Right this way, ladies and gentlemen! Step inside the Top Chef Masters kitchen to see firsthand a host of horrors, a smattering of culinary creations culled from your nightmares! Last night’s extra-long-for-no-apparent-reason episode had us groaning with disgust from Quickfire to Critics’ Table, thanks to some of the dishes that were masquerading as gourmet cuisine. But we’ll be fine so long as we never hear the words “geoduck” and “foreskin” in the same sentence again.
First up, the cheftestants had to cook gourmet dishes for characters from The Simpsons, an odd challenge for so many reasons, not least of which is that animated characters can’t judge food. The stakes were raised later when a museum-exhibit food cart containing exotic land and sea animals was hauled out (see video below), setting up the group for a confidence-shattering challenge. Along the way we learned that no one knows how to cook goat properly and duck tongues look like duck penises, but what were the best and worst moments from this week’s episode?
Cheftestants: Jody Adams, Susan Feniger, Susur Lee, Tony Mantuano, Rick Moonen, Marcus Samuelsson, Jonathan Waxman
Worst Chef Instincts: A good chef is able to edit his impulses, but Tony decided to follow his gut instinct in the worst possible direction during the Quickfire, when he was tasked with coming up with a dish for Chief Wiggum. “For some reason I kept thinking, fried-bacon-honey pizza dough,” he recalled later. See, that’s the kind of idea you have where you should slap yourself in the face and try to get a hold of yourself. Not this guy. He went right along making that thing, not even bothering to come up with a proper name for it. But Tony was relying on the potent punch of bacon grease to make his pizza dough sing, grease which had been set aside and then befouled by Susur. Without bacon’s deliciousness, he served a couple of pieces of dough with some “boozy coffee” (don’t get us started on the sprinkles) and rightfully earned himself the lowest score.
Best Concept: Crafting a dish for Homer Simpson, Rick put his spin on a Sloppy Joe and hit all the right notes for the three guys who work on the animated series. The familiar messy sandwich became, in Rick’s hands, a shrimp sloppy “d’oh!”, making great use of Homer’s catchphrase. Apparently subbing shrimp for beef worked well, since he won the Quickfire, but it could have been his truffled potato chips that gave him the edge over the other cheftestants.
Worst Presentation: It was cute learning that young Susur had an affinity for watching Bewitched while growing up in Hong Kong (“This woman, she’s a witch, she always move her nose, and then something changes. And I always find that very, very magical”), but The Simpsons was never on his radar. Naturally, he had some trouble conceiving a dish for Marge Simpson. (By the way, is it okay that everyone had a good laugh when he read her name as “Margill”?) Knowing nothing about her, Susur went for a literal re-creation of her face from an ungodly combination of ingredients: purple mashed potatoes for hair, a pan-roasted pork chop for the face, glazed grapes for the necklace, olives for the eyes, pretzels for ears, and a mustard sauce that was a nod to the trademark skin tone, but which looked dreadful as it spread around the whole plate. The end product looked like a garish kindergarten arts-and-crafts project, except these poor men had to eat it, though apparently its flavor exceeded its appearance.
Snobbiest Moment: Unsurprisingly, it’s courtesy this week of Marcus, who closed his eyes and shook his head in disgust when Simpsons writer-producer Matt Selman didn’t know that nuts are a traditional garnish for the Indian soup Marcus served. Bonus points for his later mention of “the deficit in the ingredients” when cooking with unusual foods here.
Blink and You Missed It: Selman’s awkward, sort-of-turned-on grin when Kelly Choi laughed heartily at one of his jokes. We hope he put the moves on her later.
Exotic Ingredients: The centerpiece of the Elimination Challenge was an assortment of unusual ingredients: kangaroo, goat leg, black chicken, duck tongue, monkfish liver, giant squid, geoduck, and sea cucumber. It’s a pretty oddball collection, but it felt like goat didn’t quite belong among these more unusual proteins. Zebra ribs, for example, would have been a better option. Still, it was the goat that gave the chefs the most trouble, with both Jody and Tony cooking it incorrectly.
Moment of Hubris: "I can probably make anything taste good,” claimed Jonathan, commenting on his decision to fry the duck tongues. “I could make dog shit taste good.” But in the Top Chef universe, hubris foreshadows doom, and his mess of a plate, which also included a giant squid fritto misto, almost had him packing his knives in the end.
Dubious Fact: According to Rick, “I’ve worked with monkfish maybe twice in my life.” That’s concerning, considering he’s the fish guy. Monkfish is a high-end ingredient, no doubt about it, but this is a bit like having a pizzaiolo confess to never having used pancetta or sheep’s milk ricotta.
Best Use of Personal History: Andrew Zimmern, the guy who eats everything weird on his Travel Channel show, stopped by to judge this week’s Elimination Challenge. He didn’t make a great critic since he appeared to offer unanimous praise, but the highlight of the episode was his recounting of bizarre eating adventures around the world: freshly killed goat in Mongola, a shark that pees through its skin in Iceland, and so on. It made us want to turn off this show and watch some back episodes of Bizarre Foods we’ve got on DVR.
Worst Use of Personal History: Dear Marcus, we already know you were orphaned at a young age in Ethiopia and later adopted and raised in Sweden, so to mention this fact in every episode makes us weary, but to draw a comparison between that experience and a cooking challenge is almost patronizing. Please get some new stories. Warm regards, Grub Street.
Best Judging Commentary: Our hat goes off to Gael Greene (while hers stays on) for standing up for the chefs with the less desirable ingredients on display. After James Oseland identified his favorite dishes, Gael rightfully retorted, “I think the chefs you named also had the first choice of ingredients. If you pick monkfish liver, which is divine, you have some chance of doing something sophisticated in the way Rick’s dish was.”
Winner: Nearly matching his record score from last week, Susur triumphed this week with his classical technique and creative presentation of monkfish liver and black chicken. He was perhaps destined to win all along thanks to his level of comfort, no doubt a by-product of his upbringing in Hong Kong. As he said early on in the episode, “I’m not worried about this challenge. You’re talking to a Chinese person. I grew up with all these things around me.” The way he presented that black chicken’s claw on the plate was alternately beautiful and terrifying. Kudos to him for another well-deserved victory.
Loser: This challenge really got Jody’s goat, because she didn’t end up with a properly roasted goat leg to serve to the judges. Gael was excited to see it served rare, only to discover that goat can’t be served rare, unless you want to chew it all day. “Well, it was supposed to be exotic,” cracked Jody. Her other component, a geoduck chowder, was well received, but simply not special enough to keep her around for another week. For her inability to master her exotic proteins, she received only ten and a half stars and was sent packing, but congrats to her for raising $17,500 for her charity before being eliminated. That’s more than most of the other cheftestants have raised so far.
Flimsy Narrative: The focus of this week’s episode was on Rick, who, after winning the Quickfire, was portrayed as being too confident going into the Elimination Challenge. His decision to get a massage at Whole Foods was too much for some. “I think he should be more concerned with having his dish right,” Jonathan mused. “Susur is a force to be reckoned with, so Rick shouldn’t get too comfortable.” Rick and Susur both had monkfish liver and black chicken; unsurprisingly, both had the top two scores. But Susur earned two and a half more stars than Rick, which left the bespectacled one feeling miffed. But don’t worry, Rick, you didn’t lose because you were overconfident: You lost because Susur’s much better than you. Take comfort in knowing your limitations! Or commit to your new goal: “I realize that Susur is the man to beat amongst the entire crew of chefs I’m competing against. I’m afraid I’m gonna have to take him out. That’s all there is to it.”
Next Week: Tailgating, Jonathan gets competitive, and Marcus becomes devious.