Speaking as a viewer of the current Top Chef Masters I stopped feeling sorry for Susur Lee when I heard him belittling Carmen for being female on the Wedding Challenge and watched him harassing good-natured Tony. These kitchen dramas are hidden from us at the critic's table.
This week the iron ninja seemed almost vulnerable as he fumbled with the challenge of feeding 100 football fans at a USC tailgating party. Clearly he was thrown off balance. Tailgating? Football? This kitchen master who spent most of his life in Hong Kong and Toronto toppled into the culture gap.
Not that he seemed to lose confidence. Indeed all the survivors at this stage of Top Chef Masters Round 2 are definitely getting more competitive. Even Jonathan in his sleepy laidback mode exudes an air of confidence – boldly baiting the USC fans by professing an allegiance to Stanford.
Do I just imagine that the camaraderie of the first few challenges has faded? Could it be linked to the fact that one by one, the women chefs have been packing their knifes and going home? Am I being too feminist? Do you agree with me?
Anyway tonight we see Rick leaping in with his typical macho guy enthusiasm for sports. Tony seems to think pizza will win the tailgating crowd. Marcus seems subdued. He did not grow up in America either. Jonathan is his usual seemingly laid back old timer, admitting he will probably be rooting for the other team.
Having won the Legs, Legs, Legs quick challenge with blasts of cumin and cilantro, Susan has won the exclusive right to wear the USC jersey and cap for the cookout. Uninhibited as always and decked out in bright red, she makes the most of her advantage. Susan looks tiny next to the guys clowns a bit but she is a restaurant pro, not just as the co-founder with Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill in LA in 1985 and later, Ciudad, and as the author of six cookbooks and the veteran of four hundred episodes of Two Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour on the Food Network. That’s a big advantage for her in feeling comfortable on camera. Street is her newest restaurant venture and that’s exactly what she cooked up for the tailgaters: marvelous street food.
Jonathan’s mastery of the Weber Grill and his juicy rib eye and guacamole weren’t good enough to offset serving stale tortillas. I liked Tony’s pizza but it seemed like a warmup before the main course that never came. Susur’s semolina dumplings were ridiculous. Maybe at a European fencing match, but not for the tailgate crowd. Marcus tried to do too much with burgers, his admittedly tasty slaw and chicken and shrimp soup too. Some of it was delicious. Rick’s Moroccan-flavored chicken with babaganoush and slaw stuffed into a pita was a fabulous few mouthfuls too. But in the end, we all agreed on the winner: Susan’s skirt steak tacos with corn and black bean salad, guacamole and a trio of spicy peppers plus two textbook perfect salsas, tomatillo and chipotle.
As judges, I think we critics want to be dazzled by these masters at their most sophisticated but wowing the fans was the challenge after all: And they responded. As a critic I think we should not hesitate to be candid about the flaws of a dish. That doesn’t make it any easier to send a master chef home. You could see Jonathan’s pain as he stood in the loser’s lineup expecting to get the cut that ultimately fell to Tony. Remembering some of Tony’s earlier triumphs and his easygoing sweetness in the midst of kitchen warfare, I was sad to see him go home. For sure, I’ll make a point to have dinner at Spaggia on my next visit to Chicago.