There's nothing like switching over from Ultimate Fighter to make you realize how civil Top Chef Masters is, even with Graham Elliot Bowles taking some menacing steps toward cartoonish Ludo Lefebvre, the most villainous chef in the land. Tonight's episode brought back master losers from Season One, and happily, some of that season's best characters, who readily distracted from the gastropub challenge.
Chefs: Graham Elliot Bowles (Graham Elliot, Chicago), Wylie Dufresne (wd-50, New York City), Ludo Lefebvre (LudoBites, Los Angeles), Rick Moonen (Oceana, Molyvos, RM; New York City), Mark Peel (Campanile, Los Angeles), and Jonathan Waxman (Barbuto, New York City).
Quickfire: Match a specialty cocktail with a dish
With the clumsy and convenient marriage of sponsor Stoli and network sibling The Real Housewives Of Orange County, the quickfire challenge had the chefs sampling cocktails at 8 a.m. to pair with a dish of their creation. Ludo comes out swinging early, first criticizing Rick for his choice of cocktail and with cursing worthy of Hell's Kitchen. In what we've come to expect from the quickfire challenges on Top Chef Masters, there wasn't much substance to the decision. Or at least we weren't privy to any of it. We heard a few comments during the tasting--most of which detailed the eating preferences (low-fat, no pork, no red meat) of the fragile Housewives--but heard little to nothing about what went into the decision. Kelly managed to give us a quick run-down last week of the strengths and weaknesses of the dishes, but here we're left with five stars assigned by… Gael? If the Housewives weren't judges, why give them so much screen time? Oh, right. Nice work, Bravo. It'd be nice to have a little more info on the food next time, and about why Jonathan's pork tenderloin was so good, other than it being well-cooked. (I'm guessing avocado butter. Those two words together on the screen are enough to make me drool a little.)
Elimination: Create an upscale version of a pub standard
If TCM deserves credit for one thing tonight, it's pulling out that cart of specific pub dishes and making the chefs stand behind them as translations rather than inspirations of the originals. I was ready to groan at uninspired upscale-pub-food challenge. So many gastropubs have cropped up over the past few years, serving slightly nicer versions of chicken noodle soup or burgers; it hardly seemed a stretch of our chefs' skills. But throwing in traditional Irish dishes pegged it to something more difficult, albeit depending on the dish.
Here I agree with Ludo in a way: When is fish and chips not delicious? It's the easiest target, and to throw it in Rick I'm-the-seafood-guy's corner is assuring a solid contender. It's Top Chef Masters, though, and despite what they say to the camera, they're not here to win at all costs—not if it means sacrificing their professionalism. So Rick gets his choice, Graham gets kidney, and Ludo gets a bowlful of tears. Rick went on to create a richly flavored, citrus-infused batter for his fish, a play off of the usual squeezed lemon and tartar sauce accompaniment, taking one of the spots in the championship round.
The judges stuck to assessing the requirements of the challenge, criticizing Ludo most strongly for his interpretation of Irish stew, which took unrelated vegetables and put them on a plate with beef tenderloin. (And love.) The other winner this week was Jonathan Gandolf Waxman, whose simple approach won him not only the elimination challenge but the quickfire with 20 minutes to spare. His was the only dish I didn't have to pause the DVR to take down: lamb, mashed potatoes, and parmesan.
Jonathan said he came away from Season One ready to deal with the time constraints by going simple but doing it well (which also served Kevin Gillespie so well in Top Chef Season Six). Wylie came back with the same idea slanted differently. His comment about cooking for the judges—and subsequent departure from what's normal for him, molecular gastronomy—struck me as odd. I'd expect him to use his signature style when participating in a competition constructed to pit masters against masters. Jonathan of course had the opposite fear: that critics prefer crazy cooking over traditional techniques. Funny to see the chefs' egos get in the way of what made them famous in the first place.
-- I've had the pleasure of eating at Graham Elliot here in Chicago, where I ordered a ladylike dinner of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Now whenever I eat fried chicken, I think, "if only this were as good as Graham Elliot's chicken." Root-beer barbecue sauce. Mm.
-- When I was checking the spelling of Kevin's name, Google first suggested "Kevin Gillespie Top Chef" and then "Kevin Gillespie divorce." Poor Kevin.
-- The judges might not have approved of Graham's masking of the kidneys' flavor in a milk bath, but the diners certainly did. I side with the diners.
-- Ludo. It must be terrible to be in the same room with him, but it certainly makes for entertaining television. Favorite bits: "French people have culture! English people have nothing!"; that Jay Rayner must already hate him because he's French. Finally, cursing in French A-OK on Bravo. "Merde" and "putain" made the cut.