“Top Chef Masters” Season 5, Episode 2: The Week in Quotes

Almond-milk gazpacho, shrimp heads, and a pomegranate tattoo.

Sang Yoon's winning dish. Photograph courtesy of Bravo.

Let’s get this out of the way: Overall, there was far too little Bryan Voltaggio in the second episode of TCM this week—I almost welcomed the weekly commercial spot where the Frederick native shills for almond milk. (Or is he selling appliances? I can’t remember. What I do know is: You can make almond-milk gazpacho really fast if you have a blender.)

Anyway, the good news is that endlessly entertaining James Oseland took up a lot of that not-Voltaggio time, uttering lines like, “Come inside my body” and, “This slaw tastes a little ‘food court.’” There was also some rando Kathy Lee Gifford action and a guest judge appearance by talented writer Francis Lam, a sugarplum of a person who is almost as cute as Odette Fada trying to ESL her way off of the chopping block.

On to the recap.

“I’m gonna punch him in the face.”

Episode two begins in medias res, with our beleaguered sous crew gritting their teeth through the mis-en-place Quickfire—a Top Chef mainstay in which contestants go head-to-head to see who can prep stuff the fastest. Only this is one weird mis indeed. The ingredients are: rack of lamb, squid, celery root, and—oy, vey—pomegranate. Have you ever tried to get the seeds out of a pomegranate when your livelihood was on the line? Have you ever even made it through eating a pomegranate without becoming soul-crushingly bored by all that seed removal? Me neither. It’s a truly evil mis-en-place choice on the part of the Bravo producers.

Sang Yoon’s number two, Ted Hopson, finishes first, his work deemed satisfactory by our hunky Aussie host, Curtis Stone. Then Hopson rolls up the sleeve to reveal . . . a pomegranate tattoo! Nope, that’s not an autocorrect error. I didn’t type “naked lady” and wind up with “pomegranate”. This guy’s so into seedy tree fruits, he had one indelibly carved into his body. I wonder what inspires someone to get a pomegranate tattoo? Somewhere in the story is an ex-girlfriend who did a lot of Bikram yoga and made blender gazpacho out of almond milk.

But Hopson’s victory is Jason Bowlin’s punch in the face. Although Bowlin doesn’t do all that badly in the Quickfire, his boss, Neal Fraser, takes a break from threatening to fire him to pledge some physical violence. And everywhere across America, people are beginning to think their own bosses (not to mention tattoo choices) are really not so bad.

“It’s been a while since I worked on the line.”

In the next phase of the Quickfire, the masters must finish up whatever prep work their underlings have left behind and design a dish around the four aforementioned insane ingredients, which, it is revealed, the Bravo producers dreamed up during a peyote vision quest in Topanga Canyon. Gail Simmons and Stone descend upon a tasting table cluttered with platters of squid, pomegranate, lamb, and celery root. In short order, Simmons is lamenting Douglas Keane’s “murky broth” and wishing Voltaggio would up the flavor ante.

Then, hunker down, everybody, the judges taste Richard Sandoval’s lamb tartare. Zipping our slickers and battening down the hatches, the audience watches the skies blacken as a fierce squall appears suddenly on Simmons’s normally placid visage. You’ll recall that Sandoval came under critical attack last week, when he failed to successfully slice beef with a butter knife. This week, he displays an “inconsistency of knife work” that rocks our comely food expert to the core. Big chunks of celery root next to little chunks of celery root in the same dish? OH. NO. HE. DIDN’T.

Seeing the storm gathering force is his quaking cohost, Stone freezes in place—ready to dive for dirt should the broiling tempest start sending platters of Quickfire food flying through the air. What would happen if a particularly jagged piece of celery root pierced Stone’s perfect face? Shudder to think, Top Chef Masters viewers. Shudder to think. Fortunately, a “perfect” salad from Sue Zemanick causes the skies to part and beams of sun rays to return to Simmons’s gargantuan doe eyes. Sandoval packs his knives, gathering rust and cobwebs since the Ford administration, and goes. And a glorious rainbow appears over the TCM skies, assuring everyone on set that all was well in the world again.

“I would call this atmosphere ‘POW chic.’”

For this week’s elimination challenge, the masters do Asian takes on classic American dishes, then feed them to 200 Los Angelinos at that city’s 626 Night Market—decked out in that ubiquitous repurposed-and-raw industrial-modern look. Or, as Simmons like to call it, “POW chic.”

Of all our masters, Italian sweetheart Odette Fada has the coolest idea: a take on spaghetti and meatballs with vermicelli and fishballs. Sadly, though, the fishballs turn out gluey and disgusting. The good news is that Fada does not go home; her halting, Italian-accented explanation is so adorable that her funky dish is soon forgiven by our smitten team of judges. Yoon scores big points for his take on fried shrimp and coleslaw—an American classic I have never heard of—though Kathy Lee struggles with the fried shrimp head staring back at her. [Insert Hoda joke here.] Keane, meanwhile, does a cookies-and-cream thing that Oseland initially dismisses with a theatrical eyeroll, deriding the use of savory in desserts—which, if you don’t know, is basically a scourge on civilization. Then Oseland takes a bite and realizes, oops, Asian-influenced cookies and cream is actually the NECTAR OF THE GODS. “Shut my mouth,” laughs the Saveur EIC. But that’s impossible, Oseland. And that’s why we love you.

I know what you’re thinking: What does any of this have to do with Bryan Voltaggio? When we return to our man from Frederick, he has created a spin on chicken and dumplings with a broth so flavorful, judge Lam seemed to suspect dark magic may be at play. (Mystery solved at judges’ table: Voltaggio used a pressure cooker. Also a Wiccan spell involving red garnet, a lock of hair from a newborn elf babe, and three drops of fenugreek essence. But mostly a pressure cooker.)

Despite the broth to end all broths, Voltaggio is passed over for the second time in a row when Yoon’s fried-shrimp dish wins the big prize. If you’re not paying attention, that means a double victory this week for the team from Father’s Office.

Elated, Yoon rolls up his sleeve to reveal the tattoo of—you guessed it—a shrimp head! Okay that didn’t happen. Oh, and neither did that storm thing during the Quickfire. Something that did really happen: Jenn Louis lost due to too-bready bàhn mí. But it’s not all gluey fishballs for Chef Louis. She gets to go home to Portland, Oregon—a place where one can pass lifetimes without picking a pomegranate seed.

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Top Chef Masters Season 5, Episode 1: The Week in Quotes