Friday, March 20, 2020

Top Chef Season 17 All Stars Recap - Episode One

Today I'm going to do something I haven't done in quite a long time: recap a reality show. Once upon a time, I used to spend a few hours every week attempting to squeeze some humor out of shows like The Next Food Network Star and Top Chef. I even recapped Shear Genius and Project Runway on my fashion blog, Opalescent. At first, it was fun. And then it wasn't. It's been a few years, and I thought I'd give it another go. Because I'm crazy.

I haven't even watched Top Chef since season 10! (My long-suffering husband put the kibosh on it after the Olympic-style chaos of the season 9 finale. I squeezed out one more season before he took the remote away from me, permanently.) So why do I plan on torturing us again after so many years? two words. More accurately one name: Bryan Voltaggio. My almost-home-town boy (he's from Frederick, MD, I'm from Baltimore) finished second to his brother Michael in season 6, and was a runner-up in season 5 of Top Chef Masters. Always the bridesmaid....

I must admit I picked on him a bit while recapping season 6. Not because I disliked him. On the contrary, he was my favorite chef of the season. Probably of all the seasons. Yes, I thought he was hot. And he's not my usual type at all. I'm more into brunettes with dimples, but hey, at least I'm not predicable!
Bryan didn't seem to have many facial expressions to work with back in season 6. Yet, somehow...there was plenty of hotness. My late friend Kate understood my attraction and we'd share a fangirl moment or ten in a text message while virtually watching the show together. The first time Mr Minx and I went to Bryan's restaurant, Volt, in Frederick, Bryan was standing outside in their courtyard, watching us approach. And he gave us a stony, unemotional, stare, much like any of the looks above. The next time we went, we ate in the kitchen, with him RIGHT THERE. He didn't even look at us that time, probably disgusted and embarrassed by his over-emotional greeting from the first time. Something must have happened in the following years, because when I was finally introduced to him at a media preview of the Baltimore outpost of his restaurant Family Meal, and he shook my hand, he displayed a wider range of facial expressions. And his hands were big and warm. Oooh.... (Man, I miss Kate!)

I just want to say, Bryan, I'm sorry for picking on you. <3 <3 <3 That doesn't mean I won't still do it this season.

But I digress, big time.

So here we are now, back to watching. And recapping. And I hope you will read and maybe laugh and enjoy. AND PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS (I'm looking at you, Chrissie Perry), even if you think my writing is shit. Which it may well be.

Let's meet this season's competitors, shall we:

Lee Anne Wong: season 1; season 15
Brian Malarkey, season 3, finalist
Lisa Fernandes, season 4, finalist
Kevin Gillespie: season 6, finalist; Duels
Bryan Voltaggio: season 6, finalist; Masters, season 5, finalist
Jenn Carroll: season 6; season 8 All Stars; Duels
Angelo Sosa: season 7, finalist
Stephanie Cmar: season 10
Gregory Gourdet: season 12, finalist
Melissa King: season 12
Karen Akunowicz: season 13
Jamie Lynch: season 14
Joe Sasto: season 15
Nini Nguyen: season 16
Eric Adjepong: season 16, finalist

This year's competition takes place in pre-Coronapocalyptic Los Angeles, California, where, for no apparent reason (is there ever a reason?), the cheftestants gather at the Griffith Observatory. The usual suspects, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons are on hand to greet the gang and tell them about their first Quickfire Challenge. It's one they are all familiar with, involving preparing a mise en place. In the past, the chefs were divided into teams and the competition was a relay. This time, each chef competes on his or her own. The first five people to turn three California artichokes become one team, the next five to supreme 5 California oranges becomes another team. The remaining five chefs become the final team, of course, but first they have to successfully crack 20 perfect California almonds. (Is anyone else of a certain age disappointed that The California Raisins weren't involved? Only me? Ok.) Each team then heads back to the Top Chef Kitchen where they are to create two dishes using all three ingredients. The final team gets only 15 minutes for this task. The other two teams get a bit more time, depending on how long it took them to complete their mise en place to begin with.

This challenge really shows that all of these chefs aren't involved in actual meal prep anymore. As Kevin says, "I have people for this shit." Bryan is so eager to finish in the first team, thus getting more time to cook, he calls out that he's finished his artichoke prep three times before the judges agree that he has actually removed the entire hairy choke from the thing. And I know there's a dirty joke in there somewhere, but my allergies are kicking my ass and I am having trouble thinking clearly. Also, Bryan Voltaggio.

Honestly, none of the three challenges are particularly easy. Anyone who has prepped an artichoke knows that it's a bit fiddly. First one has to remove the leaves, peel the stem, then scrape out the choke, leaving only the tender heart and a bit of tender stem. As for supreming an orange, that involves cutting the segments of juice sacs out of each protective membrane. The first couple are fairly easy--if your knife is sharp!--but as you work around the orange, it starts to fall onto itself and cutting out the remaining segments is fairly difficult. Personally, I always make a big mess. Finally, cracking almonds without a nut cracker is an interesting problem-solving challenge. Jenn Carroll attempts to use her wine key, since it folds over and seems like it could work. And it might, for a soft-shelled nut like a peanut, but it doesn't provide enough leverage to crack a large hard-shelled nut like an almond. The cheftestants should be happy that they weren't competing in a state known for harder nuts, like walnuts or pecans. (Yes, another lost opportunity to make a dirty joke.)

Team Artichoke, aka the Red Team, is Bryan, Melissa, Kevin, Jamie, and Joe.
Team Orange, aka the Blue Team, is Malarkey, Kevin, Lisa, Nin, and Stephanie,
Team Nuts, aka the Green Team, is Lee Anne, Gregory, Angelo, Eric, and Jenn, who finished dead last. The wine key didn't work.

The Red Team arrives at the kitchen first and sets to making their artichoke, orange, and almond dishes. A short 5-ish minutes later, the Blue Team bursts in and starts their own cooking. Finally, the Green Team gets in and begins their very quick fifteen minutes.

It's almost as if the chefs forgot there were time constraints. Joe, on the Red Team, thought that making pasta in less than 30 minutes was a good idea. Of course it was doughy, dry, and gummy. Lee Anne, on the Green Team, thought tempura was a good idea. Unfortunately, there weren't enough empty deep fryers available in order to cook her food in a timely manner, which caused her batter to thicken unpleasantly. But aside from those two big loser dishes, the rest were edible. Luckily for the Red Team, their other dish was good enough to get them the win. And finally, after a couple dozen Quickfire Challenges spread over two full seasons, Bryan Voltaggio (as part of a team) wins his first one ever. YOU CAN DO IT! LOVE YOU BRYAN!

Elimination Challenge: Each member of the winning Red Team will be a captain instructed to choose two people from the remaining teams in order to form their own team. Each new team of three people will be responsible for three seafood dishes cooked over an open fire on the beach. They will have no other cooking methods available to them, no gadgets or appliances. Just their knives, their skills, and the flames.

Bryan chooses Eric--a former protege of his--and Lisa (Aqua Team). Well, Lisa was the last one left, so he sorta just gets her. I can't say "stuck," because she was a finalist in her season and can cook. Kevin has Jenn and Nin (Blue Team). The Yellow Team comprises Jamie, Gregory, and Stephanie. The Red Team has Joe, Lee Anne, and Malarkey. Finally, the Green Team is made up of Melissa, Angelo, and Karen. The teams have 5 minutes to meal plan, and 30 minutes to "shop" in the pantry. This mostly means chefs shoving each other out of the way as they battle for their protein of choice.

Armed with shopping bags of produce and fish, the Cheftestants leave the Kitchen and head for their swanky new home in the Hollywood Hills. Though it looks like a huge manse, the chefs are still forced to sleep in bunk beds, at least while there are still 15 of them.

The next day, the Cheftestants have 2 1/2 hours to cook their food. On the beach. While a bunch of high-powered chef judges tap their flip flops and wait for their food. How high-powered? How's Nancy Silverton, Suzanne Goin, Michael Cimarusti, Josiah Citrin, Marcus Samuelsson, and Jeremiah Tower for ya? All but Samuelsson (who is quite the media whore) are bastions of the LA food scene, with Tower being one of the originators, along with Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, of what we think of as California cuisine. Then there's Caroline Styne, who's a restaurateur and Goin's business partner. (I had to look her up on teh innernets.)

The chefs seem less worried about the judges than they are about making sure the fire pit works for them. It's not easy to cook fancy food over an open fire. It's like glamping on steroids. I guess. I've never ever been regular camping. (I'm high maintenance. I like flush toilets and feather pillows and hate bugs.)

(While I'm being parenthetical here....damn. I haven't recapped in so long and I'm realizing now that it's HARD WORK. Especially since my brain has been half-eaten away by all the Coronapocalypse news I've been reading. I'm trying hard to avoid it. Realizing that I'm probably going to be working from home until June is causing anxiety. I predict that the birth rate will go up in December, but so will the rates of suicide and divorce.)

The Green Team is cooking and presenting their food first. I guess I nodded off when they determined the order of who will be feeding the judges when. If they did at all. I guess it makes sense to stagger the cooking, as seafood is fragile and nobody wants to eat it cold if it's not supposed to be. They presented a "modern California" meal of grilled scallops with ginger plums, nuoc cham, and napa slaw (Karen), oysters with smoked bacon rice porridge (Angelo), and grilled swordfish with hot and sour sauce, ember-grilled radicchio, and fresno chiles (Melissa). The judges enjoyed Karen's dish, liked the radicchio best in Melissa's, and felt Angelo didn't embrace the challenge, since there was no real aspect of fire cooking involved.

Team Malarkey created a sesame and semolina flatbread with clams, fried garlic, pickled peppers, miso parm aioli, and uni (Joe), Shoyu tare glazed halibut with charred sweet corn and cabbage, miso beurre blanc, and uni (Lee Anne), and spot prawns with hibiscus ponzu, burnt avocado, and uni (Malarkey). We saw Lee Anne dump oil on the grate after she realized her fish was sticking, which caused a flare up and added much-unneeded soot to the flavor of her dish. Joe's flatbread had too much stuff going on, and the crust itself was soggy under all the aioli. Meanwhile, Malarkey's dish was pretty, but the surfeit of sauce, when served family style, made the other dishes on the plate too wet.

The Yellow team presented charred salmon with grilled peaches and roasted chili dressing (Gregory), steamed mussels with ember scalded cream and toasted bread (Jamie), and brined prawn with charred tomato sauce and roasted corn dressing (Stephanie). Jamie put hot embers from the fire into his cream sauce (and removed them, of course), which received praise from the judges. Unfortunately, his mussels got dried out. Stephanie's dish scores really high marks, as does Gregory's "perfectly cooked" salmon. Nancy Silverton says this meal is the menu that the judges expected and deserved. No modesty there, huh Nance?

The Blue team produced spiced tuna loin, grilled kale, roasted tahini sauce (Jenn), grilled scallop with carrots, tomatoes, charred brussel sprout and fennel salad (Nini), and eye of swordfish braised in chorizo with coal-roasted onion, olive, and peas (Kevin). The judges love Jenn's dish, saying they would eat it for lunch any day. Nini's dish is beautiful and the scallops well cooked, but the veg didn't seem to have much done to them. Kevin's dish, while visually quite lovely, is overcooked and there are too many things going on. I could have told you that.

Finally, the Aqua team presents charred shrimp and scallop ceviche with candied squash (Lisa), a Chesapeake boil with grilled prawns (Eric), and sablefish with corn porridge and charred leeks (Bryan). The judges enjoy Lisa's and Eric's dishes, but Gail thinks that Bryan's dish was too same-same in texture, though others think it had finesse.

The judges seemed mostly impressed with the day's food, with Jenn's tuna and Melissa's swordfish as favorites. The Yellow Team was singled out for having the best menu, with Gregory awarded the win for his nicely cooked salmon with the surprising addition of peaches.

Team Malarkey ends up on the bottom, though Angelo's oyster and Kevin's swordfish are singled out for their badness, too. Malarkey's dish made everyone else's soggy, Lee Anne's fish had too much of a charcoal flavor and some editing, but the Joe's overloaded flatbread sends him home.

The next challenge starts immediately, but we are spared another 75 minutes of viewing...until next week.

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