A couple of notes first before getting down to business:
• Finally, for the first time since I’ve started watching the show, I can say I’ve actually tasted food from a competitor. Here in Chicago, you can’t avoid Rick Bayless, whose Frontera Grill/Topolobampo storefront is a popular tourist’s destination and whose line of salsas and other fancy-for-a-grocery-store Mexican products are fairly ubiquitous. (Bayless’ Wolfgang Puck-like talent for self-branding made me a little wary of him, frankly.) The problem is one of access: Frontera is a more casual and has open seating, thus ensuring two-hour waits to get a table; Topolobampo is more intimate and refined, but it’s hard to book a reservation even months in advance. In any case, my wife and I finally took late reservation at Topolobampo a few months ago, and I’m not blowing smoke when I say it was one of the best meals that either one of us has ever had. (I’d have been severely disillusioned if Bayless hadn’t advanced out of the group tonight, and guessed that the only chance he had of losing was if he was knocked out of his Mexican comfort zone. That didn’t happen.)
• Hey, we have ourselves a villain! Two weeks into the competition, it looked like no one would break the congenial atmosphere between these professionals, but Ludo Lefebvre, clearly comfortable with the stereotype of the snooty Frenchman, came through big time with prickly remarks about the waiters, the judges, the great unwashed, and even the generosity of his fellow chefs. More on him later.
Chefs: Wilo Benet (Pikayo, San Juan), Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustard’s Grill, Napa Valley), Rick Bayless (Frontera/Topolobampo, Chicago), Ludo Lefebvre (Ludo’s Bites, Los Angeles)
Quickfire: The Quickfire was a throwback to Season Two, when contestants were asked to create a dish inspired by a certain color. It was a difficult challenge for several reasons: Some colors did not exist as often in nature as others, the dishes had to be both tasty and cohesive while conforming to the color restriction, and the art of plating was more of an issue than usual. A big surprise, then, that the Season Two winner was Michael, a lovable oaf whose utter lack of refinement led to Anthony Bourdain calling his all-starch Thanksgiving plate “Flintstone-ian” in execution. You’ll also recall that Michael won both the Quickfire and the Elimination challenges that week, despite suffering the effects of a grim-looking dental emergency. Good times.
This time around, the chefs aren’t nearly so flustered—or at least they’re not inclined to show any vulnerability. The color green certainly offers no challenge to anyone, least of all Bayless, who prefers to use green leaves over tortillas in his restaurants anyway. Ludo has his first meltdown when the waiter forgets to take out the beet gazpacho he wanted drizzled over his red dish like fresh blood over dried-up blood. The judges confirm that he was better off keeping it off the plate. Ultimately, the winner is the affable Wilo, whose smoked salmon tartare with coconut was said to have “big flavors,” and whose style throughout definitely suggests a bold, generous touch in the kitchen.
Elimination: Another throwback challenge, this time to the dreaded offal, which most casual diners would just assume not appear on the menu. And to a protein, the four hunks of offal in play all look pretty grim: Beef hearts (Wilo), tongue (Rick), tripe (Cindy), and pig’s ears (Ludo). Everyone seems to agree that Ludo drew the short straw with the pig’s ears, which take forever to tenderize and don’t necessarily lend themselves to a lot of dishes. Add to that the expectation that they’re supposed to serve their meals as street food to the yokels at Universal Studios, and the options seem limited.
And yet, how limited are they? One of the inherent problems with Top Chef Masters is that it’s exceedingly difficult to throw award-winning professionals off their game. Where the unseasoned amateurs of Top Chef were mostly flummoxed—the majority hadn’t tasted offal before, let alone cooked it—the foursome here seem very passionate about it. In fact, Cindy brags about founding an offal-eating club called “Girls Eat Guts.” So there are no worries over whether they’ll be able to deliver. Or fewer worries, anyway: Wilo has never worked with beef hearts before, Ludo foolishly tries to make a quesadilla to show up perhaps the country’s most celebrated Mexican chef, and Cindy is so worried that her tripe soup will turn off the general public that she goes too easy on the seasoning.
In the end, it’s Rick who takes the prize with a dish that’s right in his wheelhouse: Tongue tacos with chorizo, bacon, and guacamole. I’m looking forward to seeing if the producers will try to nudge Rick out of his comfort zone in the Champions Round, because if he’s allowed to make high-end Mexican food every time out, he’ll be exceedingly difficult to beat.
• So Ludo hasn’t come to make friends? Clearly, we have ourselves a reality TV fan.
• How about Ludo brushing off Rick’s help in the final minutes of prep time before the Elimination challenge? “Stay away from me. Leave me alone. Don’t tell me how to cook.”
• Cindy gives her tripe soup the cute name Spicy Yummy Tummy. Nice try, but still not sold on eating intestines, Cindy.
• Ludo again: “I think the tourists reacted very well to my dish.” He says the word “tourists” as if it were a synonym for “pond scum.”