Inspiration is a word I use often. It’s the backbone of my cuisine. And to any creative, it really means, “tell us about yourself.” It can come from anywhere, literally. But being too literal can undermine the beauty of being inspired.
By request today, (see, I read your comments!) I’ll give you a glimpse into how I may have handled each of our chefs flash point for inspiration.
Kevin gets the Mirage. He jokingly stumbles upon where my mind would have gone, a wordplay on mirage. It’s an oasis that in reality may be just a sandy wasteland. Using modern techniques, it’s quite simple to recreate an edible beach landscape, one that appears dry and desolate, yet underneath yields moisture and life. I would have “buried” a slow cooked protein in the sand of a fatty liquid made powdery with tapioca maltodextrin. The dish would look like a pile of sand, yet disappear in the taster’s mouth and reveal the dishes hidden treasures.
Jen, Excalibur. I actually liked her idea of the Sword and the Stone, as well as the choice of using the skewer to make the connection obvious and fun. Swordfish would have been an interesting choice if available. And stone quickly conjures up the idea of stone ground, or stone fruit to me. Maybe swordfish cooked on hot stones, with stone ground polenta and stone fruit.
Bryan, Mandalay Bay. I’ve stayed there recently, so I’m aware of the vibe. And you can’t ignore the inspiration of a giant aquarium in a cooking challenge. I’d go with a similar “Life Aquatic” theme here, incorporating an immersion circulator (after all, there’s a circulator in your fish tank at home) to reel in the theme of the big fish tank. Sorry for the pun! (No I’m not!) And, although I agree with Padma about the term fluid gel, it’s certainly more than appropriate for a pool of sauce on an all-things seafood dish. I suppose I wouldn’t be surprised to see an airy foam bubble on my dish as well.
Michael V, New York New York. Haven’t been to the hotel, but I’m a born and bred New Yorker. And Michael goes to a place where most creative do ... left field. The connection between NYC and firefighters sends his thought process to chicken wings. It’s a roundabout idea, but that is the thing with inspiration, sometimes you can’t control where it takes you. Explain it, as he did, and it’s valid. Without the visual cues of the hotel, I would have went to the Lower East side. The Jewish delicatessen Katz’ or Barney Greengrass, the same place Eli went during the Quickfire—aggressive flavors and acid. Corned beef, mustard, pickles, smoked fish, hot dogs, matzoh. That food, to me at least, is essential New York.
Ron Duprat. Sorry, but did anyone else really want to know what Ron Duprat would have done for this challenge?
Robin, Bellagio. This would have been my favorite. Like Robin, I am a huge Chihuly fan. She saw colors, I see shape and texture. She literally attempts to recreate glass. I would have simply used vegetables in all their glory. The roots, tips, stems and pigtail tops would symbolize the organic, fluid nature of Chihuly’s work. Using Isomalt, a less-sweet sugar substitute, to bring in the blown glass effect, perhaps to encapsulate some of the roasted vegetables. And I would have had to incorporate a nod towards the film Oceans 11, or 12, or 13. But I watch a movie here and there. Robin’s never seen Sesame Street.
Eli, Circus Circus. As most of his colleagues attested, this was a relative softball, because you eat at a circus, popcorn and peanuts amongst other things. Both seasonal ingredients during their filming, and ones in Eli’s wheelhouse, being from the South. I would have played the theme a bit darker here. There’s a certain smell to both a circus and a casino. Cheese comes to mind. Well, the first thing that comes to mind is elephant shit, but cheese is more palatable. A smoky, barnyard-y cheese, to serve with the sweet, salty ingredients that are common circus fare, a lamb dish, with sheeps’ cheese, popcorn, caramel, even cotton candy. Knowing Eli’s affection for caramel, I’m surprised that his dish didn’t come together.
But in all honesty, we are in a safe zone. The chefs who think they will make it to the finals are pulling the ball closer, making sure they don’t fumble. The ones doubting their chances are lunging forward, hoping to make an impression that will catapult them into the final rounds.
We will know shortly which tactic will work.
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