We sourced various markets across the city. This was an interesting process, as I gave the best recommendations I know about ethnic neighborhoods and food, but sometimes production reasons get in the way of, well, reason. Like the fact that The Nile Deli is also technically in Astoria (actually right behind my apartment building on Steinway), but they didn't want Astoria on two knives (Titan market is a famous Greek market in my hood also), so we settled for Long Island City which is also my zip code and appears on some of my mail, even though technically I'm considered to live in Astoria. Then there were politics of calling it Little India (which is technically on 6th Street in the East Village when really Kalustyan's is located in a neighborhood known as Curry Hill, which I think the production company thought could be interpreted as offensive). I know there are many New Yorkers out there who are going to either find fault with or disagree with our neighborhood and ethnicity choices but we were going for a nice variety and the truth of the matter is it's not easy to get business owners, especially in an outer borough neighborhoods, to say "Yes, come in with your cameras and disrupt my daily business". Thankfully we were able to source some stellar markets including some of my favorites such as DiPalo's in Little Italy (Lou and Sal, I love you!), Asia Market Corporation on Mulberry Street in Chinatown, Kalustyan's (one of the coolest markets in NY, in my opinion. I can spend HOURS in there.), and my neighborhood stores, Titan Greek Market and Nile Deli. The contestants were also given a budget to supplement their ingredients at Whole Foods too.
The first night together is always fun. They sniff each other out, sort of like pooches at the dog run for the first time. Some play well together, others do not. One thing was for certain, they actually went through two cases of wine that night. Bunch of boozers, this group. I have my own opinions and impressions of each of these contestants. Fabio's a bit more tolerable than Stefan, if only for the language barrier (Fabio's continued excuse for not understanding the rules was that he was "fre-sha outta dee boatah", which always made me smile). Stefan, when we met him in casting, was reality TV gold. Quickly establishing his stripes and exercising his healthy ego amongst the others I knew would happen sooner than later.
It was thrilling for us to have who I consider to be the reigning king of high-end multicultural cuisine, the man himself, Jean Georges, as the judge for our first elimination. I was part of the opening team at Restaurant 66, his Chinese venture (now closed) and I got to witness firsthand how he applies his signature techniques to and takes inspiration from ethnically diverse ingredients and flavors from all over the world. I have tremendous respect for him and he is always such a gentleman when I see him. They cooked head to head and I sampled all of the food porn dishes, some were very good, some not. Richard's lamb slider had all the right flavors but the patty was dry and overcooked and the orzo feta salad was a little too thick and cheesy in texture. Jamie's black bass on eggplant puree was sophisticated and simple, evoking the classic flavors of the Mediterranean. I wasn't partial to either Hosea's trio of smoked fish or Carla's fishcake. (I always wonder what actually takes two hours to prepare since they each had to make only two portions of everything, and they both bought already cured and smoked fish). Stefan's Middle Eastern combo was simple but good and well seasoned. Ariane's lamb was perfect but the undercooked farro should have never made it to the plate.