Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio stresses the importance of butchering.

on May 29, 2008

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As for the Elimination Challenge, I thought it was a good one in that it approximated the challenges of dinner service in a real restaurant. It called for skillful, straightforward cooking, without hoops to jump through or last-minute hurdles out of left field. There were enough covers to put the chefs under pressure to cook quickly, but not so many as to be unmanageable. I was glad to get the chance to expedite - it gave me a way to connect with the chefs on shared turf, without the judges' table between us. Rather than add to their nervousness, I actually sensed that it relaxed the chefs to know someone else was driving the boat so that they could just put their heads down and do their jobs.

The most glaring mistake of the night was Spike choosing frozen scallops as the cornerstone of his appetizer. Why was this an issue? For one thing, a scallop's abundant natural sugars convert quickly to starch, so a frozen scallop will be far less flavorful than a fresh one, recently harvested. When you sear a nice, fresh scallop those sugars will caramelize beautifully, adding to its natural sweetness. When frozen scallops thaw, they soak up liquid and this moisture will make it impossible to get a nice sear on the surface, no matter how much you pat them dry. (One should always choose scallops at the market that are dry, over ones that have been resting in liquid, for this very reason.) On top of that, seafood that is frozen is manhandled and thrown about in processing, which is why so many of Spike's scallops were torn or broken. Put simply, while you can destroy a nice ingredient by cooking it badly, this doesn't hold true in reverse: it's nearly impossible to turn a mediocre ingredient into something tremendous, even if you cook it well. (The rare exceptions to this are stone fruit, which -- if imperfect -- can improve when grilled or roasted or used in a pie, and less-than-great tomatoes, whose flavors can be concentrated by slow oven-roasting. But that's about it.)