This week's episode just may be one of my favorites yet. Why? Because it was all about the food. It provided two very straightforward challenges, without gimmicks, that gave both the judges and the viewers a great way to analyze the cooking skills of our five remaining chefs. Casey, Dale, Brian, Sara, and Hung were all excited about finally making it to New York City, and, frankly, I was delighted as well -- after weeks in a hotel in Miami, I was finally able to get home and sleep in my own bed. Ain't nothing else like it. I understood the thrill for our chefs; New York has become, arguably, the epicenter of fine dining in the country, and possibly the world. I regularly play host to chefs from France, London, Hong Kong, Sydney, Spain -- everywhere -- who show up to see what is happening here, to eat, and to take notes. For many young chefs, running a successful kitchen in New York is a sign that they have truly arrived. For me, making the leap from New Jersey to New York in my early 20s was a huge psychological leap, as well as a geographic one; New York felt like the big stage -- if I screwed up there, it would be visible for all the world to see.
And on their first foray into NYC, what better place for our chefs to get their feet wet than Le Circque? The place has been around for over forty years, in three different locations (few restaurants survive even one move, much less two.) The dish the chefs were asked to replicate is a classic created by my friend Daniel Boulud, when he was at the helm of that legendary restaurant; a filet of sea bass wrapped in potato, on a bed of leek fondue and oyster mushrooms. (From what I could see, the sauce, which could have made the challenge truly difficult, was provided to the chefs fully made, since creating that from scratch would have exceeded the time limit.) What's key here is the thickness of the potatoes -- too thin and they would burn before the fish was cooked through, too thick and the fish would overcook before the potatoes were done. I found it interesting that Hung asked about the mandolin setting the chef used to pull this off, since, of everyone, he was the one who ultimately was able to eyeball the dish and get it right. Still, I can't blame him for trying to hedge his bets.