Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio wonders why the chefs would make something for the Elimination Challenge that they've never made before.

on Mar 19, 2008

While the animal angle might seem like the tricky part of this, honestly, it was the catering element that presented the greatest challenge. Most chefs are asked to cater something off-site at one point or another in their careers. The skill lies in designing a menu that can be prepared ahead of time, then assembled and finished at the event itself. (It's rare to have a full kitchen at an event site, occasionally there is a kitchen 'tent' with a few burners, but a single gas burner or hot plate is the norm.) A trained chef understands that some foods just don't store and travel well, and plans accordingly. Some dishes will travel fine, but you need to modify the normal steps you would take to accommodate serving them later. For example, you wouldn't add salt to a crab salad hours ahead of time in your home, so why do it here? The salt is going to draw the moisture out of the dish and make it watery, so seasoning should be saved for the moment before serving. Another case in point is Valerie's blini. Valerie should have had the items in her dish ready for assembly and then made the blini a la minute (which means "last minute") in a pan over their burner as the night unfolded. Her teammates were there to do the assembly. Of course, even that wouldn't have saved the rest of the dish, since the rutabagas were partly raw, giving the dish an unintentionally unpleasant crunch. But that brings me to another point.

A catered event is not the place to teach yourself new skills. By this I'm not suggesting our cooks should have played it safe during the challenge, rather that they should have drawn from their (hopefully expansive) body of tried-and-true dishes that they already knew worked. Every chef has these, which can then be a great stepping off point for on-the-fly, seasonal creativity. It's important to remember that a catered event is often a big moment in someone's life (think wedding, anniversary party, etc.) and in my opinion, that is not the place to start the process of trial and error that is (in another setting) so crucial for a developing chef. I am surprised how often I've heard a contestant admit, "I never made this before," as they went about preparing the dish that lost them the competition. I don't think there would have been any shame in Valerie admitting to her teammates, "I've never made blini, and I'm not feeling confident about that. I'd rather make my famous XYZ (insert slam dunk dish here) instead." Andrew understood this. He pulled out a neat trick with his balsamic tapioca "caviar" over Team Penguin's squid ceviche. Clearly this was something he'd made before. He knew it would work, he knew it had visual appeal and would make sense with the overall "black and white," seafood-inspired penguin menu. It was a good call.