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Whatever, Whatever: Meatless Meals Fail to Hit the Mark on "Top Chef"

First off, I am not a vegetarian. I've flirted with vegetarianism at certain points in my life (perhaps, most notably, a reaction to dining hall food at university), but I've been a blissfully happy carnivore for the majority of my life and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

That said, vegetarians often get a raw deal in restaurants and sometimes have to deal with chefs that don't understand how to satiate someone's hunger without the inclusion of meat. But vegetarian cuisine can be just as nourishing, comforting, and filling as carnivorous dishes; it's just a matter of replacing protein with protein and making sure that the dish is more than a collection of cooked vegetable side dishes.

Last night's episode of Top Chef ("Meat Natalie") found the cheftestants grappling with the unexpected. After arriving at Tom Colicchio's craftsteak in Las Vegas, they all made a very big assumption and believed that they would be creating steak-based dishes for Tom and his special guest. But Tom's guest was vegetarian actress Natalie Portman and there would be no red meat going out of the kitchen that night.

Top Chef has always been, at its core, about how well the chefs can adapt to whatever is thrown their way, whether that be time elements, a change in plans, or the exclusion of meat altogether when they're cooking in a steakhouse. Some chefs rose to the challenge, producing stunning and inventive dishes, while others this week sank to some new lows.

So how well did they perform? Let's discuss.

This week's Quickfire Challenge had the chefs preparing TV dinners that were meant to be inspired by classic television series, selected by TV Guide editors. After drawing knives to randomly select between seven well-known series from MASH to The Sopranos, the chefs had to deliver a TV dinner-style meal that was not only satisfying and original but also captured the essence of the series.

What did the individual chefs prepare?
  • Bryan (MASH): meatloaf roulade, mashed potato, asparagus, and apple tarte tatin
  • Eli (Gilligan's Island): macadamia nut-encrusted shrimp with sweet potato puree, herb salad, and dessert of cherries and bananas
  • Jennifer (The Flintstones): chicken roulade with garlic cream, pea salad, and carmelized peaches
  • Kevin (The Sopranos): meatballs with polenta, roasted cauliflower, and roasted pears
  • Mike I. (Seinfeld): chicken parmesan with braised swiss chard and cherry pie
  • Mike V. (Cheers): sausage and peppers, mushroom and cheese, warm fruit salad
  • Robin (Sesame Street): burger with egg, crispy kale, carrot salad, and almond-laced cookie

I had a feeling it would come down to either Bryan or Kevin for this one. Both of their dishes not only perfectly fit the brief but also looked absolutely delectable. I really thought it was Bryan's challenge to lose but the judges went with Kevin, who's been on a really fantastic run of late. It was quite apparent that Bryan's near-wins are getting the better of him; he appeared to be seething when Kevin won the Quickfire. No immunity in play but Kevin did win the opportunity to have his winning dish featured as part of Top Chef's frozen dinner line. (It's a product that, I'll be honest, makes me incredibly sad as it seems to be at odds with the series' message about honest, handmade cuisine.)

As for the Elimination Challenge, the chefs had to quickly throw out their conceptualized meat-based dishes to cook solely vegetarian for Natalie Portman and her guests. In a bit of a chance, Portman herself would also be a judge, making it even more imperative that the chefs appealed to her tastes and offered a satisfying and rich meal that didn't involve meat.

Some of the chefs accomplished this better than others. Jennifer's nerves have seriously gotten the better of her and this week she once again skated very dangerously toward elimination, placing in the bottom of the Quickfire and just creatively breaking down during the Elimination Challenge. One major problem among the majority of the dishes is that they didn't quite deliver main courses; several would have worked as beautiful vegetable-based sides but they didn't offer a hunger-sating meal in themselves. And, when you're working with vegetarians, that's a huge issue.

Bryan offered a gorgeous looking artichoke barigoule with confit of shallot, wild asparagus, and fennel puree; it was stunning even without all of the elements he wanted to get onto the plate but it looked like something that might accompany a beautiful steak rather than the main event itself. Same too with Jennifer, who delivered a dish of charred baby eggplant, braised fennel, tomatoes, and verjus nage, which her shaking hands then proceeded to splatter on the guests. I'm really concerned about Jennifer, given her amazing talents; she seems to be all but cracking under the pressure at this point and she can't seem to recover from losses. This was a shockingly underwhelming dish from her and I can only hope that she manages to get it together and regroup... fast.

I'm really not sure what to make of Mike I.'s confusing and bewildering dish of whole roasted leeks with onion jus, baby carrot puree, and fingerling potatoes. He kept referring to the leeks as standing in for the protein so much so that Padma had to make sure that he knew that leeks weren't actually protein. (It was pretty bizarre.) It was such a dish that showed no real vision or execution skills; it was lazy, bland, and just blah. It didn't qualify as a main course or even, really, as a salad, I'd say. Just odd. Likewise, Robin's schizophrenic dish of stuffed squash blossoms, beet carpachio, fresh garbanzo beans, and chermoula was shockingly weird. There was no cohesion to any of the ingredients, no sign of any connective tissue (no pun intended), and no real skill or flair; it was a collection of disparate ingredients thrown onto a plate together and she couldn't articulate what she was going for or how these things related to one another. (How she's still in this competition is beyond me.)

On the top end of the competition, Eli surprised the judges with a beautiful confit of eggplant, lentils, garlic puree, and a radish and herb salad. He understood the brief and offered up a dish that was meaty and rich without containing meat, was stunning to behold, and was comforting and inviting. Kevin's dish, a duo of mushrooms with smoked kale, candied garlic and turnip puree, was smoky, meaty, and richly seductive, enticing the diner with the familiar scents and textures of meat but without any of the actual stuff. Michael once again dazzled the judges with a playful and inventive dish of asparagus salad, Japanese tomato sashimi, and banana polenta, offering an amusing and inspiring take on meat-free dining that had Portman in giggles at one point.

But it was Kevin who once again took home the top honors for his soulful and warm dish, much to the chagrin of Michael Voltaggio, who took the opportunity to knock Kevin's dish as something he would have done "in the second year of culinary school." That might be but it was still a better dish than yours, Michael. No need for sour grapes. Kevin has proven once again that he's an extremely strong contender, despite the fact that the Voltaggio Brothers seem to underestimate him time and time again. Here's to hoping that he makes it all the way to the final round.

On the other end, Jennifer, Mike I., and Robin found themselves before the judges' table. I really thought that this would be the week that Robin would be going home and, AGAIN, I was sweating bullets that Jen would be told to pack her knives. But the judges managed to surprise me by keeping Robin around for another week (WHY!?!) and sending home the supremely arrogant Mike, who failed to see why his dish failed to impress and couldn't quite wrap his head around why he was in the bottom (the "whatever, whatever" of this title). I wasn't all that impressed with Mike throughout this season but I do think he's a better chef than Robin. Let's just hope she's the next to go...

In two weeks on Top Chef ("Strip Around the World"), the day begins with a Quickfire Challenge that tasks the chefs to create the perfect breakfast in bed; Nigella Lawson stops by as this week's guest judge.

And here's a look at the Top Chef reunion cookoff coming up next week...

Top Chef Preview: An Angry Dinner:

Top Chef Preview: Marcel vs. Everyone:


foodie2d said…
Michael V. is so talented but I'm really getting sick of his ego. His dish may have been more complicated than Kevin's but Kevin delivered exactly what the judges were looking for - a hearty vegetarian dish. Michael's dish was stunning but clearly not as satisfying.
Henley said…
Poor Jen. She really is losing it. I was glad that Tom brought up the point that, at this time, the chefs are all exhausted and mentally drained. I think this has really taken its toll on Jen and don't know if she'll be able to snap back in time to save her skin. If she goes home before Robin, though, I'll scream.
ChrisMCtv said…
I understand Mike I’s frustration with Kevin’s winning dish. Sautéed mushrooms are one of the first things you learn to cook as a kid. But putting more effort and technique into a dish doesn’t make it better, unless it makes it TASTE better. We see this all the time with fancy ‘mac & cheese’ at restaurants – how many truffle oil, gruyere and fontina with herbed panko crusted interpretations do we need? Sometimes you just want mac & cheese. And sometimes Natalie Portman just wants sautéed mushrooms.

I’m still somewhat shocked that Robin is still in the competition. Although her latest dish lacked focus, it came down to the fact that it didn’t suck as much as Mike I’s. When hearing him describe his initial concept, I could picture it, but then asked WHY? Mmmmm, braised leek medallions?? Although Robin may not deserve to be this far in the competition, and may not be as talented or experienced as the other chefs, she simply wasn’t the WORST cheftestant on that particular day-at that particular challenge.

Jen better get her S#@T together and focus, a simple mantra may help: “I’m a better chef than Robin … I’m a better chef …
greebs said…
Great review, but ... no mention of how shockingly cool and gorgeous Natalie Portman was? Seriously, it was stunning - she was funny, at ease and uber hot. My wife even said so, on several occasions.

I know my comment adds little to this discussion but for me it was one of the main take-aways from the episode. :)
Ally said…
First off - I don't even like Mike I, but was pissed he went home before Robin. Ridiculous.

Second - having just eaten at craftsteak last weekend, I was looking forward to seeing the meals being prepared, but I have to say it was kind of a letdown to just see veggie meals prepared. :)
Susania said…
Sad to say, but I suspect the only reason Robin is still in this competition is because they were down to 2 women and 5 men! The producers are going to try their darndest to keep it as balanced as possible, and they have got to keep at least 1 woman til the final 3. Jen was initially the obvious choice, but now that she's falling apart, they have to hold on to Robin (just in case) to keep the gender balance. She may survive simply by not collapsing like Jen appears to be. There are similar gender imbalances on Project Runway; a bunch of strong women and a few weaker men.
Anonymous said…
The next episode of TOP CHEF is not for 2 weeks. There is a TOP CHEF special next week, some type of Competition Dinner of past contestants or something like that.

I too was very impressed by Natalie Portman. She is not only gorgeous but has a fantastic scense of humor and what appears to be a very good palate. I was afraid that we would get another version of Zoey Deschanel but Natalie was a keeper!

If Robin is not the next chef eliminated, something is very wrong. Did anyone else notice the final numbers on the "SHOLD ROBIN GO" poll? I think it was over 85% that voted yes!

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