Friday, June 19, 2020

Top Chef Season 17 All Stars Recap - Episode Fourteen

Greetings, Readers! Writing this week's recap has got me a bit verklempt. Not only is this the last Top Chef recap that I'll write for a while (maybe ever), but it also marks the end of fourteen long weeks of staying home, socially distancing, and all that other good stuff. When this season of Top Chef started, I was pretty sure I'd be back at work by this point. Back to the usual routine of twice daily bus rides fully of smelly and rude people, sitting in an overly-cold office for 8 hours, daily walks around Oriole Park at Camden Yards, listening to my co-workers chatting loudly instead of working, and watching the weirdo who eschews wearing shoes walking up and down the filthy hall carpet on his way to the even dirtier men's room down the hall. But no. I am still at home, with a 1 minute commute from bedroom to dining room table/work desk, which I share with my husband of 20 years (jesus christ, when did that happen?). The only thing--other than my employment and relationship status--that has remained constant in my life, pre- and during the pandemic, is my thoughts of food. I think of food pretty much every waking hour of my life. What to eat, how it will be prepared, where to obtain it. I conjure up recipes in my head regularly, not always bringing them to fruition, but enjoying the process nonetheless. Food is what has kept me somewhat sane over the last three months. To that end, I have enjoyed Top Chef this season because the show is primarily about food. But it is also about a group of people who have spent a great deal of concentrated time together and so have become good friends. And I have envied the interactions between these people, watching them coexist these last 14 weeks, even as I have not been able to see and touch my own friends. Of course, these same chefs have also had to endure the trials and tribulations of pandemic life just as I have, but with the added burden of wondering if their businesses will ever recover. Will life ever be the same? Will we ever have the relative frivolity of a food competition show like Top Chef again?

I'm going to try to make this recap brief. But then I say that every time and fail miserably.

There's no Quickfire again this week. The cheftestants--Bryan, Melissa, and Stephanie--find a note from Padma that urges them to eat breakfast before meeting her on the very foggy and damp terrace. Tom's there too, and they both compliment the chefs' performances so far before reminding them that their next challenge involves the best four course meal of their lives. Again Padma stresses that it be a progressive meal, which, as I have stated before, normally refers to a meal eaten in various locations rather than at one table. But I think the Top Chef meaning of the word is a meal that goes from appetizer to dessert. Not four courses of soup, or pie, or pate en croute. They want soup to nuts, but not necessarily soup or nuts. 

Out of the fog emerge their helpers for the contest: Kevin, Malarkey, and surprisingly, LeeAnne. Gregory has not been feeling well (his back still acting up, I assume) so LeeAnne agreed to take his place. Big of her to agree to travel to Italy, huh? The Final Three draw knives to determine who chooses first. Stephanie is number one and her choice is...Malarkey? She claims she chose him for his skill and enthusiasm. Bryan then chooses his bestie Kevin, leaving Melissa with LeeAnne.

Each pair gets their own SUV and heads off to do meal planning and shopping in Florence. Melissa of course is planning to continue her fusion (though she admits its a dirty word) of Italian and Chinese cuisine. Lee Anne is very opinionated, offering strong advice on how to prepare octopus and suggestions for ingredients Melissa might want to incorporate into her dishes. Melissa, however, is able to say no and shoots down most of Lee Ann's ideas. Stephanie tells Malarkey that she is going to make several things that she's made in the past, dishes that mean something to her. Personally, I think they sound a little done, particularly the kataifi-wrapped shrimp, which was a thing a few years back. Hopefully she doesn't shoot herself in the foot. Or shoot Malarkey for being annoying. Finally, Bryan--who last episode was deeply wounded by criticism that his food has no heart--wants to make dishes that are less his usual modernist tweezerings and more food with soul.

After spending a thousand euros on ingredients (much like my weekly food budget these days), the cheftestants head back to the Renaissance and cook for 5 hours. Everyone seems very enthusiastic about their menus. After the day's cooking is complete, they head off to a farmhouse in the countryside for a dinner promised to them by Tom. In a rather lovely twist, the meal has been prepared entirely by Tom, Padma, and Gail. It's a very nice gesture.

We then see our trio of finalists at home, skyping with their loved ones. Stephanie chats with her BFF Kristin Kish, winner of Top Chef season 10, whom she met in culinary school. (Stephanie also participated in that season, but was eliminated in one of the initial qualifying rounds.) Melissa converses with her excited mama, and Bryan calls Michael Voltaggio for some supportive brotherly love.

The next day, the chefs have another three hours to finish their dishes and serve them to a group of highly regarded chefs including Marcus Samuelsson. Their first courses are well-regarded by the judges, whose only quibble seems to be that Melissa's char siu sauce is a bit sweet. Tom praises Stephanie's kataifi shrimp, saying it's perfectly cooked. (So maybe the judges aren't sick of that particular dish quite yet.) The dish reminds Stephanie of her late brother, and her tears cause Gail to shed a few herself. Each of the three finalists serve pasta for their second course--so appropriate in Italy--and these dishes are also praised. There are a few more issues with the third course, mostly with Stephanie's veal breast dish which is a little dry. Bryan's squid ink foccaccia is also criticized for not being absorbent enough. (By the looks of it, it wasn't foccaccia, either.) Dessert also seems to please the diners, which means the judging will be difficult. 

You all know that I've been rooting for Bryan, who was competing on Top Chef for the third and final (so he says) time. You all also know that he didn't win any Quickfire Challenges and few Elimination Challenges this season. So something was off with him this time around. If Bryan couldn't win, I would have loved to see Stephanie get the prize. She was clearly an underdog who came on strong toward the end of the competition. Melissa was strong the whole season and clearly a chef to be reckoned with. And while I liked her just fine, and loved her concept of adding Chinese elements to just about everything she prepared (Chinese cuisine is my very favorite), she was not my choice to win.

So of course she won.

Congratulations to Melissa King for an amazing run. She's the winningest competitor ever, and only the 6th woman in 17 seasons to earn the title of Top Chef. She was also the Fan Favorite.

Sorry, Bryan, you will always be my favorite.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Friday, June 12, 2020

Top Chef Season 17 All Stars Recap - Episode Thirteen

I went to the office yesterday for the first time in 12+ weeks. It was strange. Only my supervisor was there, plus a guy from another department. The corridors were dark, the air was silent. And I kinda liked it. My regular readers probably have figured out that I don't like people very much, with few exceptions, so I found the deserted hallways soothing. Still, I'd rather not go back to work anytime soon. The occasional visit to do some essential chore that cannot be done from home is fine, but working from home is a life change that I have definitely gotten behind.

That is not true of the culinary world, of course. Thirteen weeks into the pandemic and restaurant people are tired of losing money. Honestly, I get it. But opening restaurants for indoor dining isn't going to help the bottom line very much. Restaurants need 80% capacity to survive, not 50%. Maryland is opening restaurants today at 5pm, after only a week of outdoor dining. Frankly, I'm sick to my stomach that businesses are valued more than people (and remember, I don't like people). We (that is, the state of Maryland) haven't yet finished our first wave of the virus but apparently are eager to get started on the second. Good luck to those people who are so desperate to get out and be aspirated on by others. My husband and I will continue to stay at home.

On to today's recap, which should be fairly short as there was no Quickfire Challenge.

When the episode begins, our remaining four cheftestants--Stephanie, Melissa, Kevin, and Bryan--are still facing Judges' Table. Prosecco Padma is still babbling on in half-Italian, half-English. She tells the chefs that super sponsor San Pellegrino is sending them to Parma in Emilia-Romagna where they will embark on a food tour of two of the region's most important foods: Parmesan cheese and Prosciutto. Their tour guide will be Lorenzo Cogo, the youngest chef to receive a Michelin star in Italy.

Padma also reveals the next Elimination Challenge, in which each of them will be responsible for two dishes, a primi and secondi--essentially a pasta course and a meat course--featuring the region's prized cheese and ham. These delights will be served up to a gaggle of Michelin-star-winning chefs who will judge the chefs harshly because they are stupid Americans who don't understand Italian food.

The next morning, they drive through the gorgeous countryside to their first destination, a cheese factory called Caseificio Gennari, where they don stylish blue coveralls and caps so they don't get their American filth on the product.

They are gifted with an 80-pound wheel of Parmesan to use in their dishes. Bryan hoists it on his shoulder and they are off to their next destination, Ruliano. There they taste some of the prized ham of the region, are told they should never cook the ham, and receive a leg of prosciutto to take with them. Bryan hoists it on the other shoulder and books a flight back to the states.

Shopping for this contest involves a series of adorable markets in Parma, where the produce is gorgeous despite it being November. Stephanie picks out a giant cabbage that looks like it just came out of the ground. Kevin finds some beautiful red and white borlotti beans in their pods. Bryan purchases a fish with bright red gills--a sure sign of freshness. Melissa sees scallops and thinks of XO sauce, which is made with dried scallops and Jinua ham. She feels prosciutto might be a good way to link her Chinese heritage with Italian food.

After shopping, the chefs head to Antica Corte Pallavicini where they will dine, spend the night, and prepare their meal. In that order. Before dinner, they wander through a creepy cellar full of hanging hams; Melissa wonders if a serial killer will make an appearance. They have a ham tasting, and Kevin is in hog heaven.

We seem him close his eyes in ecstasy, make that swishing movement with his mouth as if he was tasting wine, and have a porkgasm right on the spot. But the tasting is just foreplay for the main meal, a multi-course dinner during which the cheftestants do the inevitable musing about their "journey" to that point. God, I hate that word used in that way.

The next day, the chefs hit the kitchen and commence to cookery. Stephanie, despite the admonishment not to cook the prosciutto, decides to use it as a substitute for meat in a ragu. In other words, she uses a shit-ton of the precious ingredient, cuts it into tiny cubes, and cooks the hell out of it. For her second dish, she's putting slices of prosciutto within cuts in her cabbage and braising the whole thing. Again, defying the recommendation that she not cook the meat. Daring and perhaps dumb, but she's feeling confident. Melissa, too, is working with the prosciutto in an unconventional manner by using it in her XO sauce. She's working the parm into her primi as a flavoring element for her brodo. She's also using the French technique of making a raft--a mixture of coagulated egg and other ingredients that floats on top of and draws impurities out of a stock--in order to clarify it. It's a fiddly thing to do; she accidentally allows the raft to break, so she has to start over.

On the boys' side of the room, they're going in the opposite direction by barely draping the required porcine product over their dishes. Kevin found some pork at the market and is just tickled with his plan to make pork with pork on top. He's using the borlotti beans to make a pasta i fagioli with a Parmesan garnish added at the table. Bryan is making pasta alla chitarra which he will top with an egg and a nasty foamed up version of Parmesan fonduta that looks like marshmallow fluff. Mr Technique is also doing bass draped with prosciutto on top of a pumpkin seed pesto.

Prosecco Padma et al enter the dining room. Apparently the chefs gathered were the recipients of a collective 16 Michelin stars. Most are Italian natives, excluding California chef Evan Funke. His Italian accent is nonexistent but he is a master of pasta. It's a tough crowd.

The girls present first and leave elated. Despite cooking the prosciutto, Stephanie gets raves for both her pasta and the sauce which was well-balanced with both ham and cheese. Melissa's use of Parmesan rind in her brodo along with the Asian flavor of yuzu created something that had great depth of flavor. Then the boys get kicked in the head. Kevin's bean stew is fine, but the tablespoon of parm he adds at the table makes the dish too salty. And Bryan's pasta is good, but the judges don't like his aerated parm fonduta. I mean, they really hate it. Possibly because they expected to taste marshmallow fluff.

Both Stephanie and Melissa are praised for their secondi, braised cabbage with fonduta and scallop with XO and radicchio, respectively. Kevin's dish, however, is "not so good-a" because his pork is tough and the drape of prosciutto seems more like an afterthought. Bryan basically treated the ham the same way, but it's his pesto that gets slammed. Apparently it doesn't work-a well with the other ingredients.

Bryan should probably change his last name to something far less ethnic, cuz his Italian card just got revoked.

Judges' Table is pretty predictable. Evan Funke joins Pads, Tom, and Gail for the party and they roundly praise both Stephanie and Melissa. Stephanie points to herself, "me?"

She's surprised that she is going on to the finale, though Melissa is actually the winner of this challenge. That means the boys are on the bottom. Bryan's dishes may not have had soul, but at least the pasta he made was the best of the evening. Kevin isn't so lucky. His pork "ate tough" and was overseared, his raviolo was too salty, and the ingredient he was supposed to feature--the prosciutto--was an afterthought. Kevin thought his cooking was soulful, and maybe it had more soul than Bryan's, but the technical flaws were enough to send him home.

I'm happy that Bryan gets to go on to the finale, but I had hoped he'd get there on his own merit, rather than slipping through because someone else's food was worse than his. I'm sure he feels the same way.

Next week: the cheftestants will need to cook the best 4-course meal of their lives, along with a little help from their friends Kevin, Malarkey, and LeeAnne. Looks like Bryan is getting an advantage working with Kevin. Will opinionated LeeAnne sink Melissa, who looks to be the strongest chef in this competition? And how will Stephanie fare paired with Malarkey? Stay tuned!

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Friday, June 05, 2020

Top Chef Season 17 All Stars Recap - Episode Twelve

I'm not sure what I'm going to do when Top Chef is done and I'll have to remember what week it is on my own. Six weeks ago I made steak for dinner in hopeful celebration of the mid-point of quarantine. (Yes, I know we're not technically in quarantine. It's just easier to say/type than "stay-at-home.") Six weeks later, we're still in the thick of it, despite states (including my own--Maryland) lifting restrictions on dining out and getting haircuts and tattoos. The first wave isn't over, people. We don't need to start a second one so soon. Hey, but there are 6000 open ICU beds in the state, so go on and have fun! You deserve it!

This week on Top Chef--a much happier and less-contentious place than the world in which we currently live--the Final Five go abroad to do more cooking. They pack their bags, say "arrivederci" to the Top Chef Mansion, and head to the airport. We see them checking in and dining in the first class lounge, which seems extravagant. So much so that Kevin wonders if Padma and Tom are supposed to be there but got stuck flying "Jet Malarkey." While lounging in their first class seats-that-become-beds, the chefs are served what appears to be real food, judging by the steak on Kevin's plate. They probably drink a whole lot, too.

We don't get to see our weary cheftestants going through customs in Rome. (I presume that one of the pre-show requirements is to have valid passports, likely snatched up by the producers on the first day of filming.) but we do see them traveling the 3+ hours to their home-away-from-home in Tuscany, the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa in Castelvecchio Pascoli. Sign me up for that spa, baby! After spending nearly three months using my dining room table as a desk, my back and shoulders are killing me. The scenery on the way there is so beautiful. Who wants to run away to Tuscany with me? Bryan?

Before the cheftestants head to beddy-bye, they find a note from Padma reminding them that it's not all fun and games. The next day they'll be expected to meet her in Lucca, an ancient city in the northwest of Tuscany. 

True to her word, Padma has materialized in Lucca with Filippo Saporito of Michelin-starred La Leggenda dei Frati. (I can skip this place when we go to Tuscany; I'm not wealthy enough to enjoy a menu of chicken liver terrine, beef tartare, maccheroni, lamb, and zuccotto for €115.) Champagne Padma announces that she's ready for Happy Hour and the cheftestants are all for it. Prosecco Padma goes on to say that in Italy, there's a tradition called "aperitivo." Saporito offers that aperitivo snacks should be small and eaten with one hand, so the other hand can hold onto a beer. Only he said it with a heavy Italian accent. Fortunately for the cheftestants, Prosecco Padma speaks fluent Italian. Fortunately for us, there were subtitles.

The Quickfire Challenge is to make aperitivo schnacks using Peroni beer for 30 locals plus Pads and Fil in 45 minutes. Oh, and they have to use workstations that contain only foods particular to one of five regions of Italy. Believe it or not, folks, there's more to Italian food than lasagne, pizza, and sketti and meatballs (which aren't even eaten together there)! It looks cold in Lucca, as it's probably mid-to-late October at this point, but the chefs are still going to cook outdoors. They are possibly jet-lagged, but Asti Spumante Padma demands to be fed so they must comply. Plus, there's a 10K prize on the line for the winner.

Bryan needs to win a Quickfire, but right off the bat things go wrong. He decides that his original idea of lamb chops with gremolata is a bore, but then he can't find breadcrumbs for scalloppine, either. With time running out, he opts for tartare, which isn't a familiar dish for his region.

I'm not sure how he incorporated enough beer into the dish, but considering he hasn't paid attention to the QF directions all season, he wasn't about to start now. Annnnndddd....of course he ends up on the bottom. He's used far too much raw garlic, which Fil says is not good for talking with friends. Stephanie's odd venison and gorgonzola en carozza (essentially Italian grilled cheese) is tough, putting her on the bottom as well. But Fil and Pads like Melissa's mussels, Gregory's cuttlefish, and Kevin's polenta with prosciutto and radicchio agrodolce. Kevin is declared the ultimate winner and in about a year will receive a check for 10K from Peroni. 

Tom and his hat then saunter into camera range. Together, he and Franchiacorta Padma announce the Elimination Challenge. The cheftestants will be able to cook any dishes their heart desires--for 100 guests at a Tuscan Food Festival--as long as they use white truffles. But first: they're going truffle hunting with people from Savini Truffles and two very cute doggos.

The dogs are relentless hunters of the fragrant tuber, which unlike black truffles, are much better when eaten raw. After observing the dogs unearth thousands of euros worth of fungus, the chefs are sent to Il Alimento Totale to do their shopping. Shopping in Italy is apparently difficult if Lambrusco Padma is not around to translate. Which she isn't. She's probably sippin' the bub somewhere.

The next day, the chefs head into the kitchen at L'Imbuto for three hours of food prep. Stephanie, who originally planned to make egg drop soup, has switched to pasta. She makes a radicchio sauce to go with and finds that it just tastes gross. 

Rather than toss it, she puts in a ton of butter and hopes for the best. Kevin finds that he's picked up wild boar in addition to pork and veal for his meatballs. Curse those poor foreign language skills! (The only foreign language skills I have involve food terms. Cinghiale is the Italian word for boar. Doesn't everyone know that?) Gregory is struggling with back pain and has had a couple of shots (lemoncello? sambuca?) to help deal with it. They will all Make It Work. (Wait - that's Project Runway....) Melissa cleverly combines Asian and Italian elements in a congee dish, and Bryan is doing veal with potatoes. 

After prep, they pack up their foodstuffs and head to the festival site. As they're finishing the cooking, Brachetto d'Acqui Padma, Gail, Tom, Chef Cristiano Tomei of L'Imbuto, and truffle dude Cristiano Savini arrive to taste. They feel that the spicing of Kevin's meatballs competes too much with the truffles. Though Stephanie used tiny dollops of her bitter radicchio glop, it was still too much. But they do like her pasta. Gregory's wild boar stew is great, but despite lashings of truffle shavings, their delicate flavor disappears. Melissa's congee with fried garlic and salami pleased the judges, though they'd dump the cold cuts. Bryan's truffled potatoes--dispensed from a whipped cream canister--offer the purest truffle flavor of all.

It looks like Bryan might get a win, but no, they give it to Melissa.

As for the bottom three, the judges have a hard time deciding who should go home. All three dishes were good, but all had issues. Stephanie's pasta is good enough to keep her safe, but Kevin's and Gregory's dishes didn't allow the truffle to sing. 

Gregory goes home. He says that he gave 110% to the competition. Perhaps he should have kept it at 100%.

Next week, which is the penultimate episode and not the final: Bryan wrestles with a giant wheel of Parmesan cheese--and wins! Wins the battle with the cheese....

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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