Perfect Bite

James Oseland compares Patricia's winning dish to Debbie's eliminating one.

There wasn't a Quickfire Challenge in this week's episode, which is something I didn't realize until I was watching the show yesterday — while we were judging, we hadn't been aware of the fact that the Elimination Challenge was all the chefs were up to this episode. But in hindsight, it makes sense. This challenge, creating a full wedding menu from passed hors d'oeuvres all the way through a towering cake, is as difficult as two challenges rolled into one. At least. As a judge, it was also a remarkable opportunity to take stock of this season's contestants: while the menu needed to work as a coherent whole, each chef created his or her dish more or less entirely on their own, playing to their own strengths, with only the most minimal of limitations imposed on them. It showed us who was capable of thinking on their feet, being creative in execution and adept in ability, and who would falter under the pressure of creating a wedding feast. 

And what a wedding feast this was! Working from a request that the menu be Filipino-inspired and generally "Asian" in scope and palate, the chefs divvied up the courses: some on one-bite amuses for the cocktail hour, some on full-fledged plated courses, some on dessert. Art's wedding cake got a lot of airtime thanks to its architectural instability (which, to be honest, I found kind of endearing — it actually made me more sympathetic to the cake), but what landed him in the bottom three wasn't an aesthetic concern; rather, it was the fact that what he advertised as a pineapple upside-down cake simply wasn't. What makes that cake so great, so delicious, so wonderfully fulfilling is the combination of a really soft, moist crumb, a sweet vanilla flavor, and — the real payoff — that gorgeous, oozy layer on top of caramelized pineapple and brown sugar. Art's cake just didn't have that. It didn't make me want to take another bite, and another bite, and another bite, the way a truly good version of that cake should.

Still, it was head and shoulders beyond Debbie's ultimately elimination-earning salad. We were given menus at the beginning of the meal, and what was promised as a Thai-style salad of Napa cabbage and green mango was in reality a plate of burned cabbage without any of the sweet-sour tang that a true Thai savory fruit salad ought to have. Debbie justified her decision to grill the greens by saying that the char added a necessary acidity to the cabbage, which to me was a baffling choice: why not add acidity with lime? The salad was even less successful when I considered it in context: as the first course of a sit-down meal at a beautiful, emotional wedding, it was a weird choice.

It was in Patricia's winning dish of mackerel with young coconut and chilies that I saw what I'd been hoping for from Debbie: a vivid, multifaceted bite of food that drew inspiration from an authentic cuisine (in this case kilawin tanigue, a Filipino ceviche), but was still very much individual to the chef. With a bright, clean herbal flavor punctuated by unexpected bursts of ginger from a genius, slightly subversive addition of finely chopped ginger candy, it set the gold standard for this episode, if not the entire season. My only disappointment in the dish was that, designed to be just a one-bite amuse bouche, I couldn't go back in for another mouthful. It was perfect for a wedding, perfect for this wedding, and a perfect showcase of the great things of which Patricia is capable. And it was a terrible, wonderful, frustrating flirtation — everything I want a bite of food to be.

James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine.

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