On last week’s “Top Chef,” our local hero finally broke out of the pack and revealed the Amar Santana Orange County knows. In a very tough elimination challenge with an esteemed guest judge, Santana so out-cooked his competition it wasn’t even funny. The cheftestants each chose an era of culinary history to represent with their dishes, and his first good decision was choosing Belle Époque Paris from the available themes. For a classically trained chef cooking for the likes of Jonathan Waxman, this was a very smart start.
Of course, Santana has the chops to pull it off: squab and sweetbreads and foie gras, perfectly reduced pan sauce, plus vegetables tournéed to within an inch of their lives. There was more make on his plate than on all the others’ combined. Waxman, Tom Colicchio, and the rest of the judges quite literally ate it up. I took it as another sign of something I’ve suspected for quite a while: People are so ready for the return of classic cuisine. More importantly, Santana came out on top, where we expect him to stay. Go Amar!
I’m really liking the respect paid to American culinary history this season, with Emeril Lagasse earlier and Jonathan Waxman last week. Tonight, I’m especially glad to see it’s Martin Yan the chefs must impress. While many know Yan for the jokey demeanor and super-fast cleaver cuts of his early television series, he’s an educated and serious chef whose influence wasn’t fully appreciated for years.
What would Yan have made of last week’s losing dish? What was Karen Akunowicz thinking, preparing simplistic soba noodles in an elimination challenge this late in a very competitive season? Even so, I thought the judges didn’t quite give her a fair assessment, asking for the noodles to be more Japanese when Akunowicz emphasized that she was illustrating growing Chinese influence in Japan during her chosen cooking era. Akunowicz went to “Last Chance Kitchen” and lost to Jeremy Stratton, like her fellow eliminatees of the past several weeks. Can Stratton power his way back into the big kitchen? I would not be surprised.
Finally, is it significant, for good or ill, that the two preview videos for tonight’s episode both star Jeremy Ford? I don’t think there’s been such exclusive focus on a single cheftestant in advance of a particular episode, ever. Watch and see if you can discern its portent: In the first, he presents his idea for a fast-casual concept—each chef creates one meant to attract wide appeal. And in the second, we get a bit of his personal story. Kind of strange!
UPDATE: At this point a not-lose is as good as a win, and Amar Santana more than managed that, so we’ll see him again next week. Early favorite Kwame Onwuachi’s ill-advised use of frozen waffles played a big part in the judges’ decision to have him pack his knives for “Last Chance Kitchen.” Once there, like other cheftestants before him, Onwuachi failed to beat reigning LCK champ Jason Stratton.