"Why is Andy Cohen the QuickFire judge this week?"
That must be the question going through the minds of our remaining five chefs as they walk into the "Top Chef" kitchen. That is, if they even know who Andy Cohen is.
We know Andy because he's the host of "Watch What Happens Live," and you can't sit through a Bravo show without being bombarded with his presence.
Right away, Andy jumps into his role as the "edgy" talk show host and asks who in the house is "hooking up." When the confused chefs all shake their heads no, Andy says, "I think tonight's your night!"
Um. Why are you here and what does this have to do with cooking? Nobody knows. Luckily, Padma reins him in and we get down to business.
This week's non-sequitur QuickFire theme is ramen. Calm down. We're not talking high-end Momofuku ramen here. We're talking the instant kind that poor college kids eat.
See, Andy went to college in Boston and ramen is every college kids' favorite food. (Though I think pizza's filing a grievance report as we speak.) So in order to find a reason to get him on the show, we have ramen. See how that logic works? They even went as far as bringing Andy's college roommate to help judge this one.
So we've gone from James Beard Award-winner Jasper White to NFL football player Rob Gronkowski to now Bravo Andy's roommate, Andy Ansel.
For the challenge, chefs have 30 minutes to create and put their own spin on a ramen dish. And since this is college ramen we're talking about, they'll have to use instant noodles and items scavenged by college kids from their dorm room.
Five kids from Emerson College walk in, each with his or her own bag of goodies. If you want to call it that.
It's pretty much what you expect. These kids' bags are full of random stuff like a can of chili, prepackaged cheese and half-eaten salsa. At this point, the only thing the chefs can do is throw what they got into the pot and see what happens.
Thank goodness this isn't an elimination challenge. Winner does not get immunity, but will get $5,000 for playing along on this absurd challenge. (We get it. It's "Bravo Andy," so of course it's a zany challenge!)
At least the chefs are having fun with this. Gregory got lucky with precooked bacon, leftover sausage pizza and Doritos. So he's making bacon, sausage pizza broth ramen with a Dorito crunch. See how that works?
Dougie's not as lucky. He ends up with cooked egg, coconut water and tofu ramen. Andy says, "some might argue that you would have to be high to put these ingredients together." Same could be said about this challenge, Andy.
Mei Lin cooks up a ramen with spicy tomato miso sauce with cooked "sushi" shrimp and nori. The name she gave this dish earlier was "barf-o-rama."
Enough with the shenanigans. The winner is Melissa, who basically made a gooey mac and cheese-type ramen with some Fritos sprinkled on top for crunch.
The moral of this QuickFire is that Andy Cohen runs Bravo and he doesn't know how to use chopsticks.
After the ramen circus, the chefs head back to the stew room to find a flatscreen TV and a remote on the table with a sign that reads, "press play."
At this point I wouldn't be surprised if Jigsaw comes out and says, "I want to play a game."
Instead, it's everybody's favorite food icon Julia Child! The chefs are treated to an episode of "Jacques and Julia Cooking at Home." And at the end, as Julia famously signs off, "Bon Appetite," in walks Padma and the legend himself, Jacque Pepin!
The challenge is simple: Create a dish that pays tribute to Julia Child. They'll have three hours to cook in the "Top Chef" kitchen, then one hour to finish the next day on location at The Herb Lyceum.
Jacques sits down with the chefs over a bottle of wine and spends some time answering questions and sharing his stories of the beloved Julia. Talk about a bucket list achievement unlocked!
Apparently all the chefs share the same idea of what kind of dish pays tribute to Julia: A plate that consists of delicious protein and comforting carbs, rounded out with a few simple but well-executed vegetables.
George is braising veal shank, Melissa is doing the same with short rib, Mei's making her version of duck l'orange and Gregory is going with the classic coq au vin.
OK. All except for Dougie. Dougie is going to roast whole lobes of foie gras and serve them with a peach compote and crusty bread. He's also going to serve it family-style, because that fits closer to Julia's spirit of eating together better than dainty little plates.
Time to go around and play the "I remember watching Julia Child as a kid" game!
No snark here! Let's face it. If you're watching this show, chances are you also have fond memories of watching those old PBS show of Julia cooking. She taught us that cooking should be fun and that with the proper love and technique, a simple omelet can be as delicious as beef bourguignon.
Talk about channeling that love. You can tell from Tom and Jacques' cook-n-chat that this is the kind of challenge they look forward to judging. Put away the gimmicks and schtick and just cook delicious comfort food a la' Julia Child.
Speaking of cooking -- the hurdle here is time. Three hours isn't a whole lot of time to properly braise things likes short ribs and veal shanks. While George chooses to use a pressure cooker, Melissa decides to stay true to the old-school techniques, claiming that Julia would never go near a pressure cooker. But when time is almost up, Melissa finds her short ribs under done. She says, "I'm hoping they carry over and that tomorrow I can finish them in the oven."
Next day, guests and judges gather at the picturesque Herb Lyceum at Gilson's. We have Dana Cowin of Food and Wine, Hugh Acheson and the great-nephew of Julia Child, Alex Prud'homme.
First up is Gregory and his coq au vin. It takes guts to prepare coq au vin for Tom Colicchio. Remember the time when he chided Casey Thompson for not using old rooster for this dish? Gregory says he used Julia's recipe (which calls for chicken and not specifically rooster), so that isn't even brought up. In fact, Tom says it was all about "solid good cooking."
Next up is Mei's duck a l'orange. Her version of this dish has turnip puree, orange puree and, most importantly, she added Chinese five spice. Everybody loves this dish. Tom likesw that Mei took the spirit of this classic and modernized it. And we learn from Alex Prud'homme that Julia would often say that her "death row meal" would be duck a l'orange. (Death row meal is a game chefs/cooks often play where says, if sentenced to death, what would they request as a last meal.)
One of the best moments of this episode is when Tom shares his Julia Chlid memory. When Tom was the executive chef at Mondrian, Julia came in for her birthday and found out that she and Tom shared the same birthday. After that, every year she would often show up at one ofTom's restaurants right around Aug. 15. *tear*
Here comes George with his braised veal. Everything on the plate is great, except for the veal itself. It's a tad under-seasoned and dry. At first the judges just thi nk it's underdone. It turns out that George made the mistake of not letting the veal rest in the braising liquid long enough before straining.
Remember how Melissa thought her short ribs were underdone? She over compensated by leaving them in the oven too long. She also over-seared the ribs from the get-go and dried out the surface. So now, like a dried-out sponge, the ribs won't take in moisture. Not to mention the charring lead to some bitter tastes in the sauce.
Finally comes Dougie with his pièce de résistance, whole roasted foie gras with roasted peaches, sweet & sour onions and hazelnuts. However, Dougie knew he was in trouble even before he brought out the plates. He didn't have enough time to let the foie rest, so it is probably going to come out under-cooked. And it is, devastatingly so. Some of the lobes are practically raw on the inside.
One by one, judges at the table take turns telling Dougie how he should have cooked the foie. It's almost like they are gently teaching and forgiving Dougie at the same time. Hugh says, "It's a good dish, just undercooked the foie. It's a good dish." All the while, he's shaking his head and furrowing his famous unibrow.
Dougie walks away from the table, dejected.
In the end, it's between Gregory's perfectly executed text book coq au vin and Mei's modernized and personalized duck a l'orange.
The decision is unanimous. Judges like reinterpretations of a classic dish. Mei now has back-to-back wins and gains valuable momentum heading into the home stretch. Barring any egregious setback, we're looking at the final two here.
Then there's George, Melissa, and Dougie. All three failed to cook their proteins properly. From slightly under, to over-sear to just-plain raw. Though that cliched phrase isn't said by anyone this episode, the lesson is there. Dougie decided to go big, and now he's going home.
One of the dark horses falls. Will he find redemption on "Last Chance Kitchen"? Check out bravotv.com to find out.