Top Chef Season 7: “Eliminated By Mousse”
Top Chef Season 7 kicked off on Wednesday night – as you may have heard, it takes place in our nation’s capitol which, according to enthusiastic “cheftestants,” is a great restaurant town, full of chefs, etc. Well, there’s a few – if you are lucky you might come across Jose Andres whipping up a giant paella on a street corner.
But D.C. does have its own charms, such as cherry blossoms, lovingly photographed in cutaways on the show. For those who are unfamiliar with D.C., the cherry blossoms are one of D.C.’s main selling points, although they actually exist for about 2 days in April, during which the time the National Mall (and all other areas containing a concentration of cherry trees) is a complete madhouse.
The show spent a few minutes introducing us to this season’s contestants, nearly all of which seem to be executive chefs of some restaurant or another, and most of which seem to have been voted “best new chef” in some region, or else have received some sort of James Beard Related award/nomination. Now, honestly, how many freakin’ awards do these James Beard people give out, anyway? It turns out they give out dozens of awards, including many regional awards, so you can do the math and figure out there are a hell of a lot of James Beard nominees running around out there. Anyway, there is a lot of name dropping here too, everyone brags that they worked for Bouloud, or Ducasse, or whoever.
Notably, we meet Angelo, from Connecticut, who brags about his Michelin Star and is obviously being set up by the producers to be this year’s big arrogant villain/douchebag (although honestly, this doesn’t seem to require much set-up). We also meet Kenny, who gets props from his co-contestants and tells us that on a scale of 1 to 10, his confidence is 10. Also, we meet John, a freaky cat with thick glasses and some nappy white-man dreadlocks who tells us he feels like “a stranger in strange land.”
On to business – Tom and Padma arrive briskly and the Quickfire begins: This is a “basic skills”-type Quickfire – first, peel potatoes, then, break down chickens, finally, brunoise onions – all at breakneck speed. Kenny dominates each of these challenges, finishing well before any other contestants on each one, and his competitors seem sort of in awe at how much they suck comparatively. This Quickfire actually works quite well as an exercise in humiliation – we’ve just seen all these executive chefs and James Beard nominees bragging about their resumes and now it turns out most of them can’t even chop and onion or peel a potato – at least, not as fast as they’d like.
The beauty of it is this: You may have worked for Daniel Bouloud or been awarded Most Promising Chef In The Greater Utica Area – but in Week 1 of Top Chef, you’re just another reality TV contestant trying to avoid the door hitting your ass on the way out.
Anyway, the Top 4 now have to cook a dish using the chopped/peeled ingredients…and oh yeah! There’s a giant table of other ingredients they can use too! Honestly, it would be far more interesting if they were just limited to potatoes, chicken and onions, but it wouldn’t sell cookbooks or look good on the Bravo website, so we get the usual stuff. Out of the four, the final showdown comes down to Angelo and Kenny, but Angelo wins, despite Kenny’s clear domination of the knife skills portion of the challenge. A rivalry is clearly being set up here, Angelo crows about the number of challenges he will win, Kenny says he views Angelo as an “obstacle” and not a threat.
On to the Elimination Challenge: here, the contestants will divide into groups and cook a dish that evokes the region they are from, and will compete against others in their group. The top 4 in the previous challenge get to pick their group members, so there is a nice awkward moment where they all start to pick the contestants they figure will suck the most. Then off to Whole Foods and we get to hear about the crazy concoctions everyone is coming up with.
At this point, Top Chef becomes an exercise in “guess the failure” – they will focus in a few dishes that have problems and end up in the bottom, and also will throw in a red herring that seems like it is bad but ends up being good. Tonight we have two obvious contenders – First John tells us how in Michigan, “the maple runs through the trees,” and therefore he is going to make a maple mousse napoleon. Now, even without further information, this is a disaster in progress – first, dessert is always a bad idea unless part of a larger meal. Second, a napoleon is pretty old school, not exactly cutting edge cuisine. Finally, “maple mousse” sounds questionable, and there is always difficult pastry to work with. So this is clearly going to be a problem.
Jacqueline tells us she will be evoking the Hudson Valley region with a chicken liver mousse. Now, this is a dish that will never win a challenge, but if done properly could at least keep you in the middle and out of trouble. However, she bungles it horribly – first, inexplicably deciding to make a non-fat mousse (“just some egg whites”), and secondly, declining to strain her mousse mixture to make it smooth. Really, how long would this take, 30 seconds? To her credit she made cute little apple cups, but it hardly matters when they are full of a stringy, coarse mousse that has no richness to it at all.
Now, I am rooting for Jacqueline because she is a caterer and one of the few contestants who is not constantly bragging about her resume – and I think it would be fantastic for a caterer to rise to the top and beat the pants off all these “pedigreed” chefs. However, she has to do better than this. She was the obvious candidate to be dragged before the judges for elimination. However, John was called too, as his maple mousse was found to be soggy and lack any maple taste. A sort of red herring thrown out there was a “deconstructed borscht” – long time viewers know that “deconstructed” dishes almost never work, Tom Collicchio always bitches about them whenever they get served. This one, however, ended up working okay.
Through the course of the Judge’s grilling, Jacqueline claims that she had made her mousse “hundreds of times,” although she forgot the recipe this time and that’s why the fat didn’t get included. However, it is also revealed that John had committed one of the cardinal sins of Top Chef – he had bought the puff pastry that he used in his Napoleon, which means essentially all he did was make a bad mousse and sprinkle some nuts over it. On top of that, the puff pastry is soggy. Well, that is enough to get him kicked off, and Jacqueline lives to fight another day.
Again, Kenny and Angelo make it to the final four, and again Angelo wins for his “arctic char sashimi with bacon foam” and some other crap. “heh heh heh – I win” he cackles in his post-interview. Right now he is by far the favorite in this competition, but hopefully some other contenders will emerge, because frankly it is boring to have the same chefs in the top 3 week after week, like whats-his-name Voltaggio last year (although in all fairness, he did not win the final competition – but he almost did).