When you've been in the fine dining business for as many years as the contestants on Top Chef Masters, it's a little like letting your eyes adjust to the dark. Exorbitantly priced menus become the norm, and being asked to prepare a dish on the cheap, or with cheap ingredients, is like being shoved jarringly back into the light of day. It's an incredibly simple idea, but a good one.
The Quickfire got as cheap as it comes: the Top Chef masters were tasked with cooking a dish for under a dollar for guest judges Rico Gagliano and Brendan Newman of NPR's Dinner Party Download. Price-labeled ingredients lay before the contestants, forcing them to be both inventive and thoughtful. Naomi ended up winning the day with a simple but impressive bread and asparagus salad, while Mary Sue was chastised for salty bacon she failed to taste before serving and George wound up in the bottom for grilled calamari that was beautiful but bland.
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The nature of the Elimination Challenge was kept a mystery to the Top Chef masters when they entered Whole Foods, but everyone was aware that they'd be cooking away from the Top Chef Masters kitchen and should plan accordingly. Hugh floundered in the aisles while George got caught up in a strange pairing of clams and $150 worth of pork loin. The more the cameras lingered on his vision, the more it sounded suspiciously like a sinking ship.
The Top Chef Masters' mystery location: a Farmer Boy's restaurant. Fast food challenge! Not an easy one, either. The chefs were under twice the pressure as they had judges coming from every direction. For each of the two services, teams of two (James Oseland and Grub Street's Alan Sytsma, Curtis Stone and Restaurant Girl Danyelle Freeman) switched off between dining in and driving through, keeping everyone on their toes at all times.
Still, given how much worse it could have been (a beach bonfire comes to mind), the contestants should have been falling down with thanks, but quite a few were horrified after so much pampering in the finest kitchens. George was the loudest voice we heard in this camp, making it quite clear that he felt like working behind the grill was beneath the group. Whatever the problem, it did create some issues with execution, leading to long lines and hungry customers.
Luckily, the brunt of the judging was on the food. It was clear that none of the judges were expecting a culinary masterpiece - just flavorful, well-executed food they could eat with their hands. The three in the bottom were the three who were unable to get out of their fine-dining heads and adjust to the challenge at hand. It also didn't help that a couple couldn't even properly name their items - Celina's "wrap" was clearly a taco, while Alex's "taco" was clearly a wrap. George had the most "conceptual" dish by far, but in fast food land it translated to a mess on a plate, and it was ultimately his inability to see the challenge for what it was - a test not of his cuisine, but of his survival skills - that left him packing his knives at the end of the day.
Meanwhile, those who were actually able to properly identify their own tortilla dishes were well rewarded for their efforts. Traci's chili verde burrito and Floyd's Chicken Frankie wrap received rave reviews, but in the end it was Mary Sue's Skirt Steak Quesadilla Diablo with quinoa fritters that took the prize. Mary Sue noted that she'd be adding the meal to her Border Grill food truck menu. So that's it, then: I'm coming for you next time I'm in LA, Mary Sue, and if they're on the menu by then I will be feasting on fritters.
NEXT WEEK: What does Maroon 5 know about fine dining? Top Chef Masters is about to find out! See you then!