Ah, Top Chef. You were off to such a good start during Part I, and then you had to go and do a pop up restaurant challenge right out of the gate? Will you never learn?
[yes, I realize talking to the show is slightly insane.]
Every time Top Chef has attempted a ‘restaurant wars’ episode early on in the season it turns into a disaster, and yet here we are on episode 2, watching the chefs tackle a pop up restaurant challenge. They don’t really know each other that well at this point, nor do they recognize each chef’s strengths and weaknesses; they haven’t developed enough familiarity to work cohesively as a team, there’s no real team leader/head chef, and none of them really feel comfortable enough to tell the others that their dish sounds like a bad idea. Looks like things are about to get messy.
As usual, there’s no quickfire this episode, as they all have to check out their locations, go shopping for supplies and then go back in the kitchen and start cooking. The challenge is explained to them by Padma and guest judge Ludo Lefebvre, whom we all remember, along with his thick, subtitle-requiring accent, from Top Chef Masters. He’s had plenty of experience with pop ups, and he clearly doesn’t want to do it again: “It was a nightmare“, he says – so how’s that for an encouraging piece of advice?
At this point I have to wonder how does calling it a pop-up restaurant challenge make this any different from every other restaurant wars episode? They had all been pop up restaurants, open only for one day, usually in a non-traditional location that the chefs had to set up. Luckily we’re spared the restaurant-decor shopping scenes, and we don’t have to watch the poor chefs scramble to set up their spaces while frantically preparing their dishes, or decide who’s going to be front of the house and won’t have enough time to cook.
To make the challenge even harder, none of the four 4-person teams know what their restaurant theme will be before they get there: they are told that each team will be going to one of L.A.’s diverse neighborhoods and their hosts (“ambassadors“) will take it from there, explaining the menu restrictions and answering any questions the chefs may have.
Isaac, Marjorie, Angelina and Amar make up team one; Phillip, Grayson, Renee and Frances are team two, Karen, Carl, Jason and Giselle are team 3 and the remaining chefs are the lucky ones, because out of Chad, Wesley, Kwame and Jeremy, Kwame has been doing pop ups all over the country.
The chefs are the whisked off to their locations: team one will be doing Persian food, team two are excited to get a Venice location but then get really bummed when they realize they will have to do a vegan restaurant, team three heads to Koreatown and team four gets Mexican.
Out of the four teams, only the ones doing Persian actually utilize their mentor/guide and ask plenty of questions about the flavor profiles they should be aiming for, as they all seem quite perplexed about their appointed cuisine.
By the way, not once are the words ‘Iranian cuisine’ uttered throughout the episode. They do realize the country hasn’t been called Persia in a while, right? Or are the Top Chef producers afraid that any mention of Iran has bad connotations and might turn off ignorant viewers? Meh.
Anyway, they are all happy to try something new and Marjorie even adds a dessert to the menu, confident she could pull off the ‘Top Chef death dish‘, as she has previous pastry experience. It was nice to see her featured in the episode a bit more, as we hardly got to see her in the season premiere except to learn that she used to work for Top Chef alum Mike Isabella.
Team Korea is excited about their cuisine and location, as well as their chef guide Sang Yoon, another Top Chef Masters alumnus. They do ask a few questions and heed their guide’s advice to feature plenty of proteins and vegetables and big, bright flavors. Karen cooks Korean at her restaurant, but Giselle has no clue as to where she’s going with her chicken wings dish and makes sure every other member of her team is aware of her insecurities. Uh oh.
Team Mexico has no questions for their chef guide; Chad and Jeremy apparently have experience with latin flavors, and Kwame knows his way around a pop up, so theoretically this should be a walk in the park for these guys, especially since Chad actually owns a restaurant in Tijuana and one in San Diego, both serving Mexican food (his in-laws are also Mexican, and they taught him how to cook their country’s dishes).
By the way, these chefs knew they were headed to L.A., right? And that if there’s one predominant food influence in the city, it’s Mexican cuisine? Shouldn’t everyone have done their research beforehand? They wouldn’t go to Boston and not know how to make a decent bowl of clam chowder, would they?
Team Vegan arrives at their location and at least two members of the team are somewhat excited about cooking without meat: Phillip’s girlfriend is vegan, plus he’s a native Angelino who’s familiar with the growing food trend; Renee is all about the midwestern farm life. Frances has plenty of experience with indian and middle eastern cuisines, both of which heavily feature vegetarian dishes. But Grayson is bummed. A dish without meat? Sacrilege! Although I share her distaste for vegan, it’s annoying when a chef seems unable to conceptualize a good dish without having to add pork fat to it.
This becomes even more apparent when they go shopping at Whole Foods. While Giselle is asking random Korean shoppers for advice and Karen is shocked that Giselle hasn’t even fried a chicken wing before, Grayson is like a little kid throwing a tantrum by the produce isle because she can’t find the type of bean she wants for her salad. Okay, seriously? For one thing, those haricot verts are right there, just open your eyes, Grayson! And secondly, that’s what you pick to showcase your cooking talent? A green bean salad? I get that she’s annoyed about cooking vegan, but she’s done this before; she should know that the way to win this thing is to adapt to the challenges instead of bitching and moaning the whole time (it’s also no way to make friends). Perhaps just as exasperating is Frances, who has the right instincts when she chooses to make a curry, but completely ignores the fresh vegetables and goes straight for the canned chickpeas.
Back in the kitchen, things seem to go smoothly at all four locations, although Phillip is getting a bit bossy and Giselle is still very vocal about her concerns over her dish. And, of course, Grayson keeps scowling and whining about the vegan theme. Oh, grow up, Grayson.
Time to serve the customers and judges. First up, Team Persia.
Incredibly, the judges seem to enjoy every single dish, even though this team probably had the hardest job out of all of them. What seals the deal is the dessert: not only is it delicious, it’s also usually the Achilles’ heel of every single cheftestant in the history of Top Chef, yet Marjorie knocks this one out of the park. Way to go!
Next, it’s time for Team Mexico.
The guys provide their version of what they think new Mexican cuisine is all about, but the judges are not impressed, with the exception of Kwame’s dish.
Chad’s carrots are undercooked, Jeremy’s dish was tasty but didn’t evoke Mexico (or bold flavors) and Wesley’s version of posole doesn’t taste of chorizo. Kwame, on the other hand, despite never having cooked Mexican before, absolutely nails it with his shrimp and masa puree dish: he was going for a deconstructed version of the best fish taco he’s ever tasted, and all the judges loved it.
Next up, it’s Team Vegan time.
Phillip’s cauliflower dish isn’t bad, but it’s too… chefy and fussy and lacks a bit of a punch. Frances’ chana masala is delicious, but Tom is predictably annoyed by the use of canned ingredients. Grayson’s charred bean salad, which features – and I quote – “pickled red onion, mint and some pepper”, is as pedestrian and boring as they come, and Renee’s stuffed beet is almost inedible, with every judge commenting on the consistency of the spongy, pasty tofu filling.
Finally, we’re off to Team Korea.
Carl’s cuttlefish and shrimp salad with avocado had a nice flavor and texture but the judges wanted a little something more done to the cuttlefish; Jason’s cold noodle dish with the addition of asian pear doesn’t disappoint.
Karen’s marinated and grilled short ribs with nectarine kimchi is declared the most flavorsome (and most Korean), and Giselle’s chicken wings with cucumber salad were delicious: she might have been worried about her dish, but – in the words of Karen – the girl can cook.
Back in the stew room, Phillip notes that everyone else’s cuisines were more ‘assertive’ but he’s confident about his team’s dishes. Predictably, this is a precursor of what’s to follow:
Team Vegan lands on the bottom, and out of the three remaining teams, the only one who actually did a great job was Team Persia, who are at the top of the bunch. They worked well together, they were happy to create beautiful dishes and the judges enjoyed every single one, especially Marjorie’s dessert: not only is she declared the winner, but the restaurant owner wants to put her dish on the menu!
Before tearing into Team Vegan, the judges make sure Team Mexico knows they were saved by Kwame’s dish and give them a hard time over not asking their ‘ambassador’ any questions. This must really suck for Chad, but he’s mercifully spared any digs about the lack of mexican flavor in a dish that is ostensibly his specialty.
This challenge was all about finding out what’s exciting about Vegan food, says Gail, and Grayson’s face says it all:
Clearly she doesn’t know, and clearly she didn’t think to ask the team’s ambassador. Tom says what we’re all thinking: much like her meatball dish in episode 1, this was a nice little salad anyone could whip up on a Sunday afternoon; nothing Top Chef worthy about it. Ludo, even more to the point, says it’s as if the green beans died for nothing. Ouch.
Frances, on the other hand, defends her choice of dish by explaining she went with what she knows. Her ‘the can said organic‘ statement prompts Tom to wonder why, with all the amazing produce available in southern California, she would choose a canned bean; it also gets this reaction from Padma:
Yep, her face says it all.
Renee explains her bizarre thought process in coming up with the beet dish: I saw the lovely spring greens I’m so familiar with, then I saw the red vein sorel; I didn’t want to do a salad (Grayson makes sure to thank her for that in the stew room later) so I went with the beet. Okay then. The sauce was good, the idea wasn’t bad, but that filling was awful and the whole dish turned out mushy.
Phillip was probably the only one excited by the vegan theme, but all he did was present one of his restaurant dishes; Gail didn’t appreciate the fact that it was ‘twizified’ and didn’t mesh with the garden setting, and in the end, it just lacked flavor.
The chefs get beat up a little more, deservedly so, because it was blatantly obvious they didn’t enjoy themselves in this challenge, and it showed on the plate. There was no creativity, no passion, no inspiration. Padma refutes Phillips’ argument about the no animal product restriction by telling them that this team probably had it the easiest: they could have gone with any cuisine, any type of meal they chose, and they opted for safe, unimaginative dishes.
During deliberation, it’s quickly decided that both Phillip and Frances are safe; their choice of dish wasn’t the best, but both dishes were tasty and none of them made any mistakes.
It’s down to Renee and Grayson, and no one is surprised when sassy Renee is told to pack her knives and go. Grayson narrowly avoided elimination again, and she doesn’t even seem worried that maybe she’s doing something wrong. This just annoys the crap out of me, and I’m ready to see the slow-talking chef sent home.