Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Mojo Sauce and Thai-German Fusion Lollipops

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"You need to wear a great hat if you want to cook in this kitchen." Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

Thanks to Hugh Acheson and Chef Josie for writing nice things about these recaps on their twitter feeds! On to the show ...

Stefan wakes up in the hotel and says he misses his “morning friend.” I assume he’s talking about Kristen, but he actually means John, the most hated chef in Dallas, who was eliminated last week.

This week’s Quickfire Challenge will be judged by Wolfgang Puck, the legendary chef with the nice blue jeans. (Turns out I misspelled his name last week.) Brooke is excited to cook for Mr. Puck, especially since she spent her 17th birthday at his classic restaurant Spoggo.

This week’s Quickfire ingredient is ginger, a famous root that only grows in Japan or China. I’m sure the chefs know more about ginger than I do, and are eager to meditate on its fabled history and its role in Asian cuisine, but Padma interrupts their reveries with an important announcement: “For more than a century, Canada Dry ginger ale has been delighting taste buds with the natural flavor of real ginger.” This is when I LOL’d (“Laughed aloud”). Can you believe they made her say such a clunky line about Canada Dry ginger ale? I’m not saying Canada Dry ginger ale isn’t the finest beverage I’ve ever tasted —especially since it dazzles with the natural flavor of real ginger, the official flavor of ginger ale — but still: Is there anything money can’t make people do?

Anyway, our friends only have fifteen minutes to make a dish with ginger, the flavor that defines Canada Dry ginger ale. Lizzie makes a watermelon-ginger concoction. No word on whether the watermelon is rotten. Brooke makes a squid-and-ginger dish. (Canada Dry should make a squid-and-ginger ale!) Kristen decides to literally use Canada Dry ginger ale in her “infused fennel salad.” She’s going to spray it out of a CO2 canister, or percolate it in a nuclear centrifuge, or something. It seems like a lot of work — wouldn’t it be easier to simply cut up the fennel, mix Canada Dry ginger ale with Thousand Island dressing, and pour it on top?

Alert! Did you know Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio owns a restaurant? My hosts ate there last night. It’s called Kraft (no relation to the cheese) and apparently it’s really good! My curiosity got the best of me and I asked my hosts to describe their dining experience using no more than five words or phrases. Here’s what they said ...

FEMALE HOST: “Comfortable; visually pleasing; hen of the woods [not sure what this means — maybe a Grimm’s fairy tale?]; well-paced; prone to overindulgence.”

MALE HOST: “Peaceful; perfectly seasoned; baga by the glass (this is a kind of wine); essentially it was just what I wanted.”

Those are not the phrases I’d associate with a fun night out. If I had to describe my fantasy restaurant with a handful of words, it’d be more like this:

“Great prices; fun music; good portion size especially on the nachos/appetizers; the chef wanted my autograph; kale was everywhere.”

Right. So. Back to the Quickfire: Everyone looks focused as they chop their ginger and shred ginger and infuse ginger and basically do every verb with ginger. Sheldon’s making a stir-fry because it’s quick. But it looks a little generic, like something you’d order at a not-very-authentic Chinese restaurant.

Overall, Wolfang is impressed by the dishes. The worst were Sheldon’s “pedestrian ... cheap ... Chinese food” and Josh’s dessert, which “lacked flavor.” Brooke’s squid is a hit; Wolfgang says, “I could put it on the menu at Shinwah!” (Must be one of his restaurants.) Stefan’s dish is praised for its simplicity. And Lizzie’s watermelon soup was “beautiful.” Arrgh! Can any soup be beautiful? I’m back to hating soup.

Brooke is the winner of the Canada Dry Quickfire Challenge! It’s rather underwhelming, which is appropriate, because “underwhelming” is how I’d describe Canada Dry ginger ale, and that’s why it’s only my fifth favorite drink to order on an airplane.

Padma proceeds to get the chefs hyped for this week’s guest judge: He’s won 25 James Beard awards (a prize for cookbook photography); he’s a talented chef; he once opened a restaurant with Tom Colicchio. The man’s name is Danny Meyers. Josh says he’s the best chef in America, but I’ve never heard of him. He looks like a Land’s End model. My hosts nod at the screen and say: “We got married at one of his restaurants.” I have no idea what that means. The guy owns a restaurant inside a church? What?

Now it’s time for something called Restaurant Wars. We pause the DVR so my host can explain what a big deal Restaurant Wars is. He drops major analysis, saying things like: “nobody wants to be executive chef ... work the front of the house ... major screw-ups.” Restaurant Wars sounds exciting!

Each chef must come up with a complete restaurant concept and a dish that expresses that concept. (I think Top Chef stole this idea from America’s Next Great Restaurant, the greatest food show of all time.) Danny Meyers offers helpful advice about opening a restaurant: “Do it from your heart, because you can’t fake soul.” And boom! Just like that, I know this fellow is an idiot.

Wolfgang blurts out: “I have 70 restaurants!” I can’t tell who’s telling the truth and who’s lying.

The chefs start shopping for their restaurant concepts. Josie wants to redeem herself, since she didn’t make it to Restaurant Wars the last time she was on Top Chef. Sheldon plans to make a restaurant inspired by his Filipino grandfather, serving “simple food elevated to something great.” Micah tells us that he lost 25 pounds when he decided to eat “a lot” of raw food. He’s going down the path of rawness with his concept — but there’s no meat at the store he can serve raw, so he buys a bunch of fish instead, because fish can be served raw anytime (I think).

Four former contestants will work as sous-chefs, helping out the main chefs. That’s nice of them. Kumiko helps Josie with her Miami-inspired Cuban-food restaurant. Lizzie recently traveled to northeastern Italy, so she wants to cook Italian food, which is a lot like French food.

(My notes: “Nice shot of Truvia baking blend.”)

Tom walks in to see how everything’s going. Stefan is working on a Thai-German restaurant concept. (Insert sex tourism joke here.) Brooke’s making a fancy version of matzo ball soup, and when Tom asks what kind of concept that is, she says it’s “Kosher gone bad,” so I guess it’s funny to publicly flout Leviticus, even though some people live their lives according to it. Maybe her restaurant could be called “Bible Stompers.”

Meanwhile, Kristen’s concept is “French contemporary.” That’s a lame concept, if you ask me — what’s contemporary about France? It’s one of the oldest countries in Europe. And then just like that, Tom leaves the kitchen. The day’s cooking wraps up and everyone goes home to sleep and dream about restaurant concepts.

The first round of Restaurant Wars will take place at Bite of Seattle, a strange indoor café with tiny booths. Brooke says Bite of Seattle is an “incredibly great way to network with fellow chefs and restaurateurs.” I guess it’s the place to be! Our chefs continue working on their dishes. Yesterday they mostly chopped stuff; today seems to be more about cooking. Josh says he wants to win the prize money because his “wife’s been harping on me” about going to New Orleans, and my heart goes out to this lucky lady.

The judges show up, hungry for concepts. Josie’s croquettes aren’t done yet! She’s struggling — you can tell because she’s laughing and making a spectacle of herself like she did at the berry farm. Brooke says it’s “almost hard to watch.” Josie is not good at food-timing. Speaking of food, and time, and a couple of adorable croquettes, Danny Meyer and Tom reminisce about when they met 25 years ago.

Here’s what everyone cooked/conceptualized:

Josh/Concept: Celebrating his late father, a meat-and-potatoes guy
Seared eye of rib eye with cauliflower puree and mushroom red wine sauce. Parsley pea stew. The mushrooms are seasoned well, but the steak is underseasoned. Josh should stop cooking meat and open a vegan restaurant. He has the moustache for it.

Lizzie/Concept: Northern Italian farmhouse kitchen
Mustard green canederli with fonduta and crispy speck. (Me: “What are those words?” Host: “Speck is a pork product.” Me: “Whatever you say.”) Danny Meyer says Lizzie’s dish is a “classic” recipe and you “gotta get it right to pull it off.” I swear this guy talks about food the way NCAA players talk about football: “We knew we had to play hard and get points on the board in order to win.” Remind me again why I should listen to this person?

Sheldon/Concept: “Urbano”
Sour tamarind soup with pork belly, shrimp, and snapper. Danny Meyer loves the bracing effect of the soup: “The flavor makes you sit up straight.” Padma says this particular soup usually isn’t nice to look at, but in this case it looks good. Again, the idea of soup being “nice to look at” makes me angry. With all the great works of art only a click away, soup is the last thing you should want to look at. Maybe I could understand if you want to look at a painting of soup (assuming the painting is interesting or beautiful), but actually looking at real soup makes no sense.

Stefan/Concept: German-Thai, a.k.a. Bangkok via Munich
Thai lobster bisque with shrimp dumplings, potatoes, and radishes, AND a Bavarian cream lollipop. The bisque looks like a glass of milk with a leaf in it. Danny Meyer: “The lollipop doesn’t hold up to the soup,” so the last bite of the meal is negative and negates the fond memories of the bisque (which is another name for soup, in case you’re worried about getting tricked into eating soup).

Micah/Concept: “My concept is raw.”
Salmon, snanper, himachi, squid, scallop, and mackerel with raw vegetables. It’s like every fish in the ocean dumped on a plate! It actually looks good to me, because I like sprouts. Tom is totally befuddled: The presentation isn’t risky, it’s just pre-sliced fish on a salad. Danny Meyer agrees: “If this is not adding something to the dialogue, who needs it?” I’m not sure what he’s talking about — unless Micah’s dish is involved in hostage negotiations with North Korea, which probably isn’t the case.

Kristen/Concept: Classic French with a little spin on it, a.k.a. “Atelier Kwan”
Onsen egg with camembert-mustard sauce and buttered radishes. Enough with all these rustic comfort restaurants! Kristen wants her restaurant to be a little formal. The judges appreciate her interest in formality and are blown away by the poached eggs. (“Onsen” means “poached” in Asian languages.)

Brooke/Concept: “Unkosher”
Matzo ball soup with duck confit and toasted black rye bread. This soup looks like the bottom of your sink before you drain it after doing the dishes. I’m not kidding: Soup can’t look any worse than this. As I predicted, the judges are turned off by Brooke’s “hilarious” insult to kosher. In fact, Gail says “the matzo ball is offensive to my people.” Brooke is trying to be the Christopher Hitchens of Top Chef, but we still live in a Bible-centered country so she probably won’t win.

Josie/Concept: “HOME 305”
Puerco asado, black bean chorizo croquette, pickles, and mojo sauce. This looks tasty: salty and cheesy. I wonder if it tastes like a Cuban sandwich, one of the best sandwiches you can eat. Josie is proud of her dish, even though it’s not really done yet: “You can’t get any closer to my heart than this.” Tom replies with a zinger: “Hopefully you’ll get it closer to our plates” Gail is not a fan of the pork: “It’s not only completely dried out, it’s flavorless.” Ouch.

The judges think Stefan’s dish was too Thai and not German enough. Micah’s raw dish didn’t feel like it “came from his heart,” which makes sense, since we associate our hearts with warmth and the flames of desire, and raw food doesn’t typically involve fire or warmth, but then again maybe Micah has a cold heart, which means he could be a dangerous madman with no remorse and no fellow-feeling, so in the end I would say everyone should beware of Micah. Also, Josie’s pork was just too dry to stomach.

The judges call for Sheldon, Kristen, and Josh. They did the best. Tom’s impressed! He always seems relieved when this season’s crew doesn’t completely make a mess of things. Even when he’s being praised, Sheldon looks nervous; the way his mouth hangs open is adorable. He and Kristen had the best concept and the best execution, so they will wage war against each other using their restaurants! Josh kind of stands around looking glum as Sheldon and Kristen retrieve folders with the details about Restaurant Wars. The winner will get a brand-new Toyota Avalon, which features the natural flavor of fresh ginger. (Kristen now has $45,000 of Top Chef winnings, by the way. She’s operating on a whole different level than her fellow competitors.)

Kristen and Sheldon go into the back room and staff up their restaurants. As it turns out, this year’s Restaurant War will also be a Gender War, because Kristen picks all girls and Sheldon picks all boys! We could not ask for a more emotionally charged scenario. Sheldon will probably win, since men are better at running restaurants than women — think of all the famous male restaurant owners: Wolfgang Puck, Tom Colicchio, Danny Meyers. How many famous female restaurant owners are there? We haven’t seen a single one on Top Chef, so I assume the ratio is like 10:1.

Padma tries to look serious as she calls for this week’s losers, but her dress looks so cheap and frumpy she comes across as a dominatrix who woke up in a TJ Maxx outlet. Micah’s raw food dish is burned by the judges: “There were so many pieces of fish ... you couldn’t differentiate between them,” says Gail. Tom wishes there had “just been one good fish.” My hosts make a good point: Why didn’t Micah do some of the food-in-disguise tricks we’ve come to expect from raw restaurants, like making cheese out of warmed-up bean paste, or selling wet bread as “grilled tofurkey” or whatever they do?

Lizzie’s dumpling wasn’t cooked enough. Danny Meyers says of her dish: “There was no relief.” This is definitely not a good thing to hear about food you made. Josie’s pork continues to be raked over the coals, so to speak. All Gail tasted was grease. (My notes: “I just noticed Chef Josie is wearing a ‘Chef Josie’ headband.”)

In the end, Micah is sent home for his raw fish salad with uncooked vegetables. Padma murmurs, “It was great to get to know you, Micah.” Micah says he’s “not sure” there are better chefs than him remaining in the competition. Which means he should be able to redeem himself in Last Gasp Kitchen, or whatever that other show is. Meanwhile, Sheldon is scared — he’s down one helper in Restaurant Wars! Again, though: It doesn’t really matter. When it comes to running a restaurant, one male staffer is worth two female staffers. I know this from when I was a busboy at a restaurant in Boston and I could work twice as hard as any woman.