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Wedding Wars: Nuptial Nightmares on Top Chef Masters

Kudos to the producers for putting the master chefs through their paces with two of my favorite all-time Top Chef challenges, back-to-back.

This week on Top Chef Masters ("Wedding Wars"), the eight semi-finalists gathered back in the Top Chef kitchen to discover that they wouldn't be able to glide through on their earlier wins this week. No, the producers were determined to get these chefs to experience the full pressure and heat of Top Chef by making them participate both in the tag-team cook-off and--shudder--wedding wars.

As fans of Top Chef well know, wedding wars is one of the toughest and craziest challenges ever devised on the series as the chefs have limited resources and--even more critically--time to pull together an entire wedding reception (including cake!) on their own. Not only to do they have to get food out fast but it has to taste good, satisfy the 150 guests of the wedding, and make the bride and groom happy.

It's worth noting, of course, that the bride and groom seem to have very specific things in mind, both in terms of what they want and what they don't want. So it's up to the chefs both to make their clients happy while also remaining true to their culinary ethos and pleasing the critics at the same time. No small thing.

So how did the eight champions do? Let's discuss.

As I said earlier, I was really looking forward to these two challenges because both of them really force the chefs to work together and participate in activities in which they really are handcuffed.

The tag-team cookoff is one of my favorites because it forces the chefs to think on the fly and continually adapt someone else's dish that they've wandered into mid-stream. Here, the chefs were split into two teams, with Jody Adams, Susan Feniger, Rick Moonen, and Jonathan Waxman comprising the Blue Team and Carmen Gonzalez, Susur Lee, Tony Montuano, Marcus Samuelsson making up the Red Team.

Had it not been a random decision, I would have wondered why the teams split this way with some of the strongest players landing on the Blue Team... but, as it turned out, that mattered very little both in terms of the Quickfire and with the Elimination Challenge.

For the Quickfire, the Blue Team prepared a mussel and scallop stew with orange and fennel, while the Red Team took a similar tack and cooked up a truffle-spiced shellfish broth with a seared piece of fish that was served on top of prosciutto.

It was interesting that both teams immediately went for the same proteins and decided to go for seafood. I felt terrible that Waxman, a severe claustrophobic, had such difficult wearing the blindfold during the Quickfire but he ended up going on to infuse some bitterness to the dish with some sauteed fennel. While it seemed as those judges Kelly Choi and Jay Rayner had a problem with that, the Blue Team's dish actually did win, landing their team with $10,000 to split amongst their charities.

Elimination Challenge:

Blue Team:
The Blue Team offered up several passed hors d'oeuvres including: Waxman's red pepper pancakes with smoked salmon, caviar, and lemon zest; Feniger's spicy potato bhajia fritters with mint-cilantro sauce and tamarind-date chutney; and Adams' pancetta and melted raclette tarts.

For their entrees, Adams made a Dijon rack of lamb with rosemary, farro, and autumn vegetables. Waxman offered a roast chicken with tarragon veloute and cauliflower puree.
And seafood master Moonen created an a la minute seafood mixed grill with poah, Coho salmon, and swordfish with sweet and sour eggplant.

To round out the meal, Feniger made an Egyptian semolina cake with berries and cream while Adams made Bananas Foster, the bride's request and her favorite dessert, which Adams served with cinnamon, ginger, candied pecans and a rum-caramel sauce.

I thought that the Blue Team did a fantastic job here. Their passed hors d'ouevres were each beautiful little morsels of savory goodness. Some complained that Waxman's red pepper pancakes were too big but that's really a quibble when it appeared to taste deliciously. And everyone--guests and critics alike--raved about Adams' raclette tarts... and her risky rack of lamb.

Considering that the bride said that she didn't care for lamb, Adams took quite a chance by offering it up as the red meat offering on the bride's side. But everyone was bowled over by the masterful lamb, including the blushing bride herself, who may have just become a lamb convert after the experience. Waxman once again proved that he is unequaled when it comes to preparing "simple" food, here transforming a humble chicken into something magical and transcendent. But it was Moonen who had a rare misstep; considering he was working with his specialty (fish), he really had problem with his preparation as the fish weren't cooked to perfection. Hmmm...

Feniger's wedding cake was dry and the presentation wasn't exactly up to snuff. But it was Adams to the rescue with her delicious Bananas Foster, a dish she had never prepared before that evening but which drew raves from the guests and the critics. It did appear as though Adams might push them over the line into victory...

Red Team:
Over on the groom's side, the Red Team offered Gonzalez's jumbo lump crab cakes with avocado relish and Samuelsson's lobster roll with Asian pear (served in a spoon) and his honey mustard-cured tuna as hors d'oeuvres.

As entrees, there was Samuelsson's roast beef tenderloin with grilled onion ragout and pomegranate sauce and Mantuano's flaming ouzo shrimp and pasta with fire-roasted tomatoes, feta, and capers. Side dishes included Mantuano's potato gratin and Gonzalez's roasted corn relish.

Lee's desserts including a mind-boggling array of sweets including Croque-en-Bouche, carrot wedding cake, upside-down raisin pudding with butterscotch sauce, and chocolate profiterole with whipped cream. (Wow.)

But despite the staggering spread at Lee's dessert buffet, there were some real missteps here from the Red Team, aside from some crowd-pleasing standout dishes such as Samuelsson's lobster roll and cured tuna and Mantuano's shrimp and potatoes au gratin.

Rather than win over the judges with the variety and scope of their menu, the Red Team made some puzzling choices. While there was a red meat, a seafood option, and a pasta dish, they didn't really coalesce as the Blue Team's dishes did (with the exception of Moonen's) and instead of separate side dishes, I felt like these should have been connected to individual proteins instead. No one could figure out what Gonzalez's roasted corn relish was supposed to go with, though she viewed it as either a salad or a side dish. But it felt like neither, really.

Furthermore, Samuelsson's beef was deemed "mushy" by the judges, although the guests read that as "tender" instead. Mantuano's pasta was overcooked rather than al dente. Lee let himself down with the carrot cake, though he had never made one before (though neither had Adams made Bananas Foster). I think he was saved by the fact that he pulled off a Herculean dessert buffet all on his one.

But the critics were confused by what Gonzalez did. Yes, it was a team effort and, yes, she made the crab cakes and the corn relish and oversaw the logistics and helped set up, but there wasn't a dish that had that Carmen Gonzalez imprint on it, something that the judges could point to to see her influence on the evening. While she explained it as the fact that she didn't think her Puerto Rican flavors would meld with the rest of the offerings, I thought it was an odd excuse: the entire exercise was about adapting under extreme pressure and working as a team to deliver a singular meal.

It was no surprise then that Gonzalez was the one to be sent packing while the Blue Team walked away the winners and Adams was singled out for praise as the ultimate victor of this round.

What did you think of this week's episode? Would you have sent Carmen home? Was Adams the right one to win this week's challenge? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Top Chef Masters ("Scary Surf & Turf"), the master chefs are tasked with using often unappetizing proteins in a surf and turf dish; actors from The Simpsons judge the quickfire challenge.

Top Chef Masters Preview: A Simpsons Challenge:

Top Chef Masters Preview: Susur's Energy:


wildhoney said…
This was a fun one (although I'm sure it wasn't fun for the chefs)! The bride and groom had such limited tastes. I thought there would be no pleasing them but that certainly wasn't the case.

I was happy to see that Adams took a chance with the lamb and it paid off. Sadly, Gonzalez did not take any chances. She worked hard for the team but played it safe with her own dishes and, ultimately, didn't give the judges much to actually judge her on.

My favorites right now are Adams and Waxman. I love how nonplussed he is in the kitchen. Even when suffering from claustrophobia!
rockauteur said…
I was a little skeptical when I heard it was a team challenge after the team challenge disaster in the premiere episode this season, but then again, it almost slipped my mind that we're in full competition gear for the show, so a team challenge actually now works. And I was pleasantly surprised about how it all worked out - the quickfire was riveting, and I was on the edge of my seat about who would win the elimination challenge.

Rick Moonen definitely slid by the skin of his teeth due to his team's win. Though the editing was odd about Susur - everyone complimented his dessert spread while eating, but suddenly everyone objected to the taste of everything while at the judges' table. I hate when those viewpoints conflict.

Also of note: the wedding parties wildly different reactions to the chef's food. The bottom too scored sky high with the diners, and rock bottom with the judges. Too out of synch for me.
ewench said…
I did think Gonzalez deserved to go for the reasons you stated. Cudos to all of them for just getting through it, they are all mostly well into middle age and that was a physically daunting task.

Susur cracks me up, he is such a character - I thought the little blip about how he asked his gf to marry him and she said "F*ck you" was an entertaining yet bizarre anctedote to include in the show.

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