Saturday, November 29, 2008

Top Chef: The Rochester Episode

My Top Chef post is MUCH later than usual. My excuse: I was on the road for Thanksgiving and the internet connection at my Grandma's house had been disconnected. Almost three days without Internet -- the horrors! I think I'd rather go three days without chocolate! OK, that might be a slight exaggeration but still...

Anyhoo, I did get a chance to watch the Top Chef episode on Wednesday. It was the first time I've watched the show real time instead of Tivo-ing it and zooming through the commercials. Who knew there were so many dang commercials? And was it my imagination, or did they put a snippet of TC in the middle of some commercials to fool you into running back to the TV?

Anyway, as Rah Cha Chow readers know, I was soooo excited to see a Top Chef episode set in Rochester. But first a couple of comments about the Quickfire:
- It was interesting that they chose Grant Achatz as guest judge. Since he was from Chicago, I would have thought he would have been in last year's season, from Chicago. I've read that he had cancer recently, so maybe he was going through treatment when last season was filmed. I'd say something about his personality, but since he's a recent cancer patient let's just say he didn't bring any comic relief to the episode and leave it at that.
- I thought the Quickfire started off interesting -- put a spin on a past contestant's dish that appeared in the Top Chef Cookbook -- gotta have a plug for the cookbook! But then they surprised the cheftestants halfway through their cooking time by telling them they had to turn it into a soup -- conveniently turning the challenge into a plug for Swanson's broth. Eh ... I would have rather seen their original dishes.
- Wouldn't you know that Leah won the Quickfire ... I booted her off my fantasy Top Chef team because I thought she'd be distracted with all her flirting. That decision cost me eight points!

Next, the chefs learn that they will be divided into teams, and will cook "Thanksgiving" dinner (in the summer) for the Foo Fighters before a concert. The winning team gets to go to the Foo Fighters concert, and the losing team gets to clean up. What is this, Hell's Kitchen?

For winning the Quickfire, Leah not only gets immunity, she also gets to choose her team. She curiously picks the two Europeans (Fabio and Stefan) to work on this very American meal, as well as Hosea (the object of her flirting last episode), Jamie, Melissa and Radhika. They dub themselves Team Sexy Pants -- very professional. The other team is Jeff, Richard, Alex, Ariane, Carla, Daniel and Eugene, and they call themselves Team Cougar.

The cheftestants are also given the Foo Fighters' rider, which is all the stuff bands demand backstage at venues. My buddy, Lorraine, has done a lot of catering for bands and has told me that bands ask for some crazy stuff (unfortunately I can't remember a single example). The combination of a Thanksgiving meal in the middle of summer and the Foo Fighters' rider is a pretty good challenge, I think.

So they take route 490 to Rochester -- no mention that it's six to seven hours away -- and arrive at the War Memorial ... er, now it's unfortunately called the Blue Cross Arena. FYI, the arena is a reasonably nice place to see a concert. At the BCA I've seen Bruce Springsteen (twice), James Taylor, Paul Simon, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Carrie Underwood & Keith Urban and some others. Since it's a smallish arena, even the bad seats at the BCA are better than a lot of seats at bigger nearby venues, like the Carrier Dome in Syracuse (I saw Billy Joel there and only a Beatles reunion including George and John rising from the dead would make me go back) or the State Fair in Albany (I saw Keith Urban there and he was about the size of a grasshopper from where I was sitting). I've also seen Rochester's hockey team, the Rochester Americans, play at the BCA countless time -- back in the good old days when the team was well run and was the farm team to the Buffalo Sabres. But I digress...

A roadie shows the chefs their kitchen, and surprise! It's outside and consists of a bank of toaster ovens and microwaves, as well as a couple of burners -- and no refrigerators. The lack of refrigeration must be especially unwelcome, because the show was filmed in the summer.

Next, they go grocery shopping. At this point I'm sure they will show the culinary mecca of Rochester -- Wegmans. Specifically, the Pittsford Wegmans. Wegmans is one of the best grocery chains in the country, and their Pittsford store is their flagship store. When visitors come to town, this is one of the first places Rochesterians take them. I figured the chefs would go "ooh ... aahhh ... we shopped in one of the most beautiful grocery stores I've ever seen!" But NOOOOO!!!! They go to Hegedorns!!!!!

Now, there is nothing wrong with Hegedorns. It is in Webster, about ten minutes away from my house. It is a small, old-timey store, and probably an OK store if you live in most cities. I go there when I'm in the neighborhood, need a few things, and don't want to shop in a store that's the size of four football fields (Wegman's stores tend to be large). But the face that we Rochesterians would want to project to the foodies of the world? No way! I almost wept.

So they are shopping in Hegedorns and the place is empty. Which makes me wonder -- what was the time sequence of this episode? Did they close their doors for a few minutes to make this happen, or did the shopping take place at some odd hour? And as I watch, I wonder why in the world they would choose Hegedorn's over Wegmans. Some theories:
  1. The Top Chef staff doesn't know anything about Rochester and are too lazy to find out. But that doesn't make sense because this Top Chef staffer/blogger spent some time in the area, and even put a link to Rah Cha Chow in her blog post about this episode! Thanks, Team Top Chef, whoever you are!!!!
  2. Wegmans stores are too big for the time the chefs have to shop. But that doesn't make sense, because the East Avenue Wegmans is really small, not to mention a lot closer to the arena.
  3. They wanted Wegmans to pay to be on the show, and Wegmans said no. Possible...
  4. They wanted Wegmans to close while the chefs were shopping, and Wegmans said no. Also possible...
  5. Whole Foods has some kind of agreement with Top Chef in which the show doesn't go to its biggest rivals, one of which is Wegmans. Maybe...
  6. They wanted to make things harder on the chefs. Seriously, why? The chefs didn't have it hard enough with this challenge?
Anyhoo, the cheftestants return to their "kitchens" and start cooking. And here's the thing that threw me: they were supposedly cooking Thanksgiving dinner in Rochester, and they were cooking outside with their shirt sleeves rolled up. This didn't jive with reality at all. When I left Rochester last Tuesday, there was at least six inches of the snow on the ground. It's not always that way on Thanksgiving -- I'm sure I've experienced some in the 50s or even 60s -- but most visitors to the area in November will be at wearing at least a sweater outside.

And then it starts to RAIN! Oh joy, that will make Rochester look just wonderful!

So the chefs make a whole lot of Thanksgiving-type food ... and frankly I'm bored with it all, because I'm just not that excited about the food. So I'm not going to describe who made what -- you can find it on another blog.

Then it's time for the Foo Fighters and the judges to eat their Thanksgiving dinners ... in the dreary basement of the BCA. Could they pick a more depressing location?

I wonder what the Foo Fighters thought of this. The band members are fans of Top Chef, but now they find themselves eating a heavy Thanksgiving dinner in the middle of the summer, in the basement of the arena. I wonder if this didn't exactly live up to what they thought they'd experience as guest judges on the show.

The high points of the meal: Ariane does a good job on her turkey after a couple of rough weeks. I had a feeling she'd pull something out of her hat this week. Dreamy Fabio does a dreamy sounding pumpkin Tiramisu. Tom C. points out that this is clever because he uses a traditional American ingredient (pumpkin) in a dish that's familiar to him (Tiramisu). But I wonder -- how did he make it without a fridge? Didn't whatever custard-y stuff he put in there have to cool?

Team Cougar loses the challenge and cleans up while their buddies enjoy the Foo Fighters concert, a la Hell's Kitchen. Why? Were they trying to create some drama among a group of chefs who seem fairly amiable? What will they do next, get Gordon Ramsay to be a judge so he can scream obscenities at the cheftestants? I really don't like that turn of events. I stopped watching Hell's Kitchen because I don't want to give an audience to shows in which contestants are abused. I hope this is a one-time thing.

And then BOOM, they are all back at judges table and the stew room in NYC! Woah, did they get beamed back there via the Star Ship Enterprise? Or maybe Jeannie came and blinked her eyes? Or Samantha wiggled her nose? At any rate, it was a jolt for those of us who know the geography.

After some grilling from the judges, the bottom three are: Daniel, for undercooked potatoes, Richard, for Banana S'mores with a sauce that a smart-assed Foo Fighter (I don't follow the band enough to know his name) says looks like spit, and Jeff, for spoon bread and pumpkin mousse. Jeff gets a pass because he was a team leader and probably took on too much. That makes sense to me, even though I don't like the guy. Richard gets cut for the S'mores, which was a bit of a surprise to me.

And then, Richard cries and cries. A sad ending to an episode that featured a sad grocery store, sad weather, and a sad dining location. I'm afraid Rochester came off as a rather sad place. If I worked for the Rochester Convention & Visitor's Bureau, I'd be banging my head against the wall!

Rahchacha is so much better than it appeared on this episode! Believe me! I'll make it a point to point out happy stuff about Rochester in some upcoming posts.

8 comments:

Mary said...

Tracy, I love that you're so into Top Chef. If you love Rochester I love Rochester; let the production staff be cussed for a negative presentation. I hope you enjoyed the holiday.

Anna said...

About Wegman's, I'd go with #3. That, or they like smaller stores because smaller stores are easier to film in and have better lighting. You made a good case for Wegman's, though.

The Foo Fighters were an interesting and good choice of judges. I wonder how many bands they considered for the job? I would have asked Rush.

Emily said...

Great review as usual.

Yeah, they did tease us during the commercials, didn't they? I noticed that.

I'm sure Rochester is wonderful, and they didn't do it any justice.

PS - I don't like the Foo Fighters. They seemed especially grungy and skinny in this episode.

Tracy said...

my wife and I lived in rochester for 8 years and agree with EVERYTHING you said in your blog. We checked to make sure "Thanksgiving" was happening in July and were trying to figure out what happened to Wegmans. They concluded the whole show by having them walk from Rochester to NYC. Thanks for the blog.

Jodi said...

I was shocked as well that they did not go to Wegmans, but I was wondering if it was because Wegmans does not carry some of the brands that are featured in the "product placements." I am pretty sure Wegman's doesn't carry Jeannie-O and if I recall correctly at least one of the teams used jeannie-o sausage. I am not sure if they carry butterball either??? Just a thought.

I was also very disappointed in the way Rochester was depicted. I know the event was at the War Memorial, but it would have been nice if the crew could have done some shots of some more scenic locations in Rochester as well. I thought it was a big let-down.

Lori said...

Hegedorns? You have got to be kidding me. I would have thought they would have gone to Pittsford Wegmans. You wonder why the producers make such decisions %#*&*%^@*

Anonymous said...

As an Employee of the little grocery store I have a little bit of an inside scoop on the ordeal. Top Chef's main reason for going to Hegedorn's was because Butter Ball turkey brand sponsored the event and just happened to give their stuff to Hegedorn's for the show.
Yes! Employees and customers were in that store that day. I'm still surprised how they managed to cut all customers out of the shots... you don't even see the cashier! But I have a feeling they did a good job clearing people out of the way, out of certain aisles while they were filming.
I think it's a positive thing for the community to give smaller businesses a spot in the sunshine once in awhile. Wegman's is overrated, everyone knows about it... it's just big and squeaky clean, big deal. They show off enough, Give the little guy a chance! :-)

Tracy said...

Anonymous,
Thanks for the info about the episode.
As I said, I don't have anything against Hegedorns. Glad you guys had a chance to have your day in the sun.

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