Top Chef: Betting the Farm

by moderndomestic on January 16, 2009

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"We take our farming seriously, which is why we're standing here like a bunch of Mafia Dons."

This week’s Top Chef opens with the usual shots of New York and Chez Top Chef. Let’s just note that Hosea is wearing an “I heart Padma” shirt that I absolutely must buy for WonkthePlank, and move on.

As we well know from this week’s Top Chef commercials, season three winner Hung is the Quickfire judge. After Padma and Hung talk up the importance of using fresh ingredients in fine dining, they explain that the challenge is to make something from all-canned, all-processed, all non-fresh ingredients. Oh, snap! And in honor of Hung’s lightening speed chicken-butchering session in season three, the chefs will only have fifteen minutes for the challenge.

Hey, it could be worse – one of the companies that makes those pre-packaged ingredients could have sponsored this challenge. But you know that none of them did because you can’t see any of the labels on the ingredients; the bottles and cans are either shot from behind, or the labels are artfully obscured. But even without a blatant product placement, this is the kind of challenge Ted Allen would have a problem with. The chefs aren’t cooking, they’re “assembling” stale crap.

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Ariane really served this open-faced turkey spam sandwich with gravy. And yes, it looks that disgusting.

Because of the ingredients, these dishes look pretty disgusting, and the differentiation between the “top” and “bottom” chefs is based more on laziness than cooking. Hung, who must be aware there’s no way to make this stuff taste great, judges the chefs on effort and strategy, not cooking skills. Leah is on the bottom because her pre-packaged waffles are “too-crunchy.” Jamie is on the bottom for slacking – she didn’t really cook anything for her brushetta. Rhadika is also on the bottom for slacking; her “dip” is just a bunch of canned crap that she put in a blender.

If you think the bottom dishes sound uninspiring, the top dishes are just gross. I don’t want to eat Hosea’s canned sweet pea soup with fried spam, or Jeff’s deep fried-canned baby conk. And I really, really don’t want to eat Stefan’s baked bean soup and Velveeta grilled cheese, even if he does win the challenge.

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Stefan's "winning" dish. This looks like college dorm food.

After this unsavory and un-sponsored little episode, the Elimination challenge sounds much more appetizing: to create a fresh, seasonal menu. Anyone think this sounds too easy? There has to be a twist. However, all the chefs don’t seem to see the obvious, and, after they divide into teams, plan their menus.

The chefs are divided into teams based on their main protein: Jamie, Stefan and Carla are Team Chicken; Leah, Ariane and Hosea are Team Lamb, and My Boyfriend Fabio, Jeff and Rhadika are team Pork. Not everyone is happy with their team. Ariane is annoyed that she’s been put with the “love birds” Hosea and Leah (who both are in relationships! And yet continue to madly flirt on national TV). Jamie is pissed that she’s been put with Stefan, who seems to delight in getting her angry and having her yell at him.

As I suspected, all that menu planning comes to naught. Their shopping trip, which features some prominent shots of Toyota Sequoias (Product Placement Number One), won’t take them to whole foods. Instead, the chefs are driven to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a farm, restaurant, and education center. Chef Dan Barber heads the farm, and explains that the challenge will be to cook dinner for the Center’s farmers, using fresh ingredients from the farm. Barber will be the guest judge.

So let’s take a step back here. Getting all your ingredients directly from the farm is supposedly a chefs dream, right? So I’m surprised at how poorly the chefs will manage this challenge. For now, we get to see some really cute shots of the chefs cavorting with pigs, chickens, and sheep, as they figure out how to alter their menus.

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"Since Jamie won't sleep with me, let me just fondle this chicken."

Once the chefs start their meal prep, there are some signs that Team Lamb is in trouble. Ariane, who’s been put in charge of the lamb, doesn’t seem to know how to butcher or tie her lamb roasts. Tom is concerned that Team Chicken is doing a soup, even though it’s 85 degrees out and the farmers and judges will be dining in the hot sun.

But when serving time comes, Team Chicken is actually the most together of the three. Team Chicken serves chicken cutlets, lemon herb roasted chicken, heirloom tomato salad, and chicken consomme with chicken ravioli. Padma doesn’t see the point of eating soup in the heat (agreed), but Toby is a fan of the cutlets. Team Chicken’s dessert, a nectarine and strawberry tart that features Carla’s famous pastry crust, is a hit with the judges. It doesn’t sound like high praise, but this turns out to be the star showing of the evening.

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Team Chicken's meal. Not wonderful, but the best of the bunch.

Team Pork serves a grilled corn salad with green beans and bacon, fried green tomatoes, sausage ravioli, and a wrapped pork loin. Right away, Tom questions their choices. Why did the chefs roast the pork loin off the bone, when leaving it on the bone improves the flavor and juiciness of the meat? Why is there so much pesto on the ravioli? Toby, desperately trying to be funny, says that the pesto was the “big bad wolf that blew this meal down.” Um, Toby? Stop trying so hard. The dessert also doesn’t go over very well; the judges think the lavender creme brulee is too sweet. Padma says that the fried green tomatoes are the team’s saving grace.

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Team Pork. There sure is a hell of a lot of pesto on that ravioli.

Team Lamb also has a weak showing, serving roasted baby lamb, roasted potatoes, and tomato salad. Like the Pork team, the Lamb team decides to roast the baby lamb off the bone, making it drier and less flavorful. And it doesn’t even look pretty – Dan Barber thinks that the lamb butchering is a mess. As for their dessert, Toby says the pound cake trifle with pastry cream and berries is “unappetizing.” Oh dear.

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Team Lamb does the impossible - makes baby lamb tough.

At the judges table, the panel is appalled that the chefs screwed up such excellent ingredients.Team Chicken (Carla, Jamie and Stefan) are the top three, showing that feint praise can get you far on Top Chef. All three of the chefs win the challenge, although they don’t get a prize or anything (falling low on the sponsors, Top Chef?).

Team Pork and Team Lamb are in the bottom, and the judges call in all six chefs for a tongue lashing. Toby doesn’t understand why Team Pork removed the fat from the pork loin. Dan Barber points out that the chefs removed one of the “more delicious parts of the animal.” Toby adds that he wants to have “full-blown, unprotected sex” with a nice piece of meat, but their dish was “bloodless and anemic.” Well well well. If I wasn’t hungry before, I’m really not hungry now.

The judges have similar criticisms for Team Lamb.
Tom doesn’t understand why they cooked the lamb off the bone, and Dan Barber doesn’t understand why they tenderized the lamb meat. “Baby lamb is, by definition, tender,” Barber says. Tom also points out that Ariane shouldn’t have butchered the lamb, since she didn’t know what she was doing. Hosea, who admits that he has butchering experience, left Ariane floundering with a task that was out of her league and compromised the entire meal.

I think this was the first real elimination of the show.
We’re finally down to good chefs, who know what they’re doing, and have real skills–no more Melissas, or Genes, or Gay-Boy culinary students. So I’m actually surprised when Ariane goes home, but not blown away. This makes me believe that her strong showing throughout the competition has been more a matter of producer manipulation than culinary skill. If she was really that good and that strong a contender, would she have been kicked off in episode eight? I don’t think so.

Next week: Restaurant Wars!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

E January 16, 2009 at 6:44 pm

Ok, I think I’m being too sensitive, but I the Quick Fire Challenge really smacked of elitism. Yes, you are chefs, so you’re usually privileged with only using the freshest ingredients, but most Americans are limited to processed items in the pantry due to limitations of time and money. Why not do a “$15 in 15 minutes” challenge and have the chefs whip up something quick, cheap, and healthy?

I also hope that Toby’s exploits would be consensual!

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moderndomestic January 16, 2009 at 6:56 pm

I think the point of this show, thought, is that it’s not supposed to be about home cooking. Great chefs aren’t interested in what’s easy, or time-saving, the way that home cooks are. To me, a chef’s interest in using fresh ingredients doesn’t smack of elitism – I want to chefs to care about the quality of their produce and their proteins. That’s their job and that’s what they’ve been trained to do. That’s why I pay them money to cook for me.

My problem with it, and it goes back to Ted Allen’s blog post, is that this show is supposed to be about professional chefs, who care passionately about food. The best chefs make cooking into an art form. But you’ll never be able to do that with crappy canned ingredients. So the challenge really isn’t about cooking or skill, even though that’s what the show is supposed to be about – it’s about doing a “cute” challenge that will make good commercials.

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