'Top Chef': Critics sour when the cooking turns sweet
Any number of "Top Chef's" most catastrophic dishes -- perhaps the nadir coming with Ilan Hall's chocolate ganache-coated liver from the second season -- have been failed attempts to plate a meal-ending treat, and three episodes into the current season it no longer looks like dessert disasters are a statistical fluke.
Just as there is a sharp demarcation in a restaurant between those who cook and wait tables, there's an equally clean break between those who cook and those who cook desserts.
The first two chefs shown the door flamed out with uninspired (if not inedible) sweets: John Sommerville's maple-free maple mousse in the first episode, and Jacqueline Lombard's sugar-soaked banana pudding last week.
But if you're talented (or delusional) enough to make it to "Top Chef," shouldn't you at least know how to bake a pie in two hours?
Although the pie-making quick-fire challenge (judged by Gail Simmons and pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, the hosts of Bravo's upcoming spin-off "Top Chef: Just Desserts") didn't play a critical role in Wednesday night's outcome besides giving Kenny Gilbert some much-deserved immunity, it did reveal a remarkable ignorance among many of the contestants not only of baking but also in the basics of food science.
Front-runner Angelo Sosa says, "I never cooked a pie in my whole life." Stephen Hopcraft says, "We're doing something I really don't have much experience in." And as was made clear by the frightening looking servings offered by some of the chefs, even if they thought they knew what they were doing, they didn't. It's a failing we saw last season, too.
As Arnold Myint presciently remarks, pastry preparation is "a profession of precision."
Yet Tracey Bloom, who fails not once but twice in baking her blueberry almond crunch pie, says of her first effort, "I didn't measure the ingredients. I don't know what I was thinking." All she did was toss a ton of butter into the oven and pray to a God that wasn't listening.
Her second attempt (in which she fails to add any flour or cornstarch to bind the pie's fruit together) is scarcely better, and even the show's food stylists couldn't make her dessert look much better than something your 5-year-old would assemble from a mud puddle laden with gravel and peanut shells.
(It was little surprise that Tracey was subsequently tossed in the picnic elimination challenge, for an Italian sausage slider that was both too big and too rare, as Arnold won for his sesame lamb meatballs.)
Alex Reznik's white chocolate, tapioca and chevre pie also contained egg, which made it resemble a semi-sweet quiche of leftovers. Ed Cotton decided it was a great idea to serve celery alongside his banana cream pie. Several people couldn't even make a proper crust, resorting instead to crumbles or brittles -- a bit like passing off shards of glass as a deconstructed wine goblet.
Amanda Baumgarten suggested her apple pie with rosemary and bourbon shouldn't be judged too harshly because she wasn't a pastry chef. Iuzzini, who makes desserts at Jean Georges and has admitted he doesn't know how to make pasta, wasn't buying the excuse. "I think it's kind of a cop out to say you're not a pastry chef," he says. "My grandmother's not a pastry chef, and she can make a pie."
And so can a lot of other people who aren't on "Top Chef": it's as easy as apple pie.
-- John Horn
Photo: Gail Simmons and Johnny Iuzzini. Credit: David Geisbrecht / Bravo
Photo: Tracey Bloom. Credit: David Geisbrecht / Bravo