Catering to the Bride and Groom

Once again, Gael wonders if her judgment would have been clouded if she had been privy to the chefs' comments in the kitchen.

My first thought was what bride and groom would surrender the details of their wedding dinner to an unspecified whimsically selected cooking crew at the last minute…. And my next thought was, "Why not?" All it takes is faith in our food-obsessed culture. Two teams of America’s master chefs competing by improvising a dinner for 150 guests even at the last minute is full of promise … an adventure. A coup. It would not by just another pretty parade of dishes designed not to offend any finicky wedding guest by caterers anonymous. What the courageous couple could expect was real food, master chefs at work, a unique wedding celebration no one there would ever forget.

We judges at the Critics’ Table knew that part of the challenge was catering to the tastes of the bride and groom. In one case the meat and potatoes loving groom who asks for a carrot cake.  In the other, a bride with more exotic tastes who flatly rules out lamb. As if it weren’t enough of a challenge, the surviving competitors would divide into two teams to plan, shop, and cook without their usual staff backup teams to do the scut work.

I’m off on assignment now, surveying cuisine and travel in Tunisia but I had a chance to see this segment on DVD before I left town. For me as one of the critics sequestered from the kitchen prep battle, it was amusing to see each team throwing together a plan based on the market and their own particular favorite dishes: the warriors both cooperative and competitive all at once. And how they struggled without recipes to create their wedding cakes. Indeed, I’m not surprised that Susur has never baked a carrot cake but decided with his restored cockiness to wing it. And if I’d heard him blithely telling Carmen “You are the girl,” i.e. good at backup for everyone else, it might have colored my final vote.

As the guests arrived so did Kelly and the three of us, all dressed up for a wedding celebration. I sensed some last-minute desperation by certain chefs at the serving tables but then the wine was being poured and waiters began passing the fabulous little hors d’oeuvre: the red pepper pancake, curried tuna, a tricky little lobster roll, the Indian fritter, a textbook perfect crab cake.
Certain dishes were standouts — Tony’s simple old-fashioned, fiercely rich scalloped potatoes for one and Jody’s rack of lamb that even the bride had to admit was good.

There was something very winning about the semolina cake with flowers everywhere to cover up the patches. And I thought Jody’s choice of banana a la Foster, cooked to order at the last minute, was a suicidal move. But for me nothing was quite as impressive as Susur Lee in his chosen guise of dessert Ninja. How clever to glue together a hundred or so cream-filled profiteroles with caramel to create that tall croquembouche as the wedding cake.  Did he know that the croquembouche actually was the original wedding cake?  The bridge and groom were required to kiss over the tip of it.  More filled pate a choux balls became his profiterole for the children.  You could almost forgive him the misguided carrot cake for his sublime bread pudding. 

I thought his triumph was the cherry on the cake for his team’s victory. But then Jay worked himself into an indignant frenzy over Marcus’s beef.  He found its tenderness to be a sacrilege of the cow. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic I’m not sure Jay growing up in England has enough experience with the great American Steak. Our aged meat is tender. Wagyu is even more tender. And I had to admit that good meat doesn’t need that much of a fuss. It was a very dim moment for Marcus. But poor Carmen was even sadder, having sacrificed her time to help everyone else on her team shine, she never quite got her act together.

Too bad Tunisia isn’t hooked up to Bravo. I can’t wait till I catch up as soon as I return.

Gael Greene

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Francis Lam: What's on the Menu?

The critic focuses on the first part of the cooking process.

When I talked with Chris Cosentino about cooking last season's Top Chef Masters finale dinner, he said one part of it was easy --the menu planning. The challenge then was to cook four courses, with a theme of letters: a love letter, an apology, a thank you note, and a letter to his future self. Chris' menu came together quickly because, he said, "I know who I am." The wording of the challenge was provocative, but it was really just a way of asking the chefs to tell a story about themselves through their food. It left lots of room for personal interpretation. 

This year, the finale challenge also asked the chefs to dig into their personal lives but with more specific instruction. Asking Jen, Bryan, and Douglas to make dishes that represented their past selves, their current lives, something from a mentor, and something from a protégé was asking them to encapsulate their careers in four courses. (Only giving them a day and a half to do it meant that no one could lie on a therapist's couch to unpack their memories, which is probably a good thing.) 

I loved this challenge, and I was happy to not actually be there as a judge, but rather as a diner, as an observer, and as a fan. Without having to worry about who did “better” than the rest, I could just focus on the food and, even more, on the insight into each chef’s culinary life. Who these great chefs thought they were.   

I loved the way Douglas’s first thoughts were to his formative cooking experience, the first dish he remembers making in a restaurant, and how it became his mussel billi bi soup. I once had a version of that soup at his restaurant Cyrus in 2007. It had so much mussel flavor I can still taste it. To taste it at finale was, for me, like the past come back to life. And for him, someone now so inspired by the lightness of Japan, to reach back to the glories of a wallop of cream and brine… it felt like he was starting the meal by going back to his roots. 

I loved the way Bryan went in another direction, going to the first dish he ever cooked for his wife. I thought his dish was fantastic: the sweet subtlety of crab hovered over the grains and the egg yolk, but honestly, I also could’ve eaten the OG version of a sautéed chicken breast with crab and cream sauce. I kind of miss food with names like Chicken Chesapeake. Who will be the brave soul to bring back ye olde cruise liner food in their restaurant? But anyway, Bryan’s cooking impressed me through the whole season with its creativity and intelligence—I was shocked to realize he hadn’t actually won a challenge until the end—but it was so great to see, in the end, how grounded he feels in his emotional side as a person and as a chef. The dish was light; it felt full of possibility. You could tell his was cooking with the memory of being at the start of something, the excitement of it. 

And I loved it when Jen took the “something borrowed” part of the dinner as a chance to nod to her old mentor Wolfgang Puck, from when he was borrowing from Chinese cuisine at Chinois on Main. Her “Chinese duck with shiitake broth, eggplant, daikon, grilled bok choy, and duck wonton” was too busy, too over the top, too 1992… and just freaking awesome. Just like L.A., really. (I used to think that L.A. is stuck in the '80s and '90s, until I realized that, no, it’s just that in the '80s and '90s, the rest of the country was just trying to be like L.A.) I hadn’t had the pleasure of eating her food before Top Chef Masters, but I could see a direct line between what she was “borrowing” and her own food: it pulls flavors from a global palette—pulls them mightily, puts her back into it—to come up with thoroughly American dishes. Her cooking is so muscular, so full of umami and depth and, when she wants to use them, pungent spices. 

There were many other dishes that day: thrilling ones (Bryan’s white-on-white dessert), masterful ones (I mean, you try to wrap a piece of fish in individual noodle strands like Douglas did!), just bang-up delicious ones (Jen’s paella gnocchi. That is all.) But I most loved seeing into these chefs’ past and how they went from there to who they are today. I haven’t had a chance to talk with them yet, but I wonder which of them will say that writing the menu was easy. All three of these chefs were so good, their cooking so assured, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that from all of them.  

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