SMASHgods TV: Top Chef New York, Weeks 4 and 5

Monday, December 15th, 2008 | SMASH TV with

Rocco diSpirito is a tool. He was the guest judge on last week’s episode of “Top Chef: New York”. Somehow he doesn’t have the flair and respect that someone like Thomas Keller or Daniel Boulud have earned, or even a Mario Batali with his orange Crocs. No, Rocco is all about being Rocco, getting maximum face time and talking too much. Sure, he was once a hot young chef in Manhattan (Union Pacific), then he had the ruinous reality show on NBC, “The Restaurant”, that exposed him in rather unflattering ways. No, Rocco is someone who is around still to add a name or B-level kitchen cred to this show, and besides, it looks like Padma likes him. Even the wonderful Fabio, intensely full of natural (and not manufactured) charm himself, couldn’t resist digging at him in an aside —that Rocco is American, not Italian—but in some ways I suppose he understands the appeal.

Rocco appeared with Padma for the opening Quickfire Challenge, which was to create an amuse-bouche for breakfast. The snootiness of the word should not intimidate, however. It simply means a little something, a single mouthful of something that prepares you for the entrée or main dish. In this case it meant breakfast. The chefs had a short amount of time to create something. Some understood this; some did not and actually created more bouche-fuls. Rocco didn’t care for Fabio’s creation, which was sweet; perhaps they had had a few words and they just didn’t like each other. Leah seemed a little prissy at almost reminding the judges that she knew what the challenge meant –one quick snazzy bite, not a few servings of something.

The actual Elimination challenge was a bit more interesting and may have borrowed from the far-inferior “Next Food Network Star” program that has so far produced the classy Guy Fieri and his pinky rings as a bonafide star on that chatfest network. That show makes its contestants prepare a dish and present it on camera in something like 2-minute presentations, with the earnest judges Bob Tuschman, Susie Fogelman and macho Bobby Flay providing equal criticism about the food preparation and their ability to present themselves in a compelling way on camera. But as one of the chefs on “Top Chef” admitted, why do they have to even be on camera? These are cranky, sometimes misanthropic, chain-smoking and swearing folks who like to be left alone whilst they concoct their magical creations. Oh wait. The Rocco influence. The show is trying to sell out a little bit and create challenges that somehow go a bit beyond the actual preparation of food.

“Top Chef” would have you think that it’s a coincidence that sister network NBC has this “Today” show program each morning, and that the chefs are going to prepare a dish that they will NOT present on camera when it is all said and done. But they do have to present it to Rocco –and Padma and Tom, and the finalists will then be awakened at 4 am to head over to Rockefeller Center so they can plate up their food. Then they will be back stage watching their dishes be eaten by the food lumaries Meredith Viera (slumming it since she is never on during the show’s FOURTH hour), Hodha Kotje and the fine talent that is Kathie Lee Gifford. Meredith is famously bad at cooking and has been known to yell at Martha Stewart and propose cheesy shortcuts to her dishes. How is this entertainment? How is this even true to the integrity of the show?

The top three chefs for the “Today” show bit must feel a little strange in the green room backstage, watching all their professional culinary years of experience reduced to watching the Giff’s screeching wife run to the sink because she can’t handle what’s in her mouth. Or the fact that the Top Chef producers have effectively pimped out professionals to people who don’t know a thing about preparing anything any food. Yet Jeff, Ariane and Fabio are there, mugging for the camera, and you almost had the impression they would be there on the set, explaining their dishes to the harpie hostesses. (Maybe they weren’t prepped? Maybe they would be embarrassed to have one of the chefs speak into a camera?). I think I know what the answer is: the actual contest took place at the end of July, and to reveal who or which chef was competing would have been exposing something 4.5 months too soon. Ah, the tricks of TV.

In the end, the winner is Ariane, with a beefsteak tomato and watermelon with feta cheese salad that was probably fitting in the warm New York summer. It looked good too, so I don’t agree that it was not complex enough compared to the others. Memo to Jeff: I don’t imagine most people on morning TV would know what a Malfouf roll is, much less the Muhammara sauce, so why try out this pretentious dish? Kathie Lee sure didn’t, and she ran to the sink on live TV. Fabio, I appreciate your saying that your Mom would have liked your attractive your tuna dish, but, really –morning TV? The other prize was that the winner would get to present the dish again live —on the day after the “Top Chef” episode airs. Turns out Ariane did a great job on December 4, as I TiVoed it for that wasteland last half-hour of the daily 4-hour fest on the show. No tomato salad, however, and no word whether or not Ariane is or will be the final Top Chef.

The three losers for the challenge chalked it up to poor timing or execution. I happen to think that Melissa’s raw or undercooked eggs, which almost caused another health disaster, was a calamity worthy of her ouster. It sure made Rocco livid. Why even attempt to add such an ingredient? And yet, Melissa, who has been basically a nobody up to now, did a hearty defense of her staying on. And in the final analysis it was also implied that Alex, who served up a crème brulee that simply never took because its assembly needed more than the given hour of time, was not focused enough. He was quite touching at the beginning of the episode when he read aloud a letter left to him by a departing Richard, becoming emotional about his friend’s exit. Alex also was engaged back home and he seemed to give the impression that this was more on his mind than whipping up dishes for harridans on the “Today” show

Quickfire Challenge: Prepare breakfast amuse-bouche
Winner: Leah
Dish: Bacon, Quail Egg and Cheese on Grilled Bread

Elimination Challenge: Prepare 2.5 min presentation of dish
Winner: Ariane
Dish: Beefsteak Tomato Salad with Watermelon and Feta Cheese

This week’s Top Chef started with a nifty idea for its Quickfire Challenge. It made
think of
the old TV
show, “Name
That Tune”.
It made me think of the old TV show, “Name That Tune”. Padma invited the chefs to get into pairs (they picked knives with numbers) only this one was not about cooking. She called it, perhaps awkwardly “Identify That Ingredient”. The chefs were about to taste sauces and they would challenge each other on being able to name as many ingredients as they could. I could have named about a dozen for the mole sauce (easy), but some of the others were a delicious challenge to watch. Finally, the chefs did not have to deal with a preening, self-promoting Rocco diSpirito, who is eager to bestow his “new book” on the winner. The chefs instead could lean on their palates and food knowledge and do the ultimate taster challenge. (Can they make a game show out of this?)  From a lobster crab bouillabaisse to a Thai green curry to a mole sauce, they had 15 seconds to taste and then challenge each other. Sorry, Stefan, your ego should not allow you to use “salt” and “pepper” as your ingredients, but, yeah, I guess they count. The final three were him, Carla and Hosea. How Carla thinks there is peanut butter in mole is beyond me, so she was eliminated. Hosea won after besting Stefan spelling bee style when he “misspelled” an ingredient. I like Hosea –decent guy, friendly, looks like a chef and I think the producers are trying to make he and hot Leah a semi-romantic –though they both have significant others back home.

On to the Elimination Challenge. Ugh. Tacky? Self-serving? Food and Wine editor and guest judge Gail Simmons sails in, in her flowing dress and annoying loud voice, to announce that the four teams, “Something Old”, “Something New”, “Something Borrowed” and “Something Blue”, would be preparing dishes for 40 of her friends at her own, I kid you not, bridal shower. This means that there would be all women, including Dana Cowin, who is the editor-in-chief of Food and Wine herself –and a slightly earnest (as in exacting, in a way not unlike this season’s no-show, Ted Allen, who has been jettisoned off to the Food Network to do the duller-than-dirt “Food Detectives” “show”).

The first challenge for the chefs was to decide how to best interpret the traditional and somewhat cloying themes. For example, Tom Colicchio had to explain a couple of times to the “Blue” team that there are no real blue foods; even blueberries are really purple. As a result, the Blue team –Fabio, Leah and Melissa chose to link blue to the ocean –i.e., seafood. Gail did mention she didn’t prefer veal or black beans. Simple enough. The “Something Borrowed” team of Radhika, Jamie and Ariane worked on something related to their own likings, in this case Indian spices and lamb. And I’m sorry, but I have never heard of “vadouvan” –one of Jamie’s secret ingredients she has brought along. Radhika was game in any case. Ariane was game enough to work on a veal main dish. Jamie once again leans on her specialty of making creamy soups, in this case the vadouvan carrot puree. The “Something New” people seemed the most chaotic in the planning stage. Surf and turf? Huh? The “Something Old” people have Stefan to deal with, and his pronouncements about how this or that won’t work. He assures Jeff that a tomato sorbet won’t work but assumes his own terrine will. Hosea, who has immunity, seems a bit put off by (once again) Stefan’s chutzpah.

It is the “Something Borrowed” team that prevails, with Ariane again as the winner. From almost being eliminated a couple of weeks ago, getting stares from the rest, to now winning back to back challenges, she is smoking the competition with well-prepared hearty dishes. Her Eastern-spiced lamb, which almost doesn’t come out ready, but somehow earns its final sizzle and taste under the broiler, is the overwhelming favorite. She also edges out the carrot puree, which is a great disappointment for Jamie, who clearly wants to win one of these challenges. Why should Ariane be made to feel bad?

The losing team, Carla, Eugene and Daniel, really seem lost and unfocused. It’s hard to imagine anything really “new” in their creations, and it’s Carla who should have had more nerve to step in and help plan the menus. Eugene tried to come up with some sushi plate, but the execution and presentation was all wrong. Why serve a plate in which the ingredients were scattered all around, and he crucially forgot to explain to the seated ladies what exactly to do with it? But the harshest criticism was probably (and correctly) left for Daniel, whose very palate was at question here. (See, we have come full circle in this episode!)

Who decides, first, to somehow marry sushi with a “peach-miso BBQ sauce”? Huh? That was Daniel’s contribution? Why on earth did Daniel unwittingly add shitake mushrooms to Carla’s appetizers of frisee salads in wonton cups without telling her? Who puts warm, “sploogey” mushrooms that weren’t even seasoned well, on top of a salad? And who is thinking this is actually improving the dish? Tom goes after Daniel, who is in a state of denial and just can’t accept that the salad, or really anything Team Something New did was unsatisfactory. The panel patiently tried to give him another chance, but it’s really a matter of decency at this point. And there was no way of really going back and suddenly changing your mind at that point. It’s a shame because Daniel had a bit of a goofball, loutish character to him and I suspect some warmth too. Padma told him to pack up his knives and leave.

Next week’s guest before the holidays: the irrepressible Martha Stewart, which I think is a first. She showed up at last year’s Food Network and appeared to be holding her nose a lot. Let’s see how she pretends to like the people she is dealing with in their Elimination challenge.

Quickfire Challenge: Name ingredients in sauces
Winner: Hosea
Elimination Challenge: Create a dish for Gail’s bridal shower with your themed team
Winner: Team “Something Borrowed” and especially Ariane’s “Eastern-spice Lamb with Cucumber Raita”

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