HAS all that is "Top Chef" been distilled into a single cookbook? Apparently so. The eliminations, the winning dishes, the biting comments from Anthony Bourdain -- the hairstyles.
The charts (a handy elimination bracket that even a kindergartner would appreciate), the quotes ("I've got a false testicle, and I'm ready to cook"), the trivia (the second-season winner's favorite piece of equipment is the short plancha spatula) and graphics ("Top Coif") are ridiculously hilarious (emphasis on the ridiculous). But can you actually cook from it? Would anyone want to?
The book is divided into the first three "Top Chef" seasons and divided further into recipe chapters that fall under breakfast, appetizers and small plates, entrees (meat, poultry, fish, vegetarian) and dessert. Why the attempt at setting up chapters the way cooks might use them? It's confusing. Why not divide the dishes by season? Let's not pretend here. I want to know who won what when -- and in the competitive spirit of "Top Chef," why would I want to make a dish that wasn't a winner?
Useful for those who haven't been watching the show (ahem) is the elimination bracket -- a graphic that displays who got kicked off when -- and the episode-by-episode synopses. Now when pinned at a cocktail party by a "Top Chef" fan, I might be able to hold my own during conversation. And then run straight for the crudites as soon as is politely possible.
Bios of the contestants provide useful information for true fans who are dying to know that first-season winner Harold Dieterle's favorite summer beverage is a gin and tonic.
They'll have to get past a fairly maudlin introduction by "Top Chef's" top chef Tom Colicchio. (Of the first group of "chef-testants," he says, "I recognized something of myself in each of them." Hopefully, he's not sticking his fingers in the sauce, a move that, readers learn, helped cause the first season's first casualty.)
The other sections at the front of the book are some real yawners. "Top Chef Staples" lists some of the pantry ingredients in the "Top Chef" kitchen, including salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil. It's not a definitive list, as that "might spoil it for future contestants." Regarding olive oil: "No pantry -- on TV or otherwise -- should be without it." Cooks everywhere are bowled over.
Then there's the diagram of the kitchen floor plan, pointing to: sink, sink, stove, stove, ovens, microwaves, refrigerator, refrigerator. Some anecdotal information provided: "During the '4-Star All-Stars Reunion,' Ilan spilled Marcel's carefully cubed mangoes out of the fridge." Gasp.
A couple of pages devoted to Bourdain, "Beware! Bourdain," are compelling. They're filled with his comments made from time spent as a guest judge. "Those chops; that was like economy class of Air Cambodia." Or "Your twice-baked potato, in spite of its absolutely Flintstonian execution, was, for me, the single most enjoyable mouthful of food I had this evening. The taste -- it didn't suck."
Because the show is structured around gimmicky challenges such as "make a sexy dessert for a fetish party" or "create a gourmet entree that can be reheated in a microwave," finding an appealing recipe in this collection drawn from the Quickfire and elimination challenges is difficult. I don't happen to want to whip up a refried bean-smeared, ham-egg-and-cheese-topped frozen waffle, even if it did win the elimination challenge to "prepare breakfast on the beach for surfers."
And I'll pass on the seared elk loin and the seared ostrich fillet, though the seared scallops with purslane and marinated grapes sounds good. (Guess there was a lot of searing going on.)
From the photo, the fideos with clams and saffron that won over svelte hostess Padma Lakshmi looks pretty good (except for those unappetizingly large knobs of broccoli), but offering friends a four-serving dish made with two cups of heavy cream and a third cup of olive oil just doesn't seem right as swimsuit season approaches.
Testing the recipes
But you can't judge a cookbook without testing recipes, so I dove in. In the 10th episode of the second season, Marcel Vigneron's curried lamb kabobs won the Quickfire challenge to "create a snack using mayonnaise, barbecue sauce or Italian dressing." Cubes of lamb loin are grilled with portobello mushrooms and cherry tomatoes and served with mayonnaise mixed with honey and curry powder. They were easy to make and tasty, but how about something more interesting?
OK, how about a dish that L.A.'s own Suzanne Goin of Lucques and AOC judged as a winner of an oddball challenge to create an amuse-bouche using something from a vending machine? Carlos Fernandez's winning dish was a veggie loaf garnished with grapefruit soda (Squirt). Very intriguing. So one of the interns in the Times test kitchen (who happens to be a "Top Chef" fan) whipped it together.
Soaked sunflower seeds, carrots and cilantro are ground together with sesame oil, lime juice, salt, pepper and cayenne. The mixture is formed into loaves and topped with hard-cooked egg whites, cilantro leaves and a sprinkling of Squirt soda.
As Bourdain might put it: It was wretched.