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Family Affair: Master Chefs and Modern Family on Top Chef Masters

If you've ever been on a working television or film set, you know the mad rush that the lunch call is as the cast and crew head towards a makeshift dining room--usually set amid film equipment and discarded set pieces--to grab a brief respite before heading back into the madness.

Caterers specialize in delivering fast, fresh, and tasty grub that's all ready to go when the crew is meant to go on break and it's a brutal business. So that rhythm and pacing would be the perfect challenge for the five new master chefs entering the Top Chef kitchen this week: Rick Tramonto, Maria Hines, Debbie Gold, Joey Adams, and Susur Lee, the latter of whom was named one of Food & Wine's Ten Chefs of the Millennium. (No small matter, that.)

On this week's episode of Top Chef Masters ("Cast and Crew Meal"), the master chefs were tasked with creating a perfectly styled fruit plate and preparing a cast and crew meal for the actors and staffers on ABC's comedy series Modern Family. (Huh, a single episode that combines my love for Top Chef with that for Modern Family? Heavenly.)

The first season of Top Chef Masters suffered a serious dearth of female master chefs; producers this season seemed to be aware of the gender inequality but this week seemed to contain most of the women competing this season, an odd shuffling of the contestants that was all the more apparent because there were only two men competing this week. While I was glad to see female chefs represented so strongly this week, I do think that there should have been more of a gender balance before now. (Last week's episode, which featured returnees from Season One, featured no female chefs.)

Having said that, I thought that the chefs this week were almost universally strong contenders. Despite her nerves, Joey Adams proved to be one of the toughest competitors here, dominating both rounds. Despite the fact that I was hoping that Adams would make it through to the next round, I was a little surprised that the producers would opt for a "high stakes Quickfire Challenge." After all, that made sense within the context of the Las Vegas season but here, on Top Chef Masters, it seemed extremely out of place, particularly as the challenge--a fruit plate--didn't exactly scream golden ticket to the champions round. But that's just me, anyway. (Was anyone else irked slightly that winning the Quickfire Challenge meant a guaranteed spot among the champions?)

For that Quickfire Challenge, the master chefs had to create an artful presentation of fruit, using 25 fruits from a basket to create a palette that would amaze with its beauty and presentation and delight the palate. (Heh.)

So what did they prepare?

Quickfire Challenge:
  • Tramonto: herb and fruit shooters
  • Hines: Northwest trio: apple soup, grilled fig, and berries with berry mousse
  • Gold: pecan tempura-stuffed fig with persimmon and tangerine
  • Adams: fig and walnut tart with pomegranate syrup and zabaglione
  • Lee: East Meets West fruit plate with blackberry "ravioli" and Thai basil

There were some head-scratching decisions being made here. I get the spirituality of Rick Tramonto but I thought those culinary/inspirational cards were totally out of place on the plate, much less in a culinary competition. You want to do that in your restaurant, that's cool, but really?

Susur Lee went way over the top with his plate, an East-meets-West cacophony of flavors, textures, and colors that was visually confusing and a little off-putting. I think had he just stuck to those gorgeous and inventive "raviolis," he would have fared better here.

I wasn't sure what to make of Debbie Gold's pecan tempura-fried figs, which I found confusing and odd. A misstep there. And I got what Maria Hines was attempting to do with her starter-entree-dessert concept but it didn't quite work as they all seemed a bit like dessert to me. Had she really wanted to nail the concept, she could have made the first two offerings more overtly savory rather than sweet.

Which left Adams, who absolutely nailed the task, despite nearly destroying her pastry in the flash-freezer. Her dish--fig and walnut tart with pomegranate syrup and zabaglione--was clean, beautifully presented, and made fantastic use of the fruit on offer. It's no surprise that she won... and walked away with a guaranteed spot among the champions, giving her immunity in the upcoming Elimination Challenge.

For that challenge, the chefs had to prepare an cast and crew meal for the, uh, cast and crew of ABC's Modern Family, who--along with the critics--would decide which other chef would advance to the next round. They were tasked with taking a traditional family meal and infusing it with a more modern sensibility.

Here's what they each prepared:

Elimination Challenge:
  • Tramonto: truffled white beans with escarole and grilled sausage
  • Hines: sockeye salmon with sumac, lemon, paprika potatoes, French beans, and almond mink
  • Gold: glazed pork loin with apple butter and winter squash slaw
  • Adams: braised chicken thighs with mushrooms, semolina gnocchi, and herb salad
  • Lee: roasted chicken and farce curry with polenta and grits, tomato jam, chili-mint chutney, and grilled pineapple

I thought that Tramonto's dish looked absolutely fantastic but it didn't really seem all that modern, despite his argument that the use of the truffle oil elevated his dish from its more humble roots. (Personally, I would have used fresh truffle in addition to truffle oil, if that was his argument.) It seemed a little more homey than I think the critics anticipated here.

I had a feeling that Hines would do well with her sockeye salmon dish, which fused the sort of traditional Pacific Northwest comfort food staple with an ultra-modern approach with the use of the almond milk, a genius addition that was wholly modern and also helped to keep the salmon moist. I also appreciated her use of undervalued (at least in American cuisine) sumac, which I wish I'd see more of. Definitely modern and creative... and despite Tramonto's line about seeing Hines' mistakes, she scored better than he did here.

Gold was critiqued for the fact that her glaze and apple butter rendered the pork too sweet and she was also taken to task for the fact that the pork was way undercooked and stringy. Gold seemed aware of this back during the first prep period, yet never really was able to turn it around, despite opting to grill the loins instead of putting them back into the slow-cooker.

Adams had immunity but she still scored well for her chicken and gnocchi dish, which would have been considered pretty classic family fare but her addition of a fresh herb salad took the plate into the more modern era. It's little touches like that which can transform a dish into something else. Well played.

But it was Susur Lee who used the Elimination Challenge as an opportunity to redeem himself after his disastrous showing in the Quickfire. Here, he delivered a stunning dish of curry with roasted chicken and farce (a chicken sausage), polenta and grits, tomato jam, chili-mint chutney, and grilled pineapple. While Jay Rayner thought the pineapple out of place on the plate, it was the only criticism of an otherwise flawless dish that earned five stars from every critic and a nearly perfect score from the diners, giving him 19 1/2 stars, the highest score in Top Chef Masters history. No surprise that he'll be moving on to the champions round with Joey Adams, both of whom did quite extraordinary work this week.

I loved the way that the cast of Modern Family jumped into the challenge, with Julie Bowen asking each of the chefs repeatedly, "what's that?" (It was beyond cute.) And Rico Rodriguez, not surprisingly, got in a fantastic line about liking spice in his life. Seeing Eric Stonestreet, Sofia Vergara, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ariel Winter, and co-creator Steve Levitan (along with Bowen and Rodriguez) discussing the chefs' food warmed my heart to no end. These guys are absolutely adorable.

Do you agree with the critics' decisions? Would you have sent Lee and Adams to the next round? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Top Chef Masters ("Wedding Wars"), the champions round begins as the master chefs compete in a blindfolded relay race; later, teams are challenged to cater a wedding out of mobile kitchens.


Erin Bell said…
Yeah, I thought the high stakes quickfire challenge was way too gimmicky and did not make sense for Top Chef Masters. (It also irked me at the beginning of the season when they put the chefs into pairs.) Luckily, Adams dish for the elimination challenge was still one of the highest scoring so she probably would have moved on to the next round anyway. I just think that, with chefs at this level, there's no reason for the gimmicks and they actually take away from the show.
LizzieJ said…
I agree with the review and with you, Erin. Sending the winner of the Quickfire straight through on the fruit plate challenge? Hated that, as I did the pairing up in the first ep.

I may have just dreamed this, but I think they ran a promo for next week's episode - with Susar prominently featured - during this week's episode. Uh...Bravo? What's with the spoiler??

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