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Offal Hard: Chefs Stomach Street Food on "Top Chef Masters"

Was it just me or was last night's episode of Top Chef Masters ("Offal Tasty") the series' very best yet?

In every sense, last night's installment was the closest we've gotten to approximating the tension, drama, and conflict that's evident in every single minute of Top Chef itself. Helping matters in this direction was the flawless casting in this episode, which saw four vastly different master chefs--Frontera Grill's Rick Bayless, Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustards Grill, Pikayo's Wilo Benet, and Ludo Bites' Ludovic Lefebvre--tangle in the kitchen.

The clash of larger-than-life personalities added a spark that was somewhat missing from last week's Lost-themed episode, which was a more somber affair. Here, there was the arrogance of Rick Bayless, the fanatical passion of Ludovic Lefebvre, the quiet precision of Wilo Benet, and the humility of the graceful Cindy Pawlcyn. In order words: amazing casting that added a fire to the competition.

I'll admit that I was rooting for Cindy Pawlcyn to win. I'm a huge fan of Cindy's cooking and a frequent visitor to her restaurant Mustards in Napa Valley. (In fact, I was just there last week for the restaurant's 26th birthday.) She's known for big flavors, fantastic ingredients, and food so good you have to restrain yourself from licking the plate.

Quickfire Challenge. I loved that last night's Quickfire had the master chefs preparing color-based dishes... which were then judged by some food stylists and photographers, people who know not only how food should taste but also how it should appear, presentation-wise. Color-based cooking is no easy feat. Most dishes succeed because they offer a combination of flavors, textures, and colors. An all-red dish then doesn't excite so much as it steamrolls you with crimson. Still, I have to say that I thought the chefs did extremely well under the severe time constraints, though Ludo seemed to be cracking under the pressure just a little bit.

Cindy offered up a sunshine-hued dish of sweet corn and cheese grits topped with a yellow vegetable curry and fried corn tortillas that offered a study in textures and flavors. Ludo's dish--steak tartare with watermelon, red onion, and red beet gazpacho--was ruined not by the lack of the tomatoes but rather by the late addition of that ghastly blood-colored gazpacho over the tartare; the effect looked like a duck had been ex-sanguinated over the dish. Wilo accidentally left the ring mold on his smoked salmon tartare with coconut milk, brunoise of carrots, and tomato paste, but the diners seemed to love it once they removed the silver ring. Rick Bayless' verdant roasted vegetables, mole verde with tomatillos, green chilies, and pumpkin seeds were hands down the favorite dish of the judges, offering a subtlety and panache that seemed to be lacking in the other dishes.

While Wilo walked away with the top spot (despite the ring mold fiasco), it's no surprise that Bayless did as well as he did. However, green might have been the easiest color to work with, offering Bayless a slew of vegetables to choose from and an association with crispness and freshness. Far more difficult were some of the other colors to work with, but still a pretty impressive display of skills and techniques all around.

Elimination Challenge. If the chefs thought they could rest on their laurels from the Quickfire, they were dead wrong as the elimination challenge, I thought, was one of the toughest on the series so far. The four chefs would draw knives to determine their offal-based proteins, which would then be transformed into street food which the chefs would sell to tourists at Universal City. Ouch.

I consider myself a major foodie but the thought of offal often turns my stomach. (No pun intended.) That said, I would have eaten any of the remarkable dishes that these talented chefs turned out in this episode. Offal is a tough sell for most diners, let alone tourists at Universal City, so I think that all four of them did an incredible job masking some of the, uh, more forward flavors of the offal and creating dishes that satisfied and tantalized with equal measure.

Cindy cooked up a hot and spicy menudo with tripe and lime that the judges felt played it a bit too safe, offering an underseasoned soup that lacked the heat and passion of Pawlcyn's well-known dishes. (Damn.) Ludo was all over the place once again, delaying the serving of his dish due to the fact that he wanted it piping hot; he offered a pig's ear quesadilla with chorizo pinto bean puree, lime aioli, and smoked paprika. I thought Ludo did a damn fine job, considering that pig's ear is a tough ingredient, probably the toughest of the offal they had to work with this week. He smartly cooked the ear in a court-bouillion, though I'm not sure I would have combined said ear with the stringy cheese. Still, Ludo was very canny about the delivery system for the pig's ear, creating a dish that pleased the customers more than it did the judges, it seemed.

Rick drew the knife for tongue, an ingredient he was thoroughly familiar with, and created chorizo, bacon, and tongue tacos with tomatillo guacamole and pickled onions. The judges raved about the taco, declaring it a superb mouthful that gleefully combined flavors and textures and drew some acid from the guacamole and onions in order to cut through the fat. Wilo adapted the traditional tripleta into a beef heart, ham, and chicken tripleta in a pita pocket with a spicy mayonnaise sauce that won over the judges and he was extremely crafty about substituting the pita for the more traditional baguette; it offered a cup-like shape that held up well to the onslaught of ingredients.

I knew that Bayless would walk away the ultimate winner here, as much as I would have liked to have seen one of the other chefs make it onto the champion round instead. Still, both challenges played to Bayless' strengths and he was able to infuse both dishes with his trademark Mexican flavors and spice.

What did you think of this week's episode? Would you have eaten these dishes knowing that they contained what they did? Did you change your opinion about offal as a result? And who do you think should have won this week's elimination challenge? Discuss.

In two weeks on Top Chef Masters ("Magic Chefs"), the next four chefs find themselves manually challenged when they must cook an egg with one hand tied behind their backs; a magical-themed Elimination Challenge sees Neil Patrick Harris presiding as guest judge.


Samantha said…
I agree, I loved the episode last night!

In the Quickfire challenge, Wilo actually won as his score was 4 1/2 stars (even with forgetting to remove the rings from the plates).

And I have to admit, I'm a huge Rick Bayless fan so I was rooting for him from the get-go. I wouldn't say he was arrogant at all. If anyone was arrogant, it was Ludo. Thinking that Rick was copying him by making tacos? Oh please.

I loved Cindy and Wilo, and I thought both of them did a great job and would have been happy for either of them to win. And Ludo's pigs ears in court bouillion was impressive (I was sure he'd use a pressure cooker too).

What I like most about Top Chef Masters is that it's really about the food. In the regular Top Chef, there's so much reality show drama thrown into it. Mind you, I still love watching Top Chef. But I'm very happy with Masters, and I really like that they are raising money for their chosen charities. (Aw, Wilo tearing up when talking about his - so sweet).
Samantha said…
Oh, and NPH as a guest judge next week... it's going to be, wait for it, legendary!
Bella Spruce said…
I was also hoping that Cindy would take home the top prize. Her food is deceptively simple but insanely delicious.

Ludo was hilarious to watch. So French! And I'm not familiar with Wilo Benet but, after seeing him in action, would happily eat at his restaurant any day.

I wasn't surprised that Bayless won but there's something about him that rubs me the wrong way. He just doesn't seem like a chef and I kind of feel like his style of cooking is dated.

Still, it was a very fun episode overall!
Amy Beth aka Boudleaux said…
I am like Bella Spruce, there is something about Rick Bayless that rubs me the wrong way. I don't know what it is. I want John Besh to win the whole thing but I have also thought "anyone but Bayless." All that said, I was surprised by how much I liked him last night though I thought he was a bit too chatty in the beginning.

As I mentioned on Twitter, Ludo needs to dial his ego back a few notches He did make me laugh a couple of times: "I'm French. I don't share." His tweets during the show were just as crazy.

I was pulling for Cindy too.

Looking forward to next week's episode.
sam said…
seriously? bayless seemed really geekily sincere to me. i was rooting for him from the get-go. or at least anyone but ludo.

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