Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Top Chef Discount

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 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...


Debby T said...

Thank you for taking on this challenge. I cannot believe the TC people thought that any of the viewers would find this realistic. I live in the New York area and keep imagine what MY chicken would've cost!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if they did it like that challenge from season one where they had to make the appetizer/hors d'oeuvre for less than two dollars or whatever and they only had to include in the price what they actually used. And what items were pantry items? Those fresh herbs could have come from the pantry. Having an herb garden at home would definitely eliminate those costs (and probably actually end up costing you less in the long run). Obviously the cheftestents were allowed to do things that us "normal" people aren't generally allowed to do, but I still think showing that it's possible to make inexpensive, healthy meals (even if it's not ten dollars) is achievable is a good thing.

a-nony-mouse said...

Good detective work!
Shopping day here, I'll see what
I can come up with in inland Pacific Northwest...

The Big Shamu said...

Anon. 8:26, I totally agree that highlighting the possibility of creating good nutritious meals on a budget was excellent idea. Trying to lead people to believe it could be done consistently while shopping at Whole Foods is my issue.
Oh and seeing those kids cooking really made me happy. If they really wanted to teach them about the whole experience they should of had them going shopping with the chefs and teaching them the decisions you have to make when budgeting a meal.

The Big Shamu said...

A-nony, look forward to your report.

a-nony-mouse said...

Found a whole chicken for $4.11,
a pretty decent size though it would have been adequate for the three of us (teenage boy still at home).

All the veggies added up to $8.80
Herbs added up to $6.87

Total bill - $19.78

Take out the fresh herbs - $12.91

Grape tomatoes here are $2.99
a pint (I love them and buy two pints a week.)
We actually bought most of the veggies to get an accurate price - so one onion, one apple, three carrots. I'm sure the clerk was wondering what had gotten into me!

I would love to see Bravo, maybe Leann, post the actual rules they read to the chefs.

The Big Shamu said...

Yes the herbs are the killer. I'm making the meal right now. Went with Roma's and they are a pretty decent substitution but you are right those grape tomatoes are tasty. I will have to say this is a very FAT dish. That chicken skin just oozes and cooks those veggies in a deep fat bath. I suspect this is why even brussel sprouts came out yummy.
The salad is interesting. I think I'd eliminate the parsley. I cheated and used a good quality balsamic vinegar instead of red wine vinegar but it was still missing something. I remembered what the guest judge said about chefs over salting for seasoning instead of choosing something else and decided to see how it tasted with half a lime squeezed into it. It brightened right up. All in all a very good meal.

Let us know how your experiment came out and how your family liked it.

a-nony-mouse said...

Well.... we only bought the veggies
to get the price right.
Dad is OT, actually stuck in Chicago tonight as a delay caused a missed connection, and Boy and I are taking the week off from cooking.
Tonight was left over veggies with cashews and soy sauce and toasted heavy bread with shaved parmesan broiled on top :-))
When eldest daughter gets home from college she'll watch all the recorded Top Chefs and then we experiment!

The Big Shamu said...

Thanks for taking one for the Team A-Nony. I think everyone will like it.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the aromatics like onions, carrots and celery are considered "pantry" items?

Marcia said...

Check out what Marc Simmons said about the challenge on Yumsugar:

Apparently, most of the chefs used the Top Chef kitchen extensively, which is outside, in my opinion, the spirit of the contest. His actual quote:

Well I was just trying to decipher what the challenge was. In my mind the challenge was to create a meal for $10 from Whole Foods. Other competitors went and bought $10 worth of food and then used another $10 worth from the pantry.

The Big Shamu said...

Thanks for that Marcia. Not really surprising that the viewers are left in the dark about how an elimination challenge is run. Silly us for caring.

Leilanic said...

I laughed out loud when they announced the challenge. I, like the rest of you, knew you couldn't get ingredients for a whole meal at Whole Foods for ten bucks. I figured there was some creative counting going on....

Anonymous said...

Could the kid love the "potatoes" because they are actually apples? I don't see anything on the plate that looks like a potato except that thing that is clearly an apple. Maybe kid brain couldn't process fruit with chicken fat.