Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio talks about the twists the chefs faced in the first part of the finale.

on Feb 18, 2009

Nodding to New Orleans' traditional Monday meal, Louis Armstrong famously signed his letters "red beans and ricely yours." I can't think of New Orleans without an instant sense-memory flood of the flavors that are uniquely its own. But you don't need me to tell you all of the gigantic contributions, from culinary to cultural (especially musical), that have sprung from this little city. Let's just say that I was as excited as our Final Four to be there. And I was very pleased to have Emeril Lagasse with us as our guest judge. When it comes to Cajun flavors and New Orleans cooking, there was no better chef we could have had. We so appreciated, too, that he invited the chefs to come in and have dinner the night before, to give them a direct experience of New Orleans flavors.

As you saw, we did something new this season, inviting three of our strongest past contestants to vie for the chance to get back into the game. We felt that the requirement that the winner of this Quickfire Challenge win the Elimination Challenge in order to go on to the finale was a way to keep it fair to the other finalists, who, after all, had never been eliminated and didn't deserve to suddenly find themselves on fully equal footing with someone who had. But we liked upping the stakes for them all by lengthening their odds. It put a bit of extra heat under them to work that much harder to excel. Jamie, Leah, and Jeff all did a good job, but Jamie's dish looked better than it tasted, while Jeff's dish had a layering of flavors that put it far above either Jamie's or Leah's dishes. So Jeff was back.

That night, however, Jeff was never in the running for a reason that didn't make it into the final edit. He did a very fine job, however he used a sterno chafing dish to keep his oysters warm that, for whatever reason, imparted a taste of burning sterno to the oysters. We all smelled it and remarked on it while the chefs were setting up their stations, and then we tasted that horrible taste when we sampled his selections. So, unfortunately for Jeff, who otherwise was cooking very well, he could never have taken the top spot of the evening.

Hosea's gumbo was the best of the three gumbo-type dishes. But I wasn't crazy about the catfish, personally. I know that he was originally going to use another fish, but it wasn't fresh enough and he swapped it out for the catfish. The pecan crust could have been ground finer and didn't adhere well to the fish. Still, it was nice to see him cook fish to order, and, ultimately, he cooked two dishes that were strong enough to get him into the finale.