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Southern Gothic: The Chicken Oyster of Doom on Top Chef

Well, the next time a student gets caught cheating off of someone else's paper, they should just say that they were "inspired" by their peer.

Or at least that's the defense that Top Chef's Mike Isabella would apparently give, as displayed by his behavior on this week's episode of Top Chef: All-Stars ("For the Gulf"), in which he was "inspired" by a dish that Richard Blais had concocted in his notepad so much that he executed the exact dish later that day in the Quickfire Challenge.

The other chefs, upon learning of Mike's perfidy, seemed to be in agreement with yours truly: it was an act of culinary plagiarism, a serious breaking of "chef law" given that the incident in question happened on camera before our eyes.

Let's rewind for a second. Richard Blais, that culinary mad scientist and food visionary, keeps a notebook that's stocked with ideas, should inspiration seize hold of him, even during the stress of the competition. Mike saw Richard's book and asked him what it was, they flipped through it together, and Mike spied Richard's idea for a chicken oyster dish. Cut to a few hours later when the chefs are tasked with creating a fried dish for Paula Deen, the doyenne of Southern cuisine, and Mike makes, well, Richard's dish from top to bottom.

Is it against the rules? No, but there's a certain lack of morality involved in willfully stealing another man's intellectual property. Richard's been willing to help his fellow chefs out throughout this competition, lending a hand when he can, but even he felt that this went way beyond what is considered acceptable behavior.

Had Mike and Richard been talking, apropos of nothing, about chicken oyster and then Mike felt inspired by the conversation to create that dish? I have no problem with that. But to recreate Richard's entire idea--the chicken oyster served in an oyster shell--was truly an egregious move and set Mike up as the true villain of the season. But adding insult to injury was the fact that Mike won the Quickfire Challenge--and a $5000 cash prize--based on someone else's idea. And not just anyone, but his fellow competitor.

It was just wrong and it further exacerbated an already uncomfortable Quickfire. Antonia would have won had it not been for the fact that she only plated one dish, rather than the required two; her dish (fried avocado, shrimp, and jalapeno with grilled corn, tomato, and fried herbs) absolutely nailed the brief and nearly brought guest judge Paula Deen to rapture. But rules are rules and Antonia's slip-up meant that Mike Isabella took home the win and that $5K check for "his" fried chicken oysters with mustard gravy and oyster liquor.

(Personally, I would have given it to Richard Blais for his fried bacon with fried mayonnaise, tomato, and cucumber. The fried mayonnaise is something I've seen Richard make on Science Channel's Blais Off; aided by some liquid nitrogen, he freezes globs of mayonnaise and then coats it with batter before frying, an ingenious and practical application of molecular gastronomy at work.)

As for everyone else, there was some seriously shabby execution on display here, shocking given how far we are in the competition and how close we are to the final round. But the chefs performing poorly in the Quickfire Challenge (Dale, Carla, and Tiffany, to a certain extent) didn't seem to regain their confidence in the Elimination Challenge either. And it wasn't just any run of the mill Elimination Challenge. Here, they had to cook Gulf Coast seafood for a crowd of 300 people at a charity event. Wait, 300 people?!?!

They'd have some help in the form of sous chefs, i.e., previously eliminated contestants, but, more often that not, this ends up being more of a hindrance than a help in the end. But cooking for 300 people, all arriving at once and swarming your station? No easy feat, that.

So what did the chefs prepare? Let's take a look:
  • Antonia: Blue crab cake, corn, jalapeno, and Andouille relish with crab broth
  • Richard: Crispy Gulf snapper with pulled pork and citrus grits
  • Dale: Amberjack stew with Andouille sausage and potatoes, Creole mustard crouton
  • Tiffany: Honey-glazed shrimp, grits with jalapeno and cheese, shellfish sauce
  • Mike: Grit-crusted Gulf shrimp, sour cream and chive potatoes, with pork and lobster sauce
  • Carla: Fried grouper with collard greens and chow-chow pico

It wasn't a surprise to anyone watching which three ended up in the top and which in the bottom. Antonia, Richard, and Mike's work here was so vastly superior in presentation, execution, and flavor profiles that they had obviously scored in the top here, while Carla, Tiffany, and Dale each had major execution errors that were impossible to overlook.

I'm glad that Richard didn't let Mike's behavior derail him from winning the Elimination Challenge here, as he knocked out a stellar dish that recalled surf-and-turf, albeit with a Blais-like twist, fusing together pork, snapper, and citrus elements into a single glorious dish. Antonia wisely retains the ethereal lightness of crab in her beautiful and balanced plate, and Mike did a good job with his own Southern plate, one that pushed him out of his comfort zone a little bit. (I am thrilled, however, that Richard got his own against Mike, beating him out for the win here.)

As for the others, where to begin? I will say that I was flabbergasted with the judges' verdict here, as they opted to eliminate Dale for his amberjack stew. Were there serious problems with this plate? Undeniably. But there were grievous errors with Tiffany and Carla's dishes as well, and Dale has been a strong contender of late. (I won't say anything of the fact that Angelo seems to always get his partners or victims of his help sent home. Oops, I guess I just did.)

Dale's dish suffered from some bad decisions--undercooked potatoes, way too overpowering mustard on that Creole crouton, and the decision not to put the amberjack front and center--but those were similar problems with the others' dishes as well. Carla completely masked the flavor of the grouper by piling on mustard and hot sauce and Deen turned her nose up completely when faced with Carla's collard greens and chow-chow. It was an odd, ugly dish that did Carla no favors. Tiffany seemed to play the blame game a bit and put the onus on sous chef Marcel for why the shrimp was overcooked and why the honey glaze (which she typically dilutes with water when she makes it) was so overly sweet. But she also didn't taste the food as it was going out and relied on Marcel to oversee quality control. Big mistake when it's your name on the food and your continued participation in this competition are on the line.

Should Dale have gone home? Hell no, I say. I would have sent Tiffany home in a heartbeat. She's had some strong dishes, but they were much earlier in the competition and she seems to have completely lost her edge here. But as the judges have said, you're only as good as your last dish. Dale's dish wasn't good but, based on the judges' comments, I didn't think that the other chef's dishes were better than his.

What do you think? Did the judges make the right call? Should Tiffany have gone home instead of Dale?

Next week on Top Chef ("Give Me Your Huddled Masses"), the chefs create food fare on the open water, and later journey to Ellis Island to whip up dishes based on their family trees.

Top Chef Preview: Snack Bar Quickfire

Top Chef Preview: Cooking to Stay


MC said…
Ugh, completely agree.

The way I view situations like last night with the elimination portion of judges table is when all (3) pretty much are worthy of going home for their dish, I prefer the person who has excelled the least up to this point to be eliminated. Why Dale was eliminated over Tiffany doesn't make sense to me. I feel like ultimately it's Tom's decision so he must have just been completely turned off by Dale's dish.

Dissapointing conclusion for sure.
justjoan123 said…
As Tom said elsewhere, there is no copyright on dishes. If there were, last year every bistro in New York City would have had to pony up royalties for the ubiquitous frisee-green apple-walnut-goat cheese salad that overran Manhattan. That being said, Mike's co-opting Richard's idea was flagrant and unmistakably vile. Just another reason why I have come to loathe him, as opposed to mildly disliking him in his own season. Dale, on the other hand, just blossomed this time around, conquering his anger issues and swapping collegiality for confrontational behavior. He spent his time away well, and I hope reaps good karma for it.

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