Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio clarifies what he saw as the real problems for the bottom teams.

on Oct 7, 2009

Welcome back after our week away. I’ve been traveling the Southeast, sampling regional fare with friends – away-from-home homework, I guess. Very inspiring.

Folks usually say “Oh, sure, it’s easy for chefs to whip up great dishes – they’ve got these fancy kitchens, tons of sous-chefs…,” so we thought it would be fun to see what the chefs could do in a regular kitchen, serving up their food family-style (on large platters or in large bowls that are set at the center of the table or passed) as opposed to plated. It’s a style I really like; it’s how we serve our food at Craft, as a matter of fact. Craft Restaurant was conceived from its inception to serve platters of food rather than individual plates. As the name suggests, this is how food is typically served in the home, to one’s family, and it really does foster connection and a greater sense of the intimacy of the occasion. In this week’s challenge, we did stipulate that the food at the dinner party was to be served family-style, but if you noticed, most of the food was served on the platter already divvied up into individual servings, as though the chefs had prepped it to be individually plated but had then set all the individual portions on one central platter rather than on each individual plate. I preferred what Jennifer and Kevin did with the winning dish, which was simply to serve a platter of food, from which each dinner guest then might take the amount he or she wanted. It was more in keeping with home cooking, and more fitting to the occasion we’d framed for the challenge. While Jennifer and Kevin’s serving style was not a factor in our determining the winning dish, it was certainly appreciated, by me, anyway.

Choosing the winning and losing dish in a team challenge is generally the easier part; choosing one winner and loser from among the teams in question is more, well, challenging. Remember that I do a walk-through the day before, but we are not there to witness what happens at the supermarket, during the planning, and in the kitchen during the challenge itself. We taste the food and ask questions at the Judges’ Table and must base our decisions on what we learn from both experiences. And so we ask a lot of questions, particularly when we have to select a winner or a loser from among two or more people on a team. Most of the questions we ask don’t make it into the final version of the program, but we really do try to ascertain who was responsible for what. We didn’t know, as you did from watching the program, that when Ashley gave the gnocchi to Eli they were fine, and he then oversalted them. We knew only that Ashley had made the gnocchi. Ashley made a personal point throughout this competition to treat the team as a team and never ascribe blame to her partners, even when it was merited. She did so both with Mattin and, now, with Eli. This is admirable, but it would have benefited her to say to us, “Eli over-salted the gnocci I’d made. I knew it the moment I tasted them.” A side note about the gnocchi: I’d said during the walk-through that I didn’t think the gnocchi would support the prawns, because I didn’t expect that Ashley and Eli would be sauteeing the gnocchi. Their consistency when sautéed did make them able to support the prawns. This worked, even though in general the execution of the dish didn’t. Spot prawns are very delicate. Overcooked, they’re like rubber; undercooked, they’re like mush. Here, they were undercooked and the gnocchi were oversalted.

As for Ash and Michael V.’s dish: the mistake they made was that they put a piece of fish on the skillet and walked away from it. Had one of them attended to it from start to finish– probably Mike V., since he was the teammate who had taken on the responsibility of cooking the fish, he could have done something the second he saw the heat fail or heard the sizzle. But while the power outage might have kept the fish from becoming crispy as they wished, it did not cause the fish to be overcooked as it was. Had Mike been watching over the fish more carefully, he could have prevented its becoming overcooked. And that was the real reason he should have been hovering over the stove from start to finish. That was his mistake. 

I hear in Ash’s comments, in which he conceded that he considers Mike V. a better chef than himself, that he expects only to go so far in this competition. Washing Picasso’s paintbrushes? Ouch. If he tries to beat Mike V. by doing Mike V.’s food, then he’ll have a very hard time, because Mike looks at food quite differently than Ash does. Mike’s thinking, “When I think ‘pancetta,’ I think ‘carbonara,’ so therefore I think ‘pasta’… so how do I get the egg in there?  Ravioli.” (Remember, the key question in that whole line of reasoning was a “how” question.  I’m always saying that this is the question to be asking …”How…?”)  Mike’s using different things as touchstones and going from there, using the familiar in an unfamiliar way. Ash doesn’t think that way; he’s more literal, and his inspiration to do food is more conventional. His way of making a carbonara, if left to his own devices, would likely have been to make a carbonara with a piece of fish atop it. So when he comes up against an unconventional thinker, Ash thinks, “Oh, he must be better.” But actually where Mike V. is better versus just different is that he has the technical proficiency to pull off his concepts. Whimsical or tongue-in-cheek concepts are great, but one must have the technique to execute them well. That’s why it was surprising that Mike overcooked his fish this week, as there wasn’t all that much being asked for, technically.  Overall, however, Ashley and Eli had greater issues, so Mike V. and Eli were off the hook, to use a fishing metaphor for their fish dish.

On to the winning dish … again, we asked a lot of questions to establish who was responsible for which component of the dish. Yes, that protein was beautifully prepared. Kevin did a terrific job with it. But ultimately it was the sauce that made this the winning dish, and that was Jennifer’s decision and her doing. I love that Jennifer so graciously acknowledged her partner’s part in her win and will be sharing some of her gift certificate with Kevin. As for her having cooked while sick, we’ve all done it. Obviously you just must wash your hands obsessively while doing so. Jennifer was competing like a champion. Think about it: some of the most heroic moments in sports have happened when an athlete was ill, as in the famous Game Five of the ’97 NBA Playoffs (“the Flu Game”), when Michael Jordan scored 38 points with what was either stomach flu or food poisoning, leading Chicago to a two-point victory before finally collapsing in Scottie Pippen’s arms with seconds to go in the game. Similarly, if you’re home with a child and you’re sick, you don’t have the luxury of saying, “I guess I won’t be taking care of my kid today.” You rally because you must. I was sorry to see Jennifer feeling ill – she had a high fever and felt really, really sick. That said, it was great to see her compete. She only mentioned on air how she felt because she was asked point blank by the camera crew. She toughed it out and did a great job … and won.

Overall, the dishes were good. In fact, looking back at it, the meal was very nice, well-rounded with a lot of good flavors. Even the bottom dishes weren’t bad dishes, per se. We’re in the middle stretch of the competition now, and the chefs here are all talented, which bodes well for what’s to come…