Finally, my Quickfire Tasting cherry has been popped!
After hosting almost a dozens episodes of Top Chef Masters where the culinary gods cooked their tantalizing food for our Quickfire judges, this time, their task was to create versions of the humble grilled cheese sandwich for just one diner: ME.
Why was I so excited for this? Because usually come Quickfire tasting time, I don’t get to sample the food. Maybe you haven’t noticed because this footage get whacked, but during the Quickfires, I’m asking our diners questions and trying to illicit some telling comments from them, so eating isn’t an option for me.
But not this time!
The call for our Masters in this Quickfire was to invent a divine grilled cheese sandwich, their very personal adaptation of an American Classic. A grilled cheese sandy can be interpreted in so many ways that the task is actually a daunting challenge. Which cheese or cheeses should one use? What about the bread? What else to put in between the slices of bread, if anything at all? Too many options can lead to gustatory disaster.
Luckily for me, it didn’t. Not by a long shot. When I burst into the Masters kitchen to call time, I was crazy hungry, and my taste buds were ready to be dazzled.
Up first was Carmen Gonzalez.
First of all, I’ve never met anyone so pint-sized in stature be so giant in personality and gumption. This clever Puerto Rican chef created a garlicky, herb-licious manchego cheese concoction with lime and cilantro that was mouthwatering. Her baguette was wonderfully crunchy, a perfect jacket to the filling inside. That Carmen had the nerve and confidence to do just that simple nibble with no other accouterments on the side really made me focus on her sandwich alone, and it was a spot-on representation of the full-bodied flavors she is well-known for. While I walked from table to table, I hadn’t realized she’d cut her finger, and I’m glad I didn’t. No pity for kitchen accidents, because it really is all about the food. Carmen’s Latin-inspired dish was a very close second place finisher for me.
Next up was the illustrious chef David Burke.
I’m a big fan of his ingenious and ambitious cooking style, and he’s a huge name on the New York dining scene. His grilled cheese sandy included prosciutto, almonds, tomato, rosemary, then topped with cornichons and olives. A plethora of delicious ingredients to be sure, but for me, one too many that left a salty aftertaste on my palette.
Onward to Marcus Samuelsson.
A fusion of Gruyere and American cheddar cheese paired with a tangy gazpacho and a light, crunchy salad made up his generous presentation. Chef Samuelsson knows so much about so many different cuisines, that he’s a true educator through his food. I relished all of his elements and they balanced various flavors adeptly, but in the end, the number of components on his plate stood out more than the actual grilled cheese sandwich itself.
The always entertaining Chef in the Hat, Thierry Rautereau, created taleggio and goat cheese morsels filled with olives, harissa and pear that he accompanied with a tiny arugula salad. I’m gaga for harissa, that North African chili condiment used a lot in European cuisine as a spread in tartines, so my hats off to Thierry, for that. However, my longing for a cheesier presence in his sandwich left me wanting more.
Lastly, chef Monica Pope’s voluptuous creation of salty feta and thick, mild farmer’s cheese with sweet dates on a buttery raisin nut bread blew me away. And orange blossom honey dressing on her salad? I’m salivating just thinking about all of it again. It must’ve helped too, that Monica had coincidentally been making lots of grilled cheeses with her daughter around that time, because even though her flavors sound like they’d appeal more to a sophisticated palette, I could see how kids would love her bold, delicious flavors just as much.
Deciding the winner was not easy.
Eating the Master’s creations alone – what with the chefs all waiting for me to come by, their warm grilled cheeses getting colder every second – is not a leisurely task.
Take a few bites, make mental notes.
Move on to the next chef.
Chew, chew, chew...Marcus is staring at me as I drink his gazpacho.
Munch, munch, munch.
Thierry’s smile is charming, but his eyes are searching for my reaction to his creation. It’s his first time making this grilled cheese, he admits.
Next table, next chef: Take a bite.
Quickly, the other sandwiches are getting cold!
It is a Quickfire, after all.
For me, it was such a luxurious and visceral pleasure, but also stressful, to say the least. What each Master presents on his or her plate is an incredibly personal and intimate portrayal of who he or she is as a cook, and ultimately, him/herself.
I, of course, had to choose a winner, and Monica’s exotic Moroccan-inspired grilled cheese invention scored magic on my taste buds.
After the joy of being able to judge a Quickfire challenge, all of my other memories of this heat almost faded away. Having Mekhi Phifer come to the kitchen to ask our Masters to create gourmet soul food for his birthday party became a slight blur to me. I alone had just experienced the pleasure of polishing off some delicious Quickfire food, and was still in a state of reverie.
Chefs Carmen and Marcus would woo the critics and march on to the Champions Round, but my first Quickfire tasting was sensual and enduring.
Like the first time doing anything meaningful, this was my very own sweet memory that I’ll never forget.