But first, the chefs in order of their arrival.
Chef No. 1: Wilo Benet, San Juan. Pikayo, among others. Competing for San Jorge Children's Foundation. He worked at Le Bernardin, thereby endowing him with some of the afterglow that comes from close physical proximity to Eric Ripert. Benet was the guest judge for the Season 4 finale of Top Chef, which took place in Puerto Rico. So we can thank him, in part, for Lisa not winning that season's crown. Good on ya!
Chef No. 2: Cindy Pawlcyn, Napa. Mustards Grill. Competing for Clinic Ole. Judge James Oseland describes her as the Queen of Napa Valley Cooking, no faint praise. She's a nice gal who looks like she could knock your socks off in a drinking competition. As with many live-tweeting last night's episode, I found myself liking her almost immediately.
Chef No. 3: Ludovic "Ludo" Lefebvre, Los Angeles. Ludobites. Competing for C.H.A.S.E. for Life. Ludo Lefebvre from LA puts the double-L in both Gallic and galling. The first thing you note about this Frenchman is that he's even more incomprehensible than Fabio Viviani. The second thing you note is that his competitiveness is paired with no small measure of ego. I present, The Douchebag.
Chef No. 4: Rick Bayless, Chicago. Frontera Grill, Topolobampo. Competing for Frontera Farmer Foundation. I've never been a huge Rick Bayless fan, but I think part of that is because I loathe his sportswriter brother, Skip. There's really not much to dislike about this well-reviewed, ethnically loyal, former Top Chef guest judge. And dude knows his way around Mexican food, for real.
As the chefs prepare to receive their Quickfire Challenge, Rick cops to having butterflies--or, as they say in Mexico, mariposa--but between you and me, I think he's just being charming. For the first time on Top Chef: Masters, the chefs draw knives to determine the challenge.
Colored blades tell us that this will be a redux of the Season 2 color-based dish challenge. Wilo draws orange, Ludo draws red, Cindy gets yellow and Rick draws green. Two knives left in the block; I'd be really interested to see which colors got left behind. The tasters will be a food stylist, food photographer, and cookbook author whose names did not merit screen time.
With 30 minutes to work, Rick is kvetching a little. He proclaims himself the King of Slow Food--that's not so charming, Rick--and gets to work on vegetables roasted on a banana leaf, with mole verde. Wilo takes orange in roughly the same direction as the S2 winner did, pairing salmon and carrots with edible flowers for, y'know, the chick judges--or, as they say in Mexico, mamis.
Cindy starts talking about women in the kitchen, and it strikes me that this is not the first time we've heard a female chef talk about culinary sexism. But those two women--Suzanne Tracht was the first--were of an older generation than, say, Elizabeth Falkner. So it's no less valid, but maybe more in a historical evaluation than a current one.
Regardless, this woman in the kitchen starts up with sweet corn grits and curried vegetables with tortilla chips. Meanwhile, Chef Ludo "I'm setting back French PR by 60 years" Lefebvre is struggling to finish his steak tartare and red beet gazpacho with tomatoes and watermelon, calling on--who else?--the chick to help! Even her help doesn't keep him from flaming out, as the tomatoes are missed and the servers don't take the gazpacho out with them.
Of course, pouring what looks like blood over raw steak isn't going to win over a bunch of artsy broads, and they weren't looking blown away before the late addition of gazpacho. Cindy's color palette and Rick's complex flavors are impressing the judges, but Wilo leaves the ring mold on his salmon tartare and sweats their heavy handed justice.
He needn't have worried. The judges give 3 to Ludo, 3.5 to Cindy, 4 to Rick, and 4.5 to Wilo. Wilo with the ring on, FTW! (Is "Lucas with the Lid Off" too old of a reference?)
The Elimination Challenge--street food for the crowd at Universal Studios--should be right up Rick's alley; he judged the S4 "class up a taco" Quickfire Challenge. Of course, a twist is requisite in Top Chef challenges, and this one is right up my alley: you need to use a specific piece of offal in your dish. After another knife draw, Rick gets tongue, Wilo gets beef hearts, Cindy gets tripe, and Ludo the Harry Potter Caricature gets pigs' ears.
At this point, let me stop and remind you to check out my Fringe Foods column, wherein I have eaten and reviewed tripe, and just published a review of crispy pig bung. It's a visceral experience.
Self-promotion/whoring out of the way, let me say that I am very impressed with the chefs for what they were able to do with these meats. Offal is big in American cuisine right now, but with such short notice and cooking time, these guys really showed that they're professionals.
Ludo, of course, is as impressed with himself as anyone else could be, saying "I know all zeez things." Eez not worried. The chefs get 3 hours to cook on Day 1, then 1 hour to prep before serving. 45 minutes and $300 of shopping ensue. Ludo decides to do a quesadilla, and then asks Rick about a good cheese for quesadillas. If you're not keeping score, that's twice he's asked for help from another chef.
Cindy picks menudo, both obvious and challenging; menudo presents tripe pretty nakedly, and it normally requires hours and hours of cooking. Ludo accuses Rick of copying him as Rick chooses to prepare tongue tacos (something that hasn't escaped my Fringe Foods eye; there are a lot of tacos de lengua in Madison). Cindy tells Ludo, "You'll do fine. You're very different." That's one way of saying it, Cindy.
Cindy, comfortable with offal, takes the chance on pressure-cooking her tripe with almost no knowledge of how to use the pressure cooker. In comes Rick to save the day (that's twice that someone's asked Rick for help). Wilo's a little in the weeds, having never had beef hearts (again, a protein onto which my Fringe Foods radar is firmly locked). Ludo is running behind--again--and everyone offers to help, particularly Rick. Ludo gets pissy, "Don't tell me how to cook!" Except, y'know, when he wants you to tell him how to cook. Right?
At Universal, Rick is fretting as to how to best market his tongue tacos. Cindy's placard says something about "menudo + spunk," which I think (hope) is meant to refer to the chef's attitude. Wilo is slicing his hearts mighty thin for his chicken, ham, and heart tripleta. Ludo continues to swear as he falls mightily behind in preparing his quesadillas. As the diners are let through the gates, he has precisely ZERO ready to serve.
Dueling choices for Line of the Night, both from the diners: "C'mon Rick Bayless, slip me some tongue," and "I think I can feel it beating in my mouth." I'm going to go with the latter, since apparently the dude who uttered the former came back two more times to repeat it to Bayless. That's not stalkery at all.
The judges arrive at Rick's stand first. That's so not fair to the rest of the chefs. His tacos de lengua with cotija cheese, potatoes, chorizo and bacon, topped with tomatillo guacamole and onions, are definitely a bad breath bomb, but everyone loves 'em. I'm shocked--SHOCKED--or, as they say in Mexico, "sorprendido."
Wilo's tripleta in a pita pocket, served with caramelized onions and a cheddar cheese sauce, has too much topping for the amount of heart, but the texture is good and the heart is cooked pretty well. Very clean to eat given the pockety nature of the pita.
I kinda wonder if Ludo actually fed anyone by the time the judges arrived, or if he just had to clear out the line to let them in. His quesadillas featured pigs' ears stewed in court-bouillionm, then teamed up with chorizo, pinto beans, garlic aioli, and a whole lot of confusion and bad attitude. He talks about technique, then cocks up a quesadilla. He might as well have been cooking with his feet. He clearly lies straight to the judges when telling them he has indeed made quesadillas before. The food is unimpressive to most. Oseland describes it as a grilled cheese with pigs' ears. The cheese is too goopy.
Cindy's menudo is served straight up, with lime and cilantro. It's a cool day in LA, which makes this a very smart choice at least. James Oseland asks about fresh onions, and Cindy has to tell him there were only onions in the broth. Bummer. Jay finds it underseasoned, but all judges note the well-cooked tripe.
Heading to Critics' Table, all the chefs agree (in the mid-break vignette) that the crowd was much more open to offal than they expected. Give 'em a reason to think it's okay (like having celebrity chef contestants serve it), and people will usually try anything once.
Critics' Table held to form with the commentary at Universal Studios. Ludo gets credit for choosing an application that de-scary-fied pigs' ears, but the court-bouillion didn't pay off in flavor and didn't work well in the context of a quesadilla. Cindy gets equal credit for choosing a weather-appropriate dish, but going for "the world's most introductory menudo" led to something that Oseland would later describe as "weak in the knees"--or, as they say in Mexico, "débil en las rodillas."
Wilo's tripleta gets a little more praise at the Table than at Universal, although the judges note that he could have scored points by heating or toasting the pita first. Anyone holding a lottery ticket for the first time in her life Gael Greene needed to utter the phrase, "I really liked the spicy mayo at the bottom of the pita pocket" should report to the cashier. The heart was sliced too thinly, indicating a hesitancy about the dish on Wilo's part.
Nobody says anything damning about Rick's tongue tacos, except that his tomatillo guacamole didn't provide the shot of acidity he had hoped it would. Really, that's it. They loved the cotija, they loved the way the tongue was cooked, and Rick loves tongue--his words.
The ears beat out tripe for the most awful offal in the text poll. Ears are still on my list, so I can't speak to it. But tripe is rough, man. Seriously.
I see almost no way that Rick Bayless loses this, as the chefs return to the Table for their scores. Ludo gets 3.5 from the diners, plus 4/3/3 (jeez, Jay, he doesn't get that much credit for picking "the short straw," does he?), for 16.5. The shocker is Cindy, who gets 3 from the diners and 2.5/3.5/3 from the judges for a measly 15.5.
Ludo's on borrowed time, as Rick earns 4 stars from the diners and an astounding 5/5/4.5 from the judges for 22.5. This ties him with Suzanne Tracht for highest point total so far. Wilo needs a pretty whopping score to catch up, and gets 4 from the diners. However, the critics only give him 4/4/3, for a total of 19.5.
Rick Bayless, the front(era)-runner comes out on top(olobampo)! Snort.
Next week, some kind of tiny ninja or wizard or something oversees the chefs in the kitchen, and Neil Patrick Harris gets fed flaming hunks of bone. Really.