'Top Chef Masters': Michael Chiarello, Rick Moonen and more feed the masses

Michaelchiarello_topchefmasters_290 " Top Chef Masters" was a four-way cage match between the wily schmoozer, the ADHD poster boy, the young gun, and the Swedish Chef. No, not that Swedish Chef -- but wouldn't that have been awesome?

The chefs:
Rick Moonen
Restaurants: Oceana, Molyvos, and RM, New York; Rick RM Seafood, Las Vegas
Rick is a self-proclaimed hyperactive ADD kid who realized that he got all the stimulation he needed in the kitchen. He's Spike grown up.

Nils Noren

Job: Vice President of Culinary Arts for The French Culinary Institute
Interesting -- he's the first chef on the show without an actual restaurant. Jay says Nils is "very much the Swedish Chef," but I have yet to hear a "Bork bork bork!"

Lachlan Mackinnon Patterson
Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder, Colorado
He's the young guy, and he's ridiculously accomplished for his age, according to Jay.

Michael Chiarello
Restaurant: Bottega Restaurant, Napa Valley
Michael left restaurant work for TV cheffery, but now he's back. He's still got that schmooze-for-the-camera charm, though.

Quickfire
The chefs have to make haute junk food. Michael chooses fish sticks, and makes a yummy fried fish ball with sauce, which judges love. Lachlan's meditation on the hotdog involves a delicious soup and a homemade sausage that is nearly raw in the middle. Urg. Nils does fried shrimp, except he doesn't fry it. It's lovely, but you kind of missed the point, Nils. Rick has grand plans to do a fish corndog on a stick -- which would obviously win, because "on a stick" give it inherent superiority. Alas, Rick biffs it -- he's not finished with anything when the time is up. Zero stars for Rick. Lachlan and Nils both get 3 stars, while Michael takes home 4.5 stars.

Elimination
The chefs panic when they hear they need to make a three-course meal, on their own, for 100 people. Psyche! It's just hors d'oeuvres inspired by an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. Still, cooking and plating that much food is going to be challenging.

Nils decides to represent his homeys in Sweden with lots of fish and lots of smokiness -- because "growing up in Sweden, you do smoke a lot of things." Hey, Nils -- that means something different here. The illicit-type smoke may explain his decision to make a Lapsang souchong cream to put on his chocolate/goat cheese ganache. That speaks to some sort of herbal inspiration.

Michael is also getting weedy, making a basil gelato to go on his balsamic marinated strawberries. The gelato doesn't set, so he throws himself on Lachlan's mercy. Lachlan graciously lets him piggyback in the blast freezer. Meanwhile, Lachlan must have gotten into the Swede's stash, because he's deep-frying speck-wrapped pineapple. In fact, the only person not making odd decisions is ADD-boy Rick, who is determined not to screw things up like he did in the quickfire.

On the day of the party, Nils is done in plenty of time and is basically twiddling his thumbs before service. He actually offers to help Rick, who is running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to get everything done. He's not alone -- both Lachlan and Michael draft their wait staff into helping prep the first dish at the table.

The guests are all Top Chef fans, and I'm jealous. Where was my invite? I could have come to LA! The guests love Michael's shaved Brussels sprouts and asparagus salad, and the judges like the taste, but it's awkward eating at a cocktail party. The judges are less impressed with Lachlan's deep friend pineapple in speck  -- Jay is particularly confused by the dish, although one of the guests says it tastes like a Hawaiian pizza. Rick's ceviche is "like heaven in my mouth," according to one diner, and the judges agree. They also rave over Nils' scallop on smoked potato cream -- and this is finally a good dish for cocktail-party consumption, easy to eat with one hand while standing around a table.

Alas, Michael's next dish fails that test -- Gael is appalled that Michael's shrimp required cutlery. You don't bring a knife to a stand-up cocktail party! she sneers. No, Gael -- you don't bring a knife to a gunfight. A cocktail party? Maybe, depending on the crowd. But perhaps I hang out with a tougher group than you do.

Judges and diners adore Rick's shrimp and scallop branade, devour Lachlan's short ribs and praise Nils' salmon. The desserts.... well, that's where things get interesting. Michael gets behind in plating, and enlists the help of diners in spooning out cream. Isn't this cheating? one of the women asks. "Hot woman helping me is never cheating!" he says. "Oh, maybe to my wife..." The man knows how to work the room. Gael is initially skeptical of the basil gelato (which did set nicely) -- "I don't like lawn cuttings in my dessert" -- but she comes around.

Rick also gets raves for his creamy, comforting, perfectly cooked panna cotta -- which, Jay helpfully informs us, is "meant to wobble like a woman's breast." Pre- or post-plastic surgery breasts? Because there's some rock-hard cleavage out there, you know? But I digress -- and if either Jay or I continue this line of thought, we will doubltless be accused of dipping into Nils' stash.

Speaking of that..People HATE Nils' dessert. The smoky flavor is just too much for what's supposed to be a sweet treat. Sweet Pea of Project Runway (Hi, Sweet Pea!) probably has the kindest reaction -- "That one was a little too smart for me," she says. Lachlan's dessert, a strawberry frangipane tart,  isn't quite as roundly panned, but James says the berries taste like meat. Odd.

At the judging table, Michael attempts to smooth over the shrimp/cutlery concerns --  "I left the tail on -- to Italians, that's kind of like a fork." Heh. The rest of his dishes -- including the dessert, which everyone had been dubious about -- are praised. Nils' first two dishes were exquisite, but that dessert just stuck in the judges collective craw. Lachlan gets the most tepid reception from the judges, while Rick gets almost unanimous praise. So it's no surprise when Lachlan doesn't make the first cut -- but it is a bi of a shock to see Nils and Rick tie, and Michael take the whole competition. Oh, Rick. If you'd only managed to get something on the plate for the quickfire, you would have had a shot of taking it all.

Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends
  • Michael is bewildered by the quickfire "inspirations": "I go up to the table to these culinary aliens -- at first I'm trying to figure out, what the hell is that?" Dude -- man does not like on haute cuisine alone. Every once in a while, a hot dog hits the spot.
  • Michael gloats -- in the nicest of all possible ways -- about Rick's failure to plate at the quickfire: "I'm glad you didn't finish that -- that sounds rockin'." Um, thank you?
  • Nils gets paranoid at the elimination challenge when he's just hanging out, waiting for things to start, while everyone else is dashing. I love that he offered to help Rick. I love Rick's reaction even more: "Nils is a good man -- no matter what anyone says about him in New York."
  • Nils invented his own method of slow-cooking the salmon -- he salts it on one side, so it cured from the top and cooks from the heat at the bottom. Cool!


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