Nine chefs remain in what has turned out to be a rather dreadful season of “Top Chef,” where the only thing I find myself rooting for is the clock to turn to 11 — or (the horror!) 11:15, since last night’s episode required an extra quarter-hour.
I had high hopes for the episode, despite its strange composition. First, I was really pleased to know that one of my heroes, Nathan Myrhvold, would be on the show. And, I was stoked that there was a barbecue challenge because, after all, we’re in Texas where every challenge should be a barbecue challenge. I know my way around modernist cooking techniques, but I don’t know a lot about barbecue, so I’m always looking to learn. Nathan did not disappoint, but those cheftestants and their barbecue sure did.
Still in Austin, the episode kicks off in the chefpartment, where the box set of Myrhvold’s “Modernist Cuisine” is delivered along with a note from Padma telling the chefs to study for the next day’s challenge. Chris J. thinks he’s got a lock on this one.
The following day in the “Top Chef” kitchen, the chefs arrive for their Quickfire to see Myrhvold. He gives a brief overview of the modernist movement, and Padma reveals the challenge: The chef who best illustrates modernist techniques in his or her dish will win immunity for the Elimination Challenge and a set of Myrhvold’s books (which retails for about $600). They run around and cook — some more experienced in modern techniques than others. Terra Spice’s maltodextrin and soy lecithin is flying all over the kitchen.
Here’s what they made:
Beverly: Flash-steamed clams and mussels with curry whipped cream and mango chili. When she tries to “foam” the curry whipped cream from the canister, it splorts all over Padma’s dress, meaning it’s highly likely she used a CO2 cartridge instead of an NO2 cartridge. Nathan corrects her technique. She drops trays of food on the floor and amps up her social awkwardness.
Sarah: Breakfast raviolo, pancetta and egg yolk. It looks like a raviolo, but the inside is an egg yolk, and there’s orange juice in the sauce.
Edward: Salmon belly sashimi, compressed watermelon and radish brunoise — which was actually three different kinds of radish held together in a gel.
Grayson: Trout sashimi, dill caviar, pickled watermelon, cucumber and radish.
Ty-Lor: Watermelon, vanilla bean honey, black pepper and salted olive oil powder, which I would eat lots of.
Lindsay: Marinated baby octopus, tempura sea beans and togarashi, which also looked really, really good.
Chris C: Risotto foam, scallops, raisins and fried capers.
Paul: Endive salad, egg yolk, parmesan and truffle powder that looked like a bowl of something served at P. Diddy’s White Party.
Chris J.: “Miracle berry,” deconstructed cheesecake, sparkling water with lemon and lime. He seems confident, but something tells me he’d be too obvious a winner and that he’s not sticking the landing, as it were.
Nathan thinks Paul, Beverly and Grayson missed the mark. He liked what Ty-Lor, Sarah and Chris J. (”a hell of a dish”) served him. The chef who “showed a combination of creativity and execution” is Ty-Lor, who grins ear to ear in the most genuine way I think I’ve ever seen on this show.
This week’s Elimination Challenge is all about barbecue, and they’ll be cooking at the Salt Lick, a famous barbecue joint. Nathan is staying on as guest judge, because he won the world barbecue championship in Memphis — and I gotta say, the photo of the barbecue mop sauces in his book is one of the most delectable food photos of all time, so that alone qualifies him to be a guest barbecue judge in my world. The cheftestants are asked to split themselves into three teams. Everyone avoids eye contact with Beverly and moves past her to form their teams. Sadly, Chris C. and Chris J. get stuck with her, and they’re not happy about it, grousing on camera that she’s difficult and has been the reason for other teams’ downfalls.
The chefs have all night to cook chicken, beef brisket and pork spareribs, along with two sides for 300 people. They get to spend $1,000 at Whole Foods and $1,000 at Restaurant Depot. They shop, then head over to the Salt Lick for a tour and tasting. It’s hot hot hot outside, and they start cooking just after 10 p.m. They get their meats in the smoker and on the open pit, low and slow, and start all the prep work for the sides. Beverly sets off a smoke alarm in her team’s cooking trailer because she set a pot of bourbon on fire, despite her teammates warning her against doing that. One team’s briskets broke a rack in the smoker, losing valuable cooking time. The chefs cook through the night and into the next day over very hot coals. Brutal.
Cool-as-a-cucumber-Colicchio strolls toward the pits in the morning to survey the cheftestants’ work. As motivation, he tells them the winning team will get $15,000. They finish cooking in the blazing sun over pits of hot coals, and Sarah asks to see a medic. She sits down inside the event venue so she can get oxygen, and when the medic says, “whoa” after taking her blood pressure, they call for an ambulance.
This is clearly not a one-stitch situation. I’m generally pretty tough on cheftestants when I think they’re wussing out over a tiny finger cut, but heart rate and blood pressure are not something you mess around with. No one will bleed out and die if they don’t get that one stitch. But having your cardiopulmonary system go out of whack? That’s not something you can or should ever just “push through.” Ty-Lor and Ed are left to finish all their meats and sides without her. Ty tries to be positive about it while Ed and his wandering lower jaw complain to the cameras. All the teams load their food into the venue and begin serving. The judges arrive to eat the teams’ foods:
Grayson, Paul, Lindsay: Asian spare ribs, chicken and brisket with Brussels sprouts and watermelon salad. Padma and Gail like the meats. Nathan says that it’s not very smoky, but it tastes good. Tom declares the sprouts undercooked, and they all seem to like the watermelon salad.
Beverly, Chris J., Chris C.: Beer can chicken, brisket and Dr. Pepper-glazed pork ribs. Nathan and Tom say the chicken is roasted, not smoked, and Gail thinks the beans are undercooked. Tom thinks the ribs are too salty and the brisket too chewy.
Ty-Lor, Sarah, Ed: Sarah returns for the last part of service (and just in time to feed the judges), and Ed is a resentful little jerk about it. They serve Texas chicken, Kansas City-style pork ribs, smoked brisket, poppyseed coleslaw, pinto beans and a slice of white bread. The judges seem to like the chicken. Gail likes the ribs but says the texture is a little too chewy.
Padma calls Paul, Lindsay and Grayson to Judges’ Table for serving the best barbecue of the day. They’re lauded for not going the traditional Texas route. Gail tells them their brisket was “heads and tails” above the other teams’. They win $15,000, which brings Paul up to a total of $35,000 for the season.
The other two teams are sent to Judges’ Table for serving the judges’ least favorite barbecue of the day.
Sarah is told her chicken was grilled, not barbecued, with not enough smoke. Gail tells Ty his ribs were over-seasoned and the meat didn’t come off the bone. Tom and Nathan tell them they shouldn’t have sliced their brisket and put it in trays; it should’ve been sliced to order.
Nathan thought Beverly’s cole slaw was “okay, but not spectacular.” Gail called it unoriginal. Tom tells Beverly that her beans were undercooked. She visibly holds back tears. Tom tells Chris J. his chicken was roasted, not barbecued. All the judges questioned the ribs and brisket and said they were salty and inedible. There is some back and forth about who did the grilling (Chris J.) and who did the rubs and marinades (Chris C.) In her summation, Padma says, “Both teams failed on all their proteins.” Uh, that’s not good when it’s a barbecue challenge, guys. Tom says he wishes Ty-Lor didn’t have immunity because he wants to send him home.
So, who’s getting the spur boot? Chris C. is headed home for over-salted dry rubs and marinades.
Up next week: Restaurant Wars. Boys versus girls. It doesn’t look pretty on either side. Overcooked fish, missing sauces, shrill voices, poor expediting. Is it bad that I’m hoping for an octuple elimination?