Top Chef Masters, Season 4, Episode 4: ‘Grand Canyon Cookout’
Last week’s bitchy griddle has been replaced by the shut-up-your-bitch-face awe of the Grand Canyon, vegetarians (the B-52s; according to Art, their diet is common knowledge), and a group of somewhat reserved — and impeccably dressed — Native American diners. This week marks the lull between two episodes that, apparently (thanks, teaser!), both feature a chef grunting “Son of a bitch!” either at another chef or at, presumably, bread. Whatever. I can wait for it.
The Quickfire is an eight-minute salad bar challenge for guests Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson, both of whom look as though they have been drinking a lot of water and hanging upside down for the past 35 years spent on tour (a compliment). Salad bars, of course, lose their appeal the first time you see flies using the hard-boiled egg station as a convention center, but I’ve seen worse Quickfires in my day, and I assume the Top Chef kitchen studio is so cold that the flies are sleepy enough to sit on the hats of the key grips and mind their own business, at least for eight minutes. Lorena hits the grill with some cauliflower in the last two minutes of the challenge, and Art throws some watermelon in the blender, but the other chefs stick with pretty basic salad-making techniques because they’re only given as much time as it takes to stare at a pine nut and decode its purpose. Patricia hits the pantry first in a tactical move to base her dish on the vinaigrette, which is smart because most of the salads, according to the B’s, are under-dressed. Still, Lorena wins the five grand for her charity because she actually attempted to cook something, even though her cauliflower had just enough time to acquire a smoky perfume and not enough to make it something other than cauliflower (there’s nothing to be done about cauliflower, actually, it’s just the devil’s earwax). The chefs, lined up before Kate and Fred, engage in some halfhearted dancing and Art mentions that his two favorite B-52s songs (“Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster”) came out when he came out. That’s unlikely, because they were released like a decade apart, but way to be hospitable.
The elimination challenge is heralded by a member of the Hualapai tribe, otherwise known as the “people of the ponderosa pine”, whose territory stretches along the Grand Canyon. This means a helicopter will be involved, which is bad news for acrophobic Takashi, who fears even changing a light bulb. I love how shows like Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen present the occasional helicopter ride as though it’s a Christmas present: “You get to go on a helicopter! A loud, crowded death toy in the sky!” Chris Cosentino, daredevil that he is, vibrates with delight over the fact that he’s going to the Grand Canyon (“I’ve NEVER BEEN!”) in a helicopter (“I’ve NEVER BEEN ON!”). The chefs are given traditional Hualapai ingredients (rabbit, venison, corn, prickly pear, and banana yucca) and split into pairs, with each pair being responsible for a dish that will be served family style to the tribe and judges. They ship off and arrive at their outdoor cooking station, which is soon beset by rain that squelches the grills and dampens the bacon. Everyone struggles to keep the grills hot except for Chris, who violently disassembles his station and somehow reignites it with the fire of his own ambition and wrath. Art, teamed up with his Pisces soul mate Lorena, covers his quail with foil to insulate it and keep it cooking, chatting through his assorted anxieties regarding this decision. Clark seems to feel a little uneasy about working with Kerry and harmonizing their different plating styles (as well he should, because the judges find it pretty pitchy, dawg), and Thierry is straight-up stumped by his banana yucca, so he fries it. Surprisingly, nobody crashes and burns. Everyone takes a moment to stare out at the enormous crater, the red rock, the scrubby landscape. All I can think about is the time that my high school sent us on a trip to the Colorado River, and the fact that my group’s side of the campsite was plagued by a ridiculously serious number of mosquitoes that bit us all so badly that our chaperone sent us into our tents at around 7 p.m. so that we wouldn’t catch West Nile virus. One girl in the tent next to mine had so many bites that her eyes swelled shut, and I’ve always sort of hated the Colorado River ever since, but I suppose it is pretty majestic from way up high when you’re eating course after course of gastrique and not sweating next to other 13-year-olds on a cold night buzzing with vampiric insects.
The tribe members and judges make their serious-looking procession over to a long table and then sit down to make awkward small talk (James wants to marry into the tribe so he can chill at the Grand Canyon forever — “the grandest location!”). Lorena and Art are first up, and they take their sweet-ass time delivering an introductory speech about food and love, and food and memory, and food and honoring the moments that … anyway, they’re clearly overcompensating, because the quail is dry, though the prickly pear BBQ sauce does blow a few minds. Kerry and Clark’s beef and corn, while clearly not disgusting, is a textural bummer that evokes the dreaded baby-food comparison. Chris and Patricia, however, with a dish ominously referred to as rabbit “and its bits,” score with both the judges and the guests; Takashi’s venison and Thierry’s fried yucca are also hits, though the yucca’s slightly bitter because it was still wearing its skin (Thierry’s given a break because his ingredient was so hard, and he managed to offset the bitterness with some figs that mellowed it out). The Hualapai had initially seemed a little wary of this whole experience and its inherent schmaltz, but they seem to be won over by the dishes — some of them are reminded of what mom used to make, which is always the hallmark of a relatively successful Top Chef challenge. Takashi and Thierry and Patricia and Chris are the top of the bunch, with Thierry and Takashi grabbing the win. Lorena, Art, Kerry, and Clark are sent back in for judgment, which isn’t very harsh this time around — no funky grilled cabbage or collapsing cake over which to shame anyone. Lorena has immunity from her Quickfire win, and so it’s Clark’s bland and mushy corn that sends him rushing back to his partner, Mark, in Maine — hopefully not on a helicopter, because he’s still got a lot to live for.