Each season of Top Chef has the episode to weed out the chefs without the French culinary training. This was as Frenchy as French could French. It was Maurice Chevalier sitting on a wheel of brie drinking Côtes du Rhône reading Victor Hugo with Pepé le Pew on the television.
This is one of those areas where I piss off a lot of folks in the western culinary world. At times, I think Top Chef reveals a little cultural chauvinism. French is one of the world’s grande mother cuisines, but it is not the only mother cuisine. A chef well trained in traditional Chinese techniques that would blow the minds off of many of the competing chefs and judges would have failed in this episode without the prerequisite dogma that rules most western cuisine. Now that I’ve thoroughly oui-oui’d on the sacred deities that French-trained chefs worship, I’ll state that I love French cuisine. LOVE IT. I’m just not comfortable with the dogma that it’s the only cuisine to take seriously, just like classical western music (Bach not Brooks) isn’t the only music to take seriously.
It was back-to-school time for the competitors. The high stakes quickfire challenge, presided over by Tom Colicchio and Daniel Boulud, who is one of the world’s most legendary chefs and the instigator of the whole gourmet burger trend. The challenge was to cook a dish with escargot (snails). Jennifer, whom I’ve been wow’ed by this whole time went down one notch in my adore-a-meter when she said that the first person to eat a snail “had to be really f***ing hungry.”
Aw, come on, Jennifer! You’re with Eric Ripert. Snails are freakin’ awesome!
Actually, the snails we eat here in Korea, Golbaengi, are sea snails. They’re much huger, but they’re generally the same. They taste great and are amazingly easy to cook. We usually eat them in a cold spicy salad, consisting of Chinese chives, shaved onions, and a marinade of gochujang, rice vinegar and garlic. In my armchair quarterback mode, I would have made something like that. And considering what impressed Chef Boulud, it may have worked. He seemed to be pleased by well-placed acidity, especially acidity from Asian ingredients like yuzu. Snails work well with that. The traditional way to cook them in France is smothering each shell with butter mixed with garlic and parsley. Acid like lemon, yuzu and rice vinegar wakes up the dormant flavors hiding in these little critters.
A high stakes quickfire again this time. The winner got immunity plus an extra surprise. The loser got sent home.
Asswipe Mike, who actually has been shown as much cooler now and has been simmered down to Maybe-sort-of-asswipe Mike, brought in some of his Greek influence.
“Thought you were from f***in’ Jersey.”
Hector, from Puerto Rico, was at a major disadvantage. He admitted he didn’t do any French food in his restaurant, which is fine (read above). Mattin was totally in his element. I still can’t get over that he’s straight.
The winner ended up being (surprise) Kevin “Happy Beard” Gillespie. Knocked it out by adding “bacon jam.” Colicchio later wrote that the bacon jam was one of the few dishes from all of Top Chef that he went and recreated himself.
(Chef Gillespie, if you’re willing to share that recipe… we happen to have a comment section.)
The three losers were Robin with a play on lox and bagel. She gets points in my book for trying to squeeze in more Jewish cuisine.
Ashley made “Soup and Salad” with a shredded leek salad, which is the stuff that we usually get when we go out for galbi. The soup looked like the classic escargots with butter–drowning.
“Help! Save me!”
The third losing dish was poor Jesse’s. Girl just couldn’t get a break. But seriously, the name of her dish was “E.L.T.???”
Escargot sandwiched in fried green tomatoes with mache.
What is mache, you ask?
It’s a tiny little green that’s popular in Europe. It’s pronounced “mawsh,” but I guess we can also live with Jesse calling it “mash.”
I like each element separately, but yeah. Jennifer was right about her comment previously that escargots are pretty delicate. I’m sure the fried tomatoes lent too much greasiness and overpowered the other the “E” and the “L.”
To find the ultimate loser, the three had to make an amuse bouche in 20 minutes. How amusing! We learned about amuse bouches in the first episode of season 3. Remember Clay making a salad in a hollowed out apple? The thing is an amuse should be eaten in one or two bites and should have some intense surprising flavors. Robin did an avocado soup with yuzu (hey, if it worked for Jennifer it could work for me, right). Jesse did a tuna tartare (that’s tuna tartare #2 for the season). She also couldn’t resist frying something again, this time–bread. Ashley did foie gras with caramelized pineapple, which I think was cheating. You know, like when you’re watching an episode of Iron Chef, and you can tell the chef has run out of creativity and uses foie gras as a crutch…
Oh, you don’t?
Well, anyway, Jesse lost out. Put her out of her misery. I honestly was sad for her because it did seem like she was a better chef than she showed on the program. But the competition frazzled her.
So, after her elimination, it was time for the–um, elimination challenge. Each chef drew a knife. Each knife either had a classic French-style protein or a classic French sauce. Chefs with proteins paired with chefs with sauces. This goes back to what I was saying about it being unfair to chefs from other cultures. You can still be a stellar classically trained Indian chef and know the ins and outs of every curry and not know or need to know how to make a Sauce Américaine. This is an American show, and it is based in French cuisine, but I hope in future seasons, as more non-western chefs compete, that the producers become less provincial in their world views on mother cuisines. You know–as in show their skills in classic Chinese techniques.
Now the Frenchiness gets even Frenchier. They would cook this six course meal for famous French chefs: Hubert Keller (another rock star of the gourmet burger and seen recently on Top Chef Masters), Jean Joho, Laurent Tourondel, and…
The Chef of the Century who is such a god that I’m nervous typing his name…
. <–see, even the period can’t sit next to his name
Chef Robuchon is such a legendary mythical figure that Eli confided, “I’m looking forward to seeing him in the flesh. I was under the impression that he didn’t actually exist and that he might be a unicorn.”
So the proteins were rabbit, chateaubriand (think really thick filet mignon), frog legs, trout, lobster and poussin (young chicken). The sauces were Meuniére, Velouté, Béarnaise, Américaine, Chasseur and au Poivre.
Now, I do have experience in professional (if you want to call them that) kitchens, but the most formal culinary education I’ve had was bartending school and a hotel and restaurant management course in college. I’m a layman. Think Michael Rhulman with less talent and before he went to CIA. In fact, I have the latest edition of the CIA textbook next to me. All 72 lbs. of it. Let me crack it open and enlighten us all on these sauces. I always forget them.
Meuniére – Means “miller’s wife.” I don’t think it means that in the Chaucerian sense. It’s brown butter, parsley and lemon. It’s used a lot with seafood in cajun cuisine.
Velouté – This is one of those mother sauces. It’s a light stock thickened with a blonde roux.
Béarnaise – The “naise” in it should be a hint. It’s related to hollandaise and, yeah, mayonnaise. In this one, it’s a suspension of egg yolks, white wine reduction, shallots and tarragon, finished with butter and chervil.
Américaine – It uses fish velouté and flavor extracted from lobster shells with onions, tomatoes, white wine, brandy and–this is a tough one because there are many variations out there, and the comments by the chefs later on verify that it’s hard to pinpoint, and I couldn’t find much info in the book.
Chasseur – The hunter’s sauce. Classic hearty brown sauce. If you’ve ever had a proper Jägerschnitzel you get the idea.
au Poivre – It’s what you get when you make Steak au Poivre–a peppercorn pan sauce.
Ron and Robin did Frog Legs Meuniére with Lemon Confit, Mache (there it is again) and Arugula Salad with Fried Capers. That produced one of the funniest sarcastic descriptions I’ve ever heard on Top Chef, again coming from our man, Eli.
“I see their dish on the way out, and they’re sitting on top of a beautiful wilted salad of dead greens and overly caked frog legs, and it looks AWESOME!”
It looks like one blogger found it less than classy–ironic coming from a blogger ::cough:: (looking in mirror). Maybe he was annoyed that Eli was being just as snarky as the rest of us. Loved it! Turned out later that Eli’s comment was dead on target.
Jersey Mike (craving a sandwich right now) and Bryan of the V. Bros. (the one with negative facial movement) made a Warm Cured Trout with Deconstructed Béarnaise. “Deconstructed” is one of those trendy things chefs do these days. I actually quite like it when it’s done well, and it looked like it was done well here. They used squeeze bottles to drop little separate elements of a full béarnaise on the plate, causing Chef Boulud to correctly suggest stirring it together to make the sauce. The trout also was a stroke of genius. We’re going into the stratosphere with the technique this season.
A note, I found it odd that every time that Chef Robuchon spoke (in French) the camera was on Gail, who had this look like, “Hey, I’m impressed that he can speak French!”
An unintentional side effect from the editing.
Laurine and Eli did Lobster, Sauce Américaine with Cauliflower Purée.
They generally thought it was a successful dish but was very difficult to execute for someone “with no French training.” To be nitpicky, they said the lobster was overcooked, and the sauce was too bitter from the olive oil.
Mattin and Ashley did a Seared Poussin and Ravioli with Sauce Velouté and Green Asparagus. There was a little miff between the two at Whole Foods on whether and how to incorporate asparagus in the dish. Ashley wanted to use the asparagus in the sauce. Mattin said it would have turned it a sickly green. Since Mattin was French, Ashley just followed his advice. It ended up hurting them. I wondered that if the problem with the asparagus was turning the sauce green–was there no white asparagus available? There also was a lot of unnecessary bacon that Tom particularly didn’t like. “Everyone likes to say that everything is better with bacon. This is one case where it’s not.”
Jennifer and Mike of the V. Bros., who now kinda resembles Eminem to me, made Rabbit Chasseur with Mustard Noodle and Shiso. Shiso, if it is the right Japanese shiso, has one of those indescribable flavors. To someone who is not familiar with it, shiso adds a surprise that can be exciting or unsettling, depending on your comfort zone. The chefs agreed that the dish was very mature for chefs their age. That was the dish that I really wish I could have tasted–with that bacon jam.
Ash and Hector made Chateaubriand, Sauce au Poivre with Confit de Pommes and Spinach. They ran into bad trouble when we saw that Hector pulled out the beef tenderloins a mere five minutes before service. Now, for anyone who has watched Alton Brown, you know the thermodynamics working here. The hot juices in the beef are under pressure, and the meat needs to be rested so that the pressure goes down and the fibers suck those juices back in. Five minutes ain’t long enough. Hector, in the heat of the moment, started hacking into the thing like Mrs. Lovett, and blood was spurting out like a B-grade horror flick. Ash was saucing these freshly sawed steaks, which ended up resting on the plates and sucked up the thin sauce instead of the juices they were supposed to retain.
Chef Robuchon had a “Where’s the sauce” moment. So sad that the meal had to end on that.
It was even sadder that Hector did it. He was one of my favorite characters this season, and I really wanted to see more of his latin style. C’est la vie. He had to pack his knives and go. But not before Mattin really caught it for being the French kid who fucked up the French challenge. To be fair, he had turned 29 the night before and partied a bit hard. Mattin, we shoulda told ya that the 3-0 birthday is the one to party hard on. Thirty is the new twenty-one. Trust me. By then you have the experience to back up that cockiness, which actually leads to a healthy dose of humility. Too bad this was part of the humiliation.
Bryan won with his fish. I think you can watch the dreamy Fabio show you how to make it on the Top Chef web site. And I am so happy to announce that Bryan has regained feeling in his face. He actually smiled.
So we’ve had the obligatory show-your-French-skills episode. We’ve lost another contestant with some color in his skin. Only two out of the five sent packing so far have been melatonin deficient. Not that it means anything. Just an observation. I hope it’ll be a long while before they do another French heavy show again–not really for what it says about culinary chauvinism, just so that I won’t have to use that “special chäractérs” button so much.