Wednesday, April 23, 2008

TCC Week 7: Sickly Sweets and Aroused Asparagus: Not So Funny.

It was a salty-sweet week on Top Chef Chicago. Richard scored a double victory, while Stephanie ending up in the bottom and narrowly escaping elimination, among other things. Missing cooking equipment, one super-metro pastry chef, and a panel of humorless judges rounded out an interesting evening.

Years ago, at drama camp, I had a British director who assigned us a play laden with complex, dry British jokes that proved a challenge for our young American humors. Repeatedly during rehearsals, he would shout out "THAT WAS FUNNY!", after a line failed to produce any hint of a giggle from those of us on stage and in the wings. I feel like we could have used him at the judges table tonight, reminding the judges that "THE ASPARAGUS WAS FUNNY!" before they sent Jen packing her knives. Did they forget that food is supposed to be entertaining?

True, I would have rather it was Jen than Stephanie. CLEARLY. [I even swore to stop watching the show after tonight's episode had they kicked off Stephanie. And I meant it!] But for how entertaining and inventive Jen and Steph's dish was, I was shocked that they were the pair on the chopping block at the very end. Antonia has now been cited TWICE for failing to deliver on the requirements of a challenge, cooking uninspired food, and barely making it by because her dish was slightly better than the next chef. She had better step it up if she wants to stay in this game, and stop making excuses!

Ugh. But let's get back to tonight's show - which opened with a dessert challenge. I learned something new tonight - being a chef specializing in desserts, or a "pastry chef", is a unique and very specific career path. I was frankly surprised to hear many of the cheftestants say "I don't do desserts", many of them clinging to a single recipe and hoping it would get them through. Perhaps this explanation by Richard (who is now apparently goes by his last name, Blais, with the other cheftestants) sheds some light (posted last night): Why is making a dessert so difficult for chefs (especially for past contestants)?
Blais: I think it's a mental block. People think dessert, and they think cake, they think tuile or crunchy cookie and they think fruit coulis. It's like a cook thinking a savory course has to have a starch, vegetable, protein, and sauce. I don't have any formally trained and embedded knowledge of pastry, so I think that helps me think fluid in terms of pastry/last course. The pastry kitchen, the cocktail bar ... it's all an extension of the kitchen; they are all just stations in a kitchen. (Read the rest of his comments here).

So now I understand that when the chefs say "I'm not a pastry chef", it really means that they don't have that formal training. Which does seem strange at first (shouldn't a chef be able to cook everything?) but makes a lot more sense now. I just never knew how specialized "pastry chefs" were until tonight.

And who better to represent the profession but prettyboy Johnny Iuzzini. WHAT? Ok he's won a James Beard award, but WHERE WAS MINDY SEGAL, Chicago's hometown pastry hero-cum-restauranteur? She's been James Beard nominated twice now, so really, that's got to count for something. And her restaurant is amaaaazing. I mean, I've never been to Jean Georges but I'm sure if Johnny was ever in a pastry cage fight with Mindy he would have a serious reckoning.

Anyway, in the end of the dessert challenge, Blais came out on top with his imaginitive "Banana Scallops and Guacamole", while Lisa and Dale got nods for their yogurt/fruit/wontons and halo-halo (shaved ice dessert), respectively. I thought that Andrew's Banana & Chocolate Ravioli (pictured above) also looked heavenly, although it didn't get a call out. I had dessert ravioli for the first time at Mindy Segal's Hot Chocolate, and it was AWESOME - a great concept if executed correctly!

It was then onto the elimination challenge - inspired by audience suggestions from Second City! Again, the chefs turn up in my neighborhood (nay, several blocks from my apartment) and sadly I wasn't there to witness it. Boo! Random color - emotion - ingredient combinations guided the chefs this time, and some, like challenge winners Blais and Dale, used their suggestions (Green Perplexed Tofu) to create truly inspired and thoughtful dishes. Here is theirs:

Others, like Antonia and Lisa, chose to eschew their suggestion (magenta drunk polish sausage) in favor of creating something that may have tasted good but was totally off the mark conceptually. Spike finally got to make his soup tonight, which admittedly did look amazing. I love butternut squash ANYTHING, and creme fraiche too. In one of Padma's more endearing drunk moments of the evening, she rambled "I would lick my bowl if there weren't cameras here..." Oh, come on Padma. Just DO it next time! Feed the munchies!

Next week we've got the loveable Chicago culinary staple ART SMITH as our guest judge, and it looks like kids from his non-profit Common Threads will be guest chefs! Yay for bringing back a Chicago figure. Just can't wait for Charlie and Grant's inevitable appearances... but something tells me that Bravo is saving them for something special, later in the season. Whatever it is, it's gonna be goooood!

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