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Life in Miniature: Three Courses, a Hundred Guests, Controlled Chaos on "Top Chef Masters"

All eyes might be on the Primetime Emmy Award nominations that were released in the wee hours of the morning today (including one for Top Chef) but that doesn't mean I've forgotten about last night's episode of Top Chef Masters ("Miniaturize Me").

On this week's installment, the four newest master chefs--Michael Chiarello, Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, Nils Noren, and Rick Moonen--faced off in one of the toughest challenges displayed on the culinary series to date: preparing a three course meal for one hundred foodie guests at a cocktail party.

But before that Herculean task, there was the Quickfire Challenge, which this week offered a flashback to Season One of Top Chef and featured guest judges Jeff Lewis, Jenni Pulos, and Ryan Brown of Bravo's Flipping Out. But no Zoila? What's up with that?

So how did this week's batch of master chefs perform under pressure in the kitchen? Let's discuss.

Quickfire Challenge: the masters this week had to recreate junk food into a fine dining experience. Personally, I love challenges like this because they really test the chefs and keep them on their toes; forcing them to reinvent junk food and elevate to a new form is a perfect way of testing their adaptability, imagination, and execution. Forcing master chefs to do this only increases the risk and the possible results.

Michael Chiarello chose fish sticks and offered up a winning dish of swordfish meatballs with fisherman's sauce and a Calabrian chili mayonnaise. I'm not a fan of swordfish but that looked incredible. Elegant but simple and an innovative reinterpretation of fish sticks. Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson was super-ambitious and created a tomato prosciutto stufado with pork kielbasa sausage but said sausage didn't look entirely cooked through, leaving guest judges Jeff Lewis, Jenni Pulos, and Ryan Brown more than a little miffed about the prospect of eating semi-cooked sausage.

Nils Noren picked fried shrimp and created a gorgeous and elegant dish of poached shrimp with pickled tomatoes, creamed corn, croutons, and lobster stock reduction. Not quite fried, which was a complaint of the guest judges but I give him credit for really elevating this to the next level and producing a dish that belonged in a fine dining establishment but had a link to that seaside treat.

Rick Moonen chose a corn dog and opted to make a deep-fried seafood hotdog... but didn't budget his time well at all and managed not to plate any of his dishes. Sad. I felt quite bad for Moonen, as it put him at a severe disadvantage going into the Elimination Challenge.

This week's Elimination Challenge was, I really think, the toughest one that they've given any of the chefs to handle on their own. Preparing a three-course meal of hors d'oeuvres on your own is a snap and should be for these chefs. Preparing a three-course meal for one hundred diners and plating 300 individual dishes? Not quite so easy, especially as these guys are used to have many, many hands helping them in the kitchen and assisting with prep, plating, and all the little details that go into producing fine dining.

The results of their efforts were somewhat mixed, with some dishes soaring and others crashing and burning. Mackinnon-Patterson offered a fritta esotica, fried pineapple wrapped in speck and deep fried. Interesting concept--rather like a Hawaiian pizza on a toothpick--but the judges did not take to this dish at all, citing the fact that the deep fat frying reduced the pineapple to little more than mush, eliminating both its inherent sweetness and its consistency. Next up was his main course of grilled beef short ribs with fresh horseradish and romaine hearts with anchovy-parmesan vinaigrette. Some issues with the seasoning on the short ribs but the dish was well executed and Gael Greene said he should have chucked out the fritta esotica and served up the romaine hearts as a starter instead. I was concerned about Mackinnon-Patterson's dessert: a strawberry frangipane with a yogurt semi-freddo and white chocolate dust. I get that pears aren't in season but I'm not sure I would have paired strawberries with frangipane and then there was the odd comment made by James Oseland that the strawberries themselves had a strange meat-like flavor. Ick.

For Chiarello, his first course was a shaved Brussels sprouts and asparagus salad with a whole citrus vinaigrette and Marcona almonds that I wanted to reach through the television to taste. I love Brussels sprouts and I thought shaving the sprouts and the asparagus was such an interesting technique and would have resulted in such a fantastic textural element. (Tom Colicchio's Craftbar here in LA does Brussels sprout "chips" that are crisp and salted leaves of goodness.) Next up: his "pissed off" prawns with arborio rice flower, chili, and garlic oil. Main complaint: too oily though the prawns were cooked perfectly. For dessert, Chiarello artfully constructed a dish layering balsamic-marinated strawberries with basil and goat milk gelato and chocolate creme fraiche. Creative, gorgeous, and risky as all hell. But it paid off magically.

Moonen's first dish was an opakapaka and barramundi ceviche with yuzu vinaigrette, avocado, and grapefruit that wowed diners and judges alike. His main course was a brandade of scallop and shrimp with a fennel and frisee salad with truffle vinaigrette; it eliminated the judges' memory that he scored zero stars in the Quickfire. (Well done, Rick.) For dessert, a preserved lemon panna cotta with candied ginger, gingersnaps, macadamia, toasted coconut, and pineapple... for which Moonen made one hundred individual servings by hand. When the judges said they were impressed, they meant it. It was madness but showed Moonen's grit and determination.

Noren served up a starter of diced scallop atop a smoked potato cream, with pressure-cooked apple, curry oil, mustard seeds, and chives. It looked absolutely gorgeous and was hands-down the most elegant and forward-thinking dish of the evening; perfect presentation for a cocktail party and just a symphony of textures and flavors. His next course was a slow-cooked salmon atop a marinated Napa cabbage, with chorizo, broccoli puree, fennel, and Madeira reduction sauce. Stunning and inventive (he seemed to create a new cooking technique on the fly for the salmon) and extremely memorable. For dessert, Noren offered a chocolate and goat cheese ganache with smoked lapsang souchong whipped cream and a Cara Cara orange gel.

Ultimately, there could be only one winner here and I can't say that I was surprised that the judges and the dinner awarded the most stars to Chiarello. He really managed to pull off the winning combination of presentation, vision, and flavor. I'm thrilled he's moving on to the champion round and very curious to see how he competes against the already impressive assembly of master chefs. Only one more round of prelims before the champions take the stage!

What did you think of this week's episode and the chefs' performances? Would you have awarded Chiarello the top spot? Which dishes looked the best and the worst to you? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef Masters ("Trick In A Box"), the four new master chefs--Art Smith, Jonathan Waxman, Roy Yamaguchi, and Michael Cimarusti--are tasked with showing off their skills in a grocery store; later, they're presented with a mystery box holding the ingredients for the Elimination Challenge.

Preview: Aisle Shopping

Preview: Mystery Box

Preview: Mystery Boxes Revealed


Amy Beth said…
My favorite quote from this episode, aside from Jay Rayner calling James Oseland Fishboy was Nils Noren saying "Growing up in Sweden, you smoke a lot of things."

Michael Chiarello really knows how to work a crowd, doesn't he. I must say that I really would like to try that dessert.

Does it seem like we saw more cooking in this episode than we did if the previous episode (with Besh et al)?
Great episode but I was very sad that Zoila wasn't there to judge the Quickfire Challenge. I would have loved to have heard her shout "Let's go lunch!"
Amanda P. said…
I have to say that I was astounded when the judges bashed the tail-on shrimp because it was a cocktail party. I agree that when served shrimp on a plate at a table, I use a knife and fork, but if it's a cocktail party, and there's a tail on the shimp - who looks for the utensils?

Otherwise, loved the episode - Noren's smoking comment was my highlight, though!
Kelly said…
I really enjoyed this episode because the food looked fantastic, and the challenges were real cooking challenges (wheras some just seem gimmicky). Also, and maybe more imporatant, the chefs, beyond being immensely talented) were so professional and we didn't have to watch any eogcentric grandstanding or drama queen monologues. Maybe that's why there was time to show so much more cooking.

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