Top Chef Season 2, Episode 1: Flames, snails and frogs


Well well, so season 2 is upon us.

15 contestants is way too many to start with, so I can barely remember half of them. The new host? I will reserve my judgement (more on the hosting position a bit later). Let us jump straight into the challenges.

Setting fire to food is fun

The flambé challenge was a nice one to start off the competition. Flames are nicely dramatic on TV, and it showed if the contestants know how to execute a particular chef-y yet not that hard cooking technique. Flambéing requires using a liquor with a high alcohol content that ignites easily. The objective of flaming the liquor is to burn off the alcohol, so that you are left with the flavor only. (This is why you won't get tipsy if you eat a stack of the classic flaming dish from the '70s, Crêpes Suzette.) Of course you do need to choose a liquor that fits whatever you are flaming it with.

The only real loser in this round in my opinion was Elia, who used red wine as her alcohol. How can someone trained in France not know that red wine doesn't have nearly enough alcohol to flame? Her dish also looked like a pile of strawberries covered with shit. Making strawberries and chocolate look so bad is criminal.


Very disappointing.

The non-functional garnish anti-fetish expressed by guest judge Harold Dieterle (winner of season 1, if you are new to this) is a trend these days, but I am not sure if Carlos got overly penalized for this.

The winning dish by Sam did sound very interesting - though shrimp with alcohol is a sort of cliché these days. But it was a well deserved win.

Mystery Box

Skipping right over the filler and the typing of Marcel as this season's Stephen and Miguel Michael as this season's Chunk le Funk, the main Mystery Box challenge was again, a pretty nice one. Box one for the orange group consisted of:

  1. snails
  2. processed American cheese
  3. roasted peanuts
  4. artichokes
  5. potatoes

Box two for the black group was:

  1. frog's legs
  2. chicken livers
  3. peanut butter
  4. cornflakes
  5. eggplant

If you notice, they match fairly well. Ingredient 1 is a chef-y one that would make a lot of people say "ewww", but both snails and frog's legs are very neutral things that basically take on the flavors of whatever is added to them. Snails are like sponges in that sense, and frog legs are like very delicate chicken. (Yup, a mystery meat that really does 'taste like chicken'.) Ingredient 2 is an ingredient with a very distinctive and difficult to incorporate taste and texture. No. 3 is well, peanuts in some form. No. 4 is sort of the rogue ingredient, and no. 5 is a neutral, all-purpose kind of vegetable/accompaniment.

All of the top group's dishes looked great to me. If I had to choose one I would have gone for Mia's, since it looked like a refined version of down-home cooking, and that is the kind of cooking that I like the most. But I certainly had no problem with Ilan winning - his dish looked very pretty and restaurant-foodish. Besides, he's almost from my old neighborhood on Long Island.

ilanwinningep1.jpgpretty food

As I posted in my daily links yesterday, there is an article about him in the online version of Newsday, the Long Island, NY newspaper. If you want to try and recreate this dish for yourself, our favorite girl from last season Lee Anne Wong shows you how in the first episode of the horribly named The Wong Way To Cook webcast. (Lee Anne looks really good though - she's a natural on screen. Give her a real TV show!)

Also, just in case, do not just go and pick up snails from your garden. Unless you have a source for farm-bred, clean snails, use the cleaned and canned ones that come with sterilized shells. I investigated this a while back since our garden is full of snails and slugs, and concluded that in this case, 'wild game' was not a good idea.

I was a bit disappointed, though not surprised, at the elimination of Suyai - she was totally out of her depth. Still I would have kicked Otto myself since a man of his experience, and a cooking teacher no less, screwing up rice when he had 2 hours to do something is pretty inexcusable.

I'd also have liked to have seen Suyai stick around a bit more. It may sound odd that she turned to food as a profession to combat bullemia, but I understand that way of thinking in a way. I've had weight and eating issues for a lot of my adult life, and you may think that having a food blog would be counterproductive to attempts at healthy eating or losing weight. But rather than sabotaging my efforts in that direction, writing for and doing research for this blog has helped me learn more about healthy eating and cooking than ever before. But anyway, we say goodbye to the sweet blond girl and wish her well.


  • We saw everyone's favorite food sage Anthony Bourdain flashed onto the screen during the season preview, in all likelihood as a guest judge.
  • Early season villain candidate Marcel works for Joël Robuchon, who was the star chef of the '80s to '90s (he retired as an active chef a few years ago, but he still oversees the restaurants that bear his name. For some odd reason his official site is all in Japanese). So I guess Marcel has in a sense the most impressive haute cuisine creds.
  • The little speech at the beginning by Tom Colicchio was a bit jarring. "I am not the chef, I am not your mentor, I am a judge", etc. It's almost like the producers stuck that in there to answer to the (online) critics who wanted him to be the Top Chef version of Tim Gunn, or even Gordon Ramsay. (Tom Colicchio talks about this on his blog. It was just a bit odd in the context of the actual show though to stick that speech in there.)
  • On the new host, Padma. I think that the producers and the fans are looking at the Host position in the wrong way here. Given what the Host does, what we need really is not a foodie slash pretty face or unpretty face or whatever ... we actually do not need the Host to be a foodie per se at all. We need an actor in this position who can make suitably sympathetic, authoritative or amused expressions and sounds given the limited number of lines s/he is given to say, while the critics/other judges are given free reign to natter on. In other words, we need an American version of Chairman Kaga from the original Iron Chef. Padma Lakshmi is a model/actress, so we shall see if her acting skills can carry her through.
  • I want to see Sexy Marisa come on to Tom Colicchio. Really, I do. (I have a feeling he would not take kindly to it, but who knows, he is a male.)
  • I have now an aversion to Kenmore kitchen appliances. (Seriously the product placement is way too in your face. Lighten up already.)
  • And in case you care...the good news, for me anyway, is that a friend has kindly agreed to send me new episodes of Top Chef. This means I don't have to wait on the iTunes Music Store, which could be a good thing since as of right now there's not even a shadow of season 2 on iTMS. If they do put it up there, I fully intend to buy the episodes once they become available, since for an expat like me iTMS is an invaluable lifeline to mindless U.S. based entertainment, and I want it to stay that way. However, I'm going to be away next week so episode 2's posting will not be up until 2 weeks from today.
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Finally got around to reading your recap since I finally got around to putting mine up.

Anyway, I really liked that Tom defined his position, since it was so nebulous last season and was kind of a problem for me. Also, I like Padma a whole lot, although that might just be in contrast to Katie Lee.

Also, I liked and identified with Suyai a lot. I was sad to see her go, but she did make the most mistakes. I almost feel like it was for her own good.

I wanted to pick Ilan as my favorite, but the previews make him out to be some sort of Machiavellian backstabber, so I think I'll stick with Sam for now. They're both so pretty though.

OK, so Padmi is a model/actress, but already she's better than Billy Joel's mannequin/wife from last year. Maybe the host(ess) doesn't need to be a foodie, but they at least need a personality.

Re: Tom's position. It's not a bad one to have I guess, and his clarification on his blog made sense, especially about the time constraints they are under. We don't want another screaming Gordon Ramsay on there. And I suppose it is fairer for the competition if they don't have a 'mentor' to correct their ways. Sometimes I'd love to see someone give the contestants a kick in the pants though!

I think I'll wait to see how Padma works out...she hasn't done much of anything so far (except wear white go-go boots....ugh)