SMASHgods TV: Top Chef New York, Weeks 2 and 3

Sunday, November 30th, 2008 | SMASH TV with

Week 2 of “Top Chef New York” was all about teamwork as the chefs were put together a “New American” menu and they would be judged by some pretty cranky and knowledgeable people –that is, apart from Tom, Gail and Padma: a group of chefs who were not chosen to be on TCNY. Now that’s a bitchy bunch, and some of these people did not disappoint with their probably scripted hissy-fits or snap dismissals of some of the food they were eating. More about that later. However, as Tom said to the judges at the end, this wasn’t, collectively speaking, a wondrous event for the ages since the chefs’ creations probably “set American cuisine back about 20 years”. Ouch.

The Quickfire Challenge centered on New York City once again (this leitmotif is going to get tired fast). This time they invited a hot dog vendor from Dominick’s in Queens, a dog I’ve heard about and which probably inspires all sorts of hosannahs about this being the best in all of the city. The task for the chefs was to take the simple dog and somehow transform it into something pretty amazing. The mission here was to be creative, although for some it was a little over the top. Stefan, the German, might be excused for not growing up with American hot dogs, but his sausage-loving country tends to cancel that out. He went for a high-falutin’ “World Dog” with various global takes on the dog, except that neither of them seemed all that tasty to judges Padma and Donatella Arpaia. Hosea’s bacon dog looked pretty delicious, something achieved with him (and the rest) actually making their own wieners. So why didn’t Jill do this? Would it have killed her to do this? Again, more on her and her laconic work ethic later. The winner, maybe a surprise, was Radhika, who delivered an Indian take on the dog, with curries and chutneys adding just the right amount of spice. She would have immunity for the next challenge.

hot dog

The Elimination Challenge, as described above, required them to cook a 3-course meal for those “50 New Yorkers”, but again, not just any already prickly New Yorkers. The theme was “New American”, which was not terribly well defined but Tom explained that they were to take regional classics or foods that we know (although not a hot dog) and give it a modern twist. Three courses, naturally, meant three small groups that formed fairly quickly: entrees by Stefan, Alex, Eugene, Jill and Jeff; appetizers by Fabio, Hosea, Melissa, Jamie and Leah; finally, desserts by Richard, Carla, Ariane, Daniel and Radhika.

We could begin to see some problems already when the chefs hit Whole Foods. Jill somehow had a quiche in mind (how “New American”) but then when she saw a huge ostrich egg (who you could get this there?), she decided her fate, as if the judges could possibly notice this once the quiche was made; an egg is an egg once cooked. Ariane ended up making a lemon meringue martini that was so cloyingly sweet that Padma actually spit it up. That’s bad. These were the worst dishes, and it was ultimately Jill who was told to pack up her knives. It was a bit of a surprise, since Ariane had been in the bottom two before. Jill’s dish failed because it didn’t hew to the theme.

The winner was Fabio, who charmingly began yammering about his dish thinking that it was one of the least favorite; it wasn’t. His entrée, a beef carpaccio, was judged a big success, especially from Gail who gently kidded around with him. Fabio now claimed that he and Stefan, both Europeans, have now won Elimination Challenges. Look for at least a European competition and perhaps more of the slight snootiness that they tend to portray toward the other “savage” Americans who would call hot dogs cuisine. Oh, and they kiss a lot too –again, something you do in Europe.

Week 2
Quickfire Challenge: Prepare a hot dog dish
Winner: Radhika
Dish:Hot Dog with Indian spices

Elimination Challenge: Prepare a 3-course New American meal
Winner: Fabio
Dish: Beef Carpaccio

You could probably call this past week’s episode the “Let’s-Pay-The-Bills” installment and “We-Hope-No-One-Notices-Because-It’s-Thanksgiving”. For one thing, I would think that Bravo has by now made a truckload of cash with the “Top Chef” franchise. While it isn’t the juggernaut that “Project Runway” is, it also isn’t the low-rent “Shear Genius” either. So why does the show have to shove so many products in our faces in one episode? Is Swanson so desperate to get its broths out there that they have to nag the “Top Chef” producers to include them, even during the opening Quickfire Challenge.

The chefs were gathered at the kitchen and Padma walks in, wearing a frilly purple frock (who dresses her?), and accompanied with a pouty Grant Achatz, apparently hot new chef at Alinea in Chicago. He needs to lose the attitude, but again, who am I kidding? These young chefs earn their snarly attitude and prestige not by being outwardly friendly. The challenge was to (product placement coming!) pick a knife that had a number on it. That number matched a page number from…..wait for it….the Top Chef Cookbook! The chefs’ job was to recreate the recipe that was in the book once created by a former Top Chef contestant or, in the case of Hung, a Top Chef champion. Fair enough, apart from the overt hawking of a hardcover book that’s been out for the better part of a year already. One hour into the challenge, out comes a cart full of Swanson broths and a yelling Padma who screams at the chefs to stop what they’re doing: time for a switcheroo. It’s then announced that they now have to turn their current dish into a soup. And oh yeah, you can gladly use the Swanson broths over here! The creations were interesting, with Daniel, Leah and Jamie turning out the most interesting dishes. I especially liked Daniel’s version of what would have been a black forest ham bundle with scrambled eggs and mushrooms inside; it became a hearty ham and poached egg soup that resembled something comforting and rustic. In the end it was Leah’s chilled white asparagus soup that prevailed, probably because it’s hard to make white asparagus tasty by themselves—as Leah herself admitted.

Could the somehow-still-current rock band the Foo Fighters be considered a product placement? Come on! They declare themselves “big fans” of Top Chef, and lead idiot Dave Grohl seemed to be hamming it up way too much. They were in the middle of a concert tour in Rochester, NY and –get this—it took place on July 28, but since this would air during Thanksgiving week, the Elimination Challenge was to select two teams that would prepare the band (and entourage of 60) a Thanksgiving meal. There was some kind of rider that made some specifications, including the use of bacon but overall this would be a traditional meal with turkey and all the fixins.

As winner of the Quickfire Challenge, Leah got the advantage of selecting her team, Team Sexy Pants: Fabio, Radhika, Stefan, Jamie, Hosea, Melissa. On Team Cougar (the cat being sexy Ariane), it was Daniel, Eugene, Richard, Ariane, Alex, Jeff and Carla. They got to work quickly, but not before they traveled to upstate New York and the Blue Cross Arena, where they saw their “kitchen equipment” –microwave and toaster ovens and one burner for each team. It was also about time for another product placement: a whole freezer case of Butterball turkeys at the local grocery store. (Guess Rochester is not ritzy enough for a Whole Foods.) After that both teams had about 3 hours to cook.

Team Cougar’s menu consisted of: Butterball turkey, spoonbread stuffing with figs, cranberries, walnuts and onions, roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes, pork roast, five cheese macaroni & cheese, pumpkin parfait, peach cobbler and banana s’mores. The very last dish was the bright idea of Richard’s, who either felt nostalgic or just wanted to add something homey to the meal. Personally, I don’t think s’mores is real food. A quick campfire nosh, but not something I would bring for any professional judging. Finally, he did not have much luck in getting the chocolate and marshmallows to the right temperature.

Team Sexy Pants tried the following: (again) Butterball turkey, vegan cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, gravy, roasted corn salad, pumpkin tiramisu and a fruit crisp. So as you can see, the menus are pretty similar, since the Foos aren’t into having very complex dishes. I mean, it is Thanksgiving at the end of July! Both teams struggle with time, with the elements (rain), and of course just managing who will do what and when. Jeff from Florida still seems a bit stressed when it comes to scheduling his time. Ariane believes others look down on her because she has missed the chopping block two weeks now.

When the Foos and the judges come in, the chefs are ready to serve. But the actual tasting and comments appear a little listless, especially for the Foos. They look like they’re glad just to get fed. And when these rockers do offer some culinary advice, they begin to sound like dilettantes. “I just don’t like figs in my stuffing”, exclaimed Taylor Hawkins, the drummer, while wiggling his head. I would guess he hadn’t ever tried a fig. He then announces that the mashed potatoes from Team Cougar are “al dente”, then explains what that expression means. Odd. Also, apparently Ariane’s roasted turkey was moist and flavorful.

When it’s Sexy Pants’ turn, their comments are just as noteworthy. They love Radhika’s vegan stuffing. Dave liked how Melissa’s yams burned the marshmallows. The turkey, however, was less fetching and they preferred the one Ariane made for Team Cougar. So it would have to be down t the desserts to really determine the winner. Fabio’s roasted pumpkin and honey tiramisu looked awesome, and they enjoyed it a lot. The pumpkin parfait with fruit (called a “barf-ait”) from Jeff —um, not so much. Hosea’s peach and blueberry crisp is something that even he didn’t think was all that complex, but the cinnamon cream looked a little lumpy on top. The banana s’mores, again, were a big misfire since the end result looked nothing like what you’d expect. And on a Thanksgiving menu, somehow this runny mess seemed out of place.

Sexy Pants was the winner. Their food, despite a couple of duds, was the all around champ, and they got the privilege of attending the Foos’s concert that even, which was the excuse to show the chefs rockin’ out, punching fists and dancing awkwardly during one of the Foos’s songs. Meanwhile Team Cougar had to clean up all the mess.

The judges’ table section proved enlightening only in that we didn’t really know whose dish would be deemed the worst, and of course, who would get tossed out. Jeff had the audacity to show surprise that he and his team were even there. Indignant, he tried to blame the rain, as if the rain would not have affected Team Sexy Pants. I don’t think Jeff seems all that friendly and he is beginning to evince a little snottiness, particularly around Tom Colicchio. The same person who just rolled his eyes was also called out as the team leader. Yet he has been here before, also almost finding excuses for defeat. Jeff talks a good game but cannot quite execute confidently. Richard, the S’mores Guy, tried to come to his aid, but something was amiss. And it was Richard who got the ax because in Achatz’s view, it really didn’t live up to what it should have been –something “burnt sugar, something gooey” –and warm chocolate. I disagree –somewhat. I didn’t think this dish even belonged. Gail nailed him by revealing that the cream on top looked like “spit”, which is the classy comment the Foos made.

Quickfire Challenge: Prepare a soup from a recipe in Top Chef Cookbook
Winner: Leah

Elimination Challenge: Prepare Thanksgiving meal for Foo Fighters
Winner: Team Sexy Pants (Fabio, Stefan, Leah, Jamie, Melissa, Radhika, Hosea
Winning Dish (probably): Vegan Stuffing (Radhika)

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