Top Chef recap: Hammer Time
On a cooking show that has featured Pee-wee Herman, Charlize Theron channeling an evil queen, and a hipsterific lunch with Zooey Deschanel, MC Hammer must be the most random celebrity guest judge Top Chef has ever had. Still, it was fun to see the man responsible for the hits that played at the roller skating rinks of my childhood sans entourage and sans Hammer Pants. He looked good.
For the Quickfire Challenge, the cheftestants left SoCal behind and jetted up to Oakland, best known as MC Hammer’s hometown. Each chef had to come up a rap name and create a dish that best captured that name. Someone could have easily cheated by making their rap name “Scallops and Pea Purée with Microgreens and Bru$$el$ $prouts” (Karen probably would have liked to name herself “Little Miss Hunan Chicken” — more on that later), but Hammer would have seen right through that. It would be impossible for this group to come up with rap names that weren’t corny as hell, so I forgive everyone for coming up with dumb names, except for Jeremy’s “Spicy J-Rock 305.”
Let’s start with the chefs who didn’t do so well. Marjorie named herself “Miss Punch-a-Lot” because apparently she loves punching guys in the arm, which is SUCH an endearing quality. She made a punch-to-the-mouth fried chicken sandwich with honey sriracha, but there was so much bread in the sandwich that it soaked up all the spice. Amar named himself “Santana Lovah,” which made it sound like he just loves himself, and made a food that apparently ladies love…Chilean seabass. Do women really love Chilean seabass more than men or any other group of people? I’ve never heard that before, although it did make me think, “Hellooooo…ladies.” (Okay, sorry for that). Padma, who’s a woman, didn’t especially like it, and neither did Hammer. Kwame, who named himself “Bay-Lish,” revealed that he tried to make it as a rapper in the past. Mild-mannered Kwame used to sell drugs AND give people free food to listen to him rap? The guy has many layers, but unfortunately, one of those layers is not being a good rapper. His rap paled in comparison to Carl’s, the whitest guy imaginable, but it at least earned him a sympathy hug from Padma.
Now for the top group. Carl was about to name himself “Soigné Ploosh” but thought it made him sound like a stripper (I’d say more of a drag queen-slash-stripper) and settled on Dr. Funky Fresh. He impressed Hammer and Padma with his rap, which wasn’t good, really, but it was brave and competent, and for that he deserves props. His beef tartare lettuce wrap — get it, (w)rap? — went over well, too, but it wasn’t as impressive as his rhymes. Karen named herself “Pink Dragon,” “pink” for her hair and “dragon” for when she wakes up in the morning. I didn’t totally get what she meant by that — it just made me think she had fiery morning breath — but her hot-and-sour soup with pork meatballs was fiery enough for Hammer. Isaac came up with the best name, “Toups Legit” and, incidentally, the best dish, scallops with barbecue sauce and grits, which was a twist on shrimp and grits.
NEXT: The chefs serve up a slice of antiquity
That was all good fun, and Hammer swapped places with Chef Jonathan Waxman for the Elimination Challenge, which had the chefs cooking foods from foreign places and old times. I loved this challenge because it introduced the possibility of foods we hadn’t seen before — it came to my mind that this was one challenge that Jason would have loved. Isaac chose the Viking era, Amar took Belle Époque France, Carl picked Ancient Greece, Marjorie Ancient India, Kwame Beijing of the Han Dynasty, Jeremy the San Francisco Gold Rush, and Marjorie the Empire of Japan.
In the time they’d normally be racing to Whole Foods, the chefs sprinted to the library to do two hours of research on their chosen cuisines of antiquity. It was kind of funny seeing Jeremy, who described himself as not much of a book guy, do research — it just didn’t look like the right match — and Karen, who really, really wanted the Han Dynasty, committed the classic scholarly sin of “thesis-driven research.” She really wanted to make Chinese food, so she focused all her research on the eventual conclusion that Japanese food back then was the same as Chinese — therefore, she was allowed to make Chinese food instead. How convenient!
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After research and prep, the chefs served their foreign, ancient dishes to tables full of judges and culinary luminaries. After an awkward moment in the kitchen when Kwame failed to serve a sample of his duck to Tom and Jonathan because it was still undercooked, Kwame rallied and served up a super-simple coriander-crusted duck with black sesame and lapsang souchong cream. Jonathan loved that Kwame kept it to the basics. Carl’s Greek marinated mackerel and olives were bursting with flavors. But the winner was Amar with his roasted squab, seared foie gras, sweetbreads, and tournée vegetables with a decadent truffle sauce. Because he’d picked the most classic, upscale, and Western classification of food, Amar had the most pressure on him, but he truly delivered. By all accounts, he totally nailed it, and it sounded like one of the best dishes of the season so far.
In the bottom group, Marjorie started out with some research trouble because she couldn’t find enough information on Indus Valley cuisine from that far back. But what really got her was the overly buttery and greasy paratha, which Padma didn’t let slide. Jeremy’s Gold Rush sourdough halibut with shellfish chowder was visibly ill conceived, and Tom said it was like eating a sauce — where was the crab? Karen, however, was the one who really failed to embrace the spirit of the challenge with her soba noodles in a mushroom dashi broth with wagyu beef and pickled mushrooms. Padma pinpointed that the broth tasted completely Chinese, and Gail said there were just too many components in the dish and it needed to be simplified.
With Karen gone, Marjorie’s the last woman standing, and she may still win. At this point in the competition, there’s usually a frontrunner or two, but everyone remaining has won and lost big multiple times, so it’s anyone’s game.
So we’ll see what how things shake out next week. Until then, what’s your culinary rap name?