22 May עופר איתן Reports: Chefs Make Japanese Food For Olympics
Before we get into this week’s episode, did you notice the recap clip from last week they kept playing, from the Gathering of the Karens? Padma tells the contestants that they’re going to have to make a “buffet,” only she pronounces it “boo-FAY,” like Phoebe Buffay from Friends. I suppose that’s neither here nor there, but imagine having to relive your weirdest pronunciation over and over.
Another observation I’ve developed from watching this season: industrial kitchen equipment apparently never works. One of the ironclad laws of Top Chef is that if you put a panna cotta in a blast chiller, it’s not going to set. Clafoutis in the convection oven? Good luck. Egg custards in the steamer? You’re dreamin’, pal. Nothing ever works! What have we learned? I guess we’ve learned that Top Chef is not the bedroom, it’s not a time to experiment with new equipment.
Anyway, this week began with Top Chef‘s classic blind taste test challenge. It’s sort of a low stakes Fear Factor where instead of cave spiders and goat dicks the blindfolded contestants have to try to identify tarragon and pepitas. The twist this year was that they’d only get to use the ingredients they’d successfully identified, to be used in a dessert challenge. Too bad the easiest ingredients to identify are mostly the worst to make desserts with. Blue cheese-rosemary bread pudding, anyone? Okay, so no one made that, but Grandpa Fancy did use the wood-fired oven and Family Bry prepared what appeared to be a trio of fancy dirts.
Mmm, just what I want after a big meal, to tuck into a delicious, comforting ingredient like… (*checks notes*) “coconut sand.”
As it would turn out, those skills would come in handy in the next challenge — a progressive Kaiseki meal for Olympic athletes in honor of this Summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games. Aw, remember when there was going to be an Olympics? That would’ve been so great. I got sad every time an athlete talked about what they couldn’t wait to do in Tokyo.
Also, I know what you’re thinking: did the producers bust out the pan flute soundtrack for the Japanese challenge? Oh you better believe it. It was like Karate Kid up in that kitchen. You would’ve thought Mr. Miyagi was back there, catching flies with chopsticks. Grr, Orientalism!
Anyway, I’ve never been to Japan so I’ve never had a kaiseki, but the way it was explained seemed a little… confusing? As guest judges Niki and Carole Lidi-Nakayama (the Nakayama sisters) put it, kaiseki is meant to be “a celebration of nature.” “It’s best to protect the integrity of the ingredient. It’s about cooking with restraint.”
How should it be plated? “Plate it like mountain, river, and valley, so it’s reflective of nature.”
Chef Gregory asked about the rice course. Is it always just regular steamed rice? “Yes, but it also depends on the rest of your menu.”
The soup course, they said, was supposed to taste “almost underseasoned” at first.
Uhhh… okay? Meanwhile, the chefs would be cooking for the judges, the Nakayamas, and a handful of Olympic athletes. Which is to say, one group of people who have extremely specific ideas of what a kaiseki should be and another group of people who have never had kaiseki and have no idea what it’s supposed to taste like.
Perfect, very clear guidelines! Food should be just like a mountain, but also a river and a valley. The knife cuts are very important but it should also look like nature. Protect their integrity. With your knife. One course should be steamed rice, but it also depends. It should taste slightly underseasoned, but only at first. Did you guys get it? Don’t screw it up!
Oh, also, Padma has bangs now.
Amazing how she can go from not-bangs to bangs in the space of a single episode, isn’t it? That’s the mark of a true professional.
6 (-2) ((Eliminated)) Karen Akunowicz
AKA: Good Witch. Aka Glenda. Aka Aunt Kitty. Aka Rosie The Triveter. Aka Her-cules.
Karen can now boast two eliminations for cooking Japanese food, and three eliminations overall. Ironic for a chef who spent most of this episode’s interviews in an Asian-inspired dress.
Wait, is this dress Chinese or Japanese? Sorry, sorry I’m trying to delete please stop canceling me.
Poor Karen kind of got railroaded by this week’s challenge. She was assigned the yakitori course, which is meat grilled over charcoal, and tried to cook duck. The trouble with duck is that it’s fatty as hell, which is why you usually have to roast it carefully (with Peking duck you blanch the skin first and let it hang for a day or two), score it and render it on a pan, or smoke it. Karen realized she didn’t have enough room to grill it long enough, and belatedly tried to smoke it, but probably it was just the wrong meat. It ended up not tasty enough and not cute enough for the challenge.
Tough break, but it did come right after a too-looooose panna cotta put her in the bottom of the quickfire challenge, so it felt more or less deserved. Not that it wasn’t still a bummer to see Karen go home after we’d only just learned that she’s into powerlifting. Only now you’re telling us? We’ve missed out on so many feats of strength! MEATS OF STRENGTH. That should’ve been Karen’s restaurant wars concept, a barbecue place dedicated to gains.
5 (+1) Stephanie CMar
AKA: C-Monster. Aka Underdog. Aka C-Truffle.
Wow, check out the big week on Stephanie. This week’s episode opened with a tragic human interest story, centering around Stephanie’s departed brother, who came to her in a dream. That kind of foreshadowing can generally go either way, setting up a redemptive victory or still more crushing adversity. Luckily for Steph she got the Obi-Wan version.
First she named the most ingredients in the taste test challenge (nose like a dang bloodhound, that one), and then she ended up winning the elimination challenge. Her winning dish? Panna cotta served inside a yuzu shell.
Holy shit, is that how you honor nature? I still remember a house party where my friend Melissa Dean cut open and scooped out some limes, and then poured jello shots into them, and then waited for the jello to set and cut them into quarters. It came out like the little lime wedges you bite into after a tequila shot, only with a jello shot in them. I thought it was really impressive, but I was also like 25 at the time and drunk as hell. Who knew basically the same thing would impress the pants off some Michelin-starred chefs in a traditional kaiseki? Shots! Shots! Shots! Now, if only Karen had assembled her yakitori into a life-sized duck.
So after her big victory, why is the C-Monster still ranked so low? I don’t know, I guess it’s just hard to know what this challenge means for the rest of the competition. It was a very specific challenge and C-Monster won with a dessert. I’d like to think for Steph’s sake that that means she can take a run at Gregory and Melissa or at least Bryan Voltaggio, but I don’t see it. Yet.
4. (+1) Brian Malarkey
AKA: Shenanigans. Aka Grandpa Fancy. Aka Squirrely. Aka The Imp. Aka Leprechón.
Grandpa Fancy is the wild card, as always, landing in the top two in the quickfire for his wood-fired cake, and then seeming to almost go home for his too-cold soup. I think the main reason I still have Shenanigans ranked above the C-Monster is that he’s just so good at weaseling out of his own mistakes. He kind of makes everyone else seem like a rube by comparison. You saw him in that pitch session, don’t trust that ADD-kid facade for a second.
Malarkey basically spent this entire episode convincing us…