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Geoduck and Monkfish Liver, Oh My: Scary Surf and Turf on Top Chef Masters

I know that a lot of people were turned off my this week's Elimination Challenge on Bravo's Top Chef Masters, given its use of some out of the ordinary (okay, extreme) ingredients, such as geoduck, black chicken, duck's tongue, kangaroo, sea cucumber, and monkfish liver.

While I haven't eaten a single item that was on offer here, I like to be open-minded. I'm somewhat culinarily adventurous and, if one of these master chefs cooked something, I would eat whatever they put down in front of me, if I had the chance. Even if that was something as unpalatable as the Pacific Northwest's phallic-looking bivalve the geoduck or the sea cucumber, which Susan Feniger described as "a slug."

So while it didn't exactly stir my appetite, I was fascinated to see how each of the chefs would adapt and use these ingredients on this week's episode of Top Chef Masters ("Scary Surf and Turf").

Tasked with using two unusual proteins--a land-based one and a sea element--the seven remaining master chefs would have to construct a masterful dish that would satisfy the critics and the extreme cuisine experts assembled. But before that, a lighthearted Quickfire Challenge that rewarded the chefs creativity and their knowledge of The Simpsons.

So how did the chefs do? Let's discuss.

I thought that the Quickfire Challenge was really quite a lot of fun. I especially loved the idea that the chefs would have to conceptualize their dish around a specific Simpsons character and everyone there--save Susur Lee--seemed to be intimately familiar with The Simpsons or at least had enough of a surface knowledge to fake it, as they'd be cooking for creator Matt Groening, producer Matt Selman, and actor Hank Azaria... as well as Chief Wiggum, Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, Moe, and Apu.

Here's what they made:
  • Jody Adams (Lisa): cracked wheat salad with goat's milk ricotta, barbecue beets, and baked kale chips
  • Susur Lee (Marge): purple potatoes, pan roasted pork chop, glazed grapes with mustard sauce
  • Tony Mantuano (Chief Wiggum): fried bacon-honey pizza dough with boozy coffee
  • Rick Moonen (Homer): shrimp "sloppy D'Oh!" with truffle potato chps and beer
  • Susan Feniger (Moe): millet crispy treats with peanut butter chips, donus, and Mexican hot chocolate
  • Marcus Samuelsson (Apu): Indian-style tomato soup with condiments of rice, chickpeas, chutney, melon, and nuts
  • Jonathan Waxman (Bart): spaghetti bambino with grilled tomato, ham, and cheese sandwich

While Lee managed to pull off a convincing portrait of Marge, I didn't really think that it quite met the brief here; yes, Marge may have found it fun to encourage some levity and fun with the food (chocolate chip faces on pancakes and all that), the items that made up the portrait seemed odd and thrown in to make the look rather than the taste work (olives, pretzels, etc.)... and Mantuano would have done better here had he been able to use more bacon fat to infuse the saline porkiness into the pizza dough. But he was unable to as Lee used his pan of rendered fan as a trash receptacle. (Grr.) I thought that Samuelsson delivered an amazing traditional Indian repast but it wasn't quite in fitting with Apu's need to assimilate. Waxman nailed Bart precisely with a beautifully rendered, delicious, and simple meal of spaghetti and grilled cheese. I love Feniger's millet treats (she serves them at Street) but didn't quite get what she was going for here with Moe; everything should have slid down a notch to more of a sleazy/cheap quotient. I thought that Adams nailed Lisa's entire culinary ethos with a beautifully rendered vegetarian dish that played with unexpected texture and juxtaposition... But it was Moonen's seafood take on the sloppy Joe that earned him the win here, transforming the humble dish into something elegant and refined, thanks to some shrimp and truffle oil. Well played, sir.

For their Elimination Challenge, the chefs had to select two unusual proteins from a rather gruesome table display and then combine them into a single dish that showcased both proteins to their fullest. I will admit to being unfamiliar with the taste of all of these ingredients (I'm no Andrew Zimmern) but I was intrigued by how the chefs would deal with not one, but two, extreme cuisine items on a single plate, a delicate balancing act that would require some serious conceptualizing and precise execution for it to really work here.

Here's what they made:
  • Moonen: poached black chicken mousse and roulade, monkfish liver torchon, butter leeks
  • Mantuano: crostino with calamari in zimino, goat cheese ravioli with braised goat sauce
  • Lee: poached monkfish liver, black chicken veloute, black chiken with monkfish liver, beggar's purse with vegetables
  • Adams: Sicilian-spiced roast goat, geoduck and chickpea chowder, homemade harissa
  • Waxman: giant squid fritto misto, fried duck tongue, fideo with duck tongue
  • Samuelsson: geoduck and kangaroo sausage, geoduck with couscous, geoduck and kangaroo tartareFeniger: marinated sea cucumber, fried sea cucumber, kangaroo with juniper sauce

No surprise here that Susur Lee came out ahead. Given his familiarity with the ingredients, I do think that the judges were hoping to be wowed by his creativity and Lee did not disappoint. When the critics' only real complaint is that something tiny and minuscule seems superfluous on the plate, you know that you've won them over completely. I thought that his use of classic techniques and modern presentation were elegant and refined. The way that he boned the chicken leg and stuffed it, mirroring its image with the monkfish liver and chicken was brilliant. No surprise that he walked away with a near perfect showing here.

Working with same ingredients, Moonen also nearly walked away with the top spot, transforming his black chicken and monkfish liver selections into a classic French preparation that pushed him away from his reputation as "the seafood guy" and showed his range and his classical training. A beautiful dish that I would have eaten in a heartbeat, even with the addition of the leeks, which some critics seemed to think gilding the lily a bit.

I think Mantuano had a fantastic idea with his dish and only wish that he had been able to braise the goat for longer to create more of a rich and goat-laden sauce for his velvety pasta here. The critics seemed split on the seasoning of his crostino but that was more a quibble than anything. Not a winning dish but a very well done one that would have been better received had there been more than just ribbony pieces of tender goat atop those pasta pillows.

Feniger needed some editing, though I thought that her ideas were spot-on. She marinated the sea cucumber and served it raw with some tofu... and also deep-fried it for another preparation, which she served with some soba noodles, the latter of which made the critics sing with happiness. But the profundity of elements on the plate: various salads and garnishes overcrowded the presentation, resulting in a confusion of ideas, tastes, and textures. Overload, really.

Poor Jody. She too had problems with the goat and attempted to cook the goat rare by roasting it, which didn't quite result in the texture necessary to enjoy the protein: it was far too chewy and needed to have been cooked longer... and it made me very nervous about her chances here. The critics did love her geoduck and chickpea chowder which they raved about, and thought an absolutely perfect use of the geoduck. Alas...

Likewise, poor Jonathan Waxman was in a fog this week and I was concerned that either he or Adams would be the one to get the boot this week. His plate seemed schizophrenic at best: a messy hodgepodge of elements: fritto misto, fideo, fried duck tongues, of which threatened to spill off the plate. Waxman was clearly out of his element here; gone was the cheery, optimistic, and magical alchemist and, in his stead, remained a bewildered chef who had no idea what he was putting together.

I thought Samuelsson would excel at this challenge but, after seeing his dish, I knew that he too would wind up in the bottom three with Adams and Waxman. I wasn't sure what to make of his over the top plate: there was sausage, way overcooked geoduck with couscous, a tartate, and an oversaucing that looked more like a broth on the plate. Too much and in need of rethinking here.

Ultimately, it came down to Waxman and Adams and the undercooked goat was what did Jody Adams in, unfortunately. I'm really sad to see her go and was hoping that both she and Waxman would stick around to the final rounds. (I'd have been far happier to see Samuelsson go home this week.)

What did you think of this week's episode? Would you have send Jody Adams home? Would you have awarded the top spot to Susur Lee or Rick Moonen? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Top Chef Masters ("Tailgating"), the chefs are tasked with a Quickfire with a very specific focus: the leg; later they turn their skills to an even bigger challenge, preparing a tailgate feast for college football fans.

Top Chef Masters Preview: Leg Up on the Competition


Top Chef Masters Preview: An Important American Tradition

Comments

Cassie said…
So sad that Jody is gone! She cooked with grace and passion and I think that, had she had a little longer to roast the goat, she wouldn't have been eliminated. Honestly, I was hoping to see Marcus go. While he, Jody, and Jonathan all made mistakes I think that Jody and Jonathan are, overall, stronger chefs. Unfortunately, on Top Chef, you're only as good as your last dish!!!

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