To borrow a quaint expression from one super-stressed-out sous chef seen cantering through the Top Chef Masters kitchen: “Holy mackerel!”
Season five of Masters, which debuted Wednesday on Bravo, was a cornucopia of twists and reveals—smart move for a show that has historically struggled in the who-cares department. This time around, producers have packed the program with built-in drama by incorporating chefs’ employees into the games. Each master was told to bring along a sous chef, presumably to assist him or her during the culinary challenges. What the Masters weren’t told: Basically the entire outcome of the show rests on the hunched shoulders of their overworked underlings. For instance, when a sous chef wins a Quickfire, his boss gets immunity in the elimination challenge. And when sous chefs perform poorly, their employers pay the price with various “obstacles” during the challenges.
As this information sinks in throughout the season premiere, the Masters make a LOT of jokes about how they are totally going to fire their sous chefs if they mess up. Cut to a huddle of saucer-eyed, tattooed toque assistants pretending to laugh. “Hahaha, not like I need my job or anything! Thanks, Bravo!”
Let’s explore episode one.
If you learn one new word on episode six of LATC, it should be this one: millwork. Spike and the fam drop that bit of restaurant-opening jargon approximately 700 times during this landmark hour of reality television, which centers—in part—on the opening of Good Stuff Eatery’s second location in Crystal City.
We also watch a mock service at the Spence—Richard Blais pacing to and fro, steam issuing from his adorable leprechaun ears as his line cooks bumble about applying salt to oysters and assembling salads so lifeless he can barely contain his sobs. Meanwhile in LA, Fabio contemplates “strangulating” one of his staffers, and Jen shows up to flirt with Jacopo and do some day drinking. It’s all about high-stress circumstances this week, so borrow an opiate from the nearest Bravo producer and let’s get to it.
“Wherever you hear a lot of roosters crowing, dawn never comes.”
Spike and his partner Brad head to the about-to-open Crystal City Good Stuff only to discover that the delivery truck has dropped off but a small fraction of the wood needed for the restaurant. And uh-oh, everybody: Here comes Mrs. Mendelsohn—her barely contained fury blazing as brightly as her crimson hair—spewing venom about the lumber provider. He is apparently a Dutch lawyer with many PhDs, but advanced degrees notwithstanding, the timber tradesman is not all he is cracked up to be.
It all leads to the matriarch’s millwork meltdown, but fear not, oh ye eight people reading this right now, for if one thing that can cool the flames of Mama M.’s raw-material-related ire, it’s box seats at a Caps game. There, she has the chance to watch proudly as her celebrity chef son and her husband wave to the masses while riding an ice-resurfacing apparatus about the rink. An thus is order restored in Mendelsohn land.
Top Chef: Seattle, the tenth season of the extremely popular Bravo show, debuted last night, and it was a tough one for the hopeful cheftestants. In order to win an official competitor’s coat, the potential Bravo stars had to prove themselves by performing fundamental kitchen tasks for the judges: Work the line with Tom Colicchio, prepare a salad for greens-loving Hugh Acheson, make soup that pleased Emeril Lagasse’s palate, and whip up a perfect—colorless, soft-in-the-middle—omelet for Wolfgang Puck.
Two of the Washington competitors have moved on to the next round. Onetime Blackbyrd/the Brixton chef Jeffrey Jew earned an early pick from Emeril for his chilled watermelon gazpacho, while Belga Café chef-owner Bart Vandaele received a close pass for his lobster salad. Unfortunately, one of the first chefs to depart was Dan O’Brien of Seasonal Pantry, who was eliminated from the omelet challenge for what Puck ultimately deemed poor plating. We caught up with O’Brien to talk about cooking for Puck, what’s next, and how it feels to be among the first to pack your knives and go.
Pop quiz: What ordinarily delicious food is the worst thing ever after a night of drinking? Raw oysters, you say? That is correct.
Nevertheless, this week found Jen and Spike—so strung out on moonshine that Spike has to pull his car over on the side of the highway so Jen can regain her sea legs—climbing aboard an oyster boat to shuck and suck down jiggly bivalves from the Rappahannock oyster beds along with frequent LATC guest stars Travis Croxton and Craig Rogers. Let’s get this out of the way: Jen does not throw up over the side of the vessel—but it looked pretty touch and go there for a minute. Vomit scares aside, this episode is really all about relationships: the one between Spike and his family, Jen and hers, Richard Blais and his bottom line-minded investors, and Fabio and his (imaginary?) friend Jacopo. We’ll be getting into all of it, so pour yourself a tall glass of unaged whiskey—it’s going to be a bumpy boat ride.
“Are you just copying Thomas Keller?”
Spike and sister Micheline—who makes the above ball-busting comment while Spike is creating a Cochon-style salad—are hard at work turning the defunct, stucco-walled Thai Roma restaurant into steak-frites (remember “frites” sounds like “knits”) restaurant, Bearnaise. It’s their first restaurant without their parents, and for the Mendelsohn offspring, Bearnaise is like one of those forts kids build out of couch cushions and afghans, with a sign taped to one pillow that reads: “No adults allowed!” Only Mama Mendelsohn keeps ignoring that sign and crawling on in. The kids want to keep the bar at Thai Roma; she says it must go. Spike’s vinaigrette is too acidic. And so on and so on.
It all works out in the end, though: Spike and his partner Brad cook up a preview of the Bearnaise menu, and the family responds in a remarkably positive manner, for once forgoing the opportunity to take their famously arrogant son down a notch or two. He may not be able to pronounce the word “frites” properly, but if the family is to be believed, Spike can make a steak dinner like nobody’s business. We look forward to testing that out ourselves.
Gail Simmons—special projects director for Food & Wine magazine, Top Chef Judge, and host of spinoff Top Chef Just Desserts (more on that in a minute)—will be in town this weekend for the Metropolitan Cooking & Entertaining Show at the Convention Center. While there, she’ll do a cooking demonstration with fellow TC judge Tom Colicchio and host a reception and signing of her book, Talking With My Mouth Full.
We recently chatted with Simmons about the upcoming Seattle show, the future of Just Desserts, and how she feels about scoop-hungry bloggers.
Tell us about what you’re doing at Metro Cooking this weekend.
Tom and I do a lot of cooking demonstrations together, so we have a little pattern that we like to follow. What we do is we like to take a few specific ingredients, and he does a very cheffy restaurant version of a savory dish, and I take the same ingredients and do a dessert version that’s a totally different dish—more approachable for the home cook. At this demonstration, we’re going to use pistachios and basil.
Will you demonstrate a cocktail? There was that very funny clip on Life After Top Chef when you were demo-ing a drink and the shaker lid flew off.
Of course that was the clip they chose! I will be doing a cocktail, as well, using basil but not pistachios.
Do you have any go-to restaurants in Washington? Any new spots you’ll be hitting?
There’s a lot of restaurants I’m excited about in Washington. I don’t think I’ll be able to get to them this trip. I’m really excited for Johnny Monis and his new Thai restaurant, Little Serow. I’ve heard great things about Toki Underground.
Having spent quite a bit of time there, I still have never been to Spike Mendelsohn’s pizzeria—it was just being built when I was out there [shooting the Washington season of Top Chef]. I’ve never been to Volt, so I hope to get there one day. I hear Ris is really excellent. Birch & Barley. Mike Isabella is doing a great job at Graffiato; I’m so proud of him.
You seem to be close with a lot of the former contestants. Is it hard to stay neutral while you’re shooting the show?
I don’t get attached to them during the season mostly because we have almost no contact with them compared with how it may appear and how much contact they have with each other. We eat a lot of their food, we get to know a little bit about them at judges’ table, but that’s in front of cameras.
All that stuff that you see when the show is put together—the interviews, the reality that’s happening in their house, the cooking—we’re not there for any of that. We see it at the exact same time you do as a viewer. Only then do we say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that person did that,” or, “I had no idea that person had a child.” The show is designed that way purposely, so we are only judging on the food. You as a viewer can’t taste the food, so all you have to judge by are the relationships and the personalities, but we are the opposite.
That said, once we’re finished shooting the show, we often get to spend much more time with [contestants] at the reunion episode and doing press and promo and events. So I have come to know many of the contestants afterward, and yes, I am quite attached to some of the former contestants. They’ve become good friends, and I’m really proud of them and their successes.
Ten seasons and two spinoffs later, we’ve spawned dozens of successful restaurants around the country and given these chefs opportunities otherwise they wouldn’t have had. I can say with confidence that Top Chef has made a real contribution to the culinary world, not just people on their couches watching TV but to the way we’re all eating—going out to their restaurants and tasting their food.
That’s certainly true here in Washington.
The four of them [former TC contestants Spike Mendelsohn, Mike Isabella, Carla Hall, and Bryan Voltaggio] have done incredibly different things with their success from the show, and interestingly all four of them weren’t winners. I would argue that often it’s the runners up who do the best, and those are four perfect examples, maybe because there’s a little less scrutiny. Spike wasn’t even a finalist. Mike was a finalist, Carla and Bryan were finalists, but none of them won. One is doing pizza and burgers, one is doing modern rustic Italian, one has a massive daytime talk show and a very successful catering business, and one is doing fine dining at a very high level. They’re also four of my favorite contestants. I have a really great personal friendship with all four.
You shot the upcoming Top Chef season in Seattle, and there was a lot of early press. Has it become more difficult to keep the show’s secrets?
Every season it gets more intense. Certainly the press and bloggers have taken a much bigger role, mostly because when we first started shooting there was no such thing as bloggers, or they were in their infancy anyway. We need to take a lot more care with our locations, with protection of the chefs.
What I can’t understand is—I guess I understand why lots of press are trying to get our secrets so they can break [the story] and expose them, but the truth is we shoot the show so many months out that it doesn’t really do any good. Even if they did find out who was on it, I don’t know really how that benefits them because ten months later or six months later, who is really remembering? Our goal is to make the best show we can make, so I’m always amazed people want to ruin that for the audience that really watches us to be surprised and to enjoy it.
Is it difficult for you to remain incognito?
It’s hard to be totally anonymous because we need to eat our dinner at the end of the day. We’re in a strange city for many weeks at a time, so obviously we’re going to hang out together: Tom and I are going to have dinner, and Padma [Lakshmi] and I are going to go shopping or out for a run along the waterfront in Seattle, and we can’t be invisible. We can’t be locked in a hotel room 24 hours a day—although the contestants can.
Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s really positive when people approach us, and that’s the biggest reward. That’s the reason we do it in the first place.
We’re four episodes in, and still precious little is taking place on the Ambien-esque Life After Top Chef, in which the plot wanders aimlessly like a lost sheep on a winding road in rural Virginia.
If you’re wondering who set that sheep loose, it might well have been Jen Carroll. She spends her segment with Spike Mendelsohn at Border Springs Farm, where she reveals a serious lack of sheep-sorting skills. Yes, we actually watched Jennifer Carroll count sheep. Oh, but it wasn’t all that bad—at least Fabio’s life coach didn’t show up. Grab a shot of espresso and let’s get to it.
“In my head I’m like, ‘Wow, I really suck.’”
Richard is invited by Food & Wine magazine to cook at the Best New Chefs event. Quite an honor, and one most people might enjoy. This being Richard, however, he spends the whole time fretting that his dish—braised oxtail and bone marrow, looks like a bone luge—isn’t good enough. We’ve always been big Richie Blais fans, but the stressed-out, self-effacing business is wearing a little thin. “It’s the worst feeling in the world, you know: not thinking you’re going to make it,” he says of his pre-event anxiety. “It’s every day of my life, and I need to change that.” Hopefully he’ll change it by the next episode, because enough already.
In New York, Richie meets up with Fabio—there for a Good Morning America segment—who accompanies him to the sharp-object wonderland that is the Korin knife shop. Why are they there, you’re probably (not) wondering? Because Richie plans to present a blade to his wife on their sixth anniversary. Yes, that wife. Jazmin. The same one who confessed an urge to stab him every time she wrapped her fingers around a butter knife. For their sixth wedding anniversary, he is going to offer her the sharpest knife money can buy. Is anyone else, like, really worried about this guy?
Next up, Richie and Fabio head to Dale Talde’s Talde in Brooklyn, where they are joined by Carla Hall and Angelo Sosa. And surprise, surprise, the success of Richard’s cohorts makes him feel bad about himself. When Hall tells him how good his Food & Wine dish is, does he say thank you and take her at her word? He does not. Why? Because Richard Blais is the worst-ever person to win Top Chef All-Stars and be invited to cook at Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs and open a hotly anticipated fine-dining restaurant and have a beautiful wife and kids and generally be regarded as a massive culinary talent. The worst.
“When Good Morning America asks you to be on the show, you have to say yes.”
Fabio demos a chicken dish at Good Morning America, and we learn a little bit more about the impoverished past that drives him to say yes to television appearances even when he’s sleepy and occasionally gorge on Animal-Style fries in the darkest part of the In-N-Out parking lot while rain drops patter poetically on his dashboard. Fortunately, though, this episode does offer some relief from Oliver Twist Fabio. Instead we see him making fun of Blais, using his signature a-idiomatic expressions like “Sloppy Suzie,” and just generally having a good time. More of this Fabio please, Bravo.
“I just always leave you wanting more.”
What else? Jen Carroll and Spike road-trip it out to Border Springs Farm, where they spend the day doing sheep stuff, wrestling turkeys, and performing other farm tasks in a slapsticky manner. Later, a bunch of local farmers come by for a potluck dinner. Throughout the segment—in which sexual innuendo abounds—we’re supposed to wonder whether there is any romance between the two friends. “Not going to happen,” says Jen. That doesn’t prevent her from engaging in some flirtatious repartee with Spike, particularly after she begins to get “well lubed” (Spike’s words) on wine and hard lemonade* at the potluck. When Spike complains that the stew Jen serves him only contains one clam, she retorts, “I just always leave you wanting more.” Later they return to their roadside motel, where—sorry, guys—nothing happens.
“It’s all about the initial sear.”
On the farm, Spike is asked to give everyone a little burger-flipping lesson, leading him to ponder his culinary status as a greasy patty guru. After all those years of hard work, how did he get here—barbecue smoke billowing in his eyes, hands flecked with dark bits of burning grease? Ah, but all this will change, Spike predicts, with the opening of his “steak frites spot” (when he says it, “frites” rhymes with “knits”), Bearnaise. Everything, dear viewers, will be different. Cut to lonesome sheep zigzagging down the road as the sun sets over the Virginia hills . . . and scene**.
*If Jen were an alcoholic beverage, she’d totally be hard lemonade.
**Some of the stuff described in this paragraph didn’t actually happen on the show.
It’s all about family in episode three of Life After Top Chef. Fabio gets a visit from his mom; Richard celebrates his wife’s birthday—attempting to win her over with a backpack and a visit to the shooting range; Jen heads to the track with her dad; and Spike travels to Montreal with his kind-of girlfriend Julia and the rest of the fam for a wedding and a little steak-frites research. Oh, but there’s so much more. Let’s get to it.
“At every turn, I have to make sure I’m still qualified to be her husband.”
Yikes, Richie. This show is preoccupied with Fabio’s dangerous stress levels, but the code red situation is really in the house of Blais. It’s Jazmin’s birthday, and Richie has bought her some kind of purse/backpack thing in honor of the occasion. Does she like it? Does she not? Blais explains how astute he’s become at examining the nonverbal queues. After nail-biting through the gift offering, we head out with the Blaises to shoot some (gulp) guns, and although artillery isn’t his thing, Richie must prove his manhood by firing away. Meanwhile, the sight of his wife packing heat causes our hero even more consternation, since “every time she picks up a butter knife in our house she tells me she’s worried she’s going to stab me.” Frankly, we’re a little worried, too. Hope she likes that backpack.
One week, and we’re already over Fabio. In our recap last Thursday, we thought we could watch him do just about anything. Then we got to episode two—in which we’re forced to watch him eat a hamburger in his car in a parking lot—and realized that’s not even close to true.
“Women can get very emotional.”
The big drama of this episode revolves around a cooking demo that Fabio does for his Los Angeles church. During a phone conversation, the woman organizing the event takes issue with our hero after he suggests she not “freak out,” and then—well, actually there is no “and then.” The demo goes fine—all the women minus the freak-out lady have a great time leering at Fabz, and the freak-out lady rolls her eyes. That’s literally all that happens. Yet somehow, the unpleasant knowledge that there is a lady out there who is impervious to his Italian Stallion stylings drives Fabio to distraction and leads him to a sad, solo hamburger binge in a parking lot and, later, a visit from his “life coach,” who cracks his back and stuff. And man, is it boring.
“We think we’re super cool; people probably think we’re super douchey.”
Meanwhile here in Washington, Mike Isabella shows up at Chez Spike riding a purple scooter. Along with Spike’s partner, the men scoot out for some food, where we get an up-close-and personal look at Mike and Spike’s friendship. Their dynamic is actually pretty cute—the sort of ball-busting-but-sweet pal-dom on which road-trip films are based. They talk about plans for Kapnos and Bearnaise, Spike makes a fat joke at Isabella’s expense, and that’s that.
In case you have not spent enough time watching Spike Mendelsohn saying funny things on Life After Top Chef, promoting heartburn medication, and purchasing matching scooters with Mike Isabella, we have good news: More Spike is on the way. The Good Stuff Eatery and We, the Pizza chef-owner is teaming up with pirate-themed rum brand Captain Morgan for a series of recipes that will be posted on the Captain’s Facebook page.
The annual Capital Food Fight is one of the most entertaining culinary events of the year—and with Anthony Bourdain and José Andrés acting as hosts, how could it not be? The ninth Iron Chef-style fight went down Monday night at the Ronald Reagan Building with an all-star lineup, including local battling toques Adam Sobel (Bourbon Steak), Guillermo Pernot (Cuba Libre), Enzo Fargione (Elisir), and Jeffrey Buben (Vidalia, Bistro Bis) and celebrity judges Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods and Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi and Carla Hall.