Holiday Special

Stephen Asprinio's take on the holiday special.

Well that was quite an episode. The holiday special was held in Chicago. This was my first visit to the windy city, and I have to say it was very eventful. I arrived at the W Hotel the day prior to the competition to check out the city a bit.

The day consisted of a visit to Bliss Spa, dinner at the renowned Alinea (which rocked), cocktails at Blackbird, and a very blurry remainder of the evening frequenting a number of local spots. The following day we arrived at a residence in the suburbs where we would be spending the next few days shooting the holiday special. When everyone started showing up, the party began. This particular group seemed to fall into the “holiday spirit” almost immediately. Tom Colicchio had stuffed everyone’s stocking with some sort of gift that related to their past experiences on “Top Chef”. I received a tie in my stocking. How fitting ….

Afterwards, we popped open a bunch of wine and began cooking together without skipping a beat. It was a lot of fun. CJ, Marcel, and I found ourselves passing the time experimenting with different cocktail concoctions after dinner and into the later hours of the evening. Each chef had left extremely hectic schedules to come to Chicago, and you could tell everyone was eager to get started. I had been on a construction site and in an office for the past six months working on my restaurant. As the interior designer for my project, it wasn’t the best idea to leave for several days, but duty called. Though there was $20,000 at stake, the competitive air was different from when we competing during our respective seasons.

I felt it was because we all knew who one another other was, and had seen a glimpse of each other’s style at one point on television or in competition. To begin the day of competition, we had the pleasure of a Quickfire Challenge, the “Dirty Santa” Quickfire Challenge to be exact. I ended up stealing Tiffani’s yams, which I thought I could create an innovative take on a seasonal preparation (butternut squash soup) in order to win the challenge. My idea was on point, but the execution fell short. For a Quickfire, I was simply wasn’t prepared. Mentally, I had the dish planned perfectly. It was supposed to be a butternut squash “soup & salad”, consisting of a butternut squash soup accented with mocha and lavender served alongside a warm butternut squash salad with cherries and thyme. The dish should have sung, but my technical error of misjudging the amount of lavender to use ruined any chance of winning the challenge. I hadn’t been in a kitchen in six months, and it was showing.

When the Elimination Challenge was announced, it seemed that it would be a breeze. Not the case. The kitchen we ended up in was terribly difficult to navigate around, mostly because we had never worked in it, and more so for me because I hadn’t been in a commercial kitchen in quite some time. It was so hot (more than the standard “heat in the kitchen”), and of course I was wearing a shirt and tie under my chef’s coat. My rustiness was catching up with me quickly. I looked around and saw my competitors, specifically Marcel, Tiffani, CJ and Tre, just blowing through all their mise en place. I was jealous. At that point, I wished I had at least spent a week prior brushing up on my speed in the kitchen.

Not once during my tenure on Top Chef had I felt I was “in the weeds”, or couldn’t keep up, until now. This experience was becoming a very humbling one right before my eyes. My ideas were spot on, but again, my execution fell short in some areas that ultimately crippled me from moving forward. My celery root gnocchis with black truffle jus, asparagus, and parmigiano fell short in the preparation of the gnocchis. I made a fundamental error of using too much flour and egg, and ended up with overly firm gnocchis, which should have been fluffy and airy, not the opposite.

After we served our dishes, I knew I wasn’t going to make it the next round of elimination. When Tom said my name, I accepted it without thinking, though of course I was bummed. I hate losing, but I learned a lot from the experience overall. Unfortunately, my second course that I never served was far superior to the first course. The dish was a “surf & turf” of seared diver scallops and veal osso buco which came out beautifully. If had served that course first, I may have kept myself in another round, but nonetheless, I was not at the top of my game that day, and someone else (such as Tre or Tiffani) deserved to win $20,000 more so than myself. As fate had it, my braised veal ended up helping Tiffani to clinch the win over Tre in the surprise fourth course. I was happy about this. After all, the holidays are about others. Congratulations Tiffani!