When I visited Salt Lake City back in October, I had dinner with a dear friend from high school and his lovely wife. During the course of the conversation, I learned that this friend’s older brother is a chef in New York. Always interested in speaking to food professionals, I asked if I could do an interview, and that is how I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with Brian Kaywork. Brian is the Executive Chef at Madalin’s Table in Tivoli, New York, and I was truly breathless after our conversation. His passion for food oozes out of every word he utters, but not in the affected and pretentious way of someone who simply likes to hear his own voice on the subject. Rather, I get the sense that the hard work that Brian has put into his cooking over the years makes him not only incredibly talented, but also infinitely approachable and grounded.
Back in 1996, after receiving a bachelor’s degree from Western Maryland College, Brian headed west and landed in Southern California. Food wasn’t really on his radar at that point, other than recreational cooking. “I just wanted to surf,” he admitted. However, he had been a server at numerous restaurants, and he felt that he was cut out for the sort of work that was “athletic in nature.” In 2002, he decided to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. “Until the CIA, I fought school tooth and nail,” Brian confessed. “But I loved culinary school. I had a positive outlook, and I just went with it.” Part of this culinary abandon that allowed Brian to enjoy his education was the fact that it was okay to make mistakes. “You’re not going to lose someone money,” he explained. When asked if any particular style or cuisine resonated more with him, Brian said that he really loved (and still loves) French-based fine dining. He’s not terribly interested in molecular gastronomy, so to speak, but he does take pride in refining techniques in order to manipulate flavors and textures.
Certain restaurant experiences really shaped Brian’s career and his perspective on food. His externship was at the Little Palm Island resort and spa in the Florida Keys. “It was a Caribbean style restaurant, but the chef was well-trained in classic French flavors and techniques,” Brian said. He also did some post-graduation work as a sous chef at the Italian restaurant on the CIA campus. He then worked at the now-defunct Mina in Red Hook for three years before landing at Madalin’s Table, where he has been for about three and a half years. In his current role, Brian tries to use local ingredients to prepare creative-yet-traditional fare. “There’s a certain enlightenment in the area,” Brian said, when asked about his regular clientele. “You get everything from locals who love our burger to New York City food writers and Manhattanites.” One might think it difficult to cook for such a broad-ranging group, but Brian insisted that patience is the key. “Consistency and stability are important, especially in this economic climate,” he said. “People are trying to be sensible.”
Brian goes to the farmstand every day on the way to work, so I asked him about the ingredients that get him especially excited. “Wild foraged mushrooms!” he exclaimed without hesitation. “Morels, fiddleheads, they range the full season, and there’s something great about going out and harvesting them yourself.” The Hudson Valley area provides a bounty of lovely seasonal produce, but Brian probably enjoys spring the most. “You just crave something fresh and bright,” he said. “Ramps come up first, and it’s just such an exciting time.”
So besides seasonal produce, what can you always find in Chef Kaywork’s home kitchen? “Really good olive oil,” he blurted. He also has a plethora of pork products, indian spices and curries, and at least five different kinds of salt. However, as committed as he is to using local, seasonal ingredients, Brian is not too good for the ol’ blue box: Kraft mac and cheese. “It’s not as if I’m living in the French countryside,” he quipped, the smile apparent in his voice. He does enjoy cooking on his days and nights off, and he said that the previous night, he made homemade chicken tortilla soup and orecchiette with mustard greens. I told him that my husband and I might snag a flight to New York to taste his home AND restaurant cooking.
As the conversation ended (a fact about which I was quite dissappointed, I have to say), the topic turned to the “new age” of food media. What does Brian think about Food Network and blogs and Americans’ newfound obsession with everything food-related? He feels that the bottom line is a good one, in that these new outlets create an excitement about food and dining that hasn’t always been present in our culture. “Knowledge is good,” Brian said matter-of-factly. “The only thing I worry about is if peoples’ expectations are correct.” He noted that America is a newer nation with a much shorter food history, and that we have a lot of catching up to do.
Despite talking to Brian for an hour, I feel like we only scratched the surface. There was so much personality on the other end of the phone, so I can only imagine how much of that thoughtful-yet-playful style finds its way into his food. Any readers in the New York area should definitely make a trip to see him at Madalin’s Table. I wish I could! In the meantime, stay tuned for more from the delightful Chef Kaywork…I don’t think TWT has seen the last of him.
Back to the here and now, indeed.
Thanksgiving was wonderful, full of love and laughter and LOTS of food. On Thursday night, we had our traditional non-traditional Thurber meal of standing rib roast, green beans, sauteed mushrooms, and roasted potatoes. On Friday night, the Barzelay clan whipped up turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, peas, cornbread dressing, and yam and apple casserole. Desserts were plentiful and included my mom’s famous bundt cake (yellow cake with raisins, topped with THICK vanilla and chocolate icings) and David’s mom’s famous carrot cake and apple pie. Breakfasts usually included homemade buttermilk biscuits and some sort of meat product. Leftovers disappeared faster than anyone anticipated. On Saturday, we enjoyed pigs in blankets and hanky panky while watching Georgia beat Georgia Tech in one hell of a rivalry game. Life was good.
Now, I am sad that my sister has to fly back to California, AND I am sad that I’ve put on so much weight over the course of one week. I am excited to get back into the swing of healthy eating (and blog posting), but I still need some time to recover and strategize. I also have to post a really awesome Personality Profile that I think you will all enjoy. So, do come by later in the week, but for now…
Tell me about your Thanksgivings! I’d love to hear all about your traditions in the comments.
Okay, I know I’m supposed to post a Top Chef recap. But I just can’t. I am too damn tired, for one, and I just didn’t find last night’s episode interesting enough to write about. I mean, yeah, it’s great that Kevin won, and it’s sad that Eli went home (though I think he’s fortunate to have made it so far), but haven’t we all been predicting this very final four for weeks now? Also, no offense to Thomas Keller or the other esteemed tablemates, but the whole Bocuse D’Or thing just SCREAMS 80s to me. I mean, the mirrored platters and the ornate garnishes? It’s just not my bag, baby. I do want to note that Padma and Gail looked beautiful, and that Mike V. is still a dickwad (at least, they are painting him to LOOK like a dickwad, since Robin isn’t around to be the villain anymore).
On an unrelated note, the reason I am so tired is that we moved out of our condo on the quick. It’s a long story, but the good news is that we are quasi-settled in a better place, and I now have a bigger, shinier kitchen to mess around in. The first thing I made: ginger chewies, for a holiday luncheon at work. I first had these delightful cookies at the Eat on $30 wrap party. They looked plain and unassuming, like regular ol’ ginger snaps, but they turned out to be oh so much more. For the recipe and some additional tips and thoughts, go visit my dear friend Tami over at Running With Tweezers. Go on, now. She’s very friendly.
I’ll be back next week. Have a great one!
Normally, I don’t just announce the eliminated cheftestant right off the bat. However, Robin had it coming for SO long that I don’t feel bad about “spoiling” the episode. I feel like now we won’t have to spend 15 minutes of every episode listening to her or someone else whine about whether she should or should not still be around. Less talky, more cooky, that’s what I always say.
Anyway, on with the show…which I thought was a pretty good one, actually, and not just because of the end result. The chefs head to a kitchen somewhere in the belly of the Venetian (my favorite Vegas hotel), where they receive a call from a bathrobed Padma. She and Nigella Lawson (also bathrobed, and looking absolutely stunning) are chillin’ in their suite and want some room-service breakfast. There is chaos in the kitchen, of course, because it is small and cramped and these chefs aren’t so good at sharing. Robin goes first, and she serves goat cheese blintzes with grilled pineapple and berries. Eli’s “reuben benedict” is next, and it gets props from Nigella for being great hangover food. Mike does something he calls “huevos cubana” (don’t even get me started on the atrocious spanish subject-verb disagreement), and it seems to go over well. Kevin serves steak and eggs, with some creme fraiche and aged cheddar, and it looks absolutely delicious. Jen inexplicably decides to serve “shit on a shingle,” otherwise known as creamed chipped beef. By either name, it does not sound appetizing. It doesn’t look particularly appetizing, either, but it doesn’t cause any gagging. Bryan presents an egg with corn polenta, crab, and asparagus, which would have been delicious but for its strange vanilla butter sauce.
Nigella announces that her least favorites were Robin and Bryan, and that her favorites were Kevin and Eli. Go Team ATL! Eli ends up winning, and for his troubles, his recipe will be the only one from the season to appear in the Top Chef Quickfire Cookbook. Maybe he can get royalties and make enough money to move out of his mom’s basement!
Padma announces the elimination challenge, which requires the chefs to take inspiration from one of the casinos on the Strip in creating a dish for 175 party guests. They draw knives to determine their casinos, and they are given some time to check things out and formulate their plans. Mike goes to New York, New York, and he decides to do a fiery chicken wing in homage of the 9/11 firefighters. Jen draws the Excaliber, so she takes in a show and a meal at the Tournament of Kings (think Medieval Times, multiplied by Vegas) and seems to enjoy drinking beer and eating with her hands. However, she does not really have a clear vision for her dish. Bryan is inspired by the shark exhibit at the Mandalay Bay, and he decides to design his dish around sustainable seafood. Robin is immediately drawn to the Chihuly sculpture in the lobby of the Bellagio, and she decides to incorporate all of the beautiful color into a dessert. Ruh-roh, Shaggy. Kevin plays with dolphins at the Mirage and asserts his non-redneck-ness. And poor Eli drew Circus Circus, which is the most craptastic casino of them all. He says something about the aesthetic of the hotel, which makes me giggle, because there IS NONE.
There is a brief food flurry (they only had 3.5 hours to cook in the kitchen, and then one hour to get ready at the event site), and then the party begins. Kevin makes a funny and says that he was going to put up a picture of his dish and then fill all of the bowls with sand (get it? because it’s a mirage?). Tee. GO TEAM KEVIN!!! The judges approach Jennifer’s table first, and she prepares her New York strip with beets, a red wine reduction, and truffles. It sounds good, but it doesn’t look particularly refined (especially since the meat is tough, as is pointed out by Nigella and Tony). Kevin is next, and he serves a lightly-cured salmon with a compressed veggie salad/slaw and a cucumber/tomato broth. Everyone loves it. Mike has turned basic chicken wings into a boneless chicken wing confit with a cold blue cheese disc. The judges seem to enjoy the temperature contrast. Brother Bryan also does well with his escabeche of halibut, despite initially turning the judges off with his description of a “parsley fluid gel.” Robin’s panna cotta is too gelatinous and dense, and the spun sugar didn’t turn out well and couldn’t be served. The curse of dessert lives on! Eli’s caramel apple peanut soup seems to taste as bad as it sounds, though the judges appreciate his dedication to the challenge and his willingness to go all out.
Not surprisingly, Kevin and the Brothers Voltaggio are the judges’ favorites. In the end, Mike pulls out the win and manages NOT to club Toby with his huge bottle of Terlato wine when he calls his food “effeminate.” WTF?
The bottom three sullenly slink to the judges’ table and prepare for the verbal beating. Robin seems to know her time is up, and admits to trying to “cook up” to the level of the other contestants. Jen confesses to not having a solid concept for her dish. Eli defends his concept and his commitment to the challenge, but he is slapped down by the judges who confirm that the dish was circus-like in its disastrousness. Despite the fact that Jen says she’s ready to go (in the stew room, not in front of the judges, THANK GOODNESS), Robin is told to pack her knives and go. She’s pretty emotional about it, which I’m sure she will also be when she sees the party that the other chefs throw to celebrate her elimination.
I saw Thomas Keller in the preview bit, and I was all excited and happy, and then there was a clip of Mike saying, “The food that Kevin cooks is the food that I cook…on my day off.” Seriously, dude? Why are you such a tremendous cocksucker? Even if I wasn’t a flag-waving member of Team Kevin, I would think that comment was douchetastic. I mean, just because Kevin doesn’t cook effeminate chicken wings doesn’t mean that he’s a hack. Grrrrrr…
We are inching closer, kittens. Closer and closer to the elimination of mediocrity and the emergence of the final competitors. Thank the baby jeebus–I feel like this season has dragged on and on and on. Of course I’ll be sad when it’s all over, but for now I feel like complaining about THIS, thankyouverymuch.
Blah blah blah, the episode starts with everyone being kind of down about Restaurant Wars and, of course, about the fact that Robin is still there. They head over to the M Resort, where Padma is waiting for them with Paul Bartolotta. They announce a TV dinner challenge, so I’m thinking, cool, they’ll have to develop a concept that is microwaveable and still tasty. WRONG. Apparently, “TV dinner challenge” means “create a dish inspired by a random TV show and put it on a segmented plate.” Oh, and it also means “Padma and Chef Bartolotta will eat the dishes while sitting on a 70s-esque couch in front of a fake television set.” Lame, lame, lame. I was pretty disinterested in the challenge, but I paid attention long enough to see Kevin win for his Sopranos-inspired meatballs, roasted cauliflower, and roasted pears. YAY, TEAM KEVIN!!! Even though your stellar Top Chef performance is making it frickin’ IMPOSSIBLE to get a reservation at your restaurant, I still heart you the mostest.
Padma announces that the elimination challenge will involve the chefs taking over craftsteak (Tom Colicchio’s Vegas steakhouse) for the night. That’s all the explanation she provides. If I were a contestant, I would be very suspicious. There is NO WAY the challenge could be so simple and straightforward. I would immediately brainstorm potential tricks and twists. Of course, I have WATCHED THE SHOW BEFORE. Apparently, the actual contestants have not, as they proceed to lounge around the house and dream up delicious, meaty scenarios. Dumbasses.
When the chefs walk into craftsteak, they head straight to the walk-in and peruse the beefy offerings. Not so fast, oh naive ones. Tom and Padma have a surprise guest to introduce! Her name is Natalie Portman…and she’s a vegetarian. Cue ominous music. The chefs scramble back into the chiller to fight over produce. There’s a lot of grandstanding from Robin and Mike I. about how they cook vegetarian all the time, which clearly means that their dishes will suck. Kevin mentions that he and his wife give up meat for Lent, but because it’s Kevin, it’s not grandstanding and it means that he will rock out. YAY, TEAM KEVIN!!!
Robin serves first, and she presents “Stuffed Squash Blossom, Beet Carpaccio, Fresh Garbanzo Beans and Chermoula.” It looks like a mess to me, but Natalie thinks it is beautiful. Unfortunately, it is oversalted and not so tasty. Eli is up next with his “Confit of Eggplant, Lentils, Garlic Puree and Radish Salad.” It looks delicious, and it gets good reviews from the diners and judges. Mike V.’s “Asparagus Salad, Japanese Tomato Sashimi and Banana Polenta” is next, and initially the guests balk at the whole banana polenta concept. However, the dish prompts one of Natalie’s cohorts to compare Mike to Picasso, so I think he ended up alright. Not so for Jen, whose “Charred Baby Eggplant, Braised Fennel, Tomatoes and Verjus Nage” is deemed not substantial enough for a main course. In addition, Jen sauces each plate individually, which would have been charming but for her shaking hands and awkward general nervousness. Bryan’s “Artichoke Barigoule, Confit of Shallot, Wild Asparagus and Fennel Puree” is also a pretty darn small portion, but it spawns some sort of innuendo-laden conversation among the ladies, with Tom looking as uncomfortable as ever. Kevin rounds out the group (literally and figuratively) with his “Duo of Mushrooms, Smoked Kale, Candied Garlic and Turnip Puree,” which just SOUNDS hearty. And apparently it is, and the dish, while not so pretty, gets a lot of positive feedback.
Kevin, Eli, and Mike V. get called to judges’ table first, and Kevin ends up winning the challenge. YAY, TEAM KEVIN!!! He wins a bunch of GE appliances, and he doesn’t look particularly jazzed about that part of the victory, but whatev. Mike V. immediately gets a sour face and complains that he could have made Kevin’s dish “in 20 minutes” and “in my second year of apprenticeship.” The producers/editors of TC have clearly passed the obnoxious, arrogant douchebag torch from Mike I. to Mike V. I want to kick both of them in the teeth.
Alas, I will have no further opportunities to express my dislike of Mike I. (until the reunion special, of course), as he is booted for his ignorance of what constitutes a protein and for his yucky, poorly-cooked leeks. Yes, children, despite Robin’s all over the place-ness, and despite the fact that Jen is seemingly crumbling under the pressure of the competition, Mike I. is eliminated with a “whatever, whatever” and an emotional “it is what it is.”
More of Mike V.’s arrogance and Robin’s annoyingness next week, it seems. Can we get rid of both of them at the same time? A girl can dream…
Normally, I can’t stay up late enough to enjoy Top Chef on its regularly scheduled Wednesday night slot. Mock me if you must, but mama needs her beauty sleep, ya dig? For Restaurant Wars, though, I made an exception and hunkered down for the super-sized episode.
Our first shot at the TC compound shows teeny tiny Jen in a teeny tiny (but super cute) bikini. Inside the house, we hear MORE about the Voltaggio brothers and their lifelong competition, and Ash is missed for the dynamic he brought to the group. At the M Resort, Padma and Rick Moonen greet the chefs for the quickfire challenge, which they describe as a tag-team cook-off. The chefs draw knives, and Jen ends up getting “First Pick” and Mike V. gets “Second Pick.” So, they are the “leaders” and get to pick their teams in that order. Jen wonders whether to split up the brothers or keep them together, but she ultimately picks Kevin, Mike I., and Laurine. That leaves Mike V. with Bryan, Eli, and Robin.
The tag team challenge involves each chef cooking for 10 minutes while the remaining chefs are blindfolded. Somehow, this is supposed to test their teamwork. I am confused, as I always thought that teamwork involved collaboration and communication (and the chefs are not allowed to talk to each other, making this a see no evil, speak no evil kind of situation). Anywho, on the blue team, Jen pulls and trims some black cod, starts a sauce, and heats some oil for poaching. Laurine unwraps scallops and looks perplexed for a moment before she figures out the whole poaching idea, but I’m not sure what she does besides that. Mike I. inexplicably moves Jen’s oil from the heat and starts a second pot of the same thing. Kevin ditches the whole poaching idea altogether and decides to butter-roast the fish in the pan. The final dish: sablefish (another name for black cod) with sauteed mushrooms, shitake broth, and radish salad. Moonen really likes it, though Jen mistakenly describes it as trout.
As for the red team, Eli starts out by grabbing tons of ingredients and just prepping the hell out of them. He also starts to sear some strip steaks. Robin comes in next and is impressed by what Eli was able to accomplish. She sees the available ingredients and thinks Caesar salad, so she makes a yuzu anchovy vinagrette to use with some shaved fennel. Bryan realizes he’s in the land of Asian flavors, so he blends some soy and avocado with the yuzu concoction. Mike V. comes in and finishes the plating. The finished dish: pan-roasted New York strip steak with whipped miso-avocado puree. He tells Chef Moonen that the whip is pretty salty, so the steak was underseasoned in order to counteract that. Moonen wishes the steak would have been cooked a wee bit more, but likes the dish overall. Forced to choose, the guest judge picks the blue team. Yay, Team Kevin! The winners will get a big advantage in the elimination challenge, but they also get $10,000 to split–OR, they can “let it ride,” and if they win Restaurant Wars, they EACH get $10,000. Clearly, the blue team opts to let it ride.
The teams do all their shopping and strategizing with relatively little drama. The red team is naming their restaurant REVolt, which incorporates the “R” from Robin, the “E” from Eli, and the “Volt” from Voltaggio. I think it’s adorable that they worked everyone’s name in there, and that they are focused on a food revolution. As you will see later, I am the only one who holds this opinion. They throw ideas around, and Mike largely poo-poos brother Bryan’s suggestions. Mike V. gives props to Robin and her winning apple crumble, suggesting that she refines it to create a pear pastry dessert. Bryan wants to make his chocolate ganache, but Mike V. is skeptical because it tanked before; he asks snottily if big brother could manage NOT to make it grainy this time. Seriously, the Voltaggio ‘tood is getting on my nerves. Eli volunteers to work the front of the house, and he proceeds to try on many ill-fitting suit-like garments. Such a mess, that one. The blue team is naming their restaurant Mission, blabbing something about architechture or whatever (yawn). Laurine is going to work the front of the house, which I think is the most horrible idea ever, since she seems to have the personality of a wet noodle. An occasionally cranky wet noodle. Mike I. is going to do two first courses, Jen is going to do two fish courses, and Kevin is going to do two meat courses. The team is opting out of dessert because they feel like everyone who does dessert ends up going home.
For the challenge, they are cooking at Moonen’s double-kitchened, two-story restaurant at the Mandalay Bay, and the “significant” advantage gained by the blue team is simply getting to pick first. Lame. They go to the fine dining area, leaving the red team to set up shop in the more casual eatery. Everyone is behind, everyone is in the weeds, and everyone is fussy. Mike V., in addition to being all of those things, is also a bossy asshole. Nonetheless, the prep time passes and it is time for service. The judges visit REVolt first, and immediately start bagging on the name (saying that it makes them think “revolting”). Seriously? My mind didn’t go there AT ALL. Eli seems to be an attentive and relatively charming host, and he brings out the first course, his smoked arctic char with beets and horseradish cream and Mike’s pressed chicken and calamari. The judges are not wowed by Eli’s dish, but they LOVE the chicken. Like, to the point where Tom and Padma are glaring at each other over who gets the last bite. Next comes Bryan’s duo of beef (short ribs and NY strip) and Mike’s cod with billi-bi sauce. The beef is good but not great, but the cod is very popular at the table. For dessert, the judges get Bryan’s chocolate ganache with spearmint ice cream and Robin’s pear pithivier. Both are very successful, with Toby stating that the pear dessert is Robin’s best dish to date. Generally, things seem to go smoothly, with the exception of some cursing and yelling between Robin and Mike V. in the kitchen. Oh, and the fact that Eli needs to tuck his damn shirt in.
Up at Mission, things are…not so good. Everyone seems like they’re off their respective games. Even Kevin appears to be stressin’ it, which is off-putting. Laurine is really struggling with the full restaurant and the fact that things are moving so slowly. The judges arrive and are given the first course, Mike I.’s arctic char tartare and asparagus and egg “salad.” Good thing they had menus to tell them what they were eating, since Laurine practically sprinted away from the table after putting the plates down. Neither dish impresses anyone, and Padma asks for salt. Gasp. Not a good start, and Mike I. knows it. There is a looooooooong wait between the first course and the second, which is Jen’s trout (really, trout this time) with hazelnut butter and a bouillabaisse with halibut. The halibut is beautiful, but the rest of the food is downright lousy–the trout in particular is just brown and unappetizing, and the accompanying sauce is broken and greasy. The third course is Laurine’s lamb with carrot jam and Kevin’s pork three ways. I don’t even remember what they said about Kevin’s dish, because mostly they were complaining about how the lamb was significantly undercooked and felt like Jell-O in the middle. Bleh. The judges also commented on the lack of dessert, and it wasn’t in a complimentary fashion.
Clearly, the red team ends up at judges table first, as the winners. Toby says that if he reviewed the restaurant, he would have made fun of the name and the host’s clothes, but then he would have given it three stars. There’s not a lot of negativity at all, except for Robin and Mike V. being all cranky with each other (there is passive-aggression and eye-rolling, as we have come to expect). In the end, Mike V. is declared the winner, and he receives an autographed copy of Moonen’s book and the $10,000 chip that the blue team forfeited. Mike V. asks the judges if he can split the money amongst the team, and they say he can do whatever he wants with it. In the stew room, Robin comments on how generous the gesture is, but Bryan pouts that Mike can keep his (Bryan’s) share of the winnings. Mike is all, like, “Are you pissed?” and Bryan is all, like, “No, but you won, so you keep it.” To the camera, Bryan admits that he IS pissed that Mike’s unprofessional behavior is being rewarded. Great, that means even more bro-on-bro conflict next week. I’m over the sibling rivalry, Bravo.
The blue team looks all kinds of defeated when they stand before the judges. Everyone admits that they had a bad night, and Jen even compares herself to her broken sauce. Mike I. seems to be safe because his dishes were neither bad nor good, but everyone else has major issues to deal with. For Kevin, it’s the poorly cooked lamb. For Jen, it’s everything BUT the well-cooked halibut. For Laurine, it’s bad FOH service and not taking enough responsibility for her lamb dish. Thankfully, Laurine is the one sent packing, though I do wonder about that whole premise of judging each chef on a week by week basis (rather than cumulatively).
How was this Restaurant War for you?
Okay, children, just a few more mediocre chefs to weed out before we REALLY get down to business. Seriously, don’t you feel like we should be at the end of the season already? I guess that’s what happens when you start with seventeen thousand chefs.
The obligatory first montage at the Top Chef compound finds Mike V. not wanting to talk about being in the bottom (let it out, dude), Robin doing pilates on the lawn, and Eli talking to his mom. Who is also his roommate, as he still lives at home with his parents. Ugh. Sadly, this Oedipal theme (which I experienced with nearly every Jewish guy I ever dated, consequently) will reappear later in the episode.
In the kitchen, Padma and Charlie Palmer announce the quickfire challenge, which is to create a dish that pairs with one of the Alexia Crunchy Snacks that they’ve been noshing on at their house. Ah, product placement. Everyone scurries off to work, with the onion snacks appearing to be the most popular choice. The Voltaggio brothers, both of whom have worked with Chef Palmer, jaw about who he likes better. Ash mumbles something about cooking his own food. At the end of the quickfire, Chef Palmer announces his least favorites: Robin and her corn parfait (it sounded AND looked disgusting), Ash and his cucumber soup (which was overpowered by the BBQ crunchy snack), and Jen’s overcooked pork chop. The favorites are Eli’s potato clam salad with fennel and celery, Kevin’s riff on green bean casserole with confit tomatoes, and Bryan’s safe seared ribeye (though I give him props for cooking steak for Charlie Palmer). Eli ends up winning, and he isn’t the least bit humble about it. I love Team ATL and all, but Eli is really getting on my nerves. I am now exclusively on Team Kevin.
The elimination challenge centers around Charlie Palmer’s “Pigs and Pinot” charity event. The chefs draw knives to determine which part of the pig they will be cooking, and then they each choose a pinot noir to pair with their dish. Eli trash-talks about peoples’ wine choices and his AWESOME palatte. After the excursion to Whole Foods (they have $300 for 150 tasting portions), we see the chefs cooking dinner at home. Robin is a chatty cathy as usual, and everyone is not-so-subtly glaring at her and/or making fun of her. She tries to boss Eli around in the kitchen, and then gets passive-aggressive with him when he doesn’t clean up after himself. Eli, in VERY mature fashion, huffs away with his scallops saying, “You’re not my mom!!!” Sexy, dude. Really. All the girls are going to want you after this episode.
Time to eat pig! Mike V.’s root beer braised pork cheek goes over well, which is NOT the case for Ash’s chilled pork tenderloin. The judges like Eli’s braised pork belly, but they don’t think it’s a good pairing with the wine. HA. So much for that incredible palatte, mama’s boy. Kevin’s pork leg terrine is delicious and works well with the wine, and the judges think the dish was a really smart choice. Mike I.’s stuffed pork shoulder looks delicious, though the judges say that the orange flavor is overwhelming. Bryan’s ribs seem to garner a lot of praise, as does Jen’s pork belly (which gets an audible “mmmm” from Padma). Laurine’s rillettes…well…there is a cat food comparison. ‘Nuff said. Robin’s pork chops are not porky enough.
The favorites end up being the Voltaggios, Kevin, and Jen. TEAM KEVIN GETS THE WIN, WOO HOO! In his enthusiasm, Kevin shows the judges his piggy tattoo. Awwwww. For winning, Kevin will be a featured chef at the 2010 Pigs & Pinot event in Healdsburg, California. I wanna go!
As for the unfortunate bottom three, they are Robin, Laurine, and Ash. I was thinking to myself, THIS would be a great time to have a mass offing, as I could deal with all three of those chefs packing their knives. The chefs left in the stew room all seem to want Robin to go home. I guess I just don’t get all the hate. She’s no more of a hack than Laurine or Ash, in my mind. As for the judges, the criticism of Robin’s dish is that it didn’t have enough pig flavor and the sauce was gummy. Ash talks about the dish he was originally going to do, and Tom asks him why he didn’t make THAT dish. Oh, snap. Laurine is informed that she does not actually know how to make rillettes. At the end of deliberations, it is Ash who is sent home for his second-guessing. He quips as he exits about making his original dish as as restaurant special and inviting all of the judges except Padma to a dinner party. Hee.
Next week…Restaurant Wars!!! YAY!!! Maybe now things will start to get interesting.
I don’t know if it’s the challenges, the contestants, or Padma’s questionable wardrobe choices, but I am starting to tire of this season of TC. Sure, there are a couple of chefs to root for, but the rest of them are definitely wearing on my patience. And holy hell, we’re on our way to episode 8, and there are STILL NINE OF THEM IN THE GAME. I am hoping there’s a mass casualty situation in our near future.
Anywho, the opening scenes at the mansion focus on Ash never having been to culinary school and Mike V. missing his two (adorable) daughters. Ruh-roh, Shaggy. Too much exposition makes a cheftestant an eliminated boy. We also learn in the beginning moments that Jen is sicky-poo, but she claims that she doesn’t want sympathy and that she’s cooked sick many a time. I’m not a germaphobe by any means, but ew.
The quickfire challenge is announced by Padma (wearing a truly terrible green jersey-knit strapless pantsuit) and guest judge Tyler Florence. The chefs have to play the slot machine to get three key words (one describing a mood, one describing a flavor, and one describing a cuisine), and they will have 45 minutes to create a dish that exemplifies those three words. Some of the combinations are really strange, but the chefs scurry about trying to make magic. There’s not too much drama during prep; Eli takes all of the mushrooms, so the numerous chefs who drew umami are pissed at him. Mike I. worries about making Asian food, as does Kevin. Ashley wonders, as do I, what to do with blue, cheesy, and Middle Eastern.
The bottom three are Robin (who tried to pass off curry as Middle Eastern, in front of Padma Lakshmi–doink), Eli (who managed to kill the umami in his mushrooms by drowning them in acid), and Jen (who claimed that putting roe on scallops was adventurous, with which Chef Florence disagreed). The top three are Mike I., Kevin, and Mike V., whose dishes all incorporated their respective words and had great balance of flavor. The winner is Kevin, with his Vietnamese-inspired char-grilled pork and daikon and herb salad. WOOT! Kevin has a choice between immunity and the $15,000 chip. He takes the money, stating that he’s not worried about immunity. From some chefs, that would seem arrogant, but it seems confident and respectable when it comes from Kevin.
Instead of learning about their elimination challenge right away, the chefs are told to head home. Ruh-roh, Shaggy. This clearly means that the elimination challenge will involve cooking at their mansion. Sure enough, when they get to the house, it has been stocked a la the Top Chef kitchen, and there are flower arrangements and extra appliances everywhere. Padma arrives with four other chefs (including guest judge Florence) and tells them that they will be cooking a family-style dinner party. Each famous chef has a bag full of ingredients, and the contestants will draw knives to pair up and determine which chef’s bag they will be using. Mike I. opines about not wanting to work with Robin, so clearly he ends up paired with Robin. He is both livid and angry about this. What range of emotion!
The chefs stampede back into the house to claim their territory. Ashley and Eli stake a pretty good spot, and they decide to make spot prawns, gnocchi, and some sort of beet sauce. Mike V. and Ash set up shop in the dining room with a bunch of electric planchas and woks, and they decide (read: Mike decides) to do a fennel ravioli and a pancetta-wrapped halibut. Kevin and Jen have Kobe in their bag, so Kevin works on cooking that while Jen makes a tomato chutney sauce of some kind. Mike I. is freaking out about all of the Asian ingredients, and he basically ignores and patronizes Robin while he figures out what to do with the dish (despite the fact that Robin loves Asian flavors and cooks with them all the time). I have no idea what Bryan and Laurine are doing, as they are basically non-entities for most of the show.
After Tom walks through, things start to get mildly interesting. Mike V. and Ash have tripped the circuits, causing the plancha to go cold in the middle of cooking the fish. No bueno. They go into the kitchen and Ashley lets them use the stovetop, but those temperature changes cannot be good for the halibut. Speaking of Ashley, she tastes the gnocchi and finds it to be much saltier than it was when she put Eli in charge of it. There’s also some question about whether the prawns are cooked properly.
Dinnertime! The judges taste Ashley and Eli’s “Grilled Spot Prawns with Red Beet Sauce, Creme Fraiche Gnocchi and Kale,” and they hone in on its saltiness and unpleasurable texture. One of the judges makes it sound like a human rights violation that the prawns were undercooked. Folks seem to like Mike I. and Robin’s “Marinated Mushroom and Pickled Pear Roll, Seared Tuna and Scallop, Truffle Ponzu.” When it comes to halibut, Bryan and Laurine’s “Halibut and Sherry-Chorizo Vinagrette Yellow Corn Cake and Avocado Mousse” is the judges’ favorite, and they like the way the chorizo plays off the other flavors. Everyone loves Kevin and Jen’s “Kobe Beef with Tomato-Cardomon Broth, Petit Bok Choy and Asian Pear,” saying that it is really balanced. Unfortunately, Mike V. and Ash’s “Pancetta Wrapped Halibut with Egg Yolk Ravioli, Fennel and Asparagus” was overcooked, and there seems to be some issue with the choice of placing the ravioli on top of the fish.
The judges’ favorites are Kevin/Jen and Bryan/Laurine. The winner ends up being Jen, and she takes home a $10,000 Macy’s gift certificate for her troubles. She adorably quips that Kevin will probably get a new suit out of the deal, because he had a little something to do with their win. See, she seems like she’s all business, but I just KNOW that Jen is a fiesty little thing and that she and I would be besties.
The bottom teams are Ashley/Eli and Mike V./Ash. Ashley gets called out about serving gnocchi for an outdoor dinner, about the saltiness of the dish, and about the improper cooking of the prawns. She quietly fesses up to just about everything, which annoys me because I feel like Eli should have discussed his role in things a little bit more. At first they were painting him as the snarky, funny guy, but now he’s coming off like more of a weasel. As for Mike V. and Ash, it becomes quickly clear that Mike V. was the driving force of the dish and that Ash was the #2 guy. It also becomes clear that Ash is enamored (at least in a chefly way) with Mike V., as he launches into a love-fest and compares his own role in the challenge to “cleaning paintbrushes for Picasso.” Tom snarks about how maybe Ash has gone as far as possible in the competition, and Tyler Florence admonishes Mike V. for using the electricity as an excuse.
At the end of the day, it was Ashley’s turn to pack her knives and go. She was pretty emotional about it, but I give her a lot of credit for avoiding the typical exit line of, “This isn’t going to change how I cook my food,” instead opting for the more humble and truthful, “I still have a lot to learn about food and cooking.” Thanks for the classy exit, Ashley.
What did everyone think about the episode?
I really liked this episode. Not because of who won the elimination challenge (more on that in a moment), not because there was a bull testicle joke at Padma’s expense, and definitely not because of the presence of Penn & Teller. I liked this episode because it got us one step closer to the real deal, and because it really seemed to challenge even the seemingly unshakable (ahem, Jennifer).
The episode starts with everyone moping about how they miss Mattin. They miss him so much that they raid his closet and steal all of his MILLIONS of kerchiefs. They also miss him so much that they start bagging on Robin, claiming that she should have been eliminated instead. Robin seems to know that everyone in the house has it out for her, but she doesn’t seem too concerned. This clearly means that she will either win big or go home. It all hinges on the…quickfire challenge! Michelle Bernstein is the guest judge, and the challenge is for the chefs to create a “duo” dish that represents the angels and devils on their shoulders. The top dishes are Mike V.’s salmon two ways (traditional vs. modern), Eli’s scallops two ways (healthy vs. buttery), and Robin’s salad and dessert (good vs. bad). Robin emerges victorious and wins immunity. There is much consternation amongst the chefs because Robin totally played the cancer card, which I can sort of understand because, hey, I’ve done that a time or two myself. Do NOT judge me. It’s one of the only GOOD things about having cancer. Anywho, I don’t think it really matters, since Michelle Bernstein would definitely tell you if your food tasted like crap, regardless of your medical status.
Penn & Teller appear to introduce the elimination challenge in their own special, not even remotely entertaining way. The task for the chefs is to deconstruct a classic dish (they draw knives to determine their selections). There is the usual flurry of activity. Bryan is tasked with deconstructing a reuben, yet he picks tuna for his protein; Mike V. is making his own brioche for his deconstructed Caesar salad; Mike I. doesn’t know how to make, let alone deconstruct, eggs Florentine; Eli busts out a beat-up pressure cooker, despite the fact that the TC kitchen is stocked with appliances; Jennifer freaks out and gets all Negative Nelly on us because she drew meat lasagna and doesn’t like deconstructing; and Robin talks to herself (much to Laurine’s dismay). Tom C. actually does a walk-through (remember when he did that every episode?), and the biggest observation is that Jen is a hot mess. When they go back to the house, everyone bitches some more about Robin. Theme, anyone? We know she’s not going home, so I’m kinda thinkin’ we should move on to some RELEVANT manufactured melodrama.
Dinnertime arrives, and the chefs are serving in pairs. I am pissed that Toby Young is replacing Gail Simmons. Mike and Mike go first, and the Voltaggio half of the equation gets praise for his deconstructed Caesar. He was BORN for this challenge, and everyone kind of gets that. Laurine and Bryan go next, with the former’s dish (deconstructed fish & chips) being slammed for being overcooked. Next come Ash and Jen, with deconstructed shepherd’s pie and the aforementioned meat lasagna, respectively. Ash’s dish does not go over well, largely because of unevenly cooked lamb and the lack of any mashed potato-esque element. The lasagna gets good reviews. Eli and Ron are next, and Eli’s riff on sweet and sour pork is where all of the ball jokes come in. Tom likes the balls, though, so yay. Ron…well, Ron didn’t really understand the whole “deconstruction” thing, and his paella was basically just plain ol’ paella. Except it tasted bad, apparently, and Michelle Bernstein was irked about the lack of crunch in her rice. Next are Ashley and Kevin, with deconstructed pot roast and chicken mole negro. The pot roast is lauded as being the best-cooked piece of meat the judges have had all night, and the general consensus is that Ashley kicked ass. Kevin also kicks some ass, with Penn saying that he doesn’t want to eat any other kind of mole after eating this. I think it’s a testament to his talent that he was able to take something as complex as mole and break it down into clear, tasty components. Well done. Last but not least (well, that depends on who you ask) is Robin and her deconstructed clam chowder, and it doesn’t get any positive feedback.
The top four end up being Ashley, Kevin, Mike V., and Jennifer (despite her whining about her lasagna not coming anywhere close to her standards). Michelle Bernstein announces that the winner is Kevin–YAY!!! He scores a set of cookware and some serious dirty looks from Mike V. The bottom three, not surprisingly, are Ash, Laurine, and Ron. Toby takes great issue with Ash’s shepherd’s pie, despite Ash explaining that there WAS a parsnip puree that just wasn’t good enough to serve. Laurine fesses up to the fact that the challenge made her very uncomfortable, as deconstructing food is not her bag, baby (hey, it wasn’t Jennifer’s bag either, as she told us about 100 times, but she still wound up in the winner’s circle). Ron also admits that he’s never deconstructed anything, and his paella gets knocked for being simultaneously soggy and dry.
During the deliberations, Toby Young inexplicably chastises the other judges for trying to pronounce paella correctly. Michelle Bernstein gets snippy and says she pronounces it correctly because she’s Latin. Uh…Michelle Bernstein? REALLY? How silly of me to overlook your rich Latin heritage because of your totally white, Jewish name. Just because you live in Miami does NOT make you Latin. Annoying. Anywho, Ron is sent home, and I have no idea what to expect for next week because my DVR failed me miserably.
What are your thoughts on this week’s challenges?
Okay, I’m back from St. Louis and caught up on the ol’ DVR, so let’s jump right into last week’s episode before THIS week’s episode is upon us. Frankly, I found this episode pretty meh (perhaps I’m still mourning the loss of Hector), but it needs a recap nonetheless.
At the beginning of the episode, there are arrogant musings from one of the Voltaggios (Mike, I believe) regarding the fact that talented chefs have been eliminated while mediocre ones remain. The ingredient for the high-stakes quickfire challenge is cactus, and it was allegedly chosen by the viewers, though I do not recall Chef Colicchio calling and asking for my esteemed opinion. Tim Love is the guest judge, and the contestants are generally concerned about the goo factor of cactus. My favorite part of the challenge is Ron telling us that they have cactus in Haiti but that they stay the hell away from those poisonous fuckers. Tee. Mike I. is the only chef who seems remotely confident about the ingredient, and he scores a win with his ceviche-esque creation. While he gets the cash, he does not get immunity. Whew.
For their elimination challenge, the chefs must prepare a “high-end” lunch for some hard-working cowboys. Seriously, that’s all the guidance they get? High-end? I feel like the broad, nebulous challenges are a lot harder than the super-restrictive ones, since it’s easier to go crazy and bite off more than you can chew. Anywho, the contestants will only have an hour and fifteen minutes to cook at the ranch, but they’ll be spending the night there in order to get a feel for the environment. After they scurry off to Whole Foods, they wind up at a campsite with a bunch of teepees, some fire pits, and a chuckwagon full of pantry supplies. Again, Ron provides the highlight of the segment when he dismantles a tree and arranges the branches in a voodoo pattern in order to keep the snakes away. Tee. Eli asks for the keys to the car, which is exactly what I would do.
The next morning, the chefs run around like little headless chickens and prepare their food. Two of them (Mattin and Ron) are making ceviche, as it does not require use of the illustrious fire pits. I tend to think ceviche is a bad idea, especially on a super hot day, but whatev. Padma rings the dinner bell to signify that their time is up, and the chowdown begins. Mike I. serves a gyro, which he pronounces horribly incorrectly and which doesn’t really excite the judges. The judges are equally meh about Eli’s tuna sandwich, but they really like Laurine’s arctic char, salsa, and grilled potato.
Ash presents a grilled chicken with succotash, which looks yummy but seems to get a mixed response from the judges. Mattin’s ceviche is literally spit out by Tom, which methinks does not bode well for our kerchiefed little friend. Robin’s grilled romaine salad and drunken prawns is universally lauded as awful. Robin herself admits that she only tasted the prawns after she served them, and that they are pretty darn bad. She expects to be in the bottom. At least she’s honest with herself. Bryan serves a roasted pork loin with polenta, greens, and rutabega, and it looks really tasty. Jen goes with snapper and a daikon and carrot slaw, which also looks really tasty. Ashley also cooks fish, riffing off of a club sandwich with her halibut (accompanied by avocado mousse, bacon, and romaine). All three dishes are received very well by the judges, though Jen’s doesn’t really seem to wow anyone.
Ron’s coconut ceviche is a tad too sweet, but it is his accompanying cocktail that the judges really hate. Kevin does a grilled duck with watermelon (marinated in mole and tequila), and it looks like it is cooked very nicely. Mike V. presents a black cod dashi, which is the strangest cowboy food ever, but the judges really like its flavor and the fact that it is fairly unconventional (at least for THAT environment, anyway). The top four are Laurine, Ashley, Mike V., and Bryan, and the latter’s pork loin ends up winning the day. Honestly, this brother-on-brother competition is getting a little bit stale for me, so I hope someone else starts stepping it up.
The bottom three are Robin, Ron, and Mattin (duh). Robin fesses up to her dish being lousy, though she does try to explain where she was coming from (and she fails miserably, as Tim Love points out). When the judges tell Ron that his drink was awful, he cries, “I don’t drink!” Ron is the winner of this episode in my book. Comedy gold, my friends. Mattin is the only chef who is truly shocked to be in the bottom, and Tim Love unapologetically blurts that he felt sick after eating the cod. Ouch. Not surprisingly, Mattin and his neckpiece are sent back home to the Basque country, which brings the “contestants I can’t understand” count down to only one: my buddy Ron.
It should be noted that my hubby and I both burst out laughing when, in the preview for the next episode, Padma says, “I’ve had bull testicles,” and Penn (or Teller?) says, “I bet you have!” Tee. Here’s hopin’ that’s not the funniest thing that happens during the next challenge…