Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Sympathy For The Devil

Anthony Bourdain reacts to Howie's departure.

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There was rejoicing in TV-land last night, as designated bad guy Howie whiffed on three pitches and was sent home for good. For many who have posted on this site, offended by his petulance, his obstinacy, the veritable Niagara of sweat that flowed freely from his brow, it was none too soon. But...but... what do we do now? With no bad guy?

And was Howie all that bad?

Did we judge Howie too harshly because of his less-than-matinee idol looks? If he sweated less profusely, and looked like a young Brad Pitt, would his words and attitude alone have made him such a compelling target? When I look at Howie, short, bald, pants looking two sizes too big on him, built like a small tank and with an expression on his face like a closed fist, I sense the end product of a long line of tormentors.

Knowing nothing about him, I'm guessing that this guy has experienced, in his time, more than his share of insult. The Howie we've come to love -- to hate -- cannot, I think, have made it through the school system -- much less the early part of a cooking career without soaking up a lot of punishment. What has evolved is a tough, hard-shelled little bastard who just refuses to give an inch. I may not want to work with him. I certainly don't want to be marooned on Gilligan's Island with him. But I admire his toughness.
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Which is not to say he didn't richly deserve to get the chop. Absolutely unwilling to "lose", Howie, reaching the bottom of his limited bag of tricks, positioned himself as "choosing" to fall on his sword. Knowing that his Quickfire offering was an embarrassment, he trotted out the high-minded principle argument again (as he did in Episode One). He "chose" not to submit a less-than-the best offering -- cause he's just so exacting and his standards so high, you see.

His upturned martini glass was a defiant "Screw You" to the judges, but to me it smacked of Roberto Duran's famous "No mas" end to his bout with Sugar Ray Leonard. The tough, proud, and previously unbeatable Duran, after a few short rounds with the much faster, more polished Leonard, looked into the future and saw nothing but many more rounds of swinging at empty air and a humiliating loss on points. So he quit. Better, he figured, to walk out upright than allow anyone the satisfaction of watching him be a punching bag in the last round.

It's the old "You can't fire me! I QUIT!" exit strategy, and Howie was workin' it from early in the show. "Who gives a **** what the judges say? " he was saying -- even before he lost. In the bit from his exit interview, Howie was already at work on his revisionist version of events -- that he'd "made the right choice."

In truth, there was no choice about it. He gave the Elimination Challenge his best shot -- and it wasn't nearly good enough. In fact, it was light years away from adequate. Asparagus "cigars" wrapped in phyllo? Mushroom "Duxelle" sitting on puff pastry? Are you kidding? You go to any Midwestern Association of Insurance Adjusters conference at some airport convention center, and before suffering the "choice of chicken or salmon" sit-down dinner in the banquet room, there will be the grim gauntlet of hors' doevres (along with the jug Chablis and the sparkling wine). Alongside the curling carrot sticks and unripe brie will no doubt be passed greasy, phyllo wrapped objects and mysterious sludgelike substances festering atop pre-cooked hollows of puff pastry much like Howie's. Monochromatic. Oxidizing into even more extreme ugliness with every passing second. And ubiquitous in the Annals of Mediocrity. About as "stylish" as baby quiche, devilled eggs -- or remaki.
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I was never a creative genius as a chef. Far from it. I was a journeyman. God knows, back in the day, I ran to the freezer many times during the Christmas party season, looking to bail myself out with frozen spanokopita, the case of Durkee bits, the frozen baby quiche -- or made a quick retreat to curried chicken salad on Belgian endive leaves -- when extreme measures were called for. But I never deluded myself while doing it that I was Escoffier. I wasn't "Top Chef". I was "Desperate For Something Else to Feed the Hungry Mob Chef".

Howie, I think, is also, a journeyman chef. Which is why I retain no small measure of respect and even affection for him. To be honest with myself, for a lot of my career -- if not most of my career -- I cooked more like him than like some of the brighter lights among the contestants. If cooking professionally were simply an endurance sport, Howie would have the world by the balls. When talking top tier cooking, though, toughness and endurance just ain't enough. Howie, eventually and inevitably, I'm afraid, simply ran out of gas in the creative and finesse departments. Believe me, I know the feeling.
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And what of former bad-guy, Hung? The other contestants seem to be softening towards him, more amused than appalled these days by his frenetic wierdness. The spontaneous applause at his "Homage Aux Smurfs Sauvages" Quickfire entry was a great "Aww shucks" moment. He's much more the puppy that eats your sneakers these days than the viper in the woodpile.

And look at this significant difference between Howie and Hung: Both were screwed by "difficult" supermarket aisles. But Hung, who was arguably faced with mission impossible, went ahead and enthusiastically had FUN with the situation, embracing the silliness and futility of his predicament by creating a totally loonie tunes collage of crushed up breakfast cereal, a pediatrician's wall mural of powdered crunchberries, booberries, and Lucky Charms. It was haute cuisine for six-year-olds -- and while it had no chance of winning, neither did it lose. Instead of smashing his toys and sulking in the corner, Hung actually revelled in reverting to his childhood.

And I'm thinking he might have been among the smartest of the bunch with his shrewdly pedestrian salmon mousse with caviar on cucumber round. It ain't dumb, faced with the challenge of feeding 60 "stylish fashionistas" on the SS Minnow, to keep your head down and aim solidly for the middle ground. The dish -- as was accurately pointed out by the wise and wonderful Dana Cowin -- is indeed as 80s as A Flock of Seagulls and a Mannitol drip . Thing is, people LOVE that shit. It's colorful. It looks "light" and "healthy" and if you're a recently tightened "fashionista", you don't have to open your mouth too wide, distend your cheeks unattractively or wipe crumbs or sauce off your lipstick when you're done. It may be "over" to people who cook food and write about food or even eat food professionally. But as Hung, in acknowledging its retro legacy said, "People will still be eating it in 50 years".

Truer words have never been spoken. Those little pink and green discs of goodness are the Caterer's Best Friend; a perfect fallback position when looking to stay in the game without getting injured. I suspect Hung heard the words "stylish" and "fashionistas" and assumed, not unreasonably: "models" and "dumb as a board" -- and chose his dish accordingly. Even the bitchiest of customers could hardly muster much scorn beyond an extravagantly jaded sigh.
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Why am I humping Hung's leg with such enthusiasm? Cause something really interesting and important happened this week. Hung PUT ASIDE HIS EGO in the shared interests of the mission -- and his personal strategy. He knew with certainty that salmon mousse on cucumber was yesterday's news. And he HAD to know he'd be facing an unimpressed -- even incredulous panel of judges. Yet, instead of trying to look like Wonder Boy, he let pride take a back seat for an unchallenging, utilitarian crowd-pleaser, gambling confidently that someone else would go into the dumper. Howie quickly vindicated that faith.

Winner Casey reminded us why she's still around and still dangerous after last week's slow motion Demolition Derby of a Quickfire Challenge. She may wield her knife like a medieval pole-axe, but she's clearly got an extraordinary palate and a good eye for presentation.
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CJ wheeled out ye olde seafood sausage and can't be faulted for it. Perfectly suited for the venue, tasted good. And it worked before,for others, so why not again?

Brian, on the other hand, did not -- as in previous weeks -- manage to sneak through the crowded outhouse unsplattered. This time, he emerged fully covered in ordure. Had Howie not so proudly extended the middle finger in the Quickfire -- and rushed so enthusiastically to embrace the Pillsbury Doughboy in the Elimination, it would surely have been Brian hitting the high-jump. No contest. I'm beginning to agree with some of the commentators/observers on this site who have pointed out that Brian seems to have managed to avoid cooking altogether for the last few weeks. And this week, as "executive chef" with dibs on the "money dish", he again dodged anything resembling a heat source. Colicchio looks like he's ready to lunge across the Judges' Table and take a jagged bite out of the next uninspired, knucklehead who DARES serve him tuna tartare. I feel his pain. Let us, by all that is holy, be done with it.
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In spite of his mealy-mouthed buck-passing and blame-diffusing at the end, Brian didn't fool anybody on the judges' panel. The "I wasn't really in charge and therefore am not to blame because they're all chefs too" defense was pathetic. As a chef, to complain that your crew "just won't listen" doesn't get you any sympathy. It gets you unemployed.

Bottom line: Brian blew every aspect of the challenge. He presided over a boring menu (where bread seemed to feature obtrusively in nearly every course), he spent his budget unwisely, and deployed his crew poorly (choosing variety over quality), shrank from responsibility at every turn (not killing off Howie's craptacular vol-au-vent idea in its crib -- or stopping it before it left the kitchen), and once again, seemed to busy himself doing everything BUT actually cooking. Do you really need an expediter for a cocktail party of finger food for 60? I think not. Lately, Brian seems AWOL without even being gone.

I should point out, by the way, that I'm guest judging again next week. Which means I know what happens. And while I am precluded from discussing future broadcasts by a confidentiality agreement rivalling the NSA's in the severity of its penalties for unauthorized disclosure, I can reveal this: There will be a SlaughterFest of Horror, an Orgy of Bloodletting, Partial Nudity, Flammable Liquids, Unspeakable Misuse of Power Tools and Small Woodland Creatures, and the Plaintive Wailing of the Doomed. It will make Altamont look like Lilith Fair.

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.
 

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