Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hands Up! Utensils Down ... low

Richard Blais breaks down the new and improved Top Chef Kitchen.

At this point in the season, the pack is still so large that not all of the contestants' food gets air time and we don’t hear the judges’ recapping. So, I’m going to continue looking at Top Chef from an angle is unique and resourceful (I hope) until our crew gets whittled down a bit more and we get to know the chefs.

Last week, I gave some insight into the social interactions and acclimating necessary for our chefs to succeed in a very new personal environment, living with 15 or so weirdos, getting used to bunk beds and communal bathrooms, as well as preparing for a long grind in a pressure-filled environment. They also have to get used to their other new home — the Top Chef kitchen.

We are all very aware of the shiny GE monogram ranges and ovens, the war room wall of microwaves, and the glossy stainless steel work tables that comprise the set. What you may not know, and what’s almost impossible to document during the chaos of competition, is exactly what else is in the kitchen—the table top appliances, the gadgets and gizmos, the spice racks and hand tools.

As the show becomes more popular, and as more talent competes featuring diverse cooking styles, the kitchen, each season, gets, and very appropriately so for Las Vegas, upgraded.

I’ve had the good fortune of, besides competing in Season 4, also appearing in Season 5, and Top Chef Masters. I can say the kitchen upgrades have been significant each time. Mostly, it is the previous competitors that spur the additions. If a past contestant introduces an ingredient or tool, it seems to appear in the next season’s pantry.

As I write this, I’m reminded of the SNL skit where Dana Carvey (I believe), playing an old-timer with a bone to pick.

"In my day," we didn’t have immersion circulators and liquid nitrogen. We didn’t have gellan gum and rotary evaporators. If we wanted ice cream, we churned it ... by hand, for hours and hours. We had wood, and fire, and coal! We would kill our own meat! We would make guacamole by grinding our avocados on a piece of stone with bloody knuckles ... and we liked it!

Here’s a brief summary of some equipment you may not know about, and what it may do to help our chefs this year.

iSi syphons or “foam canisters” - Popularized by Marcel Vigneron in Season 2 of Top Chef and Legendary Spanish Chef, Ferran Adria. Invented by neither. These containers, which most of you see in use at Starbucks for whip cream, can create airy textures, melting mouth feels, carbonate, inflate, aerate, chill, and basically manipulate. Although foam gets a bad wrap, these hand-held tools used to appear in TC Kitchen if a contestant brought one in as a special secret hand tool. These canisters, once only available as a chefs secret piece of equipment, are now at a chef's disposal in the storage area.

Vacuum Packer - Popularized by Top Chef Season 3 winner, Hung Hyunh, the vacuum is crucial to sous vide cooking. It was developed in France in the early 70s. This technology allows the chef to infuse, marinate, compress, cook sous vide, and store ingredients efficiently. This year's kitchen gets equipped with a high powered industrial model, definitely not available in seasons past. Previously, a consumer model of the Food Saver was available, and still is, if necessary.  But before that, chefs would have to pack their own as a secret tool. In tonight’s episode Bryan Voltaggio cooks his black cod sous vide and Michael Votaggio compresses elements for his gazpacho, both using the technology of the vacuum chamber.

Poly Science Immersion Circulator - popularized by multiple contestants and used extensively in serious professional kitchens. The circulator will hold a precise temperature and allows its users to cook with precision to a tenth of a degree. The circulator warms a “bath” where vacuum-sealed ingredients float and slowly cook. It is the most common tool used in cooking sous vide. I liken it to a high tech crockpot, or maybe a jacuzzi. Tonight, as in Episode 1, both Voltaggio brothers used it and I’d guess you’ll see a good portion of the cast grab one throughout the season. 

The Tech shelf - Ingredients used in the modern kitchen that were previously unavailable to contestants and could only be brought in as secret ingredients. Ranging from methyl cellulose (used to make Bryan’s winning meringue) to glucono delta lactone. Available from Terra Spice.com or Koerner.com, look for these jars and containers filled with non descript whitish powders to emulsify, gel, dry, encapsulate, acidulate, carbonate, and basically manipulate many preparations.

Liquid Nitrogen - Popularized on Top Chef by that guy with the funny hair and in our industry by British Chef Heston Blumenthal. What was made available to me in a soup thermos in Puerto Rico only, is now available in the form of a 600 pound pressurized tank, and a transportable container for the chefs to take on the road. The planet’s second coldest substance presents the ability to freeze anything in minutes or even seconds. It drastically creates amazing texture and therefore, mouthfeel (as in Michael Voltaggio’s gazpacho). It can be used to cold “fry” or “sear” and in one of it’s most useful roles, to freeze alcohol, ( Michael's sorbet ).

Along with these tools, also look for Pressure cookers, (which are in my honest opinion the most important piece of equipment in the kitchen), multiple small smoking units (Hector, Episode 1), deyhdrators, paco-jets, and anti-griddles!

Follow me on Twitter @RichardBlais

And look for my companion piece, called “Second Helping” on Creative Loafing’s blog Omnivore.