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Food Is Personal: Dietary Restrictions Galore on "Top Chef Masters"

It's said that necessity is the mother of invention and restrictions can often pave the way to creativity.

This week's episode of Top Chef Masters ("Dietary Restrictions") forced the five remaining master chefs to do just that when they were faced with their toughest challenge yet: catering a lunch for actress/singer Zooey Deschanel and her friends.

The only problem: Deschanel is a vegan with gluten allergies and an aversion to soy to boot. If they had any chance of pulling off this complicated and restrictive meal, they would have to see beyond the limitations to offer up inventive and thoughtful meat- and dairy-free dishes that satisfied both the dietary restrictions of the party's hostess but also the diverse appetites of her guests.

So, did this challenge prove to be a Herculean task or a walk in the garden for these astute chefs? Let's discuss.

But before we get to the Elimination Challenge, a few quick words about this week's Quickfire Challenge, which had the chefs prepare a spin on the classic burger as well as a side in under thirty minutes. On hand to judge the chefs' dishes were filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), restaurateur Sang Yoon (of Father's Office here in LA, home of one of my personal favorite burgers), and former Top Chef contestant Spike Mendelsohn.

Top marks went to Rick Bayless for his queso fundido burger with three guacamoles (though I will admit, despite Bayless' tizzy, I wouldn't have known what to do with three guacamoles without any chips) and Michael Chiarello, who prepared a gigantic burger with truffle hand-cut fries. Both landed four stars. But it was a very different story for poor Anita, who walked away with a staggering one and a half stars for her cheeseburger soup, an innovative and original spin on the burger brief that failed to hit its mark. If she had any hopes of remaining in the competition, Lo would have to pull out all of the stops in the Elimination Challenge.

First up was Hubert Keller, who created a trio of items, including: white gazpacho with cucumbers, rice milk, grapes, vanilla oil, and almond milk; timbale of avocado, tomatoes, and asparagus; and roasted beet salad with edible flowers. A masterful combination of flavors and textures on the part of the so-called French angel (Chiarello's words, not mine). I wanted to reach through the television and steal that shot glass of silky, ethereal cucumber gazpacho.

Lo was up next with a spicy grilled eggplant with green lentil salad and a cashew sauce with crispy fried shallots. Main complaint was that the eggplant was almost sodden with oil, far too wet and greasy. Jay Rayner complained that it wasn't properly salted during prep and was far too acidic. Not Lo's finest work this week and I was on eggshells waiting to see if she'd get cut from the competition...

Chiarello smartly went for pasta, despite its glutinous connotations, and instead located some gluten-free pasta at Whole Foods that was derived from protein-rich quinoa. He offered up a dish of quinoa pasta with salsa verde, Calabrian chili, and garlic topped with a pine nut, parsley, and preserved lemon gremolata, oven-dried tomatoes, and crispy fried basil. It was a hearty, meaty meal that contained no meat or actual gluten. Was he smart to buy the pasta? Hell yeah. It was made from quinoa and there was no way he could reproduce it in the time he had. Clever, efficient, and crafty.

Bayless offered Deschanel's guests fresh corn tamales with chili-braised black beans, braised greens, and glazed mushrooms that everyone raved about. The sweetness of the corn was perfectly balanced by the heat from those chilies and black beans. A well-balanced and well-executed dish that proved why Bayless is the master of Mexican cuisine in the States.

And then finally there was dessert. Smith concocted a strawberry and champagne soup, topped with strawberry rice milk ice cream, and homemade almond brittle with bittersweet chocolate. I was just as confused by Smith's choices as the judges. While it made sense for Chiarello to buy the quinoa pasta, it made absolutely no sense for Smith to buy that carton of rice milk ice cream... when he could have easily just made a dairy-free sorbet instead. The dish was messy and unfocused and just showed a lack of imagination and creativity, which was especially odd as Smith himself volunteered to do the dessert course and then dropped the ball completely.

While the top prize went to Chiarello, it came down to Lo and Smith in the bottom two spots. I was freaking out that Anita Lo would be the one to get the boot; despite her lackluster performance this week, she has dazzled overall and I'd hate to see her leave before the final round. But the judges wisely awarded her a half a star more than Smith, keeping her in the competition for another week and sending Smith packing.

Whew.

Did the judges make the right decision? Who would you have awarded the top spot too and who would you have sent home? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef Master ("Masters of Disaster"), the four remaining chefs must perform their final Quickfire challenge blindfolded and later they must demonstrate their leadership skills when catering a large event... without touching the food themselves.

Top Chef Masters Preview: Fridge Fight



Top Chef Masters Preview: The Right Staff



Top Chef Masters Preview: The Final Quickfire

Comments

Anelise said…
I was so, so happy that Anita didn't get cut! She definitely was not on top of her game but has done so spectacularly in the past that I was hoping she'd squeak by. I will keep my fingers crossed that she performs better next week!
Hadley said…
I want to take a swim in Hubert Keller's white gazpacho. It sounded heavenly.

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