Top Chef

Warning: this entry contains major spoilers for the first episode of Top Chef.

Top Chef is a new reality show that airs on Bravo TV in the US. It's a cooking contest show where contestants vie for the privilege of being crowned Top Chef. (And some prize money too.) The first episode is being offered for free on the iTunes Music Store. (Note, it's free but you still need a U.S. credit card to download it.)

I am rather addicted to reality TV shows. I loved Project Runway (I have the season 1 DVDs and season 2 is also available via iTMS), which is by the same people who produce Top Chef. Combine food and reality, and you've got me hooked. I loved the British MasterChef show enough to try out one of the challenges for myself for seven &$!*#! weeks. And most of all, Top Chef's chief judge is Tom Colicchio. Just in case you don't know, Tom Colicchio is a Food God. His restaurants Gramercy Tavern and Craft in New York City are amongst the best in a city full of great restaurants. His mere presence gives the show credibility.

I'm not going to spend too much time talking about the typical reality TV aspects of the show. I understand that the producers have to entertain the audience first and foremost, and this is why they have selected a very photogenic girl as the host and another one as the food critic. Someone like Jeffrey Steingarten would have leant the show even more credibility, but he looks a bit less attractive I guess in low cut dresses. For what it's worth, as a show it's quite entertaining. But I'm going to focus on the food and cooking aspects.

Once more, before you read further, Warning: this entry contains major spoilers for the first episode of Top Chef.

Unlike the British MasterChef where the participants are all amateurs who aspire to becoming professionals, the contestants for Top Chef all work in the food industry already: some are restaurant chefs, and others are teachers, personal chefs, and so on. For this reason my expectations for the Top Chef guys and girls was much higher.

Let's put it like this: the first show left me gasping. Mostly with horror.

Some of these so-called food professionals seem to have absolutely no taste buds.

The first challenge, to work on the line in a busy French restaurant in San Francisco, was fairly predictable so I'll skip over that. Basically the ones with restaurant experience who could hold their nerve did well. The second challenge was to produce a "signature dish". They had 1 hour for shopping, and 3 hours to produce the dish. (3 hours! The MasterChef amateurs had to do a 3 course meal within 90 minutes if they got through to the quarter-finals! But I digress.)

So anyway, let's review some of the signature dishes produced by the contestants. I've quoted how they described their dishes verbatim as much as possible.

Natural Food Chef (or something) Andrea produced "shrimp and broccoli stir fry with spicy plum sauce and brown rice, steam kale with tahini dressing and carrot flowers, and a sesame maple coleslaw".

My reaction: WHAT???? Plums with broccoli??? Tahini with kale??? Sesame? Maple? Cabbage? WHAT???? To make things worse, she apparently overcooked the broccoli and her kale was full of sand! Oh. My. God.

At Durgin Park (a famed lobster-and-prime-rib joint in Boston) they used to have a vegetable dish named "Bales of Hay". (They may still have it but I haven't been there in some time.) The above combo sounded like Bales of Hay that were turning into compost.

Moving on, here's Irish born "classically trained" chef Ken's signature dish, though he said "I don't have a restaurant, so I don't have a signature dish." Duh. Anyway he made "pan-seared Alaskan halibut, soy bean, green onion and parsnip purée, heirloom tomato compote, and (here I couldn't really catch what he was saying despite rewinding several times) toute-something of fig Asterique(??? Asterix? Dunno.)"

My reaction: What a pretentious, overblown and pile of crap is this? This is "fusion" at its very worst. This is what turns people off fusion. He deserves to die, in the culinaric sense.

It seems his execution of this high-fallutin' menu was lacking too. He was kicked, and deservedly so, even discounting his outrageous rudeness and general signs that he was not in his right mind.

Those two were definitely the worst, and both were deservedly in the bottom three. The other bottom three dish was by model slash cooking school student Candice, who am I pretty sure got selected mainly on her looks. She produced "chicken shiitake roulade with apple tonkatsu sauce, wasabi mashed potatoes, blanched asparagus and soy-ginger cashews". It seems she had some major execution problems, which if she can't overcome will probably mean an early exit for her unless she agrees to cook in a bikini or so, but I didn't think her dish if executed well would have been too awful. But making watery mashed potatoes when you have three hours to prepare it is inexcusable. And the soy-ginger cashews are one item too many.

Let's see, here's one of the dishes from the sommelier dude Stephen (described as a "professional bullshitter" by another contestant, Lee Anne, who so far is my favorite character). He presented a "Threesome of Colorado lamb: braised short rib (one teeny one), rack of lamb seared to the fourth power with rock salt, mirin, soy sauce and white miso paste, and a soup of lamb sausage and fava bean." This one actually ended up in the top three, but I don't know. That poor baby lamb rack (it was really a little lamb cutlet), assaulted four ways, with four strong flavors. This also smells like Bad Fusion to me. Mirin, soy sauce and miso are flavors from my culture, and seeing them used at abandon makes me shudder. And that Colorado Lamb part. I know, that it's quite the in thing in many American restaurants to describe the heritage of your food to you, whether it makes any difference or not. It reminds me of that cow in Douglas Adams' The Restaurant At The End Of the Universe who comes up to diners and suggests which part of her body you should order for dinner. But I digress.

(Incidentally, the Sommelier also presented a Spanish wine, a Pintoresco made from the Tempranillo. This is actually basically a table wine which may or may not be a notch above a standard house wine in Spain; Tempranillo is one of the common grapes there. It didn't merit the fuss he made over it by any stretch of the imagination, but I do give him credit for trying there, especially within a $30 budget for the while thing. (I'm not really much of a wine person but we happen to have, in our small Swiss village, a wine merchant who specializes in Spanish wines.) Scroll down on this page to the Pintoresco section for a link to a description.)

Only a few dishes sounded even remotely like I'd want to try them. One was the "orange-sage pasta with pumpkin and Parmesano Reggiano filling, with golden raisins rolled up in (something apple-related)", created by the very intense looking Tiffani. It sounds a bit too sweet, but the tasters liked it and it was certainly different. The presentation in the pumpkin shell was really nice. The "braised lamb enchiladas with triple-chili enchilada sauce made with handmade tortillas, and a mash with black beans and sweet corn, plus a chipotle cream-something" by ex-IT guy turned chef Dave sounded a bit twee and California-Mex, but intriguing nevertheless. The "smoked sturgeon salad with saffron fingerling potatoes, lemon confit and balsamic reduction" by Lee Anne (my favorite, remember) sounded refreshing and restrained. I think I probably wouldn't mind personal chef Brian's "chargrilled jerk chicken with coconut mashed potatoes and mango-papaya relish": good, honest and uncomplicated Caribbean food, yay! The "Duo of Beef" by Miguel was halfway intriguing: I'd want the short ribs but I'd skip the filet mignon, which is to my mind a very boring and overrated cut of beef.

Finally, the winner, the "steamed Thai red snapper with brussel sprout leaves, rock shrimp, chanterelles and fall squash sauce" by chef Howard did sound simple, sophisticated and tasty. Using a whole nice butternut squash to produce a dribble of yellow sauce sounds - well, a bit wasteful, to me, but I guess that's the Chef thing. The Bravo TV site has a very simplified recipe.

I do hope those contestants with no skill get kicked ASAP, and that the standard of cooking improves. A LOT. Will I be downloading the following episodes? You bet.

Some other Top Chef reviews by foodies: Ambrosia; The Amateur Gourmet.

[Edit:] Tom Colicchio and the resident Food Critic Gail Simmons have an episode by episode blog (click on Blogs, then choose the episode) on the BravoTV site, though boo to you Bravo for not providing RSS feeds for them. Gail's blog has some specific comments about the signature dishes. She says that the raisin thing was too much for Tiffani's pumpkin pasta, and says Candice's food was sort of like airplane food, among other things.

Complete list of my Top Chef reviews:

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Top Chef

Did you find the female host wooden? She annoyed me with her total lack of charisma. This should be an interesting show. I was underwhelmed by most of the dishes.

Megan | 10 March, 2006 - 23:31

Top Chef

Yes i do think she lacked charisma, though I don't think that has much bearing on the show... I mean, Project Runway was great despite Heidi Klum. One big reason P.R. was great was of course Tim Gunn, who was critical yet fair. If Tom Collicchio can show similar qualities it would be great. One reason why Gordon Ramsay is so great (imo) as a food show personality is that he really can express his opinions well; when someone is screwing up he's really nasty, but when he sees people struggling or when he sees potential, he's spot on.

(I need to get out more... :o)

maki | 11 March, 2006 - 11:28

Top Chef

Hi Maki.
I bought a sauce called "Tsuyu No Moto" which is translated into German as "Nudelsauce Knozentrat". It's delicious but the only way I use it is to add to noodle soups at the last minute. Also, it's not very concentrated. Are there any other uses? I also bought "Shiro" paste which I think is light miso paste but don't know how to use that either. That's what happens when you spend too much time in Globus...
How can you watch the Bravo cooking show in Zürich? I have Sky satellite which allows me to watch Masterchef but that's about it.

roanne | 12 March, 2006 - 11:52

Top Chef

Ignore my question about "Top Chef". Just watched it. I like it. That Ken guy has some serious problems...
Please answer my cooking questions though...

roanne | 12 March, 2006 - 15:42

Top Chef

Nice recap! I definately agree, especially about the stupid stir-fry. It looked completely amateur (not in an untrained sense, but rather a i've-never-tasted-food-so-i-can't-possibly-know-anything-about-it sense). i also really liked tiffani's lasagna; the cheese probably would temper the sweetness of the pumpkin and raisins. I look forward to reading more.

Aoife | 12 March, 2006 - 21:50

Top Chef

Roanne, tsuyu no moto translates as "soup base" - it's usually diluted with water to make the soup for various kinds of noodles. It's similar to the Japanese Essence that I wrote about here some time ago, since it's concentrated soy sauce with dashi and mirin, though the tsuyu no moto also usually has some sugar, which I dont add to my essence formula.

You can use it as a base for teriyaki sauce for example, or just as an alternative to soy sauce. You can use it, diluted with water, to stew things in too, such as a classic nikujaga (Japanese potatoes and beef). In that recipe just substitute the tsuyu no moto diluted about 5x or so with water for the soy sauce, mirin and dashi stock, then at the end add a little bit more to 'finish' the taste.

Now the other thing you mentioned has me stumped. It's probably some sort of miso based paste. What ingredients are listed?

maki | 13 March, 2006 - 08:13

Top Chef

Thanks Maki. The ingredients are written in German (which I don't speak) so here goes...

soyabohnen, reis, salz,alkohol weniger als 1%. The German language sticker goes on to give a recipe with (I think) meat and water. Maybe it's a soup base.

I bought it because I have "The Wagamama Cookbook" which uses Miso. I assumed what I bought was light miso.
Thanks for your help!

roanne | 13 March, 2006 - 08:34

Top Chef

Roanne that sounds like regular white miso to me. Hm how to use it...a lot of ways, but the most common way to use it would be for miso soup. My way to make miso soup. I should post some more miso recipes... (so many things to write, so little time.. :P)

maki | 13 March, 2006 - 11:28

Top Chef

The Irish chef who got kicked early was such a class reality TV type. "I'm not rude, I just say what I think. That's just me." Right.

He made a big deal about wanting to buy a whole chicken breast at the store (he called it by a name unfamiliar to me); they showed him in the back butchering a chicken himself. How much extra would it have cost him to buy a chicken and cut out the breast in his own kitchen? Then he didn't cook chicken at all?

I think the word he used that you didn't recognize was gastrique.

floretbroccoli | 16 March, 2006 - 01:24

Top Chef

A big fault I see so far with the show is that for the second (main) challenge, the contestants have way too much time to fiddle around. For a one course dish they should be allowed maybe 2 hours, 3 at the most. For the dessert for ep 2, they had what, 8 hours? Waay too much time to overthink and over-analyze.

maki | 17 March, 2006 - 17:14
Anne | 8 December, 2006 - 06:55

Top Chef

I'm loviong this show, so far, tho I don't know what the heck some of these foodies are. Thought I was food wise but ?? NOT!!The best part is Tom and the French judge and the Food and Wine critic. They know SO much and that helps to educate me a bit. Some of the contestants are REALLY RUDE, tho they are being put in their places. I do like a few of them re-inventing themselves after their chastising BUT - Andrea amazes me with her self-love affair. WHY was she called back? That does not seem fair and wonder how this could happen.
Poor Dave, but you have to like him and Stephen is another Andrea with his macho but truly bad creations. And on and on, but I'm looking forward to the next show.

Sue | 6 April, 2006 - 23:37

Top Chef

According to a newer post, Andrea got back in because another contestant left for serious family reasons. And assuming that the producers did not plan for a non-elimination show, they had to get someone back in, in order to have enough candidates to kick out during the whole season...

max | 7 April, 2006 - 00:59

Top Chef

who the heck won the compitition???? e-mail the answer to me plzzzzz

halie | 16 April, 2006 - 18:08

Top Chef

I'm rooting for Harold!! Liked LeAnn, thought she should have won over Tiffiany!! I'm tracking Steven down when I go to Vegas!!!!

paula | 5 May, 2006 - 00:48

Top Chef

I'm totally disappointed by last night's show. How could they eliminate Dave when Tiffany failed at all three challenges. Most of us thought this show was about the food, and not the personality. The judges were wrong. Harold 2 wins David 1 win Tiffany 0, and she still makes it to the final. How? David looked wounded on the Today show this morning, and that Top Chef judge looked guilty. Missing a plate could always arrive, but not missing the taste is the whole principal of the show. Tiffany's food didn't make the cut in taste. Oh I tought this show was called Top Chef.

Sheil | 18 May, 2006 - 22:06

Top Chef

I have compliatly enjoyed your show.I'm so excited Harold won.He is the best.I will make sure to watch for opening day in his new place.You've got what it takes.Keep up the good work.

jackie | 25 May, 2006 - 17:34

Top Chef

Jackie, I'm glad you enjoyed the show but you may want to thank the people at Bravotv.com - I'm just a fan. :)

maki | 25 May, 2006 - 23:36

Top Chef

Did you find the female host wooden? She annoyed me with her total lack of charisma. This should be an interesting show. I was underwhelmed by most of the dishes.

Motivation | 3 September, 2006 - 17:55

Top Chef

Motivation, I think most viewers found Katie Lee Joel wooden as a host...which is probably why she's been replaced for season 2. (starting in October!)

maki | 4 September, 2006 - 20:35

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