While these two dishes were the low points, there were certainly enough highlights to make the meal a great success. One dish that was not given enough airtime in the episode’s final edit, but which we praised liberally at the Judges’ Table, was Eli’s potato salad, which accompanied Kevin’s excellent Georgia Braised Pork Shoulder. Here was a perfect example of a classic salad-style dish, which took simple pantry ingredients and elevated them into something greater than its parts. It was tangy and satisfying, with a mustardy bite, and had just the right amount of seasoning. As Colonel Belote stated, it imparted a sense of comfort and the memory of home, no matter where home may be. Robin and Hector’s Three Bean Chili with celery leaves was another addition to the lunch table worth mentioning, as was Bryan and Mattin’s Roasted Beef with Mushroom Demi-glace & Cauliflower Gratin.
Then there was Mike V.’s Braised Pork Belly with Soy-Mustard Sauce and Peanuts. The fact that he created this combination on the fly, using slab bacon, and thought to serve it all in a fresh lettuce cup like a taco was ingenious. It had such complex flavor – touches of sweetness, acid and fat, as well as layers of texture, from the rich pork belly to the crunchy peanuts and crisp greens. It was hard to believe we were eating it in an airplane hangar in the middle of the Nevada desert. This is a dish I would expect to see, and have seen in some variation or another, on the menu in some of the country’s most progressive restaurants! It has lingered in my mind over the past few months and I cannot help but crave it all over again while writing this blog entry. I hope the valiant U.S. Air Force men and women we met felt the same way about their meal—and that we gave them an experience they will cherish as they work tirelessly everyday to keep us all safe.