Chef Tell: Mise en Place and Celebrity Chef Double Whammy

First off, I was on vacation last week so apologies for the lack of Top Chef All Stars recap. And while we're on the subject of last week, yes, I need a vacation from my vacation and DANG! that was one amazing showdown by eliminated chef Jen. Also, I appreciated that Tom acknowledged that a chef speaking aggressively toward the judges does not sway their opinion because they're aware that the bottom is an intense position to be in. Moving on...

This week's episode was a perfect example of one of those reality shows where you get to watch an expert in a field meet and try to impress someone who's an even bigger expert in said field. One of those that's always really awkward, never ends up with the winner being who you'd expect, and always has the guy you thought would do really well for the guy he loves so much not doing as well as anyone -- even the judges -- expected.

Oh, and another thing? Unless you live in the city in which the show is filmed and are a restaurant snob, you will probably only know approximately one-third of the experts by name or venture. For example, last night's Top Chef All Stars featured David Chang, David Burke, Michael White and Wylie Dufresne. You live in Dallas. We've discussed Wylie before. That's a quarter. And you probably know about one or two of the restaurants of the other chefs if you don't recognize their names (because, c'mon, they don't have super-unusual names). So you know WD and Chang's Momfuku? There's your one-third.

Anyway. The Quickfire was only just all right for a beloved mise en place challenge. The aforementioned Chang presided and the chefs were placed into teams (based on the order they entered the kitchen). There were racks of lamb, artichokes, garlic cloves. First team (green: Angelo, Fabio, our Tiffany D, and Mike) finished hit a buzzer to start a 15-minute clock. At that point they (and the other teams as they finished their mise en place) had to develop and construct a dish containing all the ingredients.

It was aggressive in terms of the competitive nature of all the teams, and it was a little shocking in terms of watching one chef peel a single clove of garlic as Fabio pounded 40 with a chopping block and led his team to the buzzer. But because the teams worked all at the same time, there wasn't the suspense that the usual mise en place challenges have always had. It was just chaotic to watch. And so messy. I wanted to clean.

After dishes were prepared and tasted, the green team and red team (Antonia, Jamie, our Casey, Dale L.) were on the bottom for some lame (that's not a typo) chops and carpaccio, respectively. Blue (Stephen, our Tre, Blais, Spike) and white (Dale, Carla, Tiffani, Marcel) were on top, with blue winning and taking home $5000 each.

The Elimination Challenge was a little less frenetic, but no less intimidating: Each group dined at an elite restaurant eating food from award-winning chefs (as listed above). Then they had to develop a dish that was reflective of the restaurant/chef's style that could easily fit on the menu. They competed as individuals against their own team members, to establish, in the end, four bottom places and four top places...and a double elimination.

The judges -- Tom, Padma, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Krader, restaurant editor of Food & Wine -- dined on the cheftestants' offerings at each restaurant accompanied by the host chef, to better address the approach of the menu and cuisine. In other words, so they could all say, "Hey, Hoss, by what percentage could you make this waaaay better?"

Tre explained that he's from Texas and loves steak so he chose a fish that works like steak. I used to do that too when I was in  my high school phase -- not eating animals that had soulful eyes, but eating fish -- and my dad would take me out to a steakhouse. Tre's decision earned him a bit more praise. Michael White of Marea (coastal Italian fare) felt that Tre's grilled swordfish with braised artichoke, mushroom panna cotta and basil oil was aesthetically, "right on the money," and Tom thought it was nicely cooked. It landed him in the top.

At Ma Peche (French Vietnamese), David Change felt Tiffany D's crudo of summer flounder, pickled radish and peach puree was a "crudo you might see at Daniel" and Tom agreed it was one that might appear at many other restaurants.

David Burke at the very whimsical Townhouse found Casey's "scallibut" (coconut hallibut seared to look like a scallop, tapioca caviar and ginger-carrot emulsion) to be something he could put on the menu. But, she didn't make it to the top. That "looks like a scallop" thing has been done too much, I suspect.

At the top were Angelo, Tre, Antonia and Dale, who kicked ass at wd-40 with a breakfast soup that included an egg yolk dumpling and a broth that allegedly tasted like breakfast -- or as Dufresne gleefully said, "like buttered toast." He won...and won a six-night trip to New Zealand, otherwise known as Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud, and the place I know way too much about to not see at least once before I die. Jerk. So jealous.

The losers? Stephen the wine and hospitality guy with the fat ties and Dale L. who said "Maybe I'll come back for Top Chef 16: Seniors." Love it.

Next week: U.S. Open. Angelo sabotaging people? What? Again? Nah.

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Merritt Martin
Contact: Merritt Martin