Baked beans and innovation on ‘Top Chef: Boston’ – The Boston Globe

This week’s episode does right by Boston, challenging people’s ideas about what it is and is not.

First we have a Quickfire challenge that asks contestants to make beans. Explains Padma: Yes, it has been called Beantown, and baked beans were once a thing, but both the name and the dish have fallen out of favor. The four left standing — George, Gregory, Mei, and Melissa — are asked to put beans back on the map here and make something innovative with them. Because Boston — the real and present city of today, not some imaginary stew of colonial quirks and sports fandom — is known for innovation. Wylie Dufresne is a guest judge, which means they are making homey beans for one of the most innovative chefs around. Not only that: They have 1 hour to make a dish that involves dry beans. (Now would be a good time to break out those pressure cookers, George.)

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Melissa wants to win because the prize is a trip to Napa and her girlfriend deserves a vacation. (Melissa: sweetest “Top Chef” contestant of all time?) She makes seared pork tenderloin with bacon-butterbean puree, roasted carrots, and fried chickpeas.

George makes fart jokes and bitches about how annoying it is to peel garlic. He says the way to elevate beans is just to make them taste good, which I think is not taking it quite as far as the chefs wanted. He is making a plaki-esque dish with chickpeas and pork tenderloin. I predict he will not be moving on this round, and that’s probably for the best. Unfortunately for him, he still feels like an interloper, the guy who jumps into the marathon at the end as if he ran the whole thing.

Gregory is trying something involving navy beans, sake, and ham that reminds me a bit of the Okinawan braised pork dish they serve at O Ya.

And Mei is adorably excited to make breakfast for Wylie. He loves eggs, so she knows just what she wants to do. So what if the stuff she whips up with the iSi gun looks like melted bean ice cream? She goes Southwestern, unusual for her, with a dish of black beans and corn with chipotle peppers, bacon, poached eggs, and pinto bean foam. And she wins – she got beans in her dish twice. It’s her first Quickfire win, and she is excited to go to Napa.

And Padma looks excited to go somewhere else. This is the final challenge in Boston before heading off to Mexico. If one believes the credible rumors, the Teamsters weren’t very nice to her and the rest of the crew. True professionals, they’ve still worked hard to present the city in a good light.

For the final challenge, innovation remains the theme. The contestants are supposed to push themselves and the boundaries to make something truly innovative. It’s a good challenge, because it allows them to really express themselves and is also really difficult. They are cooking at Catalyst. Too bad Café ArtScience wasn’t yet open when they filmed. That would have been perfect.

Gregory is making wild salmon with tom kha broth, roasted tomatoes, and crispy chicken skin and salmon skin. The judges ask him what’s innovative about it and he has trouble answering. The thought bubble above Tom’s head reads: “Yeah, you’re making Thai food again.” Indeed, at the table, everyone declares it delicious but not innovative. Harvard professor Michael Brenner, of the popular class “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter,” is among the judges.

George is making octopus, playing with different textures. He puts octopus heads through a meat grinder to make fritters: Sweeney Cephalopod. He serves them up with charred tentacles and yellow split pea puree and green apple harissa with pickled mustard seed and bacon chips and a whole bunch of other stuff, too. His visible nose sweat when he’s plating makes me nervous: Don’t let that drip in the food! His dish is ambitious, but the octopus is so charred it’s bitter, and there is too much going on. “It’s a circus,” Tom declares.

Melissa makes duck with walnut-miso paste, farro, and pickled cherries. The judges love the flavors, and the dish is cooked perfectly.

Mei makes duck curry with vadouvan and yuzu yogurt. The duck is brushed with fish sauce caramel, and the curry is light rather than heavy. The dish leaves Tom speechless: He likes it, but he doesn’t know how to describe it. It’s complex and flavorful. Gail says it really feels innovative.

So I’m not really sure why Melissa wins. Her dish is clearly extra-delicious, but Mei’s is both beautiful and interesting to eat. At any rate, both are moving on to the finals. Melissa is on fire. Gregory is fizzling out. Is he going home, or is George? It comes down to a dish that was delicious but not innovative vs. one that was a creative stretch but not delicious. It seems as though they have to choose George.

But they don’t. Gregory will go to Mexico. If he wants to win this, he is going to have to pull himself together, push out of his comfort zone, and make pitch-perfect dishes that take risks. But if there is one thing we learned today, it is this: Deliciousness wins over innovation in the end. As it should, as it should.

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