Top Chef Canada recap, episode 7: modernist warfare
We’ve often noted that the dishes on Top Chef Canada are a good deal simpler than the fare on the show’s U.S. forebear. Compared to, say, the ambitious yet elegant work of Top Chef Texas winner Paul Qui, the Canadian crop of grilled cheese sandwiches and roasted strip loin can start to feel a tad unambitious. Perhaps that’s why the producers chose to fly in Top Chef All-Stars winner and modernist cuisine avatar Richard Blais to judge last night’s episode. Did it work? Find out in our recap below.
As the chefs entered the Top Chef Canada kitchen, they were greeted by a grinning Blais, sending young Jimmy Stewart into near-paroxysms of cheffy worship. Host Lisa Ray then proceeded to yank a sheet off a table to uncover dozens of cans of food with the labels removed. The challenge: make a “gourmet” dish using whatever you find in at least three cans.
The chefs got to work immediately, shaking the cans to try to figure out what’s inside. This was mostly fruitless. Once they opened their cans, many still couldn’t quite figure out what they were saddled with, and the ones who could didn’t fare much better (Jonathan Korecki noted his pickled quail eggs “smelled like farts when I opened the can”). As Curtis Luk fumbled at one of his cans (we think it was the cranberry jelly), he sliced his finger, treating us to this season’s first shot of the Polysporin-branded first-aid case, a piece of product placement that’s been absent all season long. For his part, Curtis got to finish the challenge gushing blood into his glove.
On the bottom this time were Jonathan, David Chrystian and Carl Heinrich, who tried, and failed, to turn his canned hot dogs and “mystery milk substance” into oeufs en cocotte (Ryan Gallagher was none too sad to see him fall from his usual spot at the top: “Little dose of reality, I guess”). The best dishes were Curtis’s carrot pakora with tomato cranberry foam, Trevor Bird’s Thai salad with salmon in coconut broth and the winner, Ryan’s grilled mackerel in romesco, served in the sardine can he’d picked off the table. His elated reaction after being granted immunity: “I fucking win a challenge for the first time ever!”
With Blais as the guest judge, it seemed inevitable that the elimination challenge would be to deconstruct a classic dish. Less inevitable? The bizarre “Wheel of Deconstruction” brought out to divvy up the dishes among the chefs—imagine an upright Wheel of Fortune with the needle stopping on things like quiche lorraine (assigned to Xavier Lacaze) or chicken pot pie (Jimmy). Why a wheel was needed for this task, we really can’t say.
Having to cook for Blais, a hypercritical mad scientist of a modernist chef, brought out a range of reactions in the cheftestants. Jimmy, emulating his mentor, doffed his traditional baseball cap and wore his hair up—and down and left and right. Xavier broke out a broomstick, which he ineffectually sawed (as everyone tried to hold their laughter) into 10-centimetre lengths to use as moulds. And Trevor just got nervous, making messes all over the kitchen.
The final cooking all took place in the kitchen at The Ritz-Carlton’s Toca, whose chef and part-owner Tom Brodi took part in the tasting. Also taking part: Johnny Reid, the Scottish-Canadian country singer, whose main contribution, in addition to a plug for his new album, was his mellifluous brogue. Head judge Mark McEwan, it must be said, did a fine job of reigning in his usual suspicion of deconstruction and modernist techniques, taking the dishes mostly at face value. Still, it was hard not to hear just a shade of nose-holding in comments like, “he really amplified things and created theatre on the plate, which really is the sensibility around that whole process.”
As predicted, Blais’ presence pushed the stronger chefs to step up their game. Trevor made it to the top with a take on spaghetti and meatballs using tagliatelle and a single duck meatball stuffed with sauce that exploded onto the plate, all topped with parmesan foam. David made a brilliant cold take on chicken noodle soup in the form of a terrine of fresh vegetables and confit chicken, topped with hyper-reduced chicken stock (it was basically jelly) and served over pearl pasta, with pulverized cracker dust. The judges swore it tasted just like the real thing. But the win went to Xavier, for his elegant riff on quiche lorraine: two cylinders (baked around the broom stick), one shortbread and the other bacon, both filled with scrambled egg mousse and caramelized onion. Sniffing the plate (he seemed to get his nose right up into all the plates), Blais exclaimed, “honestly, I smell quiche lorraine right now!” For his part, Reid offered: “This is the kind of dish that, if I was coming through Toronto, I would want a few of my friends to come and eat to introduce them to it”—which probably would’ve made more sense if Xavier weren’t from Calgary.
Even the losers didn’t lack for ambition. Jimmy, for example, tried to impress his hero with a chicken pot pie that reinterpreted each component and sprayed it all over the plate (the wasabi pea ice cream was probably the low-point). Blais’s reaction to the mess: “Self editing. Flavour first. [A dish like this] makes us all look bad in modern cuisine.” Ouch! But in the end, it was Curtis who was cut loose for his incoherent and flavourless take on a tuna casserole, with a cannelloni and a warm tuna salad. As he headed out, the smiling chef was a class act to the end: “I can only hope that I brought a bit of happiness and sunshine into their lives. I do not want to make people feel that I was beat down or destroyed in the end.”
Next time on Top Chef Canada
McEwan presides over the ever-popular chef skills competition quickfire, and everyone’s hands seem to start shaking uncontrollably. Who will be the first to cut themselves? Will we get another shot of the Polysporin first-aid kit? Check in next week to find out.
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