The table full of restaurateurs was interesting. During dinner some of them got full on drunk and a little loose-lipped at the table (well, maybe one person specifically). I’ll give you my opinion on food porn, as I am not sure how the final edit turns out. We began with the childhood course. I have no idea what the story is but here’s my taste verdict: Kevin’s take on fried chicken was whimsical and fun, but overall I had wished for more substance in the dish (or more chicken skin). Mike V.’s shrimp and broccoli dish was interesting, if only for the fact that he had brought dehydrated broccoli florets with him, which I think he baked off to a crisp brown. Now, while I understand the flavor/texture he was going for, and the brown broccoli to some may be appealing, his preparation was very risky because the first thing I thought of when I tasted it was there is no way the judges wouldn’t reference CJ’s burnt broccoli surprise during the airplane challenge. Other than that, it was a tribute to an ingredient that you will rarely find on any fine dining menu (chefs are pretty particular about distinct flavors such as broccoli and green pepper....), and the spot prawn was perfectly cooked. I applaud Bryan for using the sardines. I love fresh sardines and I ordered some, alongside more glamorous seafood such as uni, abalone, lobster, scallops, and turbot, secretly praying that someone would use them. His dish was beautifully composed, but clearly lacked salt and the acidity needed to balance the rich flavors of the sardine. To me, it was a draw between the three dishes, none having swept me off my feet.
Next came the mystery box course. Kevin’s preparation was certainly eye-appealing, until you tried to eat the matsutake. In Japan, fresh matsutakes are traditionally shaved thin or cut small due to their texture. Kevin took whole matsutakes and cut them in half and pan seared them. The end result tells me that Kevin did not try the mushroom before he sent it out. It went far beyond "toothsome." His crab broth however, was delicious and I nearly licked the bowl dry. Bryan’s fish was perfectly cooked, but I had a very hard time making out any other flavors in his dish because it was muddied by the uni and coconut flavor. I also wish there had been more of a textural contrast, as the soft poached fish was served over a puree with soft uni on top. I agree that Mike’s was the winner overall. He cured the fish with konbu seaweed and shaved the mushrooms thin and fried them until crispy. The Meyer lemon confit/puree on the plate added the right amount of sweetness and acidity to balance the dish, and the tomato rounded out the palate exercise with its umami. Me? I would’ve made a clarified mushroom-crab broth, pan seared the rock fish, made a warm crab salad scented with the anise hyssop and Meyer lemon zest to serve on top, with shaved matsutake mushrooms and finely diced kabocha squash in the broth, with some form of crispy kabocha squash on top.
The meat course would be telling. This was the one course where the chefs really had free reign to do what they wanted. Bryan’s venison was near perfect. Contrary to what I know a certain diner had complained about, I thought his dish was beautifully composed and the flavors were well balanced. Mike’s dish was innovative and well-executed; it is a dish he has on his menu at the Langham. He had brought these little mushroom-shaped molds with him (for making chocolates and candies) and cooked Sicilian pistachios in a rich stock to make them tender. The squab was a wonderful medium rare and the mushroom chicharron he made added texture and shape to the dish. And this is when I knew Kevin would not make the final two; he had brought his own home-cured pork belly/bacon but failed to cook it long enough. It’s fine that pork belly is fatty, and when cooked properly, it’ll melt in your mouth, as animal fat should. But undercooked pork fat, as it was presented by Kevin, not so much. I liked that he went for broccoli also (what are the chances?) but his dish was unsuccessful, falling victim to a second time to under-braised meat.
Dessert is always the crux for our chefs. I relatively hate making desserts (unless it involves bacon and Maker’s Mark), but well-rounded chefs — and I learned this the hard way on my season — should have pastry skills. Bryan’s white chocolate dulce de leche cheesecake with fig sorbet gave me a cavity. I found it to be cloyingly sweet, and though the fig sorbet was very tasty, it had too much stabilizer in it, which I could feel on my palate. It was received well by the judges though and artfully presented in classic BV style. Mike’s spiced chocolate sponge with caramel filling was definitely borderline too salty, and trust me, I like salt in my desserts, a lot of it. I thought the use of savory ingredients like butternut squash and pepitas made for a nice texture and flavor combination. Mike’s cake came out a little over-baked and dry, but you can see what he was aiming for: a combination of hot/cold, cake vs. caramel filling, spice vs. chocolate, and salt (too much of it) vs. sweet. Had he been successful, it’s a brilliant dessert that just needed some slight tweaking. The final nail in the coffin for Kevin was the dessert. I’ve been doing bacon chocolate for years, before it became trendy, ask my friends (I fed Padma, Andy and the crew their first bacon chocolate cakes during the Season 2 finale in Hawaii). It’s a very careful balance between the two flavors and you need to hit the smoke vs. sweet vs. bitter vs. salt factor just right. Every time I eat some bacon chocolate nonsense I feel the need to give my two cents because so many places are not getting it right in my opinion. It’s about what percent chocolate (semi-sweet vs. bittersweet) you use, combined with where you are getting your bacon from (some bacon is smokier than others). Kevin, made the fatal error of using hickory smoke powder in his dessert, which is acrid and too much of it in anything is like eating a mouth full of wood chips and ash. Hickory smoke powder is one of those fun food powders I keep with the tech ingredients, and judiciously applied, you can do some pretty cool stuff with it (on the simplest level: make smoked mash potatoes without altering the color as you would if you traditionally smoked the potato flesh). Such is the point of molecular gastronomy: to improve the upon the end result through non-traditional technique. The bacon was enough and beyond not needing to add it all, Kevin had a really heavy hand with the smoke powder. The tiny caramelized banana was not enough to draw away from the chocolate skid mark on the plate and the candied bacon was not evenly chopped. No one’s a fan of chocolate and bacon more than I am, but I got real sad when I tasted this one because I knew it would seal Kevin’s fate.
Yukon Cornelius, as I affectionately referred to him all season, is a great young talent. Kevin has everything to be proud of; this season having far and away the most talented chefs to date, he stayed true to his cuisine and style of cooking up against formidable opponents such as the Voltaggio Machine and fine dining chefs like Jen and Mike Isabella. Beyond being sweet natured and confident, I truly enjoyed eating his food all season. Angie, Weezy, and I were eternally grateful for better-tasting food porn.