thinks Kevin is “off his game,” that Jen is “nervous” and Eli “has to pay attention to details.” Other than that, no worries.
The four hours are up before the chefs know it.
Bring me Bocuse d’Or! commands Padma.
Two burly waiters haul in Kevin’s mirrored platter first. There’s lamb, pickled Swiss chard stems, asparagus, sunchoke — all kinds of yummy bidness.
“Is the lamb sustainable?” asks Keller.
“Raised sustainably on pasture cleared from the Amazonian rain forest, absolutely!” says Kevin.
The judges find it very tasty but too simply conceived and presented. “It’s a little elementary for the amount of time he had,” sniffs Keller.
Mike, who thinks he has this in the bag, serves up the flavors of the Mediterranean: cauliflower, salmon, caviar. Mediterranean salmon is the best: after gamboling in the open seas from Gibraltar to Tel Aviv, these salmon swim up the Rhône to spawn among the cauliflower fields.
The judges complain not only about the confused geography of the dish, but also of “a total lack of harmony” and an errant bone.
Bryan serves his lamb with all kinds of fun side dishes, including a garlic chip “dehydrated over acetate” that impresses Keller. Alas, it is undercooked.
Eli’s lamb with sausage, a pistachio crust, ras el hanout foam and a carrot purée tastes pretty good, but his lamb is even less cooked than Bryan’s. The judges chew and chew and chew some more, and finally resort to their napkins.
“You can clearly feel the raw fat of the lamb,” says the Bocuse son.
Jen is fairly happy with her salmon cooked “unilaterally,” i.e., on one side so that it has gradations of temperature.
Not so the judges, who find the pieces unevenly cooked and the flavors “all over the place.”
All five chefs are all summoned to judges’ table to discuss their uniformly not bad, not great attempts at ooh là là.
Kevin’s simple but tasty mirror o’ food earns him the win and the 30K.
“That’s almost my yearly salary,” he exclaims sincerely.
But our other Atlantan, Eli of the unchewable lamb wad, must pack his knives.
Through a few tears, he says, “At least I’m not in a situation where I pooched it. I don’t harbor any negative feelings.
Absolutely true, Eli. So much better to go out when it’s a hard choice among strong competitors than with circus soup.
You’ve done your home town proud.