Top Chef Masters Recap: Fried

Something about an angry Australian in a car always reminds us of <i>Mad Max</i>.
Something about an angry Australian in a car always reminds us of Mad Max. Photo: Nicole Wilder/Bravo

The thing I’ve learned over these last few weeks is that it’s not strange to watch yourself on TV. It’s strange to know that hundreds of thousands of people are also watching you on TV, and that they’re sitting at home judging you the way you judge everyone you watch on TV, and there isn’t really a lot that you can do about it. The producers just put whatever they want into the show, whether that makes you look good or bad. (Example: Watch out for my ridiculous high-five later in this episode.) What’s my larger point here? I don’t know that I have one. Maybe I’m just tetchy because I don’t think I’ve liked the way the makeup department combed my hair.

We start, as always, in the kitchen, Curtis Stone ready to spring some sort of silliness upon the (unwitting?) chefs.

George notices price tags on the ingredients that are out. This week’s Quickfire: Make a dish that costs less than a dollar to make. Floyd’s all, I got this, and then recalls how he came to America with less than a hundred dollars in his pocket. More interesting is the mustache he’s rocking in the old photos they show. A friend of mine is fond of saying that no man is really complete without a mustache, and Grub Street’s official stance on that subject is that no truer words have ever been uttered.

In other words, bring back the ‘stache, Floyd!

Here’s the weird thing about this challenge: It’s never explained how the food prices were determined. Are they the prices that were at the grocery store where the ingredients were purchased? Or are they — more likely — just prices that have been randomly assigned by the producers? After all, how can an onion be the most expensive ingredient out there?

Judging the Quickfire will be “Dinner Party Download” hosts Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam, both of whom Hugh calls “funny, young, interesting.”

“This does make you re-judge the value of everything you’ve ever eaten at a fancy restaurant,” says Rico during the tasting. Curtis chimes in: “We might be doing something bad to our industry right here.” It’s a line that probably carries more weight than Curtis intended.

At one point, Rico wonders why fast food sucks so bad if chefs can put this kind of food together so cheaply, in twenty minutes. Prescient!

So! What’s the verdict? George is called out for the blandness of his calamari (“I wanted to see it get kicked up a notch,” says Emeril Rico), and Naomi’s bread-and-asparagus salad with lemon vinaigrette is named the winner. As always, that means money for her charity and immunity from elimination.

Elimination-challenge time, and this week the chefs are going on a road trip! But the producers aren’t telling them where just yet. Instead, the only things the chefs get to know is that they’ll have to make a main and a side; there are going to be at least a hundred diners; and nobody eating will have any utensils. During shopping time, Floyd is so bewildered by the vagaries of the challenge that he appears to just wander around the Whole Foods, unable to choose his ingredients.

George, meanwhile, is all decisions. He’s getting pork loin and clams, constraints of the challenge be damned.

Eventually the chefs pull into their mystery location: a Farmer Boys. “What the heck?” wonders one of the chefs, echoing the thoughts of, I’d guess, 99 percent of the viewers. Seriously, has anyone ever seen a Farmer Boys? I’d never heard of it before we taped this episode, and I try to keep up with the regional fast-food-restaurant beat. From what I could tell, the concept is like a mix between McDonald’s and Cracker Barrel, but with a California vibe — by which I mean they put avocado on everything.

I’ll be interested to see what everyone thinks of this challenge, since it seems like a big complaint about this season has been the producers’ knack for giving the chefs challenges that somehow demean or diminish their roles as Masters. My big question is: Why did the producers feel the need to keep the chefs in the dark before the challenge started? Why not just tell them they’re going to be working a fast-food drive-through ahead of time and see what they come up with? Undoubtedly the service itself would have been just as hectic, and the end results on the food side of things would probably have ended up being more impressive.

During prep, more than a few of the chefs mentioned how hard it would be to get caught up if they fell behind and ended up in the weeds during service. Service starts and it takes approximately one second for almost all of the chefs to fall behind and get in the weeds.

Behind the Scenes Fact: As the show has it, the chefs jump right into service, but that’s not really how it happened. There was a plumbing problem or something — it was described in very vague terms to us critics when we arrived at the Farmer Boys, so I’m guessing it was something gross that had to do with the bathroom — and there was a long delay before we could actually start taping the service portion of the challenge. Which, as it turns out, was great, because while we were waiting, James spotted a doughnut place called D K’s Donuts and said something to the effect of, “I’ve got a feeling about that place.” So he and I went over and ordered two plain, glazed doughnuts. James’s feeling was way right: The doughnuts were the superlative — Ur-doughnuts, if I may. Still warm, light fluffy interior, this really light glaze that tasted almost like honey. If I remember correctly, James even treated, which was a nice gesture.

Back on the show, it’s complete pandemonium in the kitchen, and before the chefs know what’s hit them, James and I show up in the dining room, while Curtis and Danyelle hit up the drive-through. We wait a bit for our food, and I reminisce yet again about being James’s intern at Saveur. Curtis and Danyelle get weirdly flirty in the car. “It’s like a healthy hush puppy,” Danyelle says while she eats one of Mary Sue’s quinoa fritters. “You’re a healthy hush puppy,” Curtis coos back.

(I’m noticing that the sum total of my critical analysis this week amounts to saying “yep,” and “yeah,” and nodding whenever James makes any sort of point. Insightful as ever. )

Anyway, the service flips and the chefs who had been cooking take over handling the orders, and vice versa. And the critics switch spots, too. So James and I head out to the Lexus, while Danyelle and Curtis will continue their flirtation in the dining room.

Even with the new roles, nothing much has changed for the chefs. They’re all in panic mode, and Danyelle and Curtis order one of everything. James and I, perhaps not wanting to share single servings of food Lady and the Tramp–style, order two of everything. Ante = upped.

They’ve edited the show to make it look like we were waiting a really long time for the food, and it’s more or less completely accurate. I’d say James and I were sitting at the drive-through window for about twenty minutes.

Finally all the food comes out, we try it, and it’s time to get down to the business of being critical.

Since this is my last week as a critic on the show, it’s as good a time as any to talk about how the judging actually works. Before we call the chefs out, the critics sit down one at a time with the producers and go over their favorite and least favorite dishes. I would have thought that this system would create a lot of conflicts, since the critics ostensibly have to come to some sort of consensus. But we usually pick at least most of the same dishes. It’s a little trickier to agree on the top three and the bottom three, but coming up with whose dish was best and whose was worst is pretty clear. Then we sit down at the critics’ table, the chefs are brought out, and the producers prompt us (via our earpieces) to tell specific chefs our feelings on their dishes, either positive or negative, depending on whether it was the winning group or the losing group. I really wish there were something juicier I could say about this.

Mary Sue is declared the winner, mostly on the strength of her super-delicious quinoa fritters. (She says that she was going to put them on the menu for the Border Grill Truck, but a quick glance at the truck’s website seems to indicate that she hasn’t — what’s the deal, Mary Sue? America needs to eat those fritters!)

George is sent home, which is sort of a shame because most of the stuff he made on the episodes that I judged was outstandingly interesting and well-executed. (The shrimp-and-beet dish he made a couple of episodes ago remains the best-looking plate of food I saw the whole time I was on.) But the grilled pork skewer with clam-filled cucumbers really wasn’t good. I’ll still never know why he didn’t fry the clams and do some sort of Iberian Po’ Boy thing with the chorizo and the pork loin. Now that I’m thinking about it, I wish he’d made that, because it sounds like it could be really amazing.

Next week: Gail Simmons and Maroon 5 will show up, the chefs have to cook on a bus, and someone is wondering where the caviar is. Wait — the first show I’m not on, and they get caviar?

Would You Like Fries With That?