Hugh on Female Chefs and Bliss Points

Hugh talks this week's challenge, what a swordfish resembles, and shares his opinions on gender equality in the kitchen.

A lot of hubbub surrounded a Time Magazine cover last year with three chefs looking important. It was a photo of David Chang, Alex Atala, and René Redzepi (shown HERE) before they were separated from their conjoined triplet state. I think it is unfair that their domination of haute cuisine is because of their shared master brain. I want in on that cerebrality.  

Well the real problem is that the gods continue to be men while the truth in my industry is that we have many women who are equally able to perform at the level attained by the three depicted chefs. Anne-Sophie Pic, Dominique Crenn, Traci Des Jardins, and many others come to mind, but there is always that glass ceiling which seeks to keep them from being anointed a deity title, which gets me to my real point: Calling anyone a god is silly and falsely empowering. My hope is that chefs attain media stature by being great leaders and skilled cooks with no assist from what's in their pants. So back to the kitchen, all of you.  

Luckily we have the logical platform of reality television to keep this masculine madness in check. Here before us are two chefs, who happen to be women, who have both won their seasons of Top Chef. Stephanie Izard won on Top Chef Season 4, and Kristen Kish won Top Chef Season 10. They are women, but much more interesting to me is their very different styles of cooking: Stephanie pulls from the world larder with aplomb, mixing styles and techniques to make robust comforting food, while Kristen works in very technical ways, fashioning food in an haute Italian and French style, lessons learned from her mentor, the great Barbara Lynch, a chef who would happily truss you like a yardbird and roast you whole if you referred to her as a "woman" chef.

Curtis is in the house with all of his beauty. Curtis is now the proud owner of a restaurant, the very lauded Maude in Beverly Hills. You should go for one reason alone: He ain't just a pretty face but truly a chef's chef who is making food that has a bliss point that keeps you going back for more. The restaurant is tiny but full of grace and vigor. 

Flanked next to the Aussie delight are Michelle Bernstein from Miami and Gail Simmons. Good peeps, all of them. 

Stephanie says her food is rustic and not about placing the sprig of cilantro in a precise point on the plate. That's good 'cause nobody likes cilantro anymore. 

Anyhoo, they draw colored knives and Stephanie is going first. She is tasked with challenging Kristen to the first dustup. Something about Thailand and street food and bold flavors whittles down to this: They must create a dish in their style, inspired by Thai flavors. Think Pok Pok, fish sauce, lime, and chiles. Larb-tastic vittles cometh. Kristen, though born in Korea, has never been to Asia. I am no expert, just an avid diner, but I think both Kristen and I would be comfortable playing with the flavors. We will see if Stephanie's vacation in Phuket meant an immersion course in the food, or if she is still relying on the food glossary from "Thai Street Style on 20 Bhat a Day."

Stephanie is making Hoi Tod, which is a pancake with bean sprouts and scallions and usually stuffed with mussels. Lots of fish sauce, ginger, and some spicy chiles are involved. Her version also replaced the mussels with shrimp and lamb. I think. She is talking trash as well, so it's hard to tell what is going on. 

Kristen is making a skirt steak that is not street food. Fish and lime and chile sauce will be there to Thai up the loose ends. As they plate, Stephanie makes the very common joke about Kristen's finicky culinary tweezers: "Are you using your little tweezer tongs to properly place all of your herbs?" To really drive home the insult, she is also talking like Daffy Duck, if Daffy Duck was an extra in Fargo. The debate over tweezers, a high-end kitchen chef's prized possession, versus the big grill tongs of rustic food joints is always funny to me. I like 'em both, but I like a good spoon most of all. 

The taster judgy people come back into the room and taste the food. They like Stephanie's Hoi Tod, and it gets high textural and flavor marks. Gail finds it bold and exciting. Kristen's skirt steak is a visual stunner, and the judges like it. At the end of the challenge, Stephanie wins 10k with a successful street Hoi Tod. 

Kristen's challenge to Stephanie is to make a fresh pasta course. Pasta in this amount of time is very challenging, indeed. I would make a gnocchi, but even that would be a time issue. Both seem to be making stuffed pastas. Very bold. 

Stephanie is pulling out the pasta machine. Her dough is a firmer dough made with double zero flour. She is making an agnolotti inspired by crab Rangoon. Talk about global food! Kristen is being coy by roasting big carrots and making what look like Shumai. Hands up. Gail, Michelle, and Curtis come in with their taste buds ready. 

Kristen has made a Turkish lamb dumpling with a yogurt sauce. Looks pretty cool. Stephanie has made the agnolotti with a killer dough and it is loved as well. Glad her dough worked out. But the winner of this one, and the keeper of the pasta money, is Kristen. We are tied. 

To the final duel where they must make a dish that will reenact the Garden of Eden. To Curtis, this biblical reference means that they should all be naked. Okee dokee. Kristen, like 99 percent of the world, is afraid of snakes and failure. 

Teases get thrown out with words: penis, swordfish, and aphrodisiac. They must write a one-act play depicting the human struggle represented only by these things. Go. The same writing experiment is how Ishtar got created. 

The editors have figured out the slow-mo features of the new iPhone and are using the same tech with amazing regularity. My favorite is when Curtis sabers a beer bottle into a bowl of melted white chocolate. . . 'cause who's doing that?

So into Eden we go. Three course meal with the first course showing something masculine and something feminine, the second will be a dish representing temptation, and the third a sinful dessert. Stephanie harkens back to a missed banana cream opportunity. In the clip from Top Chefs passed, Tom C. looks to be thinking hard about the forlorn he feels at the inadequacy of that banana cream. 

Culinary couples and some weird Canadian join the diners. The Hatfields and the Goin/Lentz's, and little old me. Sous chefs come forward to assist. Four hours until service begins. 

There is a fridge full of Stella. That's cool. 

Stephanie is schooling us. Mussels look like vaginas. Razor clams look like penises. Okay. I got this. 

Kristen looks back to the worst moment in her Top Chef career when Josie commandeered the stage when Kristen should have been leading. I cringe as well. Josie is a bull in a china shop. 

Enough digressing. Let's talk about something interesting. Let's talk about "bliss point." It is the top of the arc of flavor that keeps you coming back for more when you are eating. The fact that you eat a whole bag of Doritos is due to a lot of science figuring out where that bliss point is. Being a chef is figuring that out without a team of food scientists. It is a nuanced building of flavors to create palate appeal, visual stimulation, and want of satiety. To me that's where this is interesting, because both chefs embark on that quest in totally different ways. The tactical precision of Kristen has no room for error. The many angles of Stephanie's food can quickly become too many and be busy. You following me? If this intrigues, you should go read Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss, a book that was recommended to me by a friend. It is an amazing book on how big business has made food more appealing and at the same time pretty bad for us.  

Most memorable line of the last year for me. Kristen: "Swordfish has that penis thing coming off its face." Someone needs to go back to marine biology class, 'cause I don't think that’s what the bill is for. Unless you are this lucky swordfish.

Service comes to fruition and we all sit down to eat. Karen and Quinn Hatfield of Hatfield's and Sycamore Kitchen are truly legends in LA, and what Suzanne Goin and David Lentz have done with their restaurants is exceptional. Go eat with them. . . 

First up is the mussel and razor clam dish from Stephanie. Giggles. Parilla sauce on the mussel and shrimp butter on the clam. It is a good dish, but maybe too separate? Or maybe that was the point? Stephanie does bring up the gender issue, and I gotta agree. . .let's just be chefs. Kristen presents her swordfish and caviar, which is a stunner. Pretty food and well knit together. "Harmonious," as Michelle puts it. 

Second course gets cooking and then presented. Temptation is the theme. Stephanie talks about her fine line that she is walking with the flavors, and Kristen talks about her love of dirty stoner food. 

There is a beer theme by the way. Lots of themes. They walk their food to the table. Stephanie has made halibut with a blueberry nuoc cham sauce. Her fish was stunningly cooked. It would have been a dish totally screwed up by most chefs, but it really worked in her able hands. Kristen cooks her stoner temptation, and it is like no munchies that I have ever seen. Her plate is a fluke with chowder garnishes, and it is a visual beauty. The fish is impeccable, the garnish fastidious and perfect, yet, and this is the thing with the style of how Kristen cooks, it lacks something. It is so nearly perfect and luxurious it verges on boring? 

Dessert gets plated. Stephanie is doing a busy dessert, following her busy style. It has coffee, bourbon, pomegranate, bon bons, a kitchen sink, and some passion fruit in it. Kristen is making a melty sundae envisioned by a Michelin-starred chef. It also has pink peppercorn on it. This makes it cool, so I am told. 

Look, no way of skirting around this: Stephanie's dessert was a mess. It was not what she wanted us to eat and was just not something any of us wanted to eat. It is the danger when you pull out too many ingredients out of the pantry. Kristen's was pretty great. Good fig. Nice use of tahini. 

In the end Stephanie wins a very close battle of two very different styles. It was not an easy choice. Both are great chefs. Period. 

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