TV Recap: Feniger, Armstrong on Top Chef Masters
Top Chef Masters premiered last night and featured two local chefs in Susan Feniger (Border Grill, Ciudad, Street) and Govind Armstrong (8 oz.), with the show itself taking place in our own fair city. The premise of the show is fairly simple: take six accomplished chefs from around the country, have them compete in a quickfire challenge and an elimination challenge, with the two winners from each group progressing forward into one last battle royale at the end of the season. If you win a quickfire, you get $5,000 donated to your charity of choice. If you win the elimination, it's $10,000, plus the chance to move on and compete for the $100,000 grand prize.
Bravo The chefs assembled
So what happened? The chefs were randomly placed into teams of two, then carted off to Chinatown to go shopping. Yet while teammates were planning their Chinese menus, the inevitable curve ball showed up, and they realized that they had to do all of their shopping in a Chinatown gas station, after which they would prepare food to be judged by the band The Bravery. You know, because nothing is more exciting than taking really talented chefs, giving them terrible ingredients, then having them cook for people who are used to eating carrot sticks and lukewarm hot dogs in a dressing room in Topeka.
Bravo Cheetos macaroni with grilled Slim Jims, tomato soup and Slim Jim bread crumbs
But the chefs trudged forward. Armstrong, paired with Jimmy Bradley (Red Cat, NYC) to make Cheetos macaroni with grilled Slim Jims and tomato soup, topped with Slim Jim bread crumbs. Though Bradley, due to not being in 6th grade, wasn't an expert Cheetos shopper, and accidentally purchased the flaming hot variety, resulting in a rather frighteningly colored candy-red macaroni. The chefs were then able to watch their food be judged by the musicians on a television screen, who were not wholeheartedly enthusiastic. Their criticism led the noticeably grumpy Armstrong to say "Who the fuck are these guys anyway? But also, look at what I'm cooking for you. It's Cheetos and Slim Jim. Get over it." The judges gave them 3 1/2 stars.
Ana Sortun (Oleana in Cambridge, MA) joined with Jerry Traunfeld (Poppy, Seattle) to create a crispy rice cake with clamesco sauce (Clamato-based romesco). The judges found the sauce bland, which the chefs seemed to brush off as an example of their food being judged by people without particularly discerning palettes. The dish earned them 3 stars.
Susan Feniger was joined by Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia in Chicago), who holds the claim as the favorite chef of the Obamas. Said Feniger, "Tony cooked for my favorite president ever, Obama." This pair pulled together a maple bread pudding with caramelized bananas, which most judges seemed to appreciate, though one in particular thought the dish was a tad sweet. The team earned 4 stars, and the win.
Then it's Elimination time, and thankfully, the task was somewhat less constrained. Their challenge: remain in pairs, and cook a romantic duo dish for 30 couples on their very first date. The chefs seemed rather pleased to be able to shop at Whole Foods. Here, we also got a fun little tidbit from Feniger, who said "My partner now of 15 years, I actually wooed her at one of my restaurants. But I couldn't figure out what to cook for her because she didn't eat shrimp or garlic or anything. So I think I wooed her with some of our fantastic cocktails. I must have been trying to get her drunk, I don't know." For her side of the plate, she created black pepper shrimp and crabs, while Mantuano prepared a homemade pasta with a mild tallegio cheese, mushrooms and truffles. The judges--Gail Simmons (Food & Wine), James Oseland (Saveur), Jay Rayner (author, The Man Who Ate the World) and Gael Greene (NY restaurant critic)--all seemed rather pleased with the dish. The only knocks were that Feniger's shrimp was slightly overcooked and that James Oseland thought the tallegio was a bit overwhelming to the palate. But all in all, a powerful convergence of two different styles, not unlike a good first date.
Bravo Govind Armstrong on Top Chef Masters