Another doozy of an episode— “camping” I knew, would not be enjoyed by the contestants. Let’s start with the Quickfire. Cactus is not really a common ingredient, and not many contestants had worked with it previously. Having spent many years cooking in Mexico, cactus (nopales) is part of my culinary vocabulary. We sourced paddles with the needles still on, and white and red cactus fruit. I wasn’t actually there for the Quickfire as I was busy setting up “camp” all day. Mike Isabella’s simple presentation was well thought out and executed for one of my favorite chefs around, Mr. Tim Love. Tim and I share a love of roasting whole animals.
Let me tell you something about camping, at least camping Top Chef-style. My recommendation? Get a Petzl headlamp. While the Quickfire was going on, I was out at Shady Valley Ranch getting the chuck wagon and all else set up for the reveal later that day. We pimped out the chuck wagon with a limited pantry and the usual equipment, sans electrical appliances. Again, for every challenge not in the TC kitchen, my team and I lug around pots, pans, appliances, hand tools, towels, aprons, gladware, the list goes on and on. While I was doing this, I also worked with the guy who was setting up the gas-lined fire pits (same gentleman who helped us in Season 2 with our beach breakfast challenge in Malibu). When the chefs arrived, I took their coolers to a front building, which had a kitchen and refrigeration and organized and stored all of their ingredients. The art department sourced all of the cast iron for the challenge. It unfortunately did not arrive until the day of the Quickfire. I had to wait for the fire pits to finish getting set up, which was around 7 p.m. and for camera to get the shots of the chefs checking out the cooking stations. The cast iron came with a layer of chemical wax coating it to protect the surface. According to instructions, I had to burn the wax off over the grills, about thirty minutes per side. Then wash them, season them, and cook them over the grills again. With only three fire pits, I was still burning off the pans by the time the chefs went to bed, in the pitch dark, in a sandstorm. Thankfully, my friend Korey on the lighting team, saw fit to buy me a Petzl headlamp the next day. Now I carry it with me wherever I go.
I went home to nap for three hours and then drove an hour back to location at the crack of dawn. The weather was slated to reach the triple digits by late morning. We offered the chefs the choice of cooking in their TC jackets, or just t-shirts. Surprisingly, they chose to wear their jackets. The results of cooking in the very dusty desert were varied, and while some contestants created inventive and relatively palatable dishes, there were some that I wouldn’t go near with a ten-foot pole, especially on a hundred degree day. I’ll write what I can recall:
The Chicken Paillard was dry, and pretty pedestrian. Mike I.’s pork gyro was totally phoned in, and I could get a better gyro off the street in my hood in Astoria. Eli’s tuna sandwich with radish salad was also relatively boring, like something I’d find in a department store café. The char with the baked potato was gutsy, if not gigantic, and actually didn’t taste all that bad. Robin’s grilled romaine salad was unwieldy and underseasoned, though I love grilled lettuce. Ashley’s halibut, as big as it was, was well executed. Dishes I found interesting? The usual suspects … Mike Voltaggio’s dish was not well suited for the challenge; though it was completely delicious, unique, and virtually perfect, it was not exactly what the ranchers and cowboys expected. You see, there’s “gourmet cowboy” and then there’s white tablecloth out of context, which is where Michael sorta landed with this one. Kevin’s duck with watermelon and mole was VERY tasty, though I wish he could’ve cooked the skin out a little more so it was really crispy, but those are the hazards off cooking over a fire pit. Jen’s snapper and duck confit was also rich and filling, but with lighter flavors, like the Asian style julienned vegetables on top. Bryan’s dish was really the one that hit the mark with its simplicity and execution. All flavors and textures were appropriate for this type of challenge, and the roast pork with the polenta came off as gourmet without being over-the-top.