Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio dishes on Ted Allen's book party.

on Dec 15, 2008

A big part of being a chef is handling pressure. Whether it's the pressure of coordinating meals perfectly for hundreds of diners each evening, pulling off an intimate dinner-party, or designing and opening a new restaurant. At the end of the day, the pressure is really about exceeding people's expectations. Always. Some cooks thrive on this, drawing fuel from a dynamic, high-stakes environment. Others fold like a beaten egg white. Or crack like a....ok, I'll stop.

Tonight's tasks were designed to see how our chefs operate under extreme pressure. The Quickfire challenge required our chefs to create a $3.00 appetizer in less than 20 minutes, from a wide array of ingredients. The pressure was on to make interesting choices and then follow through with ideas and execution. And under those circumstances, the usual candidates were the ones who shone: Stephen, Harold, Lee Anne and Tiffani.

Off-camera, I strolled through the kitchen and had a taste. Lee Anne's deep-fried oysters with lemon cream were delicious. Ditto for Harold's trevisano with gorgonzola brulee. Absolutely fantastic. Miguel's antipasto was unimpressive. Tiffani's oyster trio was simple, elegant and flavorful. Andrea's B.M.-inducing slaw wasn't anything to write home about, despite its worthy medicinal qualities. Dave's food looked like something from Bennigan's -- chicken skewers with a dipping sauce...ho hum.

And then there was Stephen... As I watch him work, I can see that he is mimicking the pioneers of avant-garde cooking; Like Pierre Gagnier - a genius who wrote the book on atypical plating - his dishes are filled with shocks of food, playful squiggles of sauce, and beautiful use of white space. Or Wylie Dufresne, who has made his name experimenting with texture and far-out flavor combinations on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Stephen isn't reinventing the wheel here; he's copying some of the greats. And in doing so, he's certainly separating himself from the pack, which is important in a competition. Ted Allen was clearly impressed by Stephen's daring presentation, and awarded him immunity. But to my thinking, while an avant-garde presentation can be cool, without mind-blowing flavor, it leaves me cold. I felt that Stephen's morsels of baby manila clams with sea beans were tasty enough, but not Delicious (Capital D). The presentation would have worked at Ferran Andria's famous El Bulli, in the hills north of Barcelona, where a typical 20-course tasting menu demands that each course be just that - a taste. But as a stand-alone wasn't my cup of tea.