I guess that's why I'm always kind of surprised and amused by young chefs who label themselves "molecular gastronomists" before they've had a chance to establish their own foundation, or who insist that basic food is "just not what I do." For one thing, I think the idea of a chef who only does one thing is silly. To do any food well (especially fine food) requires that a chef be well-rounded, and have a solid command of the basics. Eventually, a chef will arrive at their style, but it takes years of grinding out good, well-executed food to get there. Our Guest Judge this week, Stephen Bugarelli, is the Senior Executive Chef for TGIFriday's, and good, basic food is the concept behind his entire organization. TGIFriday's is not trying to reinvent the wheel or take American food in a new direction. It seemed clear to me when Stephen arrived on our set that he sees TGIFriday's menus as an opportunity for diners to revisit the foods they loved growing up, only updated with an adult twist. The Elimination Challenge was designed to give our chefs a chance to do exactly that with one of their own childhood favorites. It allowed them to show off their personal style while also demonstrating that they could adapt that style to the taste of the general public. Best of all, the winner of the challenge was going to have their name on menus in over 500 TGIF locations -- huge exposure for a fledgling chef. The chefs were each given $100 and 30 minutes to shop. After prep and a couple hours in the kitchen, they had 15 minutes in the kitchen at the South Pasadena Fire Station before presenting their food to the two groups of happy firefighters seated with Padma and Gail, and the poor suckers who ended up sitting with me.
Right off the bat, some of our chefs took on a superior attitude towards the challenge. Marcel reminded us that, as a molecular gastronomist, "Comfort food isn't what I do." Emily sniffed that she was a practitioner of four-star cuisine, not a mass producer. As I'm sure you can tell by now, I don't have a lot of patience for this. Just cook the damn food, will ya? Some of our other contestants -- notably Michael and Mia -- seemed energized by the challenge, seeing casual, comfort food as their particular milieu. Michael, especially, seemed to have an advantage, since he'd worked at a TGIFriday's. We figured he may have absorbed some of the company's mission and philosophy while there, and could tailor his efforts accordingly. That's why I was genuinely surprised to see his dish -- possibly the sloppiest, least tasty steak sandwich I'd ever encountered. The cooking lacked technique, was presented haphazardly, and gave off the impression that he didn't care. The sad part was that Michael genuinely believed he had given us a great dish. Frankly, I couldn't tell if Michael was simply underestimating his diners, or genuinely doesn't know from good food. And presentation aside, the dish would have tasted a lot better if back in the store he had kept the cheese, and returned the beer.