Wow, things certainly picked up tonight, didn't they? A couple of comedians among the chefs, some serious drama involving a missing main-dish, a French accent, and the substitution of Gail Simmons for Gael Greene snapped things right into shape. And tension! Masters managed to pull enough tension into Judge's Table this week to make someone cry. Let's get to it.
Chefs: Marcus Samuelsson (Aquavit, New York City), David Burke (David Burke Townhouse), Monica Pope (t'afia, Beavers; Houston), Carmen Gonzalez (Carmen, Miami), Thierry Rautereau (Rover's, Seattle)
Quickfire: Make a grilled cheese sandwich
This 20-minute quickfire had the chefs test their skills on a grilled cheese sandwich. Carmen nailed the challenge here: Doing something as simple as a grilled cheese puts the chefs' technical skills and style at the forefront. Each of the chefs took a different angle, Thierry using a "secret ingredient" of harissa, Carmen pulling in Puerto Rican flavors, and David Burke pausing to plug his line of flavor sprays over a promo shot. The real downside to this round was that it had Kelly Choi as a judge. Having Kelly cross over to the critic side made me nervous, but I owed her a shot: I've never seen Eat Out NY or any other show on which she talks intelligently about food. Top Chef Masters now included. Perhaps the editing wasn't fair to her, but we mostly got perkiness punctured by comments like "the herbs are nice" and "I like the sweet and the tangy." Monica took the $5,000 prize, chalking up her success to her 7-year-old grilled-cheese-eating daughter. That is, a daughter of a gourmet who gets to eat feta cheese on raisin walnut bread with basil, cilantro & mint salad. The quickfire was memorably fast, which boded well for the elimination round.
Elimination: Putting a personal, gourmet spin on soul food for Mekhi Phifer's rooftop birthday party, served at stations. Soul food's a challenge for reasons Marcus brings up--it's already so damn good. It's hard to beat grandma's collard greens (true: I'm from Georgia); most of the chefs seemed to pick up on this and pulled in more modern takes: deconstructed shrimp and grits, for example, or an upscale bent on mac 'n' cheese. Thank goodness there were no Cheetos involved this week.
But who cares about cooking for Mekhi Phifer when Carmen left her main ingredient back at the Top Chef kitchen? That's why the quickfire was so damn quick. After cutting her finger in the first round, poor Carmen arrives at the elimination unable to cook. Heading into this challenge, she was my favorite chef, full of pluck and quips for the camera and surprisingly funny. Turns out she has gumption, too. Returning with only an hour to cook, she manages to pull off a gumbo of sorts even without the yucca the rest of the chefs burned. And she wins a spot in the championship round. Not to doubt her stew, but… really? I'm wondering if her antics bought her a spot in the final.
Speaking of antics: Thierry's bout with the escalator at Whole Foods didn't do the job, nor did his seven courses on one plate. One of those courses put together raw corn and raw onion, which overwhelmed the judges and numbed James' palate. Frenchie, you go back to France and learn how to cook.
The judges might not have gone as far as Thierry did in their reproach, but they weren't pulling any punches this week. We got some behind-the-decision candor, and James handed out two 2-star ratings to these supposed masters. That, and they did the right thing here: Instead of waiting until the end to pass forward the two winning chefs, they named one early (Carmen) and then proceeded with what was truly elimination. Thierry was nailed for his unbalanced farro dish; David Burke's ambition cost him. And in the end, Monica's southern do-good nature was crushed by New York City in the form of an orphaned Ehtiopian. Did Marcus really whisper to her "You know what the lesson is?" when they hugged? That's dickish. We'll see if that follows him to the championship round.
-- My heart breaks for the Chef In The Hat and the crushed look on his face when defeated. Three cheers for liking these chefs and caring about them this week.
-- Two weeks of poor editing in which we hear both the practice ("Porklicious!") and final ("Baconlicious!") versions of James' jokes. I did laugh, though, when James heard Carmen's story and exclaimed, "Oh God! Crap!" Note to Top Chef editors: He's funnier when not trying.
-- Next week! Epic battle of returning chefs: Graham Elliot Bowles, Wylie Dufresne, Ludo Lefebvre, Rick Moonen, Mark Peel, and Jonathan Waxman.