Top Chef Masters

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This week's contestants are:

Rick Moonen, from Las Vegas, who owns Rick Moonen's RM Seafood at the Mandalay Bay Resort. It seems a bit egotistical that he refers to himself not once, but twice, in the name of the restaurant, especially since he's not exactly a household name. I'm not disparaging his cooking ability, but it's not like he's got the name recognition of someone like Emeril Lagasse or Rachael Ray or Bobby Flay, you know? Gael Greene tells us that Moonen also opened three restaurants in New York and brought them to three star status. Rick tells us that he had ADD as a child and his mother used to take him to the kitchen and have him cook to keep him occupied, and he still looks forward to cooking every day. Colicchio tells us that Rick is devoted to conversation issues, especially on the seafood front, so it's not surprising that his chosen charity is the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, as they are working to make fishing more sustainable.

Nils Noren, from New York via Sweden, who is the Vice President of Culinary Arts at the French Culinary Institute. He explains that basically means he's the head chef. When he walks into the kitchen, Rick greets him and I think he calls him "Nels," which is kind of amusing. They shake hands anyway. Colicchio explains that Nils is from Sweden but moved to New York long ago. Nils says he's been cooking for twenty years, and he still loves it. He explains that he wanted to be a musician, but his concept of having a reggae band in Sweden didn't work out so well. Heh. He enjoys working at the Institute and training new potential chefs. Jay Rayner reports that "Nils Noren is very much the Swedish Chef." Like he makes meatballs and goes, "Bork bork bork?" Oh, he meant that he's precise and calm. I guess he wasn't referring to the Muppets there. Nils is competing for Friends of the French Culinary Institute, which awards scholarships.

Lachlan Patterson from Boulder, CO, who won a James Beard Award and Best New Chef from Food & Wine when he was twenty-eight years old. He can't be much older than that now, but I couldn't find his age on the web. It doesn't help that there's a stand-up comic by the same name, and most of the webpages were about him. It took me a while to figure that out, and for a minute I was really impressed that this dude manages to run a restaurant and have a thriving stand-up career, although I did wonder why he was so unfunny on the show. Anyway, he trained with the legendary Thomas Keller. He's playing for the Denver Children's Hospital because his daughter had some health issues at birth (she's doing well now) and he wants to repay them for how they helped his family in a time of great need.

Michael Chiarello from the Napa Valley. He's wanted to be a chef since he was in the third grade, and he became one, but then he took time off from the restaurant world to be a TV chef. You may recognize him from either PBS or the Food Network. Now he's back in the restaurant world and Jay Rayner suggests that Michael perhaps feels he has something to prove, since a lot of the foodie world looks down on TV chefs. He's playing for Clinic Ole, which provides healthcare to Latino immigrants and field workers. He admits that he's ultracompetitive and he came to win.

Kelly Choi wanders in while the chefs are setting up their stations to introduce the Quickfire Challenge. My pet peeve with Kelly this week is that she uses her eyebrows for emphasis. When she says "Quickfire Challenge," she raises her eyebrows and bugs out her eyes in a creepy way. I guess I'm just used to Padma's non-expression. The challenge is to recreate a classic junk food as a fine dining dish, like Harold did in the first season when he made popcorn ceviche.

The chefs draw knives to figure out the order in which they will pick their junk food from a heap of choices on a table. Michael is first, and he claims he doesn't know what most of the junk food is. Come on. It's a little ridiculous to claim that you've never even heard of that type of food. I guess he was born in an organic garden and raised on a farm and has only ever eaten food he has grown himself or bought at his fair trader farmers' market. It's things like hot dogs, corn dogs, French fries, and whatnot. Stuff you would buy at the fair, basically. He chooses fish sticks, which doesn't really seem like junk food to me. I mean, it's not healthy, so I guess it is. Lachlan chooses a hot dog. Rick wanted either fish sticks or hot dogs, but they were both taken, so he chooses the corndog. Nils takes fried shrimp. Now I might believe that Nils has never seen some of these foods before, since he was raised outside of America.

They'll be judged the cast of Flipping Out, which is totally coincidentally also a show on Bravo. Not to mention that the cast of Flipping Out probably knows as much about fine dining as someone like me. I guess it's good that it's a Quickfire and not an Elimination Challenge. Anyway, they consider themselves to be junk food experts. The chefs are a little worried that the judges don't know anything about food, really.

Time begins. Lachlan says that he's going to make homemade sausage, and include it in a stew. All in forty-five minutes, which is pretty impressive. Rick plans on making a seafood sausage. He thinks his hyperactive nature will help him, because he can't survive unless he's multitasking, which is necessary in the kitchen. Nils is planning poached shrimp with cherry tomatoes and a sauce that's similar to tartar sauce. He thinks his dish will be lighter than actual fried shrimp, but also tasty, and hopes it's not too refined for the judges. Lachlan expresses concern that his and Michael's culinary styles are very similar, and Michael is so well-traveled. He hopes the fact that Michael hasn't been in a restaurant in a while will affect the outcome. Michael is making some sort of fish meatballs (fishballs?), hoping that the familiar shape will overcome the unfamiliar flavors.

As they wait, Kelly interviews Jeff Lewis and his pals about why he likes junk food so much. Jeff says that he lives a fast-paced lifestyle and doesn't have time to sit in restaurants. Because those are your only two options -- sitting in restaurants or hitting a drive-through. Look, I'm not going to pretend I never eat fast food, but if I had a job where I was on the road all the time, I would pack a freaking sandwich or something, or I would weigh a billion pounds and have had three heart attacks by now.

With five minutes left, Rick starts to panic since he doesn't think he's going to finish on time. Lachlan is happy with his sauce, but realizes that his sausage didn't cook through, and you can see that really only the outside is browned and the inside is bright red. Yuck. Nils jokes that Swedes are very punctual and makes a "trains always run on time" joke that probably just reminds most people of Italy under Mussolini or possibly Germany under Hitler, so maybe ill-advised. Rick realizes that he's not going to finish and somehow can't even manage to get part of his dish done or something. That's some poor time management there. He leaves his corn dogs in the fry basket -- he couldn't even just toss those on a plate so he'd have something? I don't get it. But I'm an inveterate clock watcher and get a nervous stomach if I'm more than two minutes late for anything, so I guess that's why.

After the break, Rick laments that he has nothing to present to the judges, and he is totally embarrassed. Lachlan serves his version of hot dogs first: prosciutto stufado with pork sausage. It's like a thick soup with chunks of sausage. The judges like the broth but notice how rare the sausage is. Michael goes next with his version of fish sticks: swordfish meatballs with fisherman's sauce. One of the judges says, "Anything fried excites me." Words to live by. She should really visit the great New York State Fair. The judges all love it, and Jeff says that he would keep eating it if there were more on the plate. Nils's version of fried shrimp is poached shrimp with creamed corn and pickled cherry tomatoes a

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Top Chef Masters

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