This week's Top Chef consisted of a 15-minute dish made with Uncle Ben's rice as well as dinner for four, prepared with kids, for 10 bucks. Welcome to my world. Ho hum. The guest judge was Art Smith, Oprah's personal chef, which struck me as another ho hum.
The first thing I noticed about this episode is that they showed a lot of Stephanie, and they always show a lot of the person who gets cut. I was uneasy that my early favorite is in trouble...
The Quickfire Challenge: a 15-minute meal using Uncle Ben's microwave rice. This is my arena -- I love a recipe contest with really restrictive requirements. But it takes me days or weeks to come up with an entry, not the minutes these chefs have.
Some notable dishes:
Stephanie: a pancake with scallops. "I have no idea what it tastes like...," she says. Uh oh, I'm thinking that's not good. "Very clever," says Art Smith when he tastes it. He seems like he's trying to find something positive to say to each contestant, which I like. Those chefs deserve a pat on the back for the stuff they pull off.
Antonia: rice in a salad, something she grew up with. She talks about it like it's this really unusual idea. I've made rice salad for years, so I don't understand what's so unusual about it until Art remarks, "I like the hot in the cold." Hot rice in cold greens. Hmmm...
Mark: Miso-glased turkey breast ... noticing a lot of miso this year -- and the camera catches him double dipping in his sauce! Again -- after the judges told him to clean up his act! Ugh. I am almost certain this goes on in restaurant kitchens all the time -- at least those in which the chefs care enough the taste the food -- but you'd think you'd be wise enough to not do it in front of the camera!
Richard: a "little play on" steak and tomatoes. It's funny that are all of his dishes seem to be a play on something else. He makes a seared tuna steak that's very rare on the inside. I've never liked tuna done that way.
Dale: a fried rice that includes scallops and long beans - one of his favorite veggies. It looks the best to me, like something I'd order at a restaurant.
Bottom three: Mark (for dry turkey), Stephanie (for heavy pancakes), and Lisa, for an unoriginal Southwest dish. Come on Stephanie! Get your mojo back!
Top three: Dale's fried rice, Richard's salmon dish, and Antonia's rice salad. And Antonia's Rice Salad with Skirt Steak. Surprising.
The Quick Fire was heavy with product placements – the Uncle Ben's challenge, close-ups of Glad plastic wrap. I understand why companies want to promote their products this way, because in this era of Tivo and fast forwarding through commercials, people are watching fewer commercials. I could live with the product placements if they resulted in fewer commercials ... but noooo! In my impatience to watch this show, I watched it in real time -- which I NEVER do -- and the commercials were interminable. They made me want to scream with impatience.
The elimination challenge: a delicious, nutritious meal for a family of four with a budget of $10. She says it should be simple enough that “even a child can help make it.” Andrew calls the challenge impossible. Richard, frightening. Antonia gets it – people don't always have lots of money to spend on food.
When they shop, most of the chefs run to the meat counter, and most get chicken. How unimaginative. I wanted to yell at the TV, like my husband watching a Bills game (OK, maybe I did). VEGETARIAN!!!! Are you freaking stupid???? Pasta! Eggs! I think only a couple went the vegetarian route.
The chefs are joined by – surprise! -- no really, Padma gave it away during the introduction – some cute kids.
I did like that the episode gave us a chance to see the human side of the chefs. Antonia is a single mom with a daughter. Dale became a chef because his stature meant pro basketball wasn't going to work out. Spike lost a lot of weight by cooking for himself. Nikki cooked for herself from a young age. They all seem to enjoy working with the kids.
Tom Collichio spends the whole time in the kitchen – to make sure they are putting the kids to work, or behaving appropriately? Maybe that's why I don't hear a lot of profanity in the episode.
And then they show a shot of Tom looking over Dale's shoulder, with Dale's kid sous chef looking on, as Dale double dipped while tasting his dish! Again, this may well be a common practice in kitchens, but they raked Mark over the coals for that! Very inconsistent, if you ask me. Tom did his tasting in the kitchen, by himself.
Richard: Roast chicken with black beans and a salad that contains beets. Looks good. Art criticizes his including the skin, because you don't need skin. WRONG -- chicken has better flavor and is moister if it's roasted with the skin on. If you don't want to eat the skin after it's cooked, don't eat it.
Lisa: Roast chicken and black beans (are you seeing a trend here?) and a dessert of french toast with apples and peanut butter. Art says the chicken doesn't have a lot of flavor – that's because she took the skin off!!! Duh.
Dale: The brats with potatoes and cabbage -- not terribly original but it sounds good. I love brats. Padma thinks the flavors in the dish have to be more "universal" to appeal to varied tastes in a household. What works for one household is very different from what works in another household, so that comment doesn't hold water for me. In my household, everyone would eat the brats, although some would douse them in ketchup or hot sauce.
Spike: Pasta Puttanesca, carrot soup, and semi-baked apples. He did pretty well with his impossible task! Kids were excited about "spaghetti" -- glad nobody explained to the kids the meaning of "puttanesca."
Nikki: Roasted chicken (surprise!) with mixed vegetables, cooked in the one pan, and a salad. The skin was definitely on. Judges liked it.
Mark: Vegetable curry, cinnamon rice and a salad. Padma (who probably knows curry) thought it was too sweet and they said there wasn't enough protein.
Antonia: Stir-fry whole wheat noodles with a little chicken. Judges liked it.
Andrew: Chicken paillard with a salad. Delicious and well executed, said the judges.
Stephanie: Couscous, topped with a chicken in a sauce with peanut butter and tomato, and some apples, cooked with maple syrup, and topped with granola. It was panned by the judges. Gail says it's the sign of a restaurant chef that doesn't cook at home.
They show the contestants waiting in the kitchen with a big shot of Glad Cling Wrap in front. Enough already! Then a shot of Richard saying he wants to go home and make some baby Blaises. All the best to you, Richard. If you do, be sure to make some time for them.
Top three: Nikki, Andrew, and Antonia. Antonia gets the win. But NO PRIZE for this winner! What is up with these prizes?
Bottom three: Lisa, Stephanie and Mark. Mark says that he's there because Tom doesn't like him. What an idiot. Mark gets sent home (another whew! for Stephanie -- hope she turns it around). Tom says he wants to go out for a pint with Mark. I'd go out for a pint with Tom any day.
So the ho-hum episode turns out a pretty ho-hum blog entry! Nothing to get gleefully snarky about, no dung on a plate, no cool Chicago places.
But it did give me a clue about something I have often wondered about -- why there seems to be few chefs in the recipe/cooking contests that are open to both amateurs and professionals. As an example, when I went to the (sadly, now defunct) Southern Living contest in 2006, there were 15 finalists and only one was a chef. I would think that with the big money at stake (Southern Living had a $100 grand prize), chefs would enter them, and with their training they'd whup the amateurs' butts. But maybe chefs don't cook the way that home cooks do. And maybe after cooking all day, the last thing they want to do is go home and cook. Could be...
And it looks like next week, the chefs put on a wedding, and have 14 hours to do it. It makes me wonder -- who would ever plan a wedding that way? I guess we'll see next week.