Piss and Vinegar

Top Chef host and James Beard Award-winning (!!!) chef Hugh Acheson sizes up the competition.


So the premise of the new show is pretty voyagetastic. I just made that word up. The quick and dirty premise is this: one city per show. They run around like highly caffeinated culinary explorers (“the Course”), get competitively drunk tasting the foods and beverage of the community (winner gets the “Exceptional Ingredient”), and then have to cook the dishes themselves at local landmarks (“the Takeover.”)  

The winner of the season gets a schmancy Infiniti JX Crossover and a big pile of traveler’s cheques, as the Euro was deemed too risky. The stakes get continually more lavish in food television. If memory serves, the prize for the first season of Top Chef was $378 and a 1983 Chevette. 

Curtis, the escapee from the penal colony of good-looking blond people, is heading this worldly tour with his cheftastic partner, Cat Cora. Cat is a television icon in chef shows and this is a new kind of gig for her, with fancier hair styles and heels, but Curtis got used to heels and highlights a number of years ago. Don’t let that blond bombshell fool you, Curtis can cook with the best of them. The cultural differences in some of the destinations will be a real factor in the series, but London is pretty tame. At the end of the day Nigella Lawson is prettier, smarter, and wealthier than most all of us, but at least we speak the same language. The Brits just happen to like their tea hot, pronounce aluminum weirdly, and like their footballs round.

Though the destination is easier for the cooks, the challenge is still, well, challenging. Cooking steak and kidney pie, without a recipe, for the first time ever is no easy task, as it’s not something often on the Boston Red Sox menu.

The actual contestants are an interesting and diverse group, who quickly become a whiny, bitchy lot, full of piss and vinegar. This is going to be fun. 

Remember Chaz? Chaz was momentarily on Top Chef: Texas but failed to make the first big cut when he failed to complete his risotto, if my memory serves. “Risottoed” is a verb on Top Chef. It means to lose. Everybody loses cooking it. Even with his early departure on TC, Chaz talked a pretty big game, so we’ll see what he can accomplish. 

We meet other contestants as well but it’s a blur. Some standouts are: Nookie, the sweaty baseball chef who keeps small people in his suitcase, Sai, the sexually liberated Thai chef (who, with pride, tells us people would much rather snog her than Paula Deen), Kevin, the Alpha dog who would lead you onto the third rail, and Gary Walker, the sorority chef who thinks Curtis is hot. Frankly, I am worried about our global reputation. I don’t want my passport at Heathrow judged by the guy who saw Cheven make an ass of himself on television. 

I think there was a missed opportunity to get Morrissey, Robert Smith, and the guy from Flock of Seagulls to judge this thing. Morrissey would have demanded a vegan steak and kidney pie, Robert would have glumly applied mascara to a frowning Curtis, and the guy from Flock of Seagulls would have worked on hair highlights with Cat. Instead we get the iconic, but very normal, Nigella Lawson, and the owners of the pubs. Rule number one: Never rename a pub. Never. Really bad luck.

The chefs have some issues. Their knowledge of Brit food is minimal and this becomes the sticking point very quickly. I won’t run an account of all the action (watch the show!) but let this one point be very clear: they need to pay attention to what they’re eating in “The Course” part of the show. If they don’t analyze and figure out the dishes then and there, without their beer goggles on, it’s going to be a short season for them. 

Brief rundown though: 

•Cheven is a going to be a magnet of controversy and reviled by most everyone in all countries.

•Cheven is also "up there on the culinary totem pole.” Self promotion not-withstanding this is just too open-ended to make fun of. 

•When in doubt, take a taxi. 

•Nookie, the self-described schemer, sweats a lot, and I forecast him being the Bill Buckner of this season (to the Google!).

•When looking for a pub called “the Camden Head,” do not try to find “the Hammerhead”, because the former is in London and the latter, I imagine, is a parrot-themed dive bar in Key West. 

•I love fish 'n' chips, but chips are not wispy little potato threads.

•The Red Team gets the Exceptional Ingredient and this gives them an edge, but not much of one. 

•Why are they subtitling Curtis? 

•“British Love/American Pride” is the worst name ever. 

•Clara gets thrown under the lorry and is the first chef gone. 

•This is going to be a fun show to watch.

If I had to do a dish I would have done a steak and kidney pie, something my mother punished us with on numerous occasions in my picky younger years. I would make little individual ones with seared hangar steak, finely diced lamb kidneys, wild ramps, poached leeks, beef consomme, and puff pastry. Makes me hungry. I’d eat that. I would fail at this show otherwise because I can’t cook well while drunk. 

British food has really stepped up in the past decade due to the people like Nigella, Fergus, the River Café, Hugh HF, and a host of others. There is a modern school of classics and all of these dishes can be aces if the chefs just think them through more. 

To conclude let us revel in the immortal lyrics of the Clash’s “London Calling” :

“London calling to the imitation zone/ Forget it, brother, an' go it alone”

Many of these chefs are already looking into going it alone, and that will prove to be a fatal flaw. I would be teaming up with people who are like-minded and creating a stronger me. It’s going to be a long ride. 


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Homeward Bound

Avery finally outplayed Nookie.


Well, everyone, we made it. And I for one am exhausted. I'm not saying I'm as tired as our chefs, but, y'know, I might be. We see the chefs heading to Uruguay (No, Uruguay!) on a ferry. I love a ferry ride, so this seemed fun to me. At some point, Avery says "Nookie could change his mind at any point." You know who can also change her mind at any point? Avery! But I will stop asking why no one has kicked Nookie off until this point, but it's moot. 

The chefs are issued their Course: they have two hours to shop and prepare a traditional Uruguayan dish, and they are only allowed to obtain their ingredients from three markets. Not only that, but their diners are Cat and Curtis! Liz doesn't seem to have too much trouble shopping, but she does forget to ask the butcher for salt. I was actualy surprised Nookie and Avery thought to ask for salt, knowing it wouldn't be provided. Avery bought her wine before she bought her protein, so she was surprised by the fact that she couldn't get fish. White wine? Chicken it is! Nookie has a seemingly nice idea behind his dish saying, "If I learned anything, it's to talk to the locals." Well, one local led him to a jar of onion jam. But she also said to make a traditional tart. That didn't happen. Nookie made -- and I mean "made" in the most generic way possible -- chorizo (my fave) with the onions. Cat and Curtis weren't too happy that Nookie didn't really cook anything. Even Avery said, "This is a cooking competition, not a reheating competition." Ouch. Also, the jam was too sweet. Liz made a successful steak salad, but it was missing salt. Curtis could tell the addition of sausage was made in an attempt to add some salt, but it wasn't enough. I really do wonder why LIz asked Nookie for salt and not Avery. Any thoughts?!

So, Avery won the Course. Some of the chefs seemed to be confused about whether this was the final challenge -- it wasn't. By winning the Course, Avery won the exceptional ingredient, and definitely the most exceptional of them all -- the ability to choose her finale competitor.And she did it. Finally. She voted Nookie off. Hallelujah. Since i finally met Nookie this past week at our amazing Sneak Peek Finale Party, I feel compelled to say here that I'm not writing "hallelujah" because I don't not like Nookie -- I've just never understood why everyone was OK with him holding all the cards. 

around-the-world-in-80-plates-blog.jpg Me with Nookie and Avery at the 80 Plates Sneak Peek Finale Party

So, Avery and Liz head to... Los Angeles -- their home turf. In L.A., the chefs are met with their Takeover: first they have to choose one chef from each store to act as their sous chef for the Takeover. The chefs are their fallen comrades from countries past. Avery ends up with Jenna (did you see her give Liz the side-eye after her team was done cooking?) and Nick, and Liz ends up with John and Chaz! And all the sous-chefs seem genuinely interested in helping their respective chefs win. Whileeveryone's in the kitchen, Avery and Liz get a very welcome surprise -- their family members! Avery's kids and aunt come to say hello and we meet Liz's boyfriend, Ryan. I always wonder if these little surprises are helpful or hurtful. While Avery obviously wants to see her children, I'd have to assume a little surprise like that would break anyone's focus. And how funny was Nookie with her kids? Ha. 

The other surprise was who the chefs were cooking for. Although they knew they'd be serving Wolfgang Puck since they were cooking in his kitchen at red seven, they had no idea the caliber of their diners -- James Beard winners, nominees, etc. And despite all these pressures and curveballs, they both kind of killed their menus… for the most part. Avery started her meal with her and Jenna's winning papaya salad; then moved on to an apparently perfectly-cooked beef dish with chimichurri. She finished it with tea and a pannacotta. I thought serving tea with dessert was ballsy because if that gets cold, it's ruined. Did anyone else notice that her kids seemed to eat all her food? I was very impressed.

LIz's starter was the majority's favorite dish of the night. She then served a dish that was criticized by someone (forgive me I can't remember who) for not seeming Italian. Mmm it was a simple dish served with dino kale -- seemed Italian to me! She then finished with a play on an empanadas, but her custard didn't set up.

From where I was sitting, it seemd to come down to the best dish vs. the best meal. And Avery was just more consistent, so… she won! Congratulations, Avery! And congratulations to Liz on doing such a fantastic job. 

I'll be recapping Masters which premieres next Wedneday, so hope to see you all over at that site then. If I may say so, I've peeped some of the episodes already, and I swear they're amazing. Until then, Have a Nosh!


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