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Soul Food Celebration: Grilled Cheese and Poolside Stew on Top Chef Masters

If you're participating in a reality competition series, should you help out a competitor if they find themselves in the weeds? And does the answer to that question change if you're competing for charity?

This week's episode of Top Chef Masters ("It's My Party"), the season's second, welcomed five new master chefs to the Top Chef kitchen--Carmen Gonzalez, David Burke, Marcus Samuelsson, Monica Pope, and Thierry Rautureau--as they made their way through a Quickfire Challenged designed to tie into National Grilled Cheese Month (yum!) and catered a soul food-themed birthday party atop the Thompson Hotel in Beverly Hills (about a block away from where I live) for actor Mekhi Phifer (ER).

But one chef found themselves in a bit of a bind when they realized they had left a crucial element of their dish back at the the Top Chef kitchen and had to return to collect it while the timer continued to tick down. Which is where the above question really came from. Given that these are master chefs who are competing for glory, certainly, but also charity, should they have put their own dishes at risk to help out their colleague? Or should they forge ahead and not give said colleague's success or failure a second thought?

Ordinarily, I think reality competition series are all about the individual's chance of winning but with charity donations on the line, doesn't everyone really win in the end? These guys have all had enormous success so shouldn't need the validation of a Top Chef Masters win to further massage their egos.

I was happy to see that the producers ditched last week's doubles arrangement to allow the master chefs to compete individually. I think it just makes more sense for the series and for these famous faces to compete on their own. (That said, I would have been really angry if I had been one of last week's losers to see that the chefs won or lost based on their own dishes and not those of their partner's.)

This week, the chefs were tasked with creating an outrageous grilled cheese for Kelly Choi in under twenty minutes. There would be no guest judges and no other palate to think about other than Kelly's. One of the chefs--I believe it was Carmen Gonzalez--said that the best way to test a chef's prowess is to order the simplest thing on the menu. I'd agree with that: not only does it force the ingredients and preparation to shine but there's nowhere for the chef to hide their mistakes. It's either flawless or a mess, with no real middle ground.

So how did the chefs do? Let's take a look.

Quickfire Challenge (Grilled Cheese):
  • Carmen Gonzalez: Italian Baguette with manchego, garlic, cilantro, and lime
  • David Burke: triple-cream Cheese with prosciutto, almonds, tomato, and rosemary
  • Marcus Samuelsson: grilled gruyere and cheddar with tomato gazpacho & salad
  • Monica Pope: feta on raisin walnut bread with basil, cilantro, and mint salad
  • Thierry Rautureau: grilled taleggio & goat cheese with olives, harissa and a pear, pine nut and baby arugula salad

Grilled cheese is a funny thing: slap two pieces of bread around some cheese and melt it and you can call the dish done. But the humble grilled cheese can take some massive gastronomic improvements and encapsulate just about anything melted between some sort of bread.

While Samuelsson offered a full meal on his plate--a grilled cheese, a gazpacho soup, and a salad--I didn't really feel like he pushed the actual grilled cheese to another level. (A fan of Samuelsson's cooking, I actually didn't feel like he came off particularly well in this episode.) Burke overloaded his plate with a ton of ingredients that didn't really seem to gel all that well (almonds and prosciutto AND a whole pickle?).

The magnificently hatted Rautureau offered up an almost inside-out take on the grilled cheese with taleggio on the outside of the bread but Choi chided him for not having enough taleggio (a virtual reversal from last week's episode when James Oseland believed that the taleggio was too strong). Gonzalez offered a Latin twist on the Italian sub that was nicely spiced.

But it was Pope who won this with one hand tied behind her back, delivering a flawless and drool-inducing feta on raisin walnut bread with basil, cilantro, and mint salad, an exotic grilled cheese that seemed to bridge Greece and the Middle East somehow, evoking a Marrakesh market stall redolent with heady spices. Well done. Considering her nervousness going into the episode, I was impressed with how well Pope delivered the goods here. I can honestly say that I wanted to reach into the television and have myself one of those grilled cheeses right then. Yum.

But that was only the first challenge; next, the master chefs would have to get in touch with their inner selves to deliver their own takes on soul food for a party of 150 people celebrating the birthday of actor Mekhi Phifer at the Thompson Hotel rooftop pool.

Here's what these masterful chefs prepared...

Elimination Challenge (Soul Food):
  • Carmen Gonzalez: oyster & hot sausage stew with cilantro
  • David Burke: sweet potato custard with green beans, corn & crab BBQ, pickled watermelon, and hush puppies
  • Marcus Samuelsson: BBQ chicken with mac & cheese and collard greens
  • Monica Pope: peel and eat shrimp, mac and cheese-style grits, with smokin' ocra, pickled green beans, and tomato jam
  • Thierry Rautureau: Moroccan-spiced pork shoulder, farro, roasted cauliflower, and Brussels sprout slaw

It's important to note that Gonzalez, having left the stew at the Top Chef kitchen, had to return there during their scheduled on-site prep time in order to pick it up and return back to Beverly Hills... all during insane Los Angeles rush hour traffic. No easy feat and it left Gonzalez with just the stew to serve up as she had no time to prepare her yucca for the mash. After freaking out about the missing stew, she asked her fellow competitors to prepare her yucca and keep an eye on it while she raced back and forth between the Thompson and Top Chef HQ.

Which is where things went wrong. (Or right, depending on how you look at it.) I was happy to see that several of the chefs were more than willing to lend Gonzalez a hand, even though they were racing against the clock to complete their own dishes. There should be a sense of camaraderie and support among these master chefs, who aren't eager and hungry young upstarts but established professionals in their own rights with reputations and vast careers. Which is what really irked me about Samuelsson. Yes, this is a competition but at the end of the day, you're competing for a charity; to get so focused on a personal need to win and to conquer the other chefs puts a bad taste in my mouth. Samuelsson flat out refused to help Gonzalez, an odd position that earned him some confused reactions from his fellow master chefs. Not cool.

Experimentalist Burke once again overloaded his plate with a variety of elements but everyone--especially Gail Simmons and James Oseland--praised him for his pickled watermelon, a preparation he had never attempted in the past. I also appreciated the little deft touches: the egg shell serving as vessel for the custard and crab hash, the wrapped hush puppy. But too much bacon, the lack of cohesion between the custard and the hash sealed his fate.

Pope had what Simmons called "the most soulful dish" of the season and praised Pope's grits, which earlier Jay Rayner hadn't really appreciated all that much, saying that it was "an acquired taste which [he] hadn't acquired." (Ouch.) Oseland praised the spicing and flavor, saying that she elevated the dish to a new level, while the jam and pickled veg were also praised. But Pope's dish was marred by a major problem: the peel-and-eat shrimp that she had purposely left in their shells were completely undercooked. Eeek. (I felt really bad for Pope at the end of the episode, as she said that the lesson she learned from this experience, because of Samuelsson, was to just look after herself.)

Samuelsson's chicken and mac and cheese were universally praised, with the succulence of the chicken and the almost deconstructed nature of his mac and cheese getting major points, but the critics really seemed to almost take offense to the fussiness and complexity of the collard greens. While Samuelsson defended his approach, saying that he didn't want to compete with grandma, there's something to be said for simplicity and rustic quality of the greens. You don't need to mess with perfection. Still, it was a minor flaw in an otherwise perfect dish, earning Samuelsson a place in the champions round.

Rautureau took some risks with his dish that paid off beautifully, with the Brussels sprouts slaw (delicious!) and farro (unusual for a soul food dish) being singled out for excellence but several of the critics seemed unhappy with his decision to keep the corn and onion in his salad raw. His thought was that spicy food needs a cooling element and the rawness of these ingredients would be able to capture that sensation. But Rayner and Simmons were both concerned by the amount of elements jostling on the plate that didn't really complement each other. Just way too much going on there.

Gonzalez explained the circumstances that led to her abandoning her yucca mash, originally intended to sit underneath the stew, but having to race back and get the stew (while sadly the yucca burned) left her scrambling for a new direction. She thickened the stew and served it very simply with some cilantro, creating a pared down yet soulful dish that--very surprisingly, in fact--ended up making her the winner of this round. Hell, it didn't even matter that she didn't make that sausage herself.

I'm really impressed that Gonzalez managed to pull off a victory when faced with such setbacks. She nearly threw in the towel early on when she returned to the hotel and I'm glad that she continued to persevere and push through. It proves, yet again, that it's not over until it's over.

What did you think of this week's episode? Would you have awarded Gonzalez the top spot? Was Samuelsson right not to help Gonzalez? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Top Chef Masters ("Pub Food"), the master chefs must convince high-brow clients of pub grub's merits as they try to show that flair and flavor can be found elsewhere than just in haute cuisine.


Jena said…
So glad that they didn't keep judging the chefs in pairs (like last week). And it was funny to see even these Top Chef Masters getting nervous to make grilled cheese for Kelly Choi!
Mimi C said…
Why do the producers let contestants leave entire dishes behind or sitting out is really my question. Really this is a cooking competition so just have someone give them a heads up on this. Especially for these well established chefs who already run entire restaurants. I never fell that these type of incidents add much to the actual competition.

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