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Pub Grub: The Master Chefs Have to Remake Homey Classics on Top Chef Masters

Ah, pub food.

For all of its humble origins, British pub food is exactly what I crave on a long, cold night, conjuring up an image of a roaring fireplace and a nice pint of lager. It's earthy, homey, stick-to-your ribs sort of food and it's just as often terrible when it's made without care or love. But in the right hands and in the right kitchen, it's just the thing to banish the mid-winter blues.

On this week's episode of Top Chef Masters ("Pub Food"), six master chefs from Season One--Jonathan Waxman, Ludo Lefebvre, Mark Peel, Rick Moonen, Wylie Dufresne, and Graham Elliot Bowles--returned with a second shot at glory as they reunited in the Top Chef kitchen to compete for charity, a spot in the next round of competition, and a chance to redeem themselves.

But in order to do so they'd not only have to craft a dish best paired with a specific Stoli-based cocktail (and serve it to--of all people--cast members from Bravo's Real Housewives of Orange County) and then reinvent some humble pub grub and transform it into something they'd serve in their own restaurants.

So how did these master chefs cope with the pressure a second time around? Let's discuss.

I have to say that I like challenges where it pushes the chefs out of their comfort zones. After all, the producers of original-flavor Top Chef force their competitors to take on complex and often frustrating challenges, so why shouldn't these master chefs--who have considerably more experience than the other competitors--be put through the ringer just as much? Here, they were forced to pair food with cocktails and reinvent British pub food into something sophisticated and modern, food more along the lines of the high-end British gastropub concept: simple concepts that have been elevated and produced with high-quality ingredients.

For their Quickfire Challenge, the chefs were given a chance to sample some Stoli-based cocktails and then select one that they would then pair with a dish that they they felt embodied and complimented the cocktail they had chosen. It's far easier to pair food with wine than it is cocktails, which often have exotic and fruit-based ingredients that are far more challenging to match with the food on the plate.

So how did they fare? Let's take a look.

Quickfire Challenge:
  • Bowles (coriander mule): crudo of black cod with an edamame and red onion salad
  • Waxman (lemongrass mojito): pork tenderloin and poblano-stuffed shrimp with avocado butter
  • Lefebvre (nutmeg apple mojito): roasted pork chop with rosemary, thyme, and garlic
  • Peel (ginger figgle): mussels custard with lime and figs
  • Moonen (forest fruits): cream biscuit berry shortcake
  • Dufresne (Russian Tea Room): arctic char with lentils, bacon, crispy potatoes, and lemon yogurt

Proving that the simplest dish is often the best, Waxman finished a whole twenty minutes before everyone else and walked away the winner of the Quickfire Challenge, thanks to his elegant yet simple dish of pork tenderloin and poblano-stuffed shrimp. He wisely intuited that the judges--here the cast of Real Housewives of Orange County--didn't want huge plates of food but rather smaller bites that complimented the drink; the heat of his dish was balanced nicely by the lemongrass in his drink and Waxman proved that he was a force to be reckoned with for a reason.

As for the others, it's hard to say that anyone had a bad dish, per se, but the Housewives sure were picky about everything, with several of them expressing contradictory opinions or just outright dislike of certain ingredients (ginger being one of them).

But it was Waxman who clearly set the tone for the entire episode, with his dexterity manipulating simple ingredients in a complex way, allowing the flavors on the plate to stand out more than trickery or theatricality. Simple is often just better.

But for their elimination challenge, they'd have to take a simple dish and elevate it to a new level. In this case, British pub food. Having won the Quickfire, Waxman was able to get first pick from six standard classics, selecting shepherd's pie (always a favorite of mine) and leaving the others to squabble over the remainder. Particularly Moonen and Lefebvre, who nearly came to blows over fish and chips. (While Ludo was a little whiny about it, I do have to agree that seafood expert Moonen shouldn't have been able to cook to his strengths quite so blatantly.)

Here's what they prepared:

Elimination Challenge:
  • Bowles (steak and kidney pie): free-form steak and kidney pie with roasted beef tenderloin, chanterelle puree and bacon-kidney vinaigrette
  • Waxman (shepherd's pie): shepherd's pie with lamb, mashed potatoes, and parmesan cheese
  • Lefebvre (Irish lamb stew): beef tenderloin with confit of potatoes and clarified butter, roasted peanut miso and caramel of Guinness
  • Peel (toad in the hole): toad in the hole with seafood sausage, onion sauce, lobster broth, and mustard greens
  • Moonen (fish and chips): chicken-fried sable with lemon confit tartar sauce, twice-fried potatoes, and fennel slaw
  • Dufresne (bangers and mash): Merguez sausage, smoked mashed potatoes, onion jus, and julienned snow peas

I thought that Bowles' presentation was gorgeous. He really thought about the elements of the dish and applied some skill and vision to elevating the humble steak and kidney pie to a new level, though the judges did seem to think that he had a particular aversion to kidneys and tried to mask their flavor rather than let them shine. (Me, I'm also averse to them as well.) Kudos for his chanterelles and his vinaigrette.

Waxman once again stuck with the basics, preparing a simple dish with very few elements on the plate and made them shine. I wondered if his mash was a little too liquidy but it didn't matter as it seemed to approximate something akin to a bechamel in consistency: creamy, loose, and flavorful, it set atop perfectly cooked lamb, taking shepherd's pie to a new level of transcendence.

Lefebvre seemed to hate Irish lamb stew from the start, instead delivering a dish that seemed to have stopovers in every major city other than Dublin. Miso and peanuts? Caramel? Raw root vegetables? He couldn't stop denigrating the lamb stew and puffing himself up about the "work of art" that was his dish... But the judges and the diners didn't exactly see eye to eye on that.

Poor Mark Peel. I thought he had some really good ideas for translating toad in the hole to fine dining, making his own sausage but out of seafood, creating a lobster broth, and adding mustard greens to the mix. But, thanks to a cold oven (and therefore cold oil), his Yorkshire pudding--one of the key elements of the dish--turned into a doughy, undercooked abomination rather than the light and ethereal--and burnished--treat that Yorkshire pudding is. Very sad as I have a lot of respect for Peel and he was let down here.

I mentioned before that I thought that Moonen should have gotten something other than fish and chips to work with. A seafood guru, he offered a nice plate that offered some changes to pub standard fish and chips but I wasn't really all that impressed. Sure, it looked good and the judges raved about the sable and the slaw but they seemed very disappointed in the chips, which were far too big and got tough as they cooled. Still, give a seafood expert a fish...

I thought that Wylie Dufresne handled himself far better here than he did in his appearance on Season One of Top Chef Masters, where he seemed to almost have a meltdown in the kitchen and was unable to deal with the timecrunch and the pressure of competing. While he threw himself into a rivalry with Bowles, Dufresne concentrated much more on his own performance this time, delivering a knock-out dish that didn't have any molecular gastronomy tricks but rather just a beautiful plate that offered some tweaks to bangers and mash (smoked mashed potatoes, snow peas, onion jus). The only complaint was that the Merguez was slightly overcooked.

But ultimately, it was Waxman and Moonen who moved onto the next round. I could have called that from the start of the Elimination Challenge, but I was really hoping that Bowles could have been in there instead of Moonen.

What did you think of this week's episode? Agree with the critics' verdict? Who would you have sent on and who should have been sent packing? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef Masters ("Cast and Crew Meal"), the master chefs take on craft services as they prepare meals for the cast and crew of ABC's Modern Family.


ewench said…
It's hard to say since we obviously can't taste the food but I thought Waxman completely deserved both wins. He remembered the most important thing, to cook for the audience he was serving.

I forget what chef was making comments about the Housewives as judges (as if they weren't qualified to judge the food) but hey, who are his customers - is everyone that walks into a restaurant a "foodie"?

Moonen really turned me off with his obnoxious competitiveness, I was sorry to see him win, they shouldn't have let him have the fish & chips dish. I felt really bad for Peele and how his dish blew up.

The best line of the night was when Lefebvre told one of the chefs to take home a carrot and enjoy himself.

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