Pizza Wars, Chicago-Style!
Chicago boy Ted Allen gives his insider perspective to the Top Chef: Chicago premiere and his first episode as a judge.
We're BA-ACK! But before I get going in earnest, here, may I make a little proclamation, please? Young chefs of America, hear me, I beg of you: The freakin' fauxhawk is OVER. Done. Burned to a crisp. 2003 called; it wants your hairdo back.
Ah -- that felt good.
Now, then: What a rip-snorter of an opening episode! TC4:Chicago wasted no time sucking me in as a viewer, toque-over-clogs. What really struck me, aside from the affection I felt upon seeing those beauty shots of my beloved, adopted hometown, was how I immediately fell for this shiny, new crop of cheftestants -- all of them. What a funny, quirky, passionate collection of talents -- including my man Andrew, who instantly established himself as season 4's cocky, hair-trigger nutcase (and I mean that in the nicest way). I called it, friends: the minute Andrew told us judges we'd have to have him dragged out by security, I knew Bravo was going to use that moment for a promo spot. Stay tuned to watch the veins throb in his head and the smoke shoot out of his ears! Stay tuned to see if he's hauled away in a straitjacket -- or if he wins it all! And kudos to the Top Chef casting department!You knew this was coming: In the inaugural Quickfire, our chefs were challenged to conquer that thick, gooey confection we all know as Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza -- and for the most part quickly revealed their misunderstanding of this famous, if excessive, style of pie. (Me, I'm a thin-and-crispy-crust guy, but, you gotta pack on the insulation to survive Chicago winters.)
It was interesting how differently the chefs approached this deep-dish challenge. I had to suppress a gag reflex when The Dude From That 70s Show, aka. Mark, announced he was making a pizza with Marmite (!?!), an inexplicable favorite in New Zealand. (Marmite, if you've never had the pleasure, is about as appetizing as the heartworm medicine a dog licks off your finger.) Then, you had the straightforward approach, via Erik's mushrooms and sausage, and Nimma's wild-mushroom melange. You had the bold and the brave: Dale's pickled kohlrabi, Stephanie's melon-tomato sauce, and Richard's peaches. And, then, you had Nikki, opening the door to the New York-style versus Chicago-style debate that no doubt will continue here, making a crust that was three inches deep. Heh. Heh. That's good food television (if not good pizza-craft).
For educational purposes, I turned to a dear friend, Penny Pollack, the dining editor of Chicago magazine and author of "Everybody Loves Pizza:" "Deep dish done right is soul-satisfying and totally Chicago," Penny e-mails to me. "Done right means that the cornmeal crust has heft and depth but it's NOT bready. It still manages to have crunch. And it's a MEAL. No namby pamby appetizer pizzas in this town. On the downside: Man, it's heavy. Don't get roped into a pizza eating contest with this stuff." True dat, Mrs. Shapiro!
Meanwhile, back at the Top Chef McMansion in Lincoln Park -- which has, it should be noted, a fake gas fireplace above the Jacuzzi in one of the bathrooms -- who should open the door but the always-dashing Rocco DiSpirito! Thanks, my friend, for teaching us in this episode that we need to be careful about heating prosciutto -- great lesson (it brings out an unpleasant gaminess in the ham). And after last season's online flame session, it's great to see that you and Bourdain can sit at Judges' Table and break souffle together ... Awwwww. Speaking of guest judges, thanks to Maureen Ryan at the Chicago Tribune for expressing concern about the absence of myself or other Chicago food types in this first episode. No worries, Mo -- we've got 15 episodes to go. You will see many, many Chicago chefs and luminaries, and great location shots all over town. The cast, producers, and crew fell completely in love with the city, and it shows in the episodes. As in last season, the lovely and sensuous Gail Simmons and myself will rotate in and out as judges, coming together again with Tom and Padma for the finale, in some glamorous location yet to be announced ...
... But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Speaking of locations, I'm really pleased to see TC4 doing its official shopping at the new Whole Foods market on Halsted Street. That store is the anchor tenant of a very special building in Chicago -- the brand-spankin' new Center on Halsted, which is the newest and largest gay and lesbian community center in the country. It's also smack in the middle of Boystown, where I used to live, and where I still have lots of friends (Yo, Roger and Bill!) The tricky part for production was the fact that the store is so prominent, it was really tough for Bravo's ministers of security to keep a lid on the challenges. Reporters, bloggers, fans everywhere. The intensity of interest in the show has never been higher.
This Elimination Challenge was tough -- particularly on Zoi and Erik (Tex-Mex souffle? Ouch.) I was worried the minute Ryan said he was buying tomatoes for his chicken piccatta, seeing as how that classic dish is made with a lemon-butter-caper sauce. This game also brought out the beast in Andrew and Richard, first, with Andrew using his fingers to make disrespectful quotation marks when calling Richard "my competitor," and then taking a swipe at his hairstyle. (Oh: Did I mention that the freakin' fauxhawk is OVER? Done. Burned to a crisp. 2003 called; it wants your hairdo back. Dear Bravo: please issue a ban on this silly hairstyle next season. Thanks.) And then, with Richard declining to share his mayonnaise with Andrew, later thinking better of it. "That won't be necessary now," Andrew retorted, who would later score points (albeit not enough of them) with the judges for having made his own.
But it ended with the two of them respecting each other as talents, and with Andrew officially designating Richard "a badass." He is -- anybody with a pocket smoker like that is a badass. So are most of these chefs, which is great news for those of us who have to eat their food. And so is Nimma. I was very sorry to see her go.
The sweetest moment of the show came when that incandescent smile burst across Stephanie's face when Anthony Bourdain snarfed down her Duck a l' Orange, and told her -- twice -- that he loved it. This after that we saw her hands shaking so badly that she could barely sauce the plate.
Yep, Stephanie -- you can stop shaking. You not only deserve to be here; you kicked serious butt. Congrats. And see y'all next week. --T
For more info on what I'm up to -- including appearances around the country, new pictures, recipes for what I'm cooking these days, and, for the first time, a personal blog -- visit my redesigned Web site at www.tedallen.net.