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.

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Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Gail schools us on the science of innovative cooking and explains why George Pagonis' octopus didn't have any legs to stand on.

Bravotv.com: Let's talk about the Elimination Challenge, which was to create an innovative dish that pushed culinary boundaries.

Gail Simmons: I was really happy that Wylie was there for this challenge, of course. But I think the set up was a little anti-climactic in honesty. As a viewer, you didn't get a full explanation of how and why they were given this challenge. It was specifically because there are so many people pushing these boundaries, many of whom are in Boston, and particularly Michael Brenner. He is innovative for a lot of reasons -- he’s a physicist, but what he’s become known for in the culinary space is teaching an in-depth course at Harvard about the science of food and cooking, incorporating people like Wylie and as well as a long list of exceptionally talented and renown chefs from around the world, like Ferran Adrià among others. It is exciting and extraordinary, and having him there allowed us to present our chefs with this challenge. We always think about how the dishes taste and look, whether the meat is cooked well enough or the appearance of knife cuts are appropriate. All of that stuff is in affect science -- cooking is all chemistry and biology, reaction of cells to knives and fire essentially. Everyone has their own definition of innovation, and I think there was a lot of pressure to "innovate" in this challenge. Our chefs did well, but I wish they had been given more time to really push their own personal boundaries more.

 



Bravotv.com: Let’s start with the winner, Melissa, who had the seared duck breast with farro, walnut miso, and pickled cherries.

GS: Melissa really has stepped up her game and soared in the last two challenges; she won the last challenge (and a spot in the finale in Mexico), and now she’s won this challenge, too. Her duck was beautiful, though not necessarily the most groundbreaking dish I’ve ever seen in my life. But she was innovative enough that we felt her flavors were new, but the dish was at the same time beautiful, delicious. Here’s the tricky thing about being innovative, which I think George touched on when he was talking about the challenge too: is it takes time and practice to truly innovate. I can only assume that someone like Wylie tries a dish fifty times before it goes on his menu as a full formed creative work, that changes how we all perceive food. Innovation takes patience and some serious brain power. To come up with something in a few hours is a tall order when it needs to be totally delicious AND have a level of innovation that surprises and impresses us. Melissa knew her strengths and perhaps was more relaxed then she would’ve been otherwise, so she made that walnut miso pesto and incorporated it in a really creative, unusual way. It made her dish stand out, and by far it was the most delicious.

Bravotv.com: And then we had our runner, Mei, with her duck curry with vadouvan and yuzu yogurt.

GS: There was something about Mei’s dish that made me think it was the most innovative of the day in a number of ways. However it wasn’t the most successful, and that’s why Melissa took the win. Mei’s dish was not only breathtakingly stark and beautiful, looking so modern on the plate, but she also combined several unusual ingredients, which made for a very untraditional, very modern curry. It was innovative and it stayed with us. You could even see in Tom's reaction that it was a dish to think about. When you tasted it, you weren't sure it worked, but there was something enjoyable about it; the dish didn't simply come together in your mind. It wasn't straight forward. You needed to take a pause, then a second bite, and by the third and fourth bite you started to understand all the different parts, which were very exciting. I think with a few more tries, Mei would’ve really nailed that dish. I was proud of her for pushing us all that way.

Bravotv.com: Then in our bottom two we had Gregory and George. Gregory did the salmon in tom kha broth with roasted tomatoes, crispy chicken skin, and crispy salmon skin.

GS: There were a lot of fun, tasty components to Gregory’s dish. If this challenge had been to show us an interesting representation of salmon or Thai flavors, he would’ve gotten it right. The thing with Gregory is that as skilled as he is, we were really hoping that he would come out of his comfort zone. The flavors he used were what we have seen from him previously. We didn’t really see a lot of innovation from him. That doesn’t mean we don’t think he worked hard or didn't do a good job. He gave us something that he felt was different in presentation, but the flavors were definitely in his usual wheelhouse. As he said himself when cooking beans in the Quickfire, he felt uncomfortable because he's more accustomed to using Asian flavors and ingredients. So here he was in the Elimination Challenge using Asian flavors. On the other hand the dish tasted great! We loved it, we just didn’t think he fulfilled the challenge of being innovative like we know he could have. And then there was George. . .

Bravotv.com:  Yes, he had the charred octopus, yellow split pea puree, and green apple harissa.

GS: George also stayed in his comfort zone in some ways -- he's cooked us octopus before, so charring octopus did not feel innovative at all for him, I actually felt disappointed when he told us that's what he had made. However, there were probably twenty other components of that dish that did make it feel somewhat innovative. The green apple harissa was one of them for sure. The fact that he called it harissa may be taking some license, but that's OK. I loved it, it went so well with the octopus, and it was something new that all of us had never seen. That said, the rest of the dish didn’t make sense all together. At least three or four of the garnishes he added didn’t serve a purpose on the plate, rather, they detracted from the dish. He spent his time making too many components. They may have shown technique, and you could tell that he was really pushing himself, but it all still has to be one cohesive plate of food, first and foremost. I think it didn’t work because he let himself get preoccupied with all the other pieces instead of focusing on doing one thing really well in an innovative way.

Charring octopus did not feel innovative at all for him, I actually felt disappointed when he told us that's what he had made.


So George's was the dish we least enjoyed eating and thought was the least successful, that’s why he went home. I think George did a tremendous job. He came back once already, and he could come back from Last Chance Kitchen again. He’s a great cook, has a great attitude, and I think he absolutely gave his best throughout the competition, which made everyone better. I don’t always say that, but I think when he came back, he really changed the game and the whole season was better for it.

Now, onward to Mexico!

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