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Smoke and Mirrors Gourmet: First Dates on Top Chef Masters

It's good to have an iteration of Top Chef back on television, a breath of fresh air--or the enticing aroma of cooking, at least, wafting through my TiVo.

Last night's season premiere ("First Date Dinners") found the first week's six master chefs--Ana Sortun, Govind Armstrong, Jerry Traunfeld, Jimmy Bradley, Susan Feniger, and Tony Mantuano--competing for a shot at the next round and a sizable donation to the charity of their choice when they were forced to contend with a flashback Quickfire Challenge from the very first season of Top Chef and an Elimination Challenge that tested not only their skills in the kitchen but also how well they could work with their teammate to conceptualize a duo-plated dish.

What's that you say? Teammate? Yes, these masters were paired together throughout the entire episode, making it even more essential that they stopped thinking of themselves as the chief and more as partner chefs if they had any hope of coming out on top. It was a novel conceit for the first episode of the new season but I do hope that subsequent weeks find these masters more on their own. I'd hate to see some exceptionally talented chefs sent home each episode because their partner wasn't quite up to snuff that week.

But that's a thought for another day. In the meantime, here's what I thought of last night's installment.

I have to say that I thought that the Gas Station Creation Quickfire was one of my favorites of all time from Top Chef because it really pushes the chefs to come up with something innovative and exciting out of the most humdrum ingredients. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but limitations can also prove to be the gateway to some real creativity. While the producers managed to trick the chefs into thinking they were going to be preparing some Chinese food as their cars began driving around Los Angeles' Chinatown district, it was a particularly funny ploy to get them to the gas station convenient store, where many of them were baffled by what to do and thrown by the fact that the menus they had painstakingly created during the ride over were now absolutely useless.

I have a lot of respect for Govind Armstrong but in this episode, he really managed to rub me the wrong way. Perhaps it was his snooty attitude towards Quickfire judges The Bravery or his abhorrence at having to pick ingredients from a gas station. But the 8 Oz. Burger Bar (and former Table 8) chef has been a judge on Top Chef before and should have known what he was getting into here. I also didn't like the way that he seemed to laugh at partner Jimmy Bradley (of Red Cat and The Harrison) for offering a cold dish... even though the critics seemed to like Bradley's lamb carpaccio far more than Armstrong's chop.

But enough on that front. What did the chefs prepare this week? Let's a closer look...

Quickfire Challenge:
  • Jimmy Bradley and Govind Armstrong: Cheetos macaroni with grilled Slim Jims and tomato soup
  • Tony Mantuano and Susan Feniger: maple bread pudding with caramelized bananas
  • Ana Sortun and Jerry Traunfeld: crispy rice cake with "Clamesco" sauce

Even if Bradley and Armstrong had selected the right colored Cheetos for their dish, it still would have seemed not that original. Not helping them here was the fact that everything appeared in the same color range of browns and reds, creating a single palette that wasn't all that flattering, particularly the radioactive macaroni and cheese which did not look appetizing at all. I was really impressed with the presentation done by Sortun and Traunfeld here, delivering a plate that looked restaurant-ready rather than something that had been prepared from ingredients chosen at a gas station. While the dish prepared by Mantuano and Feniger (for whom the word "kooky" must have been invented) wasn't the prettiest, it showed--I thought, anyway--the most thought and creativity, crafting a wholesome and rich dessert out of the ingredients they found. And it certainly made Mantuano see Feniger in a different light, to boot. I wasn't surprised that this duo walked away with the Quickfire win.

For their Elimination Challenge, the chefs would have to work in concert once again to produce a duo that would be served to 30 couples on their first date. This was a particularly tricky endeavor because date food needs to be inherently romantic and appetizing but also can't be too messy or difficult to eat because the couples are virtual strangers. There needs to be the sense of creating intimacy between the diners without forcing it.

Here's what our master chefs prepared:
  • Jimmy Bradley and Govind Armstrong: lamb carpaccio with mache salad; roast lamb chop with cauliflower couscous and pomegranate reduction
  • Tony Mantuano and Susan Feniger: black pepper shrimp and scallops; homemade pasta with taleggio and black truffles, arugula salad
  • Ana Sortun and Jerry Traunfeld: lavender-crusted duck breast with red cabbage and pomegranate; duck leg buried in vermicelli with orange blossom and smoked cinnamon almonds

I'm glad that the chefs singled out Bradley for praise for his remarkable lamb carpaccio; I'll admit that I blanched a little when he mentioned that he was serving essentially raw lamb to couples on their first date, envisioning a steely metallic tang to the meat but by searing the outside and chilling it, Bradley created an ethereal dish that elevated by the beautiful mache salad. Less fantastic, actually, was Armstrong's own lamb chops, which were tougher and more forwardly lamb-esque than their carapaccio counterparts. The critics did love the cauliflower couscous but when your protein is outshone by the veg, that's a problem.

I'm glad to see how well Mantuano and Feniger worked together here. Rather than offer a variation on a protein as the other two teams did, they thought a bit more outside of the box, instead creating a narrative on the plate and placing the emphasis on the exotic and romantic qualities of world travel. Mantuano offered a gorgeous multi-layered ravioli stuffed with young taleggio (which James Oseland maintained was too strong and pungent) while Feniger offered a play on black pepper crab, infusing shrimp and scallops with a vivid and spicy broth. Well played.

I liked the conceit that Sortun and Traunfeld came up: to not only link their dishes with protein--duck, in this case--but also with some key ingredients like ginger and cinnamon and edible flowers. Traunfeld crusted his duck breast in lavender while Sortun used orange blossom with her duck soup. While Traunfeld nailed his side of the dish, effortlessly searing the duck to perfection, Sortun hadn't really thought her dish through enough. I loved the concept and its homey warmth but the critics were right to ask how she expected the diners to eat the duck buried under the vermicelli noodles. It's hard to get a knife and fork into a small bowl and Sortun would have been better off pre-cutting the duck meat into bite-size pieces, as they suggested.

Ultimately, it was the odd couple pairing of Mantuano and Feniger who took home the win this week, winning their individual charities a hefty donation and advancing to the next round of competition. I'm excited to see what they're able to do next time and I'm glad to see Feniger rising to the top of the pack with her kookiness intact.

What did you think of this week's episode? Agree with the critics' verdict? Would you have awarded the top spot to Feniger and Mantuano? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef Masters ("It's My Party"), six new master chefs must cater a celebrity birthday party.


LizzieJ said…
I agreed with all your comments! I didn't mind the team pairings for the Quick Fire, but thought it unfair for the Elimination Challenge. I hope they leave them unpaired in the future. When the chefs only really have one shot at it, that's the fairest way.

I like what Govind had to say about his former mentor Susan, but everything else he said was irritating and arrogant.

Love the team that won - so far I'm on Team Susan!
Hayden said…
I also agree about pairing the chefs. It was fine for the Quickfire but if this competition is really about finding out who is the best, then why would you pair them off? Or, if you are going to pair them, then shouldn't you still judge them separately? As they often do on the regular Top Chef?
rockauteur said…
I thought it was so unfair to have the chefs working as teams in the elimination challenge. I hope future episodes don't have that as well in the semi-final rounds.

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