A note on ingredients: The black truffle from the Perigord region of France (tuber melanosporum) is at the top of the list of the world's most expensive and sought after foods. It is a rare fungus, grown underground at the base of certain oak, chestnut or beech trees and rooted out by trained pigs or dogs (dogs are less likely to eat the prize) in late fall and winter. Its labor-intensive hunt and harvest, the fact that scientists and farmers alike have not been able to cultivate it commercially at the same level of quality that it grows in the wild, its pungent smell and earthy, unique flavor all add to its luxury status. In order for a wine to stand up, it needs to be intense and earthy too. The 2001 Schafer Hillside Select is just that. It is rich with dark fruit flavors like cherry and black currant, hints of minerals, herbs and warm spice. I start to drool just thinking about the combination.
In this challenge, the most stressful issue for the chefs was quite clearly for whom exactly they were cooking. Our roster of guest judges read like a dining guide to Wine Country's Greatest Hits: Victor Scargle of Julia's Kitchen at COPIA and our gracious host for the day, Cindy Pawclyn of Mustards Grill, Philippe Jeanty of Bistro Jeanty, Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone of Terra and Ame, James McDevitt of Budo, Greg Cole of Celadon, Keith Luce of Press Restaurant, Doug Keane of Cyrus, and of course John Schafer of Schafer Vineyards. To say this was a room of talent that could make a cook sweat was an understatement. It was even a treat for me to dine with them.
What happened that afternoon was a far cry from what Tom, Katie and I ever expected. Harold's dish was the most technically sophisticated and all the judges went nuts over his sunchoke-creamed spinach. He was safe. But who would have imagined that Dave's Cognac macaroni and cheese would be the sleeper hit of the entire show? It was creamy, layered, smoky and full of that pronounced truffle flavor. We all loved it and could feel the passion with which it was prepared. Much to our surprise, now Dave was safe too. Deciding who should continue on to our Las Vegas finale between Tiffani and Lee Anne was the most difficult decision we had had to make since our first day on set. Although we agreed that at times Tiffani lacks finesse when it comes to social graces in the kitchen, it was the lack of focus on Lee Anne's plate that we could not overlook. All of our guest judges agreed that she had added a few too many ingredients and the result detracted from her goal.