Well friends, we're down to the finale here in Las Vegas - a fitting spot to digest this sometimes salty, pungent and often bittersweet stew that has been Top Chef. Las Vegas is a hodgepodge of the first order, so we all fit right in.
Our three finalist chefs hadn't seen each other in four months, and even more interestingly, they had barely cooked during their time away from the show. Harold had left his job at the Harrison, in New York City, and had begun shopping his own restaurant idea to investors. Dave had returned home to Manhattan Beach to find that the restaurant where he had worked had been sold by its owners, and he was out of a job. Tiffani had returned to the restaurant world, but decided to take a spin as a server so that she could learn the ins and outs of the front of the house.
For good reason, all were nervous about being rusty.
As for where they were emotionally since we wrapped our exhausting round of challenges in San Francisco...for one thing, they were much better rested! Harold was his usual mellow, unpretentious self. Tiffani seemed to have gained something from the experience of seeing herself on TV. She described the experience as a 'wake-up call,' and while I think she wanted to win as much as ever, she seemed to have a new awareness about getting along with others. Tiffani clearly wanted to bury the hatchet with Dave, but he wasn't having it. It seemed as though, even months later, Dave was nurturing his little nugget of anger towards her and was loathe to give it up. Each of the chefs had held onto their strong desire to win, a desire only honed by the closeness of the prize. To show my admiration of the skill and resilience it took to get this far, I sent the chefs an elaborate meal from Craftsteak to their skyloft penthouse at the MGM Grand.
You may have realized by now that we judges don't create the challenges (so please send your hate mail about the Wedding Challenge straight to Bravo, thank you very much) but I was happy to see that tonight's Quickfire challenge was deliberately built around the types of demands chefs typically face in a busy hotel/casino. For one thing, there is no 'typical' diner. Guests range from retirees lining up for the all-you-can-eat-buffet, to Hong Kong Baccarat big-shots who don't blink at gambling away $1 Million in a night. But though these guests may have radically different tastes, they all want to eat well. The big Las Vegas hotel-casinos have caught on to the fact that great amenities - food included - increase the likelihood that a guest will return and spend money gambling. Even the 'low-rollers' are important here - believe it or not, slot machines account for more revenue than Baccarat, Blackjack and Craps, combined.
I have two restaurants in Las Vegas - Craftsteak and 'wichCraft. I see these places as a metaphor for the city itself, where the upscale and the casual exist comfortably side by side. The era when Las Vegas was considered declasse for a real chef seems like a distant memory - the town's culinary renaissance of the last ten years has been well documented, and I've been glad to be a part of it.
Although numerous celebrity chefs, like Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Joel Robuchon, have made their way to Vegas, none of them can afford to be divas. Unlike New York, where diners tend to fit their requests within a particular chef's oeuvre, diners in Las Vegas are there to play first, eat second. We get our share of foodies - but the difference is clear. It is not at all unusual for a Casino host (an employee whose sole job is to take care of gamblers) to pop into my kitchen at Craftsteak and ask for crazy things, any time of the day or night. That's just the way it goes.
And even without special requests, chefs in Las Vegas have to show enormous range and versatility. At any moment we may get an order for a multi-course dinner party for high-rollers, who will think nothing of picking up and taking their business elsewhere if something isn't to their satisfaction - thus costing the hotel huge amounts of potential gambling. And they want to be back at the tables in an hour. Chefs routinely provide impromptu snack food to poker players, who favor finger food so they can hang onto their cards. At the MGM Grand chefs cook for 8,000 of the hotel's employees three times a day - everyone from porters to housekeepers to chorus girls and circus performers. Entertainers, in particular, have specific dietary needs, and it is up to the hotel to get it right. And then there's room service...with over 5,000 rooms in the hotel, providing room service is a Herculean task. No matter what the guest orders, room service needs to be quick, and it needs to arrive hot. In fact, this whole episode is a classic example of how a chef at one of these establishments must think on his feet and deliver: on top of all of his regular duties, Steve Peterson, Executive Chef at the MGM Grand, was charged with setting up the food, service and environment for the cast and crew of a television show (us), on short notice, and without disrupting the day to day operations. He did this without missing a beat.
As Harold, Tiffani and Dave prepared to undergo our grueling Quickfire/Elimination challenge, we gave them ten minutes to familiarize themselves with the equipment, supplies and ingredients. For additional clarity, a representative of Bravo appeared, as they always do (off camera) to reread the challenge and answer questions so that there could be no room for misunderstanding. Once they started cooking, each chef fell into their habitual patterns: Harold and Tiffani went about business as usual, though Tiffani seemed annoyed with herself for being out of practice. Dave rushed to and fro in his usual frenetic way. The food that went up to the "High Rollers" was pretty good. Tiffani and Harold both featured dishes of raw, quick-marinated fish, which made sense given that high-rollers are likely to be familiar with sushi or crudo and it can make a fast and elegant cold course. I didn't care much for the bits of herbs haphazardly garnishing Harold's Mussel and Smoked Paprika soup, but overall the flavors and execution were good. Tiffani's cold dish needed acid, and both her dishes were under-seasoned. Dave served his shrimp shell-on - which is fine for a casual sea-food joint, but felt wrong in this setting. His grilled Opa with Cinnamon Rub was also under-seasoned, and his knife skills were tepid - the fish, poorly cut, fell apart into unattractive chunks on the plate. Both plates were finished with edible pansies (big in the '80's), rather than a garnish that added something to the dish.
I was surprised to see that none of the chefs made use of the haute ingredients that were available for the high rollers, like caviar or oysters. I think if any one of them had, the challenge would have been theirs. Harold won this challenge by a hair, Tiffani was a solid second, and Dave pretty much lost this one hands down.
The next challenge required the chefs to create 4 different types of snacks for a group of poker players. Dave had the edge here - he's known for his snacks. And, indeed, his "fry-daddy" mixture went over big, and the guests liked having a sweet option as well. Both Dave and Harold used frozen pre-cooked items that could be fried quickly - chicken wings, egg rolls, etc. Tiffani cast herself as the target diner here, because she's a poker player. Not a great idea, it turned out.
Tiffani may play poker, but her taste veers towards more complex and polished dishes with numerous ingredients. Good as they may have been, each of her "snacks" required a fork, which really doesn't work during poker. This type of challenge really demonstrates how often a top Chef has to put their own ego aside to create something a guest really wants. For this reason, Tiffani lost this challenge. Harold was a solid contender, but the guest judges favored Dave.
For the record...I don't condone using pre-made or frozen food. I think Harold and Dave both could have made delicious snacks from the wealth of available ingredients without resorting to that, but a piece of me gives them props for their populist approach to the strict time constraints. Speaking of time constraints, at one point Dave got huffy and said, "I don't cook in a rush." I wish I could say the same. In all my years cooking in restaurants, I've almost never had the luxury of cooking slowly. From the moment a waiter takes a guest's order, the clock is ticking.
What made this challenge harder than cooking in a typical restaurant setting, is that in the small window of time allotted, these chefs had to come up with ideas and then execute them, rather than work off a menu of practiced dishes. They had to think creatively in the moment and on their feet, pulling from an overwhelming amount of raw ingredients, and there was no time to revisit or tweak a thing. They also didn't benefit, as chefs do in restaurants, from ingredients being prepped by a staff ahead of time. I've been in that situation, too - needing to conceptualize from whole, raw ingredients in a very short span of time. It doesn't happen often, and yes, it's hard. This is where talent (ideas) and solid training (execution) come in handy.
Tonight's third challenge was to prepare three dishes that were high protein, high carb, and low fat for the amazing performers in Cirque du Soleil's "Ka" - a blend of acrobatics, high-wire balance and breathtaking staging and music that resembles no other circus anywhere else in the world. These athlete/gymnasts/performers do two heart-stopping shows a day and spend the rest of their time rehearsing and working out. Their nutritional needs are immense and quite specific, and it's important that the food they're served tastes good because they need to consume so much of it for energy.
Again, Harold delivered. He made a point of including a form of protein and carbohydrate on each dish (i.e. his beef with bread salad), indicating that he completely understood and met the challenge. The gymnasts liked everything he served. Tiffani's dishes were good, but no one seemed enthusiastic about them. One performer found her crab salad with caviar "fishy" and everyone agreed that her pork was over-salted. Dave's beef was good (side note: all three chefs used Kobe beef, a rare Japanese beef that is heavily marbled with fat. This didn't conform to the challenge to create low-fat dishes, but since each of the chefs did this, we let this one go.) The gymnasts also appreciated Dave's pasta with tomato sauce. But for some reason, Dave only produced two of the required three dishes. He himself couldn't explain why. It seemed to me and the other judges that he let his stress level and disorganization catch up with him.
So while Tiffani didn't win any of the challenges, she came in a solid second on all three. Harold won two. Dave won one and lost two. Frankly, his win at the snack challenge wasn't dazzling enough to make us overlook his mistake in the final challenge. I saw this blunder as the equivalent of only feeding two out of three guests at a table. Even if the other two get great food, the mistake would leave the entire party with a bad impression, and there's a good chance none of them would be coming back to the restaurant. And I'm not sure Dave's explanation, "I made a mistake," would hold water.
I know I've been critical of Dave in my past blogs, so I think it's important that I visit the flip side of the coin. Dave came to cooking late, as a second career, and he's been at it for less time than many of his competitors. Going for it, despite this, was Dave's way of honoring his passion, and I respect that wholeheartedly. Dave has a big heart to match his big flavors, and it has won him friends and fans. If his success in Top Chef is any indication, Dave will continue to go far. So now we're down to our final two. I'm looking forward to the upcoming test because it's the scenario everyone's been pining for since the day we began: no holds-barred, no stunts, no obstacles, no kids. Just cooking with optimal ingredients in a well-equipped setting for people who know and love good food. In other words, the ideal challenge. It remains up to Harold and Tiffani to run with it.