Roux the day: Top Chef gets sexist, saucy and stabby in the murder capital ofTexas
We’re six episodes deep in to the ninth season of Top Chef, and fatigue is setting in on all sides. The show kicked off last night with the contestants decompressing after another grueling challenge, trying to find their bearings and size up the remaining competition. It would be wise to keep an eye out for Ed Lee, dear chefs, whose boorish ignorance seems not exclusively reserved for the gay population.
General Lee’s call for a resurgence of the dwindling male faction infuriatingly went something like this: “There’s definitely a little face-off starting to develop, and I don’t want there to be like eight girls and two guys left. You know, come on guys, we’re going to have to like rally together to save face.” Frankly he should worry about saving his own face. He’s got the unnerving grindy jaw of an amphetamine addict, and it makes whatever stupid thing he’s saying just that much more off-putting.
His sexism doesn’t go unnoticed by Heather Terhune, who doesn’t let much slide this episode. “Are you guys scared? Scared of the girls?” she calls to Lee and the other chefs, giving voice to female cooks everywhere. It’s not news that lady chefs aren’t always welcome in professional kitchens, but these women aren’t here because they’ve let men push them around. You better just tuck in that jaw and zip your lip, Lee.
The voice of reason comes from Chris Jones, who somewhere between San Antonio and Dallas has lost one pair of glasses and is able to see with clarity. “This whole ‘girls vs. boys,’ ‘this vs. that’… I just need to concentrate on food, so, that’s all I’m really thinking about.” Hopefully his fellow contestants follow suit.
Waiting for the chefs in the kitchen at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts are Padma and Dean Fearing, the James Beard award winning “Father of Southwestern Cuisine” and original chef at Mansion at Turtle Creek. A major heavy-hitter on the culinary scene, his resume and classical training suggest a difficult Quickfire. The kitchen will be the chefs’ home base while they’re in Dallas, and the surroundings are familiar to Paul Qui, who attended culinary school here. “I’m in my school, so I feel like I should win this challenge, whatever it may be.” Qui’s talent is obvious and his desire to succeed is not only genuine, but rooted in his dogged drive to prove himself in his home state. He’s building great momentum and there’s no doubt he’s up to the task.
The risk Bev's taking is not a risk at all — she’s been tasked with advancing the sauce, but she’s really just pulling it back into her very limited Asian repertoire. “I want this so bad,” she says to no one at all in the kitchen, with a totally unmasked desperation. This woman is completely unstable.
This challenge will be testing the chefs’ skills as sauciers, “the most prestigious position on the line in a kitchen.” The sauce is what “gives the ‘wow’ to the dish,” explains the classically trained superstar Fearing. Though this is exactly the kind of challenge that drives Qui, between the pressure he puts on himself and that high-octane lead-in, he’s already won for not running out of the kitchen.
The chefs pull knives to determine which of the five mother sauces they’ll be putting their own spin on. Grayson pulls hollandaise and reveals she’s been a saucier before and is classically trained, so sauces “ain’t no thang.” This bravado is newfound for her, and it turns out the quiver in her voice isn’t the result of an underlying meekness — it’s just how she talks. As such, let’s hope sauces are “a thang” for her — it’s grating. Besides that, most chefs worth their salt should be able to make hollandaise in their sleep. Any cook who’s worked any brunch, ever, probably has — in the industry, Saturday night ends at about 4 a.m. and prep starts at 8.
Shallow Chris is swinging for the cheap seats on this one, too, since, in his opinion, the velouté he’s been tasked with is “probably the easiest.” The most difficult part of making a sauce is the roux, Chris explains, which is a mixture of flour and butter. He relays a respect for classic cooking, but still manages to be annoying. “Most chefs think its old school, but you really need to know your classics.”
Qui pulled espagnole, a veal stock sauce with tomato paste, which he’s enhancing with hints of ginger and lemongrass. He seems deflated as he explains he’s not cooked a mother sauce since culinary school, but his momentary lapse in confidence is his own.
Scallops and shrimp are haunting me this season. Grayson’s preparing the bivalve with corn ravioli, blueberry balsamic reduction, and a charred corn hollandaise, and Sarah — a true champion of the crustacean — is using shrimp instead of carrots to sweeten her velouté. “The main problem I’m encountering is you don’t want to overthink the dish, but I feel like it needs another element and I’m trying to think of what that is.” An outsider’s opinion is that it needs one less element — her. Really, can she just pack her pinchy face and back-stabbing knives and go already?
Bev’s making an Asian-inspired espagnole, a self-proclaimed “definitely avant-garde interpretation” of the classic French sauce. The risk she’s taking is not a risk at all — she’s been tasked with advancing the sauce, but she’s really just pulling it back into her very limited Asian repertoire. “I want this so bad,” she says to no one at all in the kitchen, with a totally unmasked desperation. This woman is completely unstable.
Padma and Fearing make the rounds, starting with Shallow Chris’ halibut over mussels, andouille, mushrooms and velouté. Fearing seems impressed with Crary’s infusion of the reduced fat from the mussels and sausage, and, admittedly, it sounds delicious. Fat makes stuff taste good, and this technique earns him points with me.
Qui’s quail with pickled and roasted Honeshimeji mushrooms, garlic scapes and roasted okra serve as the stage for his espagnole. When asked what color his roux was by Fearing, Qui admits to not using one — a move he regrets. “Maybe I should have just lied and said I used a roux,” says Qui in a voiceover, as Fearing and Padma walk away from his station without a word.
He’s not the only one who went without a roux — Whitney, the chef from the wrong side of the tracks didn’t even know she was supposed to use one. Whitney’s the underdog who, last episode, revealed she’s come from extreme poverty and is self-taught. When Fearing explains that the “true, classic tomate always starts with a roux,” she looks embarrassed and clearly had no idea. She’s Top Chef’s Andie Walsh, with no Duckie to help turn her frown upside-down.
Heather’s dish and opinions both sound great. Her twist on béchamel, a gruyere croquette with apple and ginger compote and Asian slaw is tasted by a very impressed looking Fearing, and her critique of Bev’s constant turn toward Asian flavors is spot-on. “Bev always cooks Asian food, and if I were the judges, I’d be very bored with her.” Kim’s reticence is picked up by Fearing as well. His critique of her plate is that there’s not enough sauce on it, i.e. that it was lacking in the one component the challenge was based on. Kim says something about soy overpowering the palate, which sounds like “I made a sauce that wasn’t very well balanced, or really very good at all.” As the judges walk away she knows she blew it, and it’s clear that this woman hates herself. For real. What exactly a person’s face looks like when she is feeling compelled to self-flagellate is a thing not often seen, but anyone who tuned in got an up close look.
Overall, says Fearing, the sauces were well-seasoned, some rightly sweet, and some too acidic. Just like Goldilocks, Fearing’s got to choose which sauce was just right, but not before naming which were too peachy (Dakota), too muddled (Nyesha), and just too wrong altogether (Beverly). Grayson, Chris Crary and Qui were on top, but in the end Grayson’s hollandaise earned her the win and immunity in the elimination challenge.
“These guests are used to eating steak on a daily basis,” Sarah informs us of the party’s guests, with no word on their daily intake of cholesterol-lowering medications.
“For Texans, steak is one of life’s most important pleasures,” begins Padma, as she explains the chefs will work as one team to cook a four-course steak dinner for 200 guests. The terms — that steak must be incorporated into two courses and that the entrée steak must hit the table not one degree over medium rare — provoke less concern for the chefs than the fact that they’ll all have to work together. They’ll be cooking at the Southfork Ranch, Dallas’ premier location for deceit and double-crossing.
“These guests are used to eating steak on a daily basis,” Sarah informs us of the party’s guests, with no word on their daily intake of cholesterol-lowering medications. Her grandfather has been a Cattle Baron for “ages,” so naturally she’s using her expertise to
help her fellow castmates stay as far out of the line of fire as is possible, opting to work on the first course of gazpacho with Bev and Dakota.
The second and third courses will be the steak courses, a sirloin carpaccio and ribeye, respectively. Ty-lör’s taking the lead on the entree, using his years of steak house experience to make sure the sirloin is cooked to perfection. Ed’s pissed that Heather’s using his genoise recipe for the dessert course, but before he gets the chance to kill her in a cracked out rage, they all pile into the very spacious Toyota Venza that’s on the line and head off to Whole Foods.
Until now it’s been hard to pin down what exactly Whitney’s vibe was, and it’s finally clear — Whitney’s got the sad eyes and survivor’s air of a rescue dog. She’s making potato gratin to accompany the ribeye, a surprisingly/unsurprisingly low-brow choice. “My mom was a very good cook,” she explains, “so even though we didn’t always have money, she was very resourceful, and that’s carried over into my cooking.” Those potatoes are going to be seasoned with sad and pepper, and they probably aren’t going to taste very good.
Luckily for Whitney, Beverly Kim seems to be wearing a target this episode, and Heather’s got an itchy trigger finger. “Bev has one thing that she’s working on and that’s the shrimp, and three hours should be plenty of time. She’s so focused on saving her own ass, she wants to make sure that part of it is perfect. But when you’re working on a team, you can’t be selfish.” Heather’s got an eye on everything; she’s tilting toward overbearing, but her commentary so far is pretty right on.
As the final minutes of prep time wind down, things are starting to come off the rails in the Top Chef kitchen. Whitney doesn’t want to par cook her gratin — leaving her just three hours to bake, cut, portion, and serve on the day of the event. Presenting them well under those circumstances will be difficult enough, but leaving the potatoes overnight will give them time to oxidize as well. She’s cooked in Hugh Acheson’s kitchen, but under pressure she’s back living in a motel, cooking on a hot plate.
And just as we overhear Ty-lör say he wants to get “every last bit” of the marrow he’s pulling with a shucking knife, he stabs himself in the hand. Admirably, he tries to push on with just one hand, dripping blood on the floor. He’s not going to stop, so he has a medic wrap his hand and pushes on until the last minute.
While he’s off at the emergency room, the other contestants need to regroup and figure out how they’re going to redistribute the workload. Ty-lör had volunteered to take the lead, and so more than anyone being worried about executing the steaks properly, no one wants to be eliminated if and when it goes poorly.
Morning comes and there’s still no word on Ty-lör. He walks in, four stitches later, with stories from a Dallas ER. “There was probably sixty people waiting,” he tells a faux-concerned Bev, “but there were gun shot victims. I cut my hand. They’re not in the biggest hurry.” Ty-lör’s not been a favorite of mine, but surviving a night in the ER of the murder capital of Texas and then stepping up to the challenge of cooking on an hour’s sleep are earning him cred with me.
Heather had finished her cakes the night before, and so she and Lindsay are pulling plates, setting tables and organizing the chefs. Lindsay makes a really weasely number two, and in the style of Richie Farina, hopefully she’ll go down when left to her own devices. Heather has zero problem taking the lead, and starts barking orders and checking in with the chefs, including Bev, who is on hour four of shrimp prep. She’s got other responsibilities, and is not pulling her weight — a fact Heather is not at all afraid to share. Dakota thinks Heather’s a bully – but she’s not. Heather gets stuff done.
Heather steps right up when Tom asks who’s going to expo, and gives him the run-down of who’s doing what. He of few words but many expressions looks satisfied as he leaves her to continue setting up, and screw Dakota. Tom’s on board and that’s enough for me.
Chef Fearing’s with Dakota, raising more concerns about her gratin preparation. She’s not using a double boiler, which ensures even and fast cooking. Tom’s looks skeptical after checking in with the “grill-master” Ty-lör, who’s marking the steaks on the grill and planning to finish them in the oven. We know immediately this isn’t going to go well for Ty, but his dedication to just completing this challenge is impressive. On an hour of sleep, he’s standing in front of three grills, in 112º weather, ready to cook off 200 steaks.
Ty’s still cooking as the first course goes out, Bev, Sarah and Dakota’s summer gazpacho of tomato and watermelon, with poached shrimp and avocado mousse. Though the shrimp is cooked well and the dish is well seasoned, what it lacks in adventure it makes up in over-acidity.
Ed, Chris Jones and Paul’s seared strip steak carpaccio is being served, with not a thought given to firing the third course. Though Chris Jones’ element of the steak is cooked perfectly, Ed’s heirloom tomato and asparagus salad is undercooked. Overall, the dish “lacks a point of view” and underwhelms the judges.
The contestants, on the other hand, are completely overwhelmed. Steaks have been fired too early, a misstep, Chris Jones explains, that is just as severe as “when the meteor hit the earth and made the dinosaurs extinct.” There are ten minutes before the steaks will be set down in front of a diner, and they’re medium rare now. They’ll keep cooking until they get cold, and this is a disaster. The chefs give up and throw the cold, overcooked steaks on a plate over the cold, undercooked gratin and send the dish out to be judged.
The judges are presented with Ty’s grilled ribeye over Whitney’s creamy potato gratin, served with braised Brussels sprouts (Shallow Chris) and a compound butter of bone marrow and red wine onions (Nyesha). Bone marrow, if you’ve never had it, is the most intoxicating fat on the planet; that compound butter could probably be eaten with a spoon. Nyesha’s probably going to win. Shallow Chris, on the other hand, might not actually lose, but has lost all the points he earned during the Quickfire by repeating Paul’s winning dish from last week.
When Whitney says, “It’s not the best gratin I’ve ever made, but my hopes are that it’s something that highlights the beef,” it’s like watching that scene in “Old Yeller” where the cow comes out and falls all over the place and Katie Coates is all, “Poor thing’s blind sick” and all you can hear is Jim saying, “No momma, he was my dog, I’ll do it” as he takes the rifle from her.
Unsurprisingly, the judges are not pleased with their meal. “Well, considering that I’m the person who said that every steak needed to be medium rare, that is a big problem,” Fearing says, pointing to his medium well steak. Tom is not happy as he describes his gratin as “just not cooked.” Even Padma, who is very pretty but short on culinary insight is rightly horrified. “If you’re going to do it, you better do the best one that anyone has ever tasted.”
It’s time for the last course, and Heather’s concern that the choice of a “right-side-up” Texas peach cake, with peach salad and candied pecan streusel might be too light comes off almost like a joke. Tom’s got 99 problems, but a peach ain’t one. In fact, Tom’s thrilled with the expertly cooked cake, and pooh-poohs Acheson’s want of more sweetness.
The chefs are all heading to the stew room while the judges deliberate, and the foreshadowing gets a little heavy-handed. When Whitney says, “It’s not the best gratin I’ve ever made, but my hopes are that it’s something that highlights the beef,” it’s like watching that scene in “Old Yeller” where the cow comes out and falls all over the place and Katie Coates is all, “Poor thing’s blind sick” and all you can hear is Jim saying, “No momma, he was my dog, I’ll do it” as he takes the rifle from her. Then, BOOM.
Perhaps inspired by the setting, the directors try for a little Ewing-style family throw-down before the elimination. Heather wants to get to the bottom of what happened, willfully ignoring that Lindsay was the one who fired the steaks. Ty is prepared to assume responsibility for his element, but not before letting everyone know that they failed him. “I was personally maxed out today,” he says, with a wisdom that evokes Keith’s hard-earned perspective. Apparently watching victims of gang violence roll by you all night will put things in order for somebody.
Heather’s not letting up though; she has got it out for Bev. “You spent a lot of time working on shrimp,” Heather says, “and I’m not sure what else you did.” Kim’s earned a reputation for watching out for herself, but Heather is starting to toe the line of bullying as she continues to hammer Bev. She’s not willing to go home, and she’ll do anything to save herself: “I’m just saying it’s going to go down to it, and it’s all going to come out.” Just as Kim’s face drops, Padma comes into to collect the first three chefs: Chris Jones, Heather and Nyesha.
These are the top three, however, and Jones’ “perfectly cooked sirloin” proves his focus is paying off. Heather’s cake was “light as a feather” with a level of sweetness Colicchio said was “right in [his] wheelhouse.” I have no idea what that expression means but I want to be in Tom’s wheelhouse too. Nyesha’s compound butter “saved” the entrée; the arguably passé condiment showed depth and consideration. It’s nice to see three favorites waiting to be named the winner, and while it would have been great to see Jones win, Heather’s victory will hopefully help further her anti-Kim cause.
Ty and Whitney were predictably called to judges’ table in the bottom, with crazy Ed Lee ironically in the wild card slot. Though poor Whitney’s hope was only invigorated when she sees her mentor Acheson sitting with the other judges, when the critique starts it’s clear she’s going home. She missed the mark of making a traditional accompaniment, and instead made a dish too heavy for the weather, and just plain raw. It’s no surprise when Whitney’s told to pack her knives and go.
It’s a relief when this episode ends, but there are lessons the chefs must carry in to next week’s double elimination: Ty’s failure was an issue of circumstance, while Ed’s was one of imagination; Bev’s selfishness has to be put to bed. In the words of someone who knows how to get stuff done, “I’m just saying, it’s going to go down to it, and it’s all going to come out.”