Monday, April 18, 2011

Top Chef: The Shock of the Champions

A bit of a surprise, a week after the live finale of French Top Chef, M6 proposed a second live event, a face-off between Romain, the winner of season 1, and Stephanie, the winner of season 2. It took place over more than three hours at the Cabaret Sauvage at La Villette, a circus-type venue. In the center ring, each of the cheftestants had a kitchen. Opposite, a jury that would do a blind tasting of the two dishes made in each round. The judges changed for each round, but in each, the three judges were one cheftestant from each season, along with one of the four chef judges.

Round one in 25 minutes: make a dessert using bell peppers. But of course, there's a "twist'. A viewer calls in and gives one of the chefs a handicap of 5 minutes off the alloted time. For some reason, the first caller gives Romain the handicap, claiming it's because Romain hasn't been in a cooking contest since one year ago, which puzzles everyone, since this is already a factor in his disadvantage. The main reason for this is that it generates cash for M6 via text message fees. But if Romain wins despite the handicap, he gets two points, whereas i Stephanie wins, she gets only one point.

The dishes are presented to the judges for the round, who have been sitting back to the cheftestants, with headphones on. They each taste the dishes, but don't discuss them, then vote electronically for their preference (A or B).

Romain's dish is crap: strawberries on a bell pepper coulis, with a crispy thing on top. Stephanie's seems better: she too did a coulis, but more substantial in volume, with a roast pineapple and whipper cream on top.Stephanie wins all three votes.

I would have preferred Richard Blais doing a nitro bell pepper ice cream.

Round two is to make a 3D carpaccio in 20 minutes. Again, a view gives Romain a 5-minute handicap. Romain makes a maki of veal carpaccio, while Stephanie makes a disgusting-looking ballotin of Oriental vegetables in a beef carpaccio, with the ball placed on a base of mango slices and fried noodles. It looks like a giant turd on something dead. And yet, she winswith three votes from the new series of judges, including the lovely one-armed Gregory.

Round three is to make a savoury fondant in 20 minutes. At last, the viewer gives the 5-minute handicap to Stéphanie. This seems hard. Usually a fondant or moelleux is made with chocolate. How can you have a cake-like exterior and a soft, flowing interior? My choice would have been to use a foie gras cream or something. Chef judge Piège shows his attempt: he made some crushed herb potatoes, filled with a frozen cube of a scampi cream. He then just reheated the ring enough to melt the cream inside, and topped it with caviar. I'm calling shenanigans, since they don't have the time to freeze anything, which would seem to be the only way to have a firm outside and a liquid inside.

In any case, the cheftestants produce some unsatisfying dishes for this impossible challenge. Romain's is a crab tartare with a crab mayonnaise center. The director doesn't really show the center flowing, despite the MC claiming they have. It's not very appealing. Stéphanie's looks like vomit. Really. It has no firmsness at all, and when she removes the ring, it just oozes all over the plate. The MC says; "Stéphanie, you look distraught". And she does. It's gross. I'm not even sure what it's made of. Romain wins all three votes. The score is now two points for Romain, one for Stéphanie.

A great taped sequence shows the chef judges' tricks of the trade, a series of cooking hints that made me say, that's clever! that's cool!

Round 4 takes place in 30 minutes, and is judged by the four chef judges. Romain has the handicap, and he lacks time to plate his dishes. They have to get their first course out in 20 minutes. It's not a blind tasting (which was criticized in the finale of season 2, where the less-nasty Stéphanie took the win over Fanny, possibly because she is less unpleasant a personality). The challenge is to make a first and main course using chocolate.

The first courses aren't really presented. Romain uses shrimp and calamare in a bouillon, with chocolate and foie gras in a bouillon. Stéphanie's is a mystery. Pan-fried foie gras and cacao powder.

.Romain's main course is a black-and-white cod, using dark chocolate and charred eggplant for the black, and the poached cod for the white. Stéphanie's dish is pan-fried cod dusted in cacao powder.

The scoring is like the Dating Game, where the last question counts as much as all the others combined, and I hate it. Stéphanie gets 4 points for her first course, and 4 points for her main course.

Basically they appreciate Romain's creativity and graphic design, but keep going back to the basics of Stéphanie's expert seasoning. And it's just unfair: the chef judges say they prefer Stéphanie's use of cacao powder as a condiment to Romain's use of real chocolate. Bullshit.

At least Romain got to promote his new book.


Tonight, the debut of French Kitchen Nightmares. 

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