Well, we're onto our third episode and I'm still trying to navigate the awkward terrain between advisor and judge. Unfortunately, I've been barred from jumping in when the chefs need real help. At times it's frustrating, because my inclination is to lend a hand, to offer suggestions, to point out the ice-cream maker. Whether I like it or not, my job requires me to maintain a bit of critical distance and hope the chefs pick up on the tidbits of coded advice I toss out in the form of questions.
It's also been hard to keep that distance while watching Cynthia grapple with her father's illness. When she finally decided to leave the show to join him, I understood and respected her choice - I made the same decision at 26 when I walked away from a dream job to be with my father, who was losing a battle with lung cancer. Cynthia is a funny, strong, and talented woman, and she will be missed.
This week's Elimination Challenge really showed us what the chefs were made of, how they worked as a team, and what they were looking to accomplish one day in their own kitchens. Is the goal ultimately to impress critics, or to make people happy? Is it possible to do both?
The task: prepare monkfish for 40 very demanding eaters between the ages of 8 and 12. No problem, right?
First a little background on monkfish:
Monkfish is a deep water fish found in the Atlantic, sometimes referred to as "the Poor Man's Lobster" because of its dense, lobster-like texture. While most chefs choose to work with the fish's meaty tail, we figured the kids would get a kick out of seeing the fish whole, with its leering, weirdly-human face intact, and we were right.
On the red team, Candice's reaction to the monkfish showed her immaturity and inexperience. Being a chef means handling raw, slimy, and strange-looking ingredients every day, with no time for squeamishness. Stephen immediately proposed three esoteric preparations of monkfish on one plate - he just couldn't let go of his own ego long enough to grapple with the real task at hand - food for kids. He and Candice lost valuable time squabbling; Stephen's superior attitude may be grounded in real talent, but it didn't help matters on this challenge.
Lisa, on the other hand, was relaxed and focused. She cooks for her own kids every day and understood what it would take to please them. The real challenge for her was to get her teammates to respect the value of her experience, and to let her lead the way. Luckily, she had an ally to back her up who is known for good sense and humility: When Andrea returned to replace Cynthia, everyone was genuinely thrilled to see her, including me.
As for the Blue team, they seemed confident, even blase, while making their breaded monkfish nuggets, despite tension between Dave and Brian, who insisted on cooking the carrots to a mush (his argument that, "that's the way I do them" held little water for me). Harold chose to ignore his culinary instincts and let Brian have his way here, which ended up being a bad call. Still, they finished early, and the team's calm (some would say smug) demeanor made it seem like they had this challenge in the bag.
The blue team felt confident enough in their food that the challenge ended for them once the dish was served. The red team, on the other hand, happily interacted with the kids, with Miguel (himself a big kid) leading the way. On the blue team, only Brian was willing to cut loose (Tiffani called his efforts the 'monkfish interpretive dance.' Ouch.) But I had no problem with Miguel and Brian's antics -- these two would hardly be the first chefs to win acclaim for larger-than-life personalities and connection to their diners, ("Bam!"). Who are we kidding? Promotion and salesmanship are important parts of the job.
Ultimately, though, it was the red team's ingenuity with their main ingredient that won them the challenge. Lisa understood that texture is BIG for kids. Since monkfish lacks the flakiness kids associate with fish, the team decided to puree it, add cream, and shape the resulting mousse into finger-friendly 'monkey dogs.' with a texture closer to hot dogs than that of a weird and unapproachable fish. The kids dug it.
I understood Tiffani, Harold, and Stephen's objections to this week's challenge - after all, they're young and hoping for a chance to dazzle the world, just as I was when I was starting out. It took me years before I developed the confidence to cook simply, letting nuance, technique and flavor steal the show. But I've been cooking for one fairly demanding kid for twelve years now, and I've never needed to relax my standards to make him happy. And while Dante has been known to avoid anything green and to dine happily on a bread basket and three Sprites, for the most part he likes food that tastes good and doesn't gross him out. I think he would have been happy with both the monkey dogs, or the monkfish nuggets. But one thing is for sure -- he would not have liked being dismissed as a waste of time.