To understand the gravity of tonight’s challenge, it is vital to consider that French cuisine and its history provide the foundation for all other Western cuisine. Without this “grandpère” of cooking, we probably would not have the rich American culinary traditions we hold so dear. A truly well-rounded chef must be well versed in the fundamentals of French haute cuisine – or the high art of French cooking – laid out by the likes of Marie-Antoine Carême and Auguste Escoffier over the past few centuries. The language and structure of the kitchen in America is still very much dominated by French terminology – sauté, mise-en-place, brigade, brunoise, crème anglaise, even the word chef itself – all indispensable French terms used constantly in any fine-dining kitchen. So too are the basic techniques of “cooking protein” and making sauce, which we chose as the focus of this week’s show. More on that in just a moment…
After the sudden elimination of poor Jesse in the Quickfire Challenge – an escargot battle judged by none other than the king of French cuisine in America and my former boss, Daniel Boulud – the chefs were told they would be cooking a six-course dinner for a table of the most successful and renowned French chefs in the country. As if this were not traumatic enough, the dinner was to be hosted by Joël Robuchon, a legendary French chef known by many as the “Chef of the Century,” who, a few years ago, came out of early retirement to open an exceptional 54-seat restaurant at The Mansion of the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, in Las Vegas, his first venture in the United States.
Here, I must interrupt my own train of thought to tell you that under the makeup and calm veneer I was sweating bullets this entire Elimination. The atmosphere was never more stressful than it was during the shooting of this single episode. How our producers devised a scenario bringing together the most celebrated and accomplished French chefs on the planet at one table, I will never know. Upon screening the episode a few days ago, my husband, seated on the couch beside me, laughed out loud, saying, “I cannot believe that little you are seated at a table with these culinary giants! How did you ever manage that?” All I can say is that I am one of the luckiest girls in the world. I eat wonderful food, meet outrageously talented artists, and have the privilege of dining with them. Occasionally, they even ask my opinion, and seem to appreciate it! Rest assured, I do not take my job for granted.
But back to the challenge: 12 of our cheftestants drew knives with either a protein or a classic French sauce and were asked to work in teams of two based on which sauce they believe went best with each protein. The 13th contestant, Kevin, who had won the Quickfire, impressing Daniel with his Escargot Fricassee and Candied Bacon Jam, had the privilege of dining with us. This unusual circumstance was a first in Top Chef history. While the other chefs slaved in the kitchen that day, members of the crew took him to buy a new suit for the occasion.
First in the multi-course caravan came Ron’s Frog’s Legs and Robin’s Meunière, a brown butter sauce traditionally served with lemon and parsley. Although both the sauce and the frog’s legs had decent flavor, the meat was overcooked and the plate lacked the refinement we had hoped to see. Next up was Brian’s Warm Cured Trout, accompanied by Mike Isabella’s deconstructed eggless Béarnaise. This is certainly one of my favorites of classic French cooking, a smooth, creamy reduction of white wine, vinegar, tarragon and shallots, mounted with egg yolks and lots of butter. Their version was absolutely perfect in this modern incarnation. Each component could be tasted on its own and also melded together to form a stunning replication of the sauce as a whole. Served alongside the beautifully filleted and plated trout, it was a revelation to us all, Robuchon included.