Top Chef Masters: Rick Bayless vs. Ludo Lefebvre vs. nasty bits

Rickbayless_topchefmasters_290-2 The "Top Chef Masters" cheftestants were cooking with Anthony Bourdain's beloved "nasty bits" this week. And just to be clear, nasty bits means offal -- you know, heart, tongue, other organs -- not any part of Bourdain's person.

Meet the chefs:

Wilo Benet
Restaurants: Pikayo, Payá and Varita, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico's first celebrity chef, a judge from the Top Chef: Chicago finale, and  kind of adorable. He keeps tearing up when he describes his charity, San Jorge Children Research Foundation. Awwwww.

Cindy Pawlcyn
Restaurants: Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, Go Fish and Mustards Grill, Napa valley
She's the queen of wine-country cooking, and seems like she'd be a blast to hang out with. I ate at Mustard's Grill about a decade ago. I liked it? I dunno, it wasn't a meal for the recod books.

Ludo Lefebvre
Restaurant: Ludo Bites, Los Angeles
Ludo is very French, and inexplicably subtitled. Yes, he's got an accent, but he's not incomprehensible. What gives?

Rick Bayless
Restaurants: Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, Chicago
I've eaten in both his restaurants, and I've proposed marriage to at least one waiter, sous chef or foodstuff every single time. It's really, really good.


Quickfire challenge
The chefs have to make a monochrome meal that will please the palates -- and eyes -- of a food stylist, cookbook author and food photographer. Wilo, Rick and Cindy admit to being nervous, but Ludo pooh-poohs all that. I have French training! My chef overlords made me cry when I was learning! I rock! Well, except for the part about forgetting a part of the dish, and creating something that, when all the components were added together, looked like a gory murder scene... The steak tartare was amazing, the judges said, but the addition of the beet gazpacho was a poor aesthetic choice (unless it was going to be featured in a Quentin Tarantino film).

Cindy's yellow vegetable curry over sweet corn grits and fried corn tortillas got praise for combining different texture and flavors, but a few of the judges were unable to identify components. Rick's green vegetable mole with tomatillos on banana leaves drew compliments. Wilo's smoked salmon tartare in a coconut milk and tomato sauce had one judge practically licking the plate. Pity he left the ring mold on the plate....

Despite that, Wilo wins the round, getting 4 1/2 stars. Rick follows with 4 stars, while Cindy gets 3 1/2 and Ludo gets 3.

Elimination Challenge
Insert offal/awful pun here! The chefs must create street food using organ meats and then convince tourists to chow down. Cindy gets tripe and Rick draws tongue -- boh relatively well-known ingredients. Wilo draws cow heart (and now I feel I should be listening to Trout Mask Replica) and gets nervous-- he's never cooked with that before. Ludo gets pig ear, and he's defiant -- I'm French! Of course I know how to cook pig ear! We can cook anything! I rule!

But according to Ludo, the French don't do street food. Really, Ludo? Crepes don't count? Because I had my share of Nutella crepes out of carts in Paris. Granted, Nutella and pig's ear crepes probably wouldn't work so well, but the point stands. Anyway, Ludo decides to adopt another culture's street food and make quesadillas. Dude, see that guy standing next to you? That's Rick Bayless. He has literally written the book(s) on Mexican cooking. Maybe you want to pick something else?

Nope. Ludo made a pig ear quesadillas -- ineptly. Yeah, the pig ear is perfectly cooked in broth, but he can't seem to get the quesadilla part right. His food isn't ready when the gates open, and when the judges taste his food (eventually, after still more waiting), they describe is as a grilled cheese sandwich with pig ear in it.

Cindy went a more traditional route and made menudo -- the tripe soup, not the boy band. Yes, I know I'm the 234th person to make that joke about this episode. Deal with it. Anyway, the diners seem to like it, but the judges think it's underseasoned.

Wilo made tripleta, a traditional (and delicious) Puerto Rican sandwich. He's tweaked it a bit -- substituting beef heart for beef, putting it in a pita pocket instead of on a baguette -- and the judges and diners seem to love it.

Then there's Rick, with his tongue taco. This lends itself both to mildly risqué jokes -- "Come on, Rick, slip me some tongue!" -- and delicious food. I'm sure at least a few of the diners asked to have this taco's babies. His food does that, you know?

The judges praise Ludo for not completely screwing up his ingredient, and for trying to serve it in a way that wouldn't scare people off. Harumph. Similarly,  Cindy admits she was trying to serve "the world's most introductory menudo," -- not scare the tourists, in other words. Ludo gets 16 1//2 stars total, while Cindy gets 15 1/2.

The judges have nothing bad to say about Rick -- although Gael does acknowledge that he used chorizo and bacon, which makes everything better. They have almost unqualified praise for Wilo's tripleta -- almost, because James complains the heart is sliced too thin (it's almost a julienne). James is reaching for his nitpickery, in my opinion. Still, that nitpickery makes the difference -- Wilo gets 19 1/2 stars, while Rick emerges triumphant with 22 1/2. Go Rick! And dammit! Now I want mole. Thanks a lot, Top Chef Masters!

Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends

  • This is the first episode where they really seemed to have cast a "villain" with Ludo. We get it, you're French. Now shut up an cook!
  • A couple of the chefs seem to have boned up on Top Chef: New York before joining the competition. Wilo follows Carla school of thought, talking about how the judges will taste the love he puts in. Ludo channels Fabio, turning on the European charm in a bid to get people to ignore the fact that his quesadillas aren't done.
  • Ludo also tries to blame any bad review from Jay on the fact that Brits and French hate each other. In fact, Jay is the one who gave him the most props.
  • Did anyone else think the challenge unfairly benefited Rick? I love the man and his food, so I'm thrilled with him winning (Chicago pride and all that), but come on --  he's all about making haute versions of Mexican street food, and he does it well.
  • Cindy is stoked to get the elimination challenge -- "Oh, cool, offal! All the interesting parts!" She reveals she started a club called "Girls Who Eat Guts," which revolves around eating organ meat. Hee!
  • The judges ask Rick if he's had any experience with this -- meaning serving tongue, presumably. He interprets it another way: "I've never actually worked as a street vendor anywhere..." Hee!
  • Rick's response cheeky diners asking him to slip them some tongue: "Once Rick Bayless has slipped you tongue, you never forget it."