Top Chef Masters: "Miniaturize Me"
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Top Chef Masters: "Miniaturize Me"

Scott’s on vacation this week, so I’m stepping in to fill in the bullet points this week. Let’s just get right to it, shall we?

Chefs: Rick Moonen (RM Seafood, Mandalay Bay); Nils Noren (French Culinary Institute, New York); Lachlan Patterson (Frasca, Boulder); Michael Chiarello (Bottega, Napa Valley, and a TV/bookstore near you)

Quickfire: A Season 1 classic, the ol’ junk food challenge, once again flummoxed our high-falutin’ chefs. Lachlan made the no-brainer decision to swap out his hot dog for a gourmet sausage, which would have been fine if he had managed to cook it all the way through. And while Nils’ poached shrimp and creamed corn looked mighty tasty, nothing about it paid homage to its fried bar-food lineage. (No, a crouton doesn’t count.) While I’m not exactly placing a lot of stock in the junk-food-addled palates of the snotty cast of Bravo’s Flipping Out (synergy!), their three-star ratings seemed about right for these middle-of-the-road dishes.

Only Chiarello seemed to really grasp the spirit of the challenge and actually fried his take on fish sticks. And what do you know, the “white trash with money” panel liked his fish balls (tee hee, oh we’re so naughty!) best, awarding him four and a half stars that essentially cinched the whole competition for him. Moonen’s take on a corn dog probably had the best chance of besting Chiarello, based on his description, but the manic chef ran out of time before managing to plate it. Sad trombone. Though he would go on to get the most stars in the elimination challenge, Moonen’s fumble wound up costing him the competition, as he went into judging with no stars. As Scott pointed out last week, it’s refreshing that the Quickfire scores actually mean something on TCM; but at the same time, it’s a shame that for want of a few more seconds, Moonen was devastatingly handicapped going into the final challenge. 

Elimination: You know what’s a neat trick to play on a bunch of chefs who haven’t worked on a line in years? Making them cook and plate 300 dishes by themselves. Granted, those dishes are hors d’overs takes on a three-course dinner, to be served at a cocktail party for 100 people, but that’s still likely more prep and plating than these chefs have done for a couple of decades (with the exception of the baby of the group, Lachlan). Moonen basically summed it up as: It’s not the food, it’s not the flavors, it’s the production. And boy did he produce, astounding the judges by making 100 individual panna cotta desserts, not to mention a mouth-watering ceviche (avocado makes everything better) and something called a brandade of scallop and shrimp, which looked to me like a crab cake, but was a hit with the diners and critics. The 17 stars he received from diners and judges would have almost certainly been enough to win him this round if not for that pesky Quickfire. Alas, the Cape Cop Commercial Fisherman’s Association lost their 10 grand to Chiarella’s sick Latino immigrants. Psh. (Kidding, of course; considering the number of Latino immigrants who wind up working in kitchens throughout the country, this seemed like a particularly apt cause.)

Chiarello’s menu came out on top, despite a bunch of head-scratching critiques that make me wish science would quit it with all that cancer-curing and get on inventing Taste-o-vision. “Meaty” strawberries? Basil gelato that “tastes like lawn clippings”… but in a good way? And I don’t care what you say, I refuse to believe Brussels sprouts can taste good in any permutation. But his “pissed off prawn” seemed divine in spite of the excess oil, and the numbers don’t lie.

The numbers didn’t seem to say much about Lachlen’s menu other than, “meh.” His deep-fried pineapple app got the closest to a strong reaction (negative) from the judges, and his short ribs and strawberry tart seemed pretty sophomoric compared to what the rest of the guys were putting out. Nils displayed no such reserve, wowing the judges with a beautifully plated scallop starter that looked amazing (I’d go so far as to call it a top scallop) and a similarly fancy-looking salmon entrée; but his inventiveness did him in when his Swedish love of smoked flavors made its way into a tea-infused crème on his dessert that had guests and judges scratching their heads at best (“That one was a little too smart for me,” says Project Runway’s Sweet P), and essentially spitting it out at worst (“I really don’t want to take a second bite,” complains one bemused guest). Though like Jay Rayner, I had to give Nils props for standing behind his choice of not wanting to play it safe.

You had to feel for Moonen during judging as those stars were being meted out. He comes in with the lowest possible score, then beats out the pretty-boy upstart, then ties the Swede, only to ultimately lose out to a chef whose menu earned fewer stars but rocked the Quickfire. It was a great underdog tale that just didn’t quite pan out, unfortunately. A come-from-behind victory would have been a nice shake-up; as Scott has mentioned, TCM’s dignified, drama-free M.O. is a nice, but it’s getting a little boring. Tonight’s stable of chefs was particularly unremarkable, personality-wise—Moonen’s hyperness and Chiarella’s flirting aside—so it would have been fun to see a little dramatic payoff.

Grade: B

 Stray Observations

 • When Jay described Nils as “very much the Swedish chef,” I can’t have been the only one thinking “bork bork bork,” right?

• I have to wonder if the three losers felt a little extra sting at being bested by a “TV chef.” Obviously Chiarello isn’t exactly Rachael Ray, but there’s still a stigma around the whole food-as-entertainment enterprise, no?

• “If I had a smile like yours, I wouldn’t have to cook for a living.” Oh Michael Chiarello, how you do go on!

• Did anyone else get the sense that Gael and Jay were mocking James when they were talking about his weird palate? He really is the dud of that critics’ table.

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