Four chefs remained after a very heated and messy wedding reception challenge. Harold, Tiffani, Lee Anne and Dave entered the kitchen for their ninth Top Chef adventure exhausted. Seeing their faces that morning, I knew they were running out of fuel.
I also had a suspicion that they would scoff at that day's Quickfire Challenge of creating an elevated dish inspired by the vast selection of snacks set before them. Not to be confused with their own "Junk Food Challenge" (heroically won by Chunk Le Funk in Episode 5), this was a test to decipher if they could create something delicious and innovative based on a familiar American snack food. It did not have to be junky at all. Once again, our resident purist Harold looked doubtful as he saddled up to the table, but in the end his was the winning dish because it really stretched the boundaries of the task. Instead of making even more snack food for us, he made a refined, well-conceived seviche, using popcorn as the featured garnish, as is popular in Ecuador. And he executed it perfectly. The other three other chefs quite literally produced high-end versions of the snack they chose. I must add here that they were all extremely tasty. In fact, they were hands-down the best dishes seen or tasted across any Quickfire Challenge to date.
I loved trying them all for their quirkiness and sense of humor. Even Dave's nachos, despite their appearance, were fun to eat and a little addictive. But he would definitely have to step it up if he was going to last much longer in the competition. What the cameras did not show was that since there was no immunity for this week's Quickfire Challenge winner, we instead awarded Harold his own personal bottle of the 2001 Schafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon that we introduced for the next Elimination. Not a bad deal. The challenge itself was straightforward enough. The contestants were asked to create a dish that would highlight the rare Perigord black truffle and pair well with this complex wine. Upon description of what this challenge entailed, everyone's mood suddenly shifted. For the four remaining chefs, the chance to cook with such coveted ingredients was music to their ears and the opportunity to travel to the heart of Napa Valley for the day was just what they needed.
A note on ingredients: The black truffle from the Perigord region of France (tuber melanosporum) is at the top of the list of the world's most expensive and sought after foods. It is a rare fungus, grown underground at the base of certain oak, chestnut or beech trees and rooted out by trained pigs or dogs (dogs are less likely to eat the prize) in late fall and winter. Its labor-intensive hunt and harvest, the fact that scientists and farmers alike have not been able to cultivate it commercially at the same level of quality that it grows in the wild, its pungent smell and earthy, unique flavor all add to its luxury status. In order for a wine to stand up, it needs to be intense and earthy too. The 2001 Schafer Hillside Select is just that. It is rich with dark fruit flavors like cherry and black currant, hints of minerals, herbs and warm spice. I start to drool just thinking about the combination.
In this challenge, the most stressful issue for the chefs was quite clearly for whom exactly they were cooking. Our roster of guest judges read like a dining guide to Wine Country's Greatest Hits: Victor Scargle of Julia's Kitchen at COPIA and our gracious host for the day, Cindy Pawclyn of Mustards Grill, Philippe Jeanty of Bistro Jeanty, Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone of Terra and Ame, James McDevitt of Budo, Greg Cole of Celadon, Keith Luce of Press Restaurant, Doug Keane of Cyrus, and of course John Schafer of Schafer Vineyards. To say this was a room of talent that could make a cook sweat was an understatement. It was even a treat for me to dine with them.
What happened that afternoon was a far cry from what Tom, Katie and I ever expected. Harold's dish was the most technically sophisticated and all the judges went nuts over his sunchoke-creamed spinach. He was safe. But who would have imagined that Dave's Cognac macaroni and cheese would be the sleeper hit of the entire show? It was creamy, layered, smoky and full of that pronounced truffle flavor. We all loved it and could feel the passion with which it was prepared. Much to our surprise, now Dave was safe too. Deciding who should continue on to our Las Vegas finale between Tiffani and Lee Anne was the most difficult decision we had had to make since our first day on set. Although we agreed that at times Tiffani lacks finesse when it comes to social graces in the kitchen, it was the lack of focus on Lee Anne's plate that we could not overlook. All of our guest judges agreed that she had added a few too many ingredients and the result detracted from her goal.
I have replayed in my mind the moment of her elimination dozen of times over the last few months. I do not think it could have gone any other way. However, Lee Anne -- I have come to realize more and more -- displays so many of the qualities that a Top Chef should. She is bright, dedicated, knowledgeable, a great teacher who still loves to learn, is always willing to help a friend (or foe) if asked, and approaches every challenge in and out of the kitchen with a strong, positive outlook. It goes without saying that she is an extremely talented cook. I have no doubt Lee Anne will go far in this industry. I cannot wait to be there when she does. And then there were three... P.S. Looking for a luxury snack food of your own? Here is a recipe for Truffled Popcorn that will match any Top Chef craving!