Bravotv.com: We’re right into the Elimination Challenge this week! What did you think of the challenge overall? How should the chefs have approached it?
Johnny Iuzzini: This is a really, really difficult challenge. Here is the thing: It isn't difficult to use pastry ingredients to make dishes look like savory food, If you are building it like a showpiece and it isn't meant to be eaten. You could use things that do not necessarily taste delicious, like gum paste, pastiage, marzipan, modeling chocolate etc. The difficult part is that the desserts they have to create not only have to taste delicious, but they have to have an identity of their own and show the chef's creativity and be absolutely delicious, since the judging panel consists of a group of highly-regarded chefs. The best approach would be to think of it as two separate challenges. First come up with the design of the dish you are mocking. Then go through your mental repertoire of recipes and techniques of what you know how to do and find the best fit for the dish.
Bravotv.com: You seemed concerned for Sally when you did your check-in because she hadn’t decided on a dish yet! How nervous were you for her?
JI: I was super-concerned for Sally. Up until this point, she has been quite confident and focused and had a clear idea of what she wanted to do and exactly how she planned on executing it. This was the first time I really saw her nervous, confused, and second-guessing herself. She was actually prepping for two separate dishes and was going to see which one came out better. I thought this was a bold and chancy move since she potentially could have been wasting a lot of precious time. In the end, I do believe it did hurt her a bit, even though she came out on top. The fact that she used a mousse that was originally intended for her other dish which really didn’t work so well for her cubano cost her some points because of its flavor and texture. Bravotv.com: What was it like dining with all of those esteemed savory chefs? What did their perspectives bring to the table?
JI: You know, as Chefs, we really don’t get to eat out that much. We spend a lot of times in our own kitchens constantly trying to make our own restaurants better. It is always such a pleasure to be able to see other chefs in a casual setting and to enjoy a dinner together and talk about what we are eating. Everyone has a different impression of what they are eating; not everyone tastes the same things and definitely not everyone has the same food memories. So to be able to share that with one another is a lot of fun and very educational. Plus, the added stress for the competitors is fun to watch too. They all seemed to be very familiar with out guest chef judges and all seemed to be very intimidated to cook for them. Each of our guest chef judges have their own distinct cooking style and they each have very different opinions about how to approach creating and executing a dish, but the one thing we all agree on is that in the end, first we eat with our eyes, and then we taste the food. It must be visually appealing and above all, it must be damn delicious.
Bravotv.com: Can you talk a little bit more about the four dishes offered?
JI: Matthew was the first to have a game plan and that was to make manicotti, which happens to be one of my favorite Italian dishes of all time (I am Italian, y'know!!) I think he spent a lot of time getting great visual details into his dish, like the grooves in his shell, to the chiffonade of basil and his strawberry marinara. The problem was he tried to recreate the same dish sweet instead of savory rather then have the flavors of the dessert be completely different from the original dish. His cream cheese mousse was kind of bland -- he said he was going to use tomatoes and he didn’t. One of the best components to his dish was actually his side of parker house rolls which were freaking delish. If he had gone a completely different direction, he would have had a better chance at the win. After all, it is was a dessert in disguise challenge, not a sweet creamy version of the dish challenge.
In Orlando’s case, I think he showed some great creativity in the garnishes he chose to represent the seafood in his dish. Also, harnessing the saffron and adding not so traditional paella flavors really made his dessert stand out creatively. The problem was, he used the wrong technique to cook the star of his dish, the rice. It was broken up into pieces and didn’t look very appealing or appetizing. Also, the choice of a beet, albeit cooked great and tasty, really didn’t go with the rest of his flavors of his dish. I wish there was more of an attempt at sea food in his paella. I only had one mussel, some dried fruit cut up to resemble some other seafood and the chorizo beet. It just wasn’t enough to keep him in the game.Chris, even though he used store-bought puff pastry and therefore essentially forfeited the win, did a great job in executing something that looked almost exactly like his chosen dish, Fillet au Boeuf en Croute or Beef Wellington. The color of his sauce, the degree of doneness throughout his faux beef center, all looked really great and had good overall flavor as well. Technically Chris used some good techniques. Had he made his own puff or other dough, he may have won this challenge.
In the end, it was Sally that stole the show though with her sweet cubano. It looked awesome and her attention to detail like the paper folded around it and the extra effort with the plantain chips and potato salad really put her out on top. She even made her own bread! The only criticism that the judges had was her layer representing the pork. I think it was a cream cheese mouse as well. It was too thick and soft and just shot out of the sandwich. Other than that, I thought this dish was genius and if given to me at a sandwich shop I would never have known until first bite -- which was the point after all.
Bravotv.com: Were you surprised when Chris admitted he used frozen puff pastry? Did anyone feel he should be eliminated for that?
JI: I was actually. I had asked Chris about whether or not he planned on using puff pastry from the get-go and he said, "No," that he planned on finding another route to mimic the puff. I had a feeling he would have to revert back to the puff, and there is nothing wrong with that had he made it himself. Truth be told, puff pastry is not a 1-2-3 dough where you can bang it out in minutes. It is an arduous task and very carefully mapped out process that consists of making two separate parts, the detrempe and beurrage. Then it’s a matter of laminating the dough and folding the two together in a very systematic way in order to layer the butter and the dough evenly and build the layers. It requires folding and chilling, which can take a lot of time. In the end, It wasn’t so much of a factor because the true star of his dessert was the interior and the sauce on the plate. That said, he wouldn’t have been able to win because he used it either. I don’t recall any of the other chefs making any comments or having issues with him using it at the time. They had a chance to speak their minds at Judges' Table. Bravotv.com: How difficult was it to send the eliminated chef home?
JI: It is hard to send each and every chef home at every challenge. In the end, we are not against the chefs. We want the best from them and for them to succeed at everything they attempt to accomplish. Especially in my case, being the only Pastry Chef out of the four regular judges, it really matters to me because they represent me in a sense as they represent the art of being a pastry chef to the world. So in essence, they represent me. When it comes to Orlando, he is the chef that I have had the most back-and-forth disagreements and banter with both at the Judges' Table, events, and during my walk-throughs. He is obviously a very talented chef who will do much for our industry. Unfortunately, he made some big mistakes in this challenge and in the end his final dessert presentation was the worst of the bunch.
Bravotv.com: Only one more episode! Any thoughts?
JI: I think all the chefs felt like they belonged and deserved to be in the finale, but unfortunately, only three chefs could move forward. I think the three chefs each have a tremendous amount of talent and each have quite different skill sets, so it will be very interesting to see how they fare in the final challenge, where it truly is anyone's title and bag of cash to grab. The chef that walks away with the victory will be the chef that wants it the most, thinks quickest on his/her feet, plans and executes the perfect desserts. The chef with the most focus, the most desire and the most passion will be the winner of Top Chef: Just Desserts!