The heat is on and the bubble’s burst: Episode two of Top Chef: Texas
I’m already tired of Grayson.
At the top of the show last night we found the former Jean-George cook in "the bubble" (the stew room where the hopeful contestants hang between challenges) bemoaning her plight ; Edward is no more excited to be there than Grayson, and though he invokes the time-honored competition show cliché of “not being here to make friends,” there’s a blood-red sheen in his eyes that lets us know he means it.
We leave the “bubble” for the third qualifying challenge. It has the feel of an honest-to-goodness quickfire, and I, for one, am happy to see the Top Chef I’ve come to know and love start to show itself. There’s a manageable amount of chefs. And Padma’s dress! Tom’s there, along with another familiar face—Hugh Acheson. Swoon.
The group starts their introductions and we find some more familiar faces: Paul Qui of Uchiko and Andrew Curran of 24 Diner. Andrew made a porron of shandies in his Austin backyard during his casting video, and Paul Qui is the man behind the chicken karaage and the Brussels sprout salad at East Side King. As far as I’m concerned, they should both be given chef coats right now.
We’ve got a jokester in Chaz Brown. “It’s pretty cool seeing Chef Hugh,” he says, “but in middle school I had a picture of Padma in my locker. I still think Padma Lakshmi is the most beautiful woman on the planet, and everyone has to deal with it.” Well, those are cooking credentials if ever they’ve been given. What’s your pedigree, Chaz Brown? Oh, you’re the chef de cuisine at “Fatty Crab’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.” Impressive. You’re with some James Beard nominees, anything to add to your resume? “I was nominated by my mom as one of her two favorite sons,” he throws in. I hate to break it to you, Chaz, but unless you’re one of a few dozen, that’s really not a thing. Furthermore, I have a feeling your mom might like your brother better; you seem a little desperate. Let’s see if we can’t get you a chef coat and give you a reason to feel loved.
For the third qualifying challenge, there’s a table with ten platters on it, each with a different ingredient. “Choose one… and make it sing,” Tom says. Each platter is also outfitted with a cloche, which the chefs are told not to lift until they’ve chosen their ingredient. Yes! I couldn’t get behind “the bubble,” but this is an interesting twist. Is there a complicating ingredient? Does each of the ten platters have the same ingredient under the cloche? Will they be directed with a style of cuisine? The possibilities, while not endless, are many, and the payoff for the suspense will be relieved quickly. Welcome back, Top Chef.
We’ve got a Grayson 2.0 in Ashley Villaluz, who says she’ll take either mushrooms or oxtail. Andrew says he’ll take the mushrooms, and she challenges him to a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” for them. Didn’t you say you’d do either? Doesn’t that mean that what happens now is that he gets the mushrooms and you get the oxtail? Anyway, she throws paper, and he scissors (I’m sure there’s a metaphor to be explored there), and Andrew gets the mushrooms. She says, “I guess I’ll take oxtail then.” I guess you will.
They’re back at their stations, and when asked if they’re happy with their choices, Ashley responds, “It depends on how much time we have.” You chose the oxtail! No one forced you into this, girl, if you had named two ingredients perhaps less diametrically opposed than chanterelles and oxtail, I’d have some sympathy for you, but you didn’t, so I don’t.
On the subject of how much time they have, it’s time to lift the cloches. Underneath are timers, each set to the length of time they have to cook their ingredient. They read 20, 40 and 60 minutes. There are various grumblings across the kitchen, including from second-favorite-son Chaz Brown, who says his chosen ingredient, risotto, could take all night. Has he seen this show? Did he think he’d have all night? What is with these people.
As the cooking kicks off we find Hugh with Paul Qui, who has 20 minutes to grill trout. “Simple to execute,” he says, and makes a Southeast Asian-style salad along with. Hopefully after he gets his chef coat he has a minute to sit down with Ashley and Chaz. I’m not sure they get it. Photos of Qui’s three East Side King trailers flash across the screen, and as he mentions that the trucks have been featured on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, he is wearing the sort of humble-proud smile that is particular to chefs—good chefs. He wants to show what Texas cooks can do, and so far, he’s doing them proud.
Andrew Curran’s having less easy of a time, with 20 minutes to cook and clean his chanterelles. With poached eggs and a fried spinach garnish, it seems not all is lost. In theory, the plate works: egg yolks are heaven, roasted chanterelles delicious and with a little crunch and color from the spinach, Curran should be wearing a chef coat in no time. He’s less hopeful. With only eight minutes elapsed, Curran knows he’s “screwed.”
Ashley’s got 60 minutes to cook her oxtail, which she is going to prepare in the Filipino “kare-kare” style that she’s just learned from her husband of one month’s grandmother. Her story is endearing and she’s got a vintage sensibility I find likeable, but she’s making another strategic error. It just seems unwise to cook something that you’re unfamiliar with in a style that you have just recently learned. She’s even having trouble with the pressure cooker (yet another metaphor waiting to be explored), and it looks like Ashley is not long for this kitchen.
The twenty minute group is plating with seconds left, and Qui says he’s nervous but doesn’t look or seem it at all. His trout looks exceptional—the skin looks perfectly crispy—and the salad looks bright and like a great counterpoint to the fish. Curran, on the other hand, looks nervous—real nervous—with his mushrooms still on the oven and his eggs not poached to his liking, he mutters, “you little bitch” at one of them as he slides it onto the plate. The personification expresses one of the central conceits of good cooking—your job as a chef is to help an ingredient become what it was meant to, to draw out its essence. A failure to do so can sometimes be blamed on the willfulness of the product itself. Sauces break, meat cooks too rapidly, and eggs can be little bitches. It’s part of the cooking game.
The personification expresses one of the central conceits of good cooking – your job as a chef is to help an ingredient become what it was meant to, to draw out its essence. A failure to do so can sometimes be blamed on the willfulness of the product itself. Sauces break, meat cooks too rapidly, and eggs can be little bitches. It’s part of the cooking game.
The first group is up and Paul presents his trout. Tom and Hugh comment on his dish’s precision, how well balanced and seasoned it is. Qui’s in. According to Padma, Kim’s lamb is fatty and not worthy of a chef coat or a spot in the stew room. “It’s just not there,” is Tom’s feeling, and though it’s an exchange that only lasts a few seconds, we’re left feeling like we’re at the end of a truly awful first date—which makes Andrew’s a rebound dish of sorts. His nerves get the better of him again at judge’s table. His voice is shaking as he explains how time and nerves got the best of him, and how he’s not proud of what he’s presented. It’s a thing you hear a lot from chefs in situations like this one, and more often than not when they say they can do better it’s not very believable—but from Chef Curran it is. And the judges can tell. Though to Tom his mushrooms are gritty and the fried spinach is too greasy for Padma’s taste, his dish’s earthiness and great flavor earn him a spot in the bubble.
At this point there are five chefs in the bubble and twelve with coats. In the kitchen there are two groups left and nothing but trouble—marinades aren’t getting to where they need to be, duck skins aren’t crisping properly and with one minute left, Chaz’s risotto isn’t even finished. The timer goes off and he’s got nothing but empty bowls. He thought he had four minutes, he says. How is that possible? You had a digital timer. With nothing to present, he is told to go. As he exits the kitchen he says something about Padma returning his CDs and we’re forced to wonder exactly just how long ago middle school was for this guy. Ugh. Go away. No one in the second group gets a coat, with three of four told to pack their knives and Laurent headed to the stew room.
None of the last three chefs have meat that’s as tender as they’d like, but it’s nevertheless time for judge’s table. As it turns out, only one of the three really had anything to worry about. Can you guess which one? Lindsay Autry, of Michelle Berstein’s Michy’s, gets rave reviews for her lamb shank with creamy polenta and is given a chef coat. Beverly Kim gets one, too. Sorry Ashley.
And now the moment we’ve all been waiting for—the bubble is about to burst. We’ve got to wonder how long exactly they’ve been in there, because the sheen in Edward Lee’s eyes has turned to all-out bloodlust. He provides the best moment of last night’s episode, awesomely laughing out loud when Molly tells him she’s a chef on a cruise ship. Then it gets weird. “If they leave me here in the stew room long enough, I’m going to kill all five of these people to get that chef jacket. That’s how bad I want it.”
In the final cook-off murder doesn’t prove necessary, when they are given carte blanche—choose anything you want, and cook it in 45 minutes. “This is the moment that will define you as a chef,” says Tom. No pressure.
Justifying 90 hours a week in a kitchen and bringing attention to Austin’s culinary scene are driving Andrew in his quest for a coat. His intentions are good, better than good, but then along comes Janine Falvo with one of the most brutal break-up stories ever of all time. Nine years into a relationship she and her partner had a commitment ceremony. A month later this girl calls her and says she didn’t like Janine’s vows, and broke up with her right there, on the phone. This poor girl. I really hope she makes it.
Apparently Edward’s calls for violence were karmically unsound, because the blood he ends up shedding is his own. He suffers a nasty cut and says he’d cut off his arm and give it to the medic to fix while he cooks. He’ll cook with his feet, he says, if he has to. So there he is, cooking with his feet, calling out, “It’s just a flesh wound! Just a flesh wound!” and all the other chefs are pushing along, and twenty minutes later, time is up.
This judge’s table is further reminiscent of the Top Chef of seasons past. There are favorites and villains and those who annoy, and they’ve already got a challenge under their belt so what they’ve prepared is more representative of who they are as chefs.
Janine’s dish brings Emeril back to his New England roots, Molly’s shrimp is overcooked, Grayson’s figs and shrimp confuse but ultimately please the judges. Andrew’s dish proves troublesome to the judges’ palates as well; his inclusion of panna cotta ultimately muddies up the flavor of the successfully seasoned mussels. Laurent’s scallop duo is well conceived but poorly executed. Ed’s Southern-Asian fusion is a hit—the flavors and presentation win praise from the judges.
The hammer’s got to come down though, and down it comes. There are two coats left and six chefs. Molly and Laurent told to go, and Ed of the murderous impulses gets a coat. Left standing are Andrew, Janine and Grayson. Please. Please no Grayson. Please either Janine or Andrew. The latter is sent packing, and will probably never use panna cotta again. Padma calls out Grayson’s name and says… “Congratulations.” Poor Janine. This is the Top Chef version of “I didn’t like your vows.”
Though the hometown favorite Curran didn’t make it, at least the bubble’s burst and the sixteen chefs will start making their way across the Lone Star State. This episode was light on locale, but at show’s end a season preview included a crying, bleeding, PeeWee Herman, and, most Texas-y of all, someone on oxygen at a rodeo. Yee-haw.