Friday, July 31, 2009

Thank You Top Chef Masters

It's as if all the seasons after the classic first season of Top Chef were practice, or rehearsal for what's turning out to be a stellar run of Top Chef Masters. I love the tension, the twists, the turns but most of all I LOVE the Mise En Place Relay Race. I loved it in Season Three when it was first introduced and I loved it in Chicago. They abandoned it in Season 5 and NY which I thought was crazy. In the Top Chef setting it either builds teamwork or it reveals the major flaws of the team. Here in Top Chef Masters we get to see the big guns doing lowly prep work. It also means......Tom gets to whip out his whistle. Now we all know that there's little chance of Tom telling any one of these chefs that their onions aren't chopped to his satisfaction so no point in hoping for that particular train wreck. However while I have much respect for this group the bar is set fairly high because of this man.Chicken Breaker Extraordinaire, Hung Huynh. Can any of these chefs impress us with the speed and the dexterity that Hung did? All I know is something different stuck out in Anita Lo's memory.
It's OK Casey, she didn't even remember your name.

Oh yeah, she's got game face.

3 vs. 3 means someone does double duty. Hubert for his team and Art for his.

So oysters go first with Keller for his team and Suzanne for hers. At the end of 15 (any pearls?) it's tied. (By the way, I sincerely hope someone made a meal of these oysters because they were phat. It would be a crying shame if they went to waste.)
Onions go next with Keller again and Art stepping up for his team. In a blink of an eye, Art is done and Keller is an onion behind.Now Michael goes into chicken cutting with a decent advantage but Chefbian Anita Lo didn't bring her game face for nothin'.
What's even better? Hubert talking smack in the background to the other team.

BAM! Just like that it's back to even. Now Rick get his turn at egg whites and Art's back for his team. But Art gets a little sloppy separating his eggs...
...and that's all Rick needs to pull ahead and give his team the win.

If you don't think these chefs aren't competitive check out Hubert's face.
They do not like to lose. That, my little Top Chef Crack Monkeys, is fun TV.

Dim Sum Sunday - Summer Soup

Don't forget this Sunday's Dim Sum is Summer Soup. Maybe a little gazpacho or some Vichyssoise or maybe your own concoction of avocado and tequila soup?  Come back Sunday and bring your best soup slurping spoon.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

What I did on my Summer Vacation

Sometimes a girl just needs a vacation. The time had come for mine. Work was relatively slow, gas prices were relatively low and my favorite vacation spot was available for a two week jaunt. I was off to the beach.Beautiful Florida, land of amazing sunsets and crab sushi.It's also the home to two of our oldest Friends of the Blog, Season Two Top Chef Survivor, Chef Carlos Fernandez and Chuck Smith, long time partners and owners of the Hi Life Cafe. They are certainly two of the best sports when it came to Big Shamu Shenanigans.It was only natural to point the Shamu-mobile east from the Sanibel compound and head for the Hi Life Cafe. I had some serious Top Chef in person chattering to do. But first......I had to get through Gator Alley, otherwise known as I-75. During a wicked, barely can see while driving, rain storm. Happily no flying gators. Finally I made it to Hi Life where Chef Carlos greeted me with a huge grin. Ladies, this man is even more gorgeous in person than TV can do justice.So is his restaurant. Two rooms, one with the bar, just the right size to be manageable but with enough table turning to cover your basic costs. Warm and cozy with fun details gathered from Chuck and Carlos' life together. Sadly I did not get to meet Chuck in person which is too bad because front of house is his baby and it's gorgeous. With our pre-food chatter out of the way, Carlos hustled back to his tiny kitchen to start the night. First a little teaser of Sweet Potato Fries.Crispy on the outside with sweet tender sweet potato flesh inside and just lightly salted. Quickly gone. Next was my soup and salad course.
The salad course I know would have been a favorite if the Java Junkie had been my dining companion.Endive leaves filled with tomatoes, walnuts and blue cheese (Stilton, I think) drizzled with a champagne vinaigrette. Normally I'm not a endive fan but with the creaminess of the blue cheese, the tang of mid summer tomatoes interlaced with the sweet vinaigrette puts the bitterness of the endive in the background of the overall flavors. Plus how can you go wrong with blue cheese? The soup was a creamy Summer Squash, Sweet Potato topped the wonderful blue cheese again, pine nuts, and I think a little chiffonade of spinach. Carlos came out to talk in between courses, OK, we gossiped about all things Top Chef. I have a feeling some former contestants want nothing ever to do again with Top Chef. Carlos is not one of them. He's a fanboy, plain and simple. First we both dug into Top Chef Masters and how much we loved the maturity of the show compared to regular Top Chef. We talked about reliving moments in our lives and how we would do them differently. I had to ask how it felt to live through Season Two's nightmare living space and then see Season Three's luxurious Miami digs. I'm thinking Season Three would have been a much better fit for this chef in so many way. Enough chatter, time for more food.OMG, the clams. Tiny little Manilla or baby clams, steamed in a chorizo studded white wine, basil, garlic broth. Normally this dish would be served on a bed of Capelleni pasta but since I was getting the tasting menu we went sans pasta. The clams were tender and juicy, full of the aromatic slightly spicy broth. I ate the clams, I ate the chorizo......I may have even slurped down the remaining broth like a chaser.
All of which was just a warm up to my favorite course of the night.The Jumbo Lump Crabcake with a Mustard Ponzu Raspberry sauce. Normally when I'm taking food photo shots for the blog, I take at least two or three so if one is blurry or badly lit, hopefully the others will be alright. This is the one and only shot of this dish because I was so anticipating getting my tastebuds on that crab. I related my tale of woe to Carlos, of not being able to find any crab NOT from somewhere outside US coastal waters. He just sort of grinned as he watched me devour that crabcake. No silliness with the numerous fillers lesser chefs pollute good crab with, just crab with enough binding to hold it together for the fry. If the meal had stopped right there, I would have been pig-slopping happy. But there's more.
The Sea Scallop with Citrus Glaze on Asparagus and Sweet Potato Mash. Again, heaven on a plate.
The Beef Two Way, tender beef with a blueberry flavored BBQ sauce, and a 12 hour braised short rib with mashed potatoes. That short rib is amazing. OK, I have to be honest, the BBQ sauce was just a tad too sweet for me and frankly that's more of a function of living in Kansas City and having developed a far ranging repertoire of sauces to sample from. It's still a good sauce.
But wait, there's still more.The Hawaiian Butterfish with Bliss potatoes, grape tomatoes and red curry sauce. The fish is crusted with a cashew and coconut coating. This is one of Carlos's newer dishes. I have a feeling it's going to be one of his permanent dishes because that fish rocks. So moist and juicy and makes a great canvas to the wonderful combination of the curry sauce and the coconut crust. At this point I cried No Mas but really, you can't really stop without dessert.Especially when it's real homemade Key Lime Pie and Orange Coconut Pie. We chattered more while I tried to clean my plate. Post Top Chef, Carlos nabbed some sweet gigs. An advertising campaign with 7-UP and a commercial for Goya, not to mention the upswing in business for the restaurant due to the publicity from his appearance on the show. I think many chefs expect instant success and financial backing to fall into their laps just from being on Top Chef. Little do they realize how hard chefs like Carlos worked prior to Top Chef, running a successful restaurant for over 15 years. It's not just cooking. It's making the hard financial decisions like, do you put a big chunk of money into a generator just in case a hurricane takes down your power? You learn how to do things like repair your own roof post storm so the water will stop leaking into your kitchen. You maintain a good relationship with your neighbors, lending out tools when emergencies suddenly emerge (yes, Carlos can wield a hammer). I'm sure there have been chefs who have made more Real Housewives appearances and think themselves popular but I still think Carlos was one of the smartest and most resourceful chefs Top Chef has had. And yes we talked some dirt but you know I was privileged enough to get to pick Carlos' brain that I would never consider violating the Hi Life Code of Silence. That and I'm coming back for more of those crabcakes.
Thank you so much Carlos and Chuck for an incredible meal, it was well worth the trip. If you are in the Fort Lauderdale, hell, even if you're anywhere in Florida, please make a point of eating at least one meal at the Hi Life Cafe. It's not even close to being Crap On a Plate.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Top Chef Masters - Pimp My Aisle

So we come to the last episode of Top Chef Masters before the Championship Round. Our last four chefs are starving for the Quickfire.Now up until this episode, I would have to say that the Master Chefs generally have had it tougher than the regular Top Chef contestants. For this Quickfire, I think it was reversed. I think the Masters got off easy. Why?
First there was this......instead of this.
That's right, back in Season Three, our Miami chefs had $10 and 10 minutes to spend here in their aisle while our Master chefs have $20 and 30 minutes to crank out something from their luxurious Whole Foods aisle. I'm fairly certain there's no aisle like this in Whole Foods.Which means there was absolutely no chance of seeing anything remotely like this......which really is a crying shame. The Hung Diorama was classic TV. Ah well.The chefs wander up and down their aisles, looking appropriately confuzzled. Jonathan Waxman even goes so far to announce his reluctance to use Things in Jars and Cans which means he's screwed if he gets that category in Jeopardy.Back in the Kitchen, we meet Peter, Becky and Dave, comfortably ensconced in the Banquette of Scrutiny. Apparently none of them is important enough to warrant mentioning their last names. All you need to know is that they work at Whole Foods. Touching all the cans and jars Jonathan won't.I never understood why we don't see more use of pressure cookers in regular Top Chef. I don't know if the pressure cookers weren't available in the equipment room or if the younger chefs don't know how to use them but when you've only got 30 minutes to cook something, it would make sense to at least try using them.
Of course it helps if you've got a youngster there to help with that darned technology.
Roy's Pasta with Egg
Jonathan's Mint, Lentil, Red Pepper SaladArt's Multi-Grain Rissotto with Crispy Rice SaladMichael's Chocolate Parfait with Ginger Sauterne Syrup & Sesame Crackers.

I have to say Roy's dish was the most interesting to me. It helps that I like fried eggs. I really liked that oven baked cheese crisp he made to compliment his pasta sauce. It's amazing how much alike Art's and Jonathan's dishes turned out from two different aisles. The judging for this Quickfire was really close.Michael takes the coveted 5 stars but he was right, he was lucky to have chocolate in his aisle.

Next for our Elimination Round, the Master Chefs break out their pastel shirts and hit the Blue Shag carpet of Kelly's Place.