Top Chef has always had it's own math. Never was it more evident than in this past week's episode. A dinner for a hungry family of four ÷ $10.00 spent at Whole foods = a fairly interesting elimination challenge. Yet something seemed...off. One itchy little detail, that shopping at Whole Foods in 30 minutes. Can we talk about a serious suspension of disbelief? Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Whole Foods but I'm not a family of four. When I mentioned the challenge to a co-worker, she guffawed and said that it wasn't called Whole Foods in her house, it was better known as Whole Paycheck. It's a valid point. Not satisfied with just wondering if it could be done, I decided to take the challenge myself. Batten down the hatches, Big Shamu is going shopping.First the particulars. Kansas City does have a Whole Foods. In general food prices in KC seem to be in the middle range, not as expensive as NY or San Francisco but not bargain basement prices. However $10.00 just won't buy you much at any Whole Foods in the country. Would it come close to what the chefs produced on the show?
Just which recipe to choose? Neither Antonia's whole wheat pasta nor Andrew's Paillard interested me as much as Nikki's roasted chicken with vegetables. Now to figure out the recipe.
Do I go by this?
Even the vegetables in the photo aren't mentioned in the on screen lineup? However Nikki's guests did help me out.
Maybe I would have better luck with Top Chef's recipe site.
That's a little better but notice no mention of a "whole" chicken or potatoes. We'll tackle Top Chef attention to details some other day and go with this recipe. Still the amount of chicken seemed a little too generous. Maybe her choice of the cheaper parts of the chicken would ease my doubts. The meat department would be my first stop to see just how hard that chicken would cut into my ten dollar bill.
I had many choices but finally settled on the thigh/leg quarters value pack (4 quarters to a pack). Cutting the legs from the thighs once I got home was no big deal and it was cheaper. Still at $2.39 a pound this was going to hurt. If I went by the recipe and bought the chicken in the quantities listed I'd end up spending at least $8.60 for the chicken alone?!?! Time to "improvise" (no, I'm not substituting the long lost Polish Sausage) and go with one package of chicken and end up with 4 legs and 4 thighs, enough for each family member to get two pieces of chicken.
While that problem was solved, other obstacles remained. Three ingredients, while readily available at Whole Foods and other grocery stores, cannot be purchased loose so you must pay the full price no matter how much you need. I agreed with Nikki's choice of grape tomatoes since regular tomatoes are worthless in taste and texture. However they are not cheap. One pint would take $3.99. I again decided to deviate and went with the cheaper Roma tomatoes. The brussel sprouts only come in one pound bag and since they don't sell them loose I was stuck with their $3.99 price. The real kicker was the fresh herbs in her salad. While parsley, thyme and basil are a wonderful flavor combination they cost me a whopping $7.00. Once it was all said and done, even with my cheating the recipe of less chicken and different tomatoes my final total at Whole Foods was a not so frugal $24.76. Ouch.
So we suspected it wouldn't really work at Whole Foods. Could I make it work at a store other than Whole Foods? Time to find out. I chose a mid-range store, with a large and varied stock, not the most expensive but not the cheapest. Every single item on my list was substantially cheaper, especially the chicken. I still went with the thigh/leg quarters and at $1.49 a pound I could purchase the chicken quantities the recipe called for. Still the biggest problem remained, fresh herbs. They still ate up half my budget at $5.37. (Note to self, plant that herb garden STAT!) Despite my frugality and not adding the cost of what I'm assuming were "pantry items" (olive oil and red wine vinegar) and only deviating on the tomatoes my grocery store tape still added up to $12.45. I also wasn't allowed to haggle at the cash register by skinning off portions of veggies in the hopes of coming in under budget.
So I failed. At least with Nikki's dish but looking over the other chef's recipes it's hard for me to imagine how any of them realistically did it shopping at Whole Foods. Wasn't that partially the point since I assume Top Chef is on board with the Whole Food philosophy of healthy, nutritious food? If you're telling folks that you can feed that family of four for dinner on $10.00 a night at Whole Foods when it's not true you are doing a huge disservice to both Whole Foods and families on a tight budget. You only reinforce the cries of economic pain working families express any time someone mentions buying organic or sustainable agriculture. Whole Foods may want to "...implement this new vision of the future by changing the way we think about the relationships between our food supply, the environment, and our bodies." but it won't mean a thing if that hungry family of four has to choose between paying $3.50 for a gallon of gas so Dad can get to work or shopping organic. Then again, it's hard out here being a sponsor pimp...