Pity the competing chefs on Episode 3. It wasn’t as if they could just flip open their copy of Larousse Gastronomique for instructions on how to skin a green worm! While I wasn’t present for the, um, buggy Quickfire Challenge, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have minded it a bit. (And in an interview I did a few weeks ago with the always wonderful Ruth Reichl—oh, how I missed her this week—she confessed a similar sentiment.) I’ve eaten bugs in lots of different parts of the world, from Mexico and other regions of Central America to Southeast Asia. Weird? Yes, sure, especially for someone like me, who was raised largely on pot roast (and, of course, the occasional duck à l’orange). But gross? No way.
You see, it’s all about context. When you’re in the Isan region of Thailand—a place in the northeast part of that country that I’ve been a few times—and a local cook offers you a salad of lemongrass, lime juice, chiles, and stir-fried queen ants gathered that morning from the grove of trees behind her home, there’s nothing remotely yucky about it. The experience is no less appealing than, say, being served a plate of pan-fried shrimp at a seaside osteria in Italy—shrimp are, after all, little more than the roaches of the ocean.
Happily, the chefs stood up admirably to this week’s next challenge: working as a team to make a 10-course meal under some seriously harsh circumstances. No running water? Their prep time being cut by 30 minutes? The last-minute revelation that they would be sans waitstaff? Any one of these curveballs would have devastated the average chef. (I would have thrown in the towel after curveball No. 2.) But they weren’t devastated, and they didn’t throw in the towel. And in fact, most of them excelled spectacularly.
As the meal progressed, Danielle, Curtis, Alan, and I were (largely) blissfully unaware of all the backstage handicapping. The meal we ate was truly satisfying. We weren’t left waiting or wanting, as we had been during challenges past; the dishes came out in a seamless, steady flow. What a testament to the cheftestants’ genuine professionalism!
Plus, something else: I think these guys are at last getting accustomed to the strange and unnatural parameters of being contestants on Top Chef Masters. Not only do they now clearly understand the on-hand ingredients better (no more oversalted scallops!), but I sense they’re also beginning to comprehend which dishes function best in the competition. Even under conditions as adverse as the ones they were given tonight, they’re figuring out how to execute makeable foods with a high level of complexity—practical dishes that show off their skill sets. Take Naomi’s celery velouté with Meyer lemon oil. I’ve only ever known velouté as a sauce, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.