Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Deadly Sins

Padma Lakshmi on what she thought went wrong in the seven sins challenge.

This week's Quickfire was not one of my favorites: It required the contestants to make a dish based on color, and I think that threw some of the chefs off, even one taking it too literally and not concentrating on the overall objective of Top Chef, to make delicious and appetizing food that is also presented well as it would be in a professional kitchen of some standing.

I felt badly for Cliff who is color blind and got the worst color, or at least the hardest color: purple. I do think he made a valiant effort by trying to match the color of eggplant. But Cliff's own instinct was right, often eggplant does just look black, or close to black. Perhaps if he had chosen a red cabbage which has that lovely purple magenta color, he'd have done better.

I think it's important to note that Marcel offered to help him choose, yet Cliff's reluctance to trust Marcel kept him from taking that offer. More on the Marcel matter in a bit. I thought Michael showed surprising sophistication with his choice of the salmon. The dish had a delicacy and prettiness not often seen in Michael's dishes. Maybe the distraction of his pain led him to stop thinking so much about what he usually does (fry things), and make something that catered to the parameters of the challenge. I was a bit sorry for him that the one Quickfire Challenge he finally did win, did not give him immunity. I am in a way glad, however, as I wouldn't have liked to have him sit the Elimination Challenge out.

I don't know if he'd have even been allowed to actually sit it out, we would have had to sit around and talk it out I suppose, which invariably takes a long time. Everything you see on TV is only a section of what happens -- Judges' Table, for instance, can take hours -- often after the end of the day and a large heavy meal. All this in that heat wave made for very tense talks at times. But each of us judges has equal weight, and all of us have to say our peace. It's only the Quickfire that has just one judge, the guest judge for that episode, while I am there as a guide, and I do taste everything and report some of that to my co-judges, as does Tom when he does a walk-through of the kitchen during Elimination Challenges and reports back to us. The reason we have just the guest decide the Quickfire is a good one: It keeps the judging fresh. When that guest judge walks in he has no idea of what's gone on in the previous episodes, the personal conflicts between them, or who is the weak or strong competitor. He or she is just judging what is put in front of them. That, I think, is very healthy not only for the chefs but for us, as it brings the perspective of another palate.

But back to the Quickfire. What was Betty thinking?? Why would anyone want to eat a hollowed-out zucchini filled with green beans and sunflower seeds and topped with a pesto-like messy sauce? OK yes, she did get the color green, and when you see her interview, you can see how she's locked into that and so steadfast about making it GREEN that she loses sight of the bigger picture. She took the challenge too literally and also her lack of attention to presentation showed, badly. When I look at her plate compared to say Sam, I'd rather eat Sam's. It was yellow, but not all yellow, in the way that any food all one color isn't that appetizing. Also the savory and sweet layering of Sam's flavors was more sumptuous and inviting bite after bite than Betty's green grub. Betty lost sight of the taste, the presentaion, everything. I know it's only half an hour, but so? Her competitors came up with much more interesting, delicious and adventurous plates. Betty has a wonderful way with people and her customer service is excellent, but she lacked a bit of imagination in the Quickfire, latching on to the idea of GREEN so hard it prevented her from addressing whether her dish made one want to dig into it, and come back for more. Also, green is the easiest color in my opinion, and she could have done a dish more substantial than just some veggies; it looked like a health food preparation gone wrong. I love the Quickfires because they bring out the instinctual cook in the contestants, I feel they don't have time to overthink it, and it's thinking fast on your feet in the kitchen that separates the good chefs from the great ones. padmasblog_dinner_320x240.jpg

The dinner for Debi Mazar. I thought the idea to do a dinner inspired by the seven deadly sins was not only fun but poetic in a way. I was really very curious to see what the chefs would come up with for each of their deadly sins. There are times when I've been inspired to write a recipe based on something I've read: MFK Fisher's tangerines in Paris prompted waffles laced with the aroma of orange blossoms, a beautiful banquet set on a table painted in all its Renaissance glory at the Metropolitan Museum inspired me to make an old-fashioned roast with all its trimmings, a scene in Pan's Labyrinth, which I just saw the other night, reminded me of the garnet beauty of a fresh cut pomegranate, and so I have been sprinkling them in my salads as well as into a crumble that is normally made with cranberries and pineapple. Many things in life inform our inner creative process and it is the special person who can let all the brilliant hints life shows us into his or her subconscious.
padmasblog_mazar_320x240.jpg

Debi was a dream, a real gal's gal, and her friends were really up for being part of our little exercise. Again we were in LA in a heat wave and I almost fainted that evening when I got out of the air conditioned car and was hit by a wall of heat outside. Sam's ceviche was very refreshing and also showed great imagination as well as forethought to the environment he was serving his dish in. He had wrath as his sin, and he could have done something not only spicy, but something piping hot, which would have been a mistake. He went first, which I always think is smart because your audience is hungrier at the beginning of a seven course meal. His dish was delicious and pure and refreshing, and his chile popcorn had a great amount of heat packed into these innocuous looking little kernels of popcorn, surprising you when you popped one into your mouth, much as a person with a short temper surprises you with his unexpected anger.

Betty's soup course represented Sloth. I'll say. Again, maybe too literal an interpretation. No one wants to drink a hot liquid from glass, especially a tall flute. And the residue left by not straining the soup enough was unappealing. Unfortunately, Betty failed to be imaginative again. Those soups were nice but nothing to write home about. Perhaps she could have done something slow roasted, like a roast, not faux slow roasted soup combination. I think I kept picking tiny pieces out of my mouth for fear I was smiling with Betty's soup still stuck between my teeth.

Cliff's Greedy South Asian Bouillabaisse was interesting but not nearly as "greedy" as it could have been. I appreciate the abundance of seafood in it, but whenever we eat a stew like that with coconut milk at my house, we tend to get greedy about the broth more than anything, that's where all the flavor is. I think a number of the diners commented on this. I think Cliff was trying to present the dish in an elegant way by piling the seafood into a pyramid in the bowl so that it would seem like a little mountain of pricey seafood, but what resulted for some of us is that the seafood which was not submerged became a bit cold or dry, and we all longed for more of that broth.
padmasblog_mike_320x240.jpg

Other highlights: Michael again, surprised us with his envious fish course. It was prepared well, was tasty and delicate, as well as appealing on the plate. Again, if Michael himself hadn't told us he prepared it, I never would have guessed. I wish Michael would do more of this kind of restrained tasteful food than the bar plates he usually comes up with. I'm glad that he did show us some of this side of him, even if it was late in the game. But he's still in it, despite losing his eggs at the beach, and all the other strange food (Thanksgiving and the Snickers and Cheetos concoction come racing to mind) somehow Michael has hung in there. We'll see for how long. Elia did well with her proud chicken and she always succeeds when she chooses to do a dish that is simple but very well-executed, and she has enough training to do that, again Thanksgiving somes to mind.

And now for the desserts. I know many may have wanted to taste Ilan's dessert over Marcel's when the viewer polling was done when it aired -- but I was there. And leaving the played-out foam aside, Marcel's dessert beat Ilan's to a pulpy mess. Ilan's ill-conceived Gluttony platter was too sickly, wet, and limp to win anything, especially as a last course. There was what looked like a brick of brownie, with a macadamia nut brittle with creme anglais sauce and a funnel cake drenched in simple syrup and powdered sugar. A case of too many weak flavors fighting on the same plate against each other. Now Ilan is a good cook, and he's capable of some excellent and delicious food, and I'm sure that funnel cake was tasty and the right consistency when he originally prepared it. But funnel cake, like many fried sweet foods, does not travel well and doesn't need pairing with other desserts. If he wanted to make a gluttonous dessert, what about going the way of simplicity as Elia did and making a big banana split with some clever flavor twist if he wanted to be creative? Marcel didn't do a lustful dessert but his concept of using cherries was a good one, and it did taste like cherries. My mouth was bursting with cherry flavor; he used fresh cherries in the height of summer in California, and it tasted like it. His portion and presentation were anything but lustful, but he is young. I'd still order that on a menu any day over the toothache soggy surprise that Ilan served us.

I understand the pressure is getting to the chefs, it was getting to me just watching them and it was a very hot day, but there is no excuse for ganging up on Marcel like that. I know that he can be annoying and I'm sure living with him isn't exactly fun. We've all had that kid in school that everyone loved to pick on and I do think somehow this group has decided that he's their bespectacled Piggy in their "Lord of the Flies" scenario. I felt bad for him watching the tape of the show. I saw what he said to Betty and he didn't snap at her, he just told her to wait firmly enough to get his point across. The voice you hear telling Marcel to "hold up" is the voice of our Assistant Director Sean who relays when the cameras are ready to film the one and only time that food is served to that bunch of live waiting dinner guests, and if Marcel hadn't waited or told Betty to wait loudly enough, we would have missed the shot. And Betty and others know that. They just decided that whatever little thing he did was an excuse for them all to behave in that way. Who's heard of kitchen folk being that thin-skinned? If you don't like being barked at now and again, you should really get out of the kitchen. I do think they're a little frightened of him and his skills, whereas they aren't threatened by, say, Mike -- who they seemed to helped along on more than one occasion. I'm not saying that Marcel is completely innocent, but watching tonight's episode, I was shocked by the level of aggression on everyone's part. I do hope this doesn't continue to be the case. This is supposed to be a professional environment, not one where personal attacks are commonplace.

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Gail dishes on Doug Adams' flawless return to the competition and why Melissa King's dish failed to hit the right artistic note.

Bravotv.com: This week we had the Last Chance Kitchen finale between George and Doug, and Doug ended up returning to the competition.

Gail Simmons: It looked like a really close battle -- Tom was really happy with both of their dishes. I will say if I had to put money on it, I would have guessed it would be between George and Doug at the end. They really are two of our stronger competitors. Obviously George was just coming off of his elimination, and it didn't surprise me that Doug stayed at the top of Last Chance Kitchen since being eliminated. I was thrilled to see him in Mexico with us.

Bravotv.com: Great! So he comes back, he wins and then onto the Quickfire Challenge. Any thoughts on this part of the competition?

GS: I'll just say that I’m a big, big fan of Chef Olvera, and I’m so glad we were able to get him on the show. His main restaurant, Pujol, is in Mexico City, but he has Moxi at the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel, where we were  lucky enough to eat the night that I landed, and a new restaurant here in New York that I am really excited about called Cosme. His food is very much rooted in Mexican ingredients and Mexican cooking, but his food is so modern. He really is one of the most talented chefs in the world at this moment, and I’m glad he judged the prickly pear Quickfire. They filmed it right in the center square of San Miguel; it is an amazingly gorgeous place. It was a really great setting for our first challenge in Mexico.

Bravotv.com: Then we have the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by an artist's piece of work, and Doug won with his brisket.

GS:  This challenge is interesting, because San Miguel is such a mecca for artists; it’s an artist colony that has produced incredible work for years. The city itself is so visually inspiring, as are the artists that work there. Their work is so varied, so vast. What was unique in this challenge was that it forced the chefs to take inspiration from an unusual source and think about their dish in a different way. All of the artists are very different, from a graffiti artist to someone who does more abstract landscapes. It was truly exciting to see what the artists did with the canvases they were given and what they shared with the chefs.

I tasted Doug’s dish first and understood it in an instant; it needed no explanation. But when he did talk about it, I realized it had so much depth not only in flavor, but in its purpose. He had an immediate connection with the artist he was paired with -- they were both from Texas and she reminded him a lot of his mother. There was a deep sense of home and comfort between them, which I think allowed him to cook so purely, so simply. The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not "chef it up" too much, he kept it pure. He modeled the presentation of the dish exactly off of the painting itself with those colors from the Mexican landscape -- the deep reds of the earth, those dark greens and browns -- which made perfect sense. His brisket obviously tasted like Texas, but it definitely had an air of Mexico. It had the tomatillo, the masa, and even the red brisket itself was reminiscent of Mexican flavors, since Mexican cuisine has had such an influence on Texas to begin with. The dish was about his roots on a lot of levels. I devoured all of it, it was so hardy and comforting, but it had an elegance and finesse to it in the plating -- the ingredients he chose to put side by side as opposed to stewing them together -- made it special.

The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not 'chef it up' too much, he kept it pure.

Gail Simmons

Bravotv.com: And then we had Gregory's grilled strip loin with ancho chile, beets, cilantro puree, and valencia orange sauce.

GS: Gregory’s dish was excellent too. He did a perfectly grilled strip loin. He was worried about it before we tasted it, but it came out perfectly. He made three incredible sauces to go with it, which drew a lot of inspiration from his artist's painting. The first was this ancho chile sauce and then this beautiful green cilantro puree. The ancho chiles were reminiscent of the peasant farming, the green cilantro tying into the earth. Then there was the orange sauce, which completely changed the dish. When you first tasted it, the dish was earthy, it was deep and complex, it had the Mexican chiles that really shone through with the beef. Then you got a splash of that orange sauce, and it balanced everything out in a way that surprised us. It was so inspired, you could tell that it echoed the sunshine in the painting. It conveyed the artist’s vision of this peasant toiling in the soil through this glorious sunshine, and that’s exactly how the dish tasted.

It was a really close battle between Gregory and Doug in this challenge; both of them did such a great job. Ultimately we chose Doug, because we thought there was an unmistakable depth to his food and it was completely flawless.

Bravotv.com: Let's move on to Mei, who had the snapper and bass crudo with chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles.

GS: In true Mei fashion, her dish was completed beautifully and precise. It was very tightly conceptualized -- every drizzle, every piece of fish, every garnish was perfectly placed, and it was a gorgeous plate of food. I loved her relationship with the artist she worked with, Bea. They had a lovely conversation, which was great to see, and the dish clearly reflected Bea’s work. The chicken skin, the fish, the splashes of color were all inspirations from the painting. Every bite of Mei's dish had a little surprise; there was a little spice, a tiny bit of salt, and a beautiful splash of sweetness, which made it so fun and so playful.

My only criticism of Mei’s food comes from a presentation standpoint. Because Bea’s art was so outrageous and so loud and loose and free in a way, we had hoped that Mei’s food would’ve reflected that. We thought it would have allowed her to loosen up her presentation a little bit. Of course, I respect that she stayed true to who she is and how she presents her food. It was a dish that took a lot of technical skill and was really enjoyable when we ate it, we had just hoped to see more playfulness.

Bravotv.com: And then we had Melissa's smoked eggplant ravioli with shrimp, chorizo, and cotija.

GS: Melissa’s dish was absolutely decadent, delicious, delightful. We all agreed that her smoked eggplant ravioli was perfectly made -- it was smoky, very rich, and the pasta was well cooked. That alone was as good as anything else we had eaten that day. Where we thought she fell short, relative to the other dishes, was that there definitely was less cohesion between the artist's work and her dish. Shrimp, chorizo, cotija cheese, and eggplant can go together, but in the way she plated them, they weren’t really talking -- the shrimp was over here, the sauce was somewhere else, then there was the eggplant ravioli. There didn’t seem to be a line that connected them all. And when she described it in relation to the artwork, we really weren’t sure it conveyed that dramatic splash from the graffiti art. We needed more from her. There was such a direct conversation between Doug and his artist, and it really felt like they were working on the same piece of artwork together. Melissa’s dish, although tasty and very pretty, did not have that same depth. I’m not just talking about flavor; it’s really about the inspiration and the connection, not only between the ingredients on the plate, but between the chef and the artist. His work was really beautiful (and watching the show I regret not buying a piece from him at the time). But it can be hard to translate art, because it’s something so personal. In the end between the four of us we decided that on that day it was Melissa’s dish that did not measure up in terms of the inspiration and connection like the other dishes did. So she was eliminated.

Bravotv.com: It seemed like one of the tougher eliminations this season.

GS: Yes, it was. It always is at this stage of the season. But it was a really great challenge too. I think regardless of winning or losing, Melissa really loved the process and that was so great to see. It was an intellectual challenge that was hard to interpret, and I think they all did an incredible job. I’m really going to miss Melissa. I honestly think she is a huge talent, and I know she is going to do well wherever she goes next.
 

Read more about: