Before filming even began on this episode, I was of two minds. Thai food is one of my areas of expertise — I know the country and its food intimately. I've traveled there more than 20 times. And I love Thai food; I could eat it for three meals a day for the rest of my life and be blissfully happy — the extraordinary coriander-root-and-garlic-spiced chicken of the northeast, the herb-crazed sladas of the south. And so facing the prospect of the contestants making a Thai feast filled me with both excitement and dread. It could go brilliantly — the bright, harmonious, gracefully aggressive flavors I know and love — or it could flop, the chefs turning in pale imitations more in tune with takeout pad thai than authentic Thai cuisine. It's not a style of food that you can spend two hours studying and pull off without a hitch; you can't substitute ingredients at will or by necessity. And while Las Vegas has many splendid Asian markets (Ranch 99, which the chefs visited, chief among them), by and large my suspicions were that the chefs would have a hard time finding the fresh galangal, pungent fish sauce, or kaffir lime leaves so essential to the Thai larder.
Sitting down to dinner with Saipin Chutima of Lotus of Siam was a great pleasure: I've been an admirer of her restaurant for years. But while the company was top-notch, the food was less so. When the first round of dishes arrived, I realized that I was right to have been worried. Lorena's tom kha gai, a classic soup frequently served in restaurants, had a delicious savor, but her decision to poach the chicken separately hurt both components: the chicken itself was bland, and the broth missed out on some of the savory richness that cooking the chicken would have imparted. (The dish's garnishes, a major concern for the other judges, didn't bother me — if anything, they were evidence that Lorena was having a little fun.)
Chris' winning dish was good, but truth be told, for me it wasn't the highlight of the meal — I was voted down by the other critics when it came time to pick a winner. Laab is one of my absolutely favorite foods, and I really love that Chris challenged himself by making it. But the joy of the dish for me isn't so much in the protein itself, but the flourish of fresh, delicate herbs, the bright citrus, the fiery chile, and the subtle smoothness of toasted rice powder that brings it all together. And in Chris' laab tartare, that essential harmony was missing.