Although it did not make it into the top four, honorable mention must go to Arnold for his Kaffir Lime & Thai Basil Cake. Considering he is not a pastry chef, making a dessert for a large crowd, especially for the first Elimination, is a risky move. Arnold pulled it off with flying colors. The cake was moist, light, and tasted exactly as described: a balance of fresh herbs and tropical Southeast Asian undertones—and was a clever window into his history and personality. Kelly’s Colorado Grass-Fed Steak was another standout, even if she was not the strongest in her group. Her food was cooked with an expert hand, seasoned well, and reflected not just her origins, but also her cooking philosophy.
In retrospect, it is interesting to note that three of our four Quickfire winners were again at the top of their groups in the Elimination Challenge, but the fourth, Tim, did not make the top four. In fact, he found himself at the bottom of the pile. The best dishes of the day assured me we were in for an exciting season. They exemplified a diverse range of styles, cultural influences and backgrounds, not unlike Washington, D.C., itself. Kevin’s striking Pennsylvania Lamb with Meyer Lemon-Pistachio Marmalade, Spring Onions & Natural Jus echoed the patience and focus he showed in the Quickfire. At first look, Kenny’s Colorado-inspired Cinnamon Coffee Rubbed Trout, Black Bean Mole, Goat Cheese Polenta & Quinoa seemed a bit scattered, but came together beautifully when we tasted it. It is rare that someone presents us with a number of seemingly disparate ingredients that add up to something harmonious and insightful. Alex’s deconstructed ode to his Russian roots was outstanding in concept, presentation, and flavor. The pieces of his Short Rib Borscht with Crème Fraîche looked thoroughly modern, but their sum was unmistakably earthy and sweetly reminiscent of his immigrant past.
But it was Angelo’s Arctic Char with Pickled Shallots, Chilled Tapioca & Smoked Bacon Froth that captured our attention. As we watched him assemble each portion on individual spoons, I worried that the size of each piece of arctic char would be too big for a single bite. And again, as I saw him place chilies, a large sprig of dill and an ample dollop of bacon froth on top, I worried that the multitude of strong flavors would overpower his delicate, beautiful fish. How wrong I was! The final bite was cool and clean, with bright accents from each of the well-conceived condiments, which highlighted the soft texture and taste of the fish, instead of hiding it. The fish paid homage to his childhood in Connecticut, while the supporting components showed off his knowledge of Asian cuisine. We were duly impressed and chose him, once again, as our winner.