This week, the Top Chef Masters challenges both were plays straight out of the Tom Colicchio guidebook. The Quickfire was cute, and a little bit embarrassing for all, while the elimination challenge was a Masters spin on Restaurant Wars featuring Thai cuisine. For almost the first time, some of the contestants—I’m looking at you, Lorena—were honestly rattled, and others displayed the kind of mettle and, yes, mastery, that got them to the top in the first place.
Champagne, steak, strawberries, and oysters laid out on the pantry supply table can only mean that it’s time to recreate those ingredients from things in the vending machines or that it’s an aphrodisiac Quickfire. Yes, it’s sexy time for the chefs! Everyone has 30 minutes to make dishes that will turn Curtis Stone on. (But bizarrely, no one chose to cook anything reflective or Vegemite-based.) When Curtis describes what an aphrodisiac is, ending with foods with “an essential feel in the mouth,” Art gasps in a semi-scandalized nature.
This leads down the obvious path of terrible puns and dishes that feature things that go on sale in supermarkets around Valentine’s Day. Art’s dish is an île flottante in gooey chocolate sauce. “Men like big breasts, I like big meringues!” Art reasons. “Maybe I do like girls.” Alas, celebrity judge and burlesque queen Dita Von Teese doesn’t love chocolate, and finds his dish unfortunately saccharine. Curtis blushes a lot. Von Teese loves Patricia’s plate, a glass of warm custard next to a fried asparagus and a little spicy salad. “A gentle caress followed by a sharp slap,” she nods approvingly. Curtis almost turns purple. But the winner of the day is Takashi’s cold oyster dish, which Von Teese finds light and pleasing. “My wife will not be happy,” Takashi decides
After the gimmicky finish of the Quickfire, Stone introduces the chefs to something more serious. They all get to eat at culinary landmark Lotus Of Siam, a bastion of Northern Thai cuisine. The catch is, of course, that they then have to create their own Thai-inspired dishes. And they have to do that by opening a Thai restaurant in 12 hours.
None of these chefs are strangers to opening restaurants, so the usual chaos doesn’t descend upon the kitchen. But the instructions that keep them working as one team elucidate a divide between the groups. Lorena and Art, fun and bubbly, seem to be on one side with Kerry, while Chris, Takashi, and Patricia all exude self-seriousness. Art and Lorena get assigned the front of the house, since the other group all considers themselves born line cooks.
Communication doesn’t break down spectacularly—even the tiffs on Top Chef Masters have a modicum of grace—but it’s clear that the kitchen isn’t running as smoothly as it could have. A snafu in Karry’s plating means that Patricia has to refire her dishes for the critics, rushing out a duck Massaman curry that lands in front of James Oseland so rare that he can’t eat it. Kerry’s expediting isn’t as forceful as it needs to be, and the guests are left with too much lag time between ordering and eating. But the service is barely a question for the judges, who focused on the Thai-ness of the chefs’ efforts. The most intimidating of the critic panel, by far, is Saipin Chutima, the grand matriarch of Lotus Of Siam. Lorena’s pisco soup, though an inspired take on infusing her Venezuelan fare with Thai flavors, had flavorless poached chicken and a chile garnish that, as Francis Lam points out, would quickly turn your mouth into a “flame-thrower.” Chris does a tartare take on a beef larb, a dish that meets with the judges’ approval—with the excpetion of Saipan. Takashi’s yellow curry passes muster, though without too much enthusiasm, and Kerry’s taro root puree accented pork belly has Curtis quoting one guest describing it as a “Thai take on meat and potatoes.”
Art, uncomfortable with Thai cuisine, basically dresses up a dish he did already as something Thai-inspired. The peanut-crusted chicken and Asian salad could be good, but it also sounds like something straight off the Cheesecake Factory menu. (Reality TV gods: Please oh please let there be a challenge where everyone actually has to cook at a Cheesecake Factory.) Patricia’s dish suffers not only from undercooked duck, but from a misnomer. Her curry doesn’t quite have the profile of a traditional Massaman. At judge’s table, she spills the beans about Kerry’s involvement in making the dish less than it could have been, but she owns up for what she made. “I chose to serve it, you know,” she repeats. “Stop looking like a sad little dog, please,” she asks a guilt-ridden Kerry.
It’s not Patricia who gets the axe though. Art’s chicken is unenthusiastic enough to get him sent off. It seems like almost everyone was upset by his departure—save, perhaps, Chris Cosentino. Now Lorena will have to fight it out for the team.