And Chrissy’s salad: I know that she had a tall order, trying to create from the menu description a dish that still exists, against which hers can be measured. But even without measuring her dish against the original, Chrissy made major blunders that merited her being sent home. Quite apart from the fact that there was not enough mint, lemon or oregano, that the dressing itself was heavy, and that then the salad was overdressed with this overly-heavy dressing, she used the outside leaves of the romaine, which simply isn’t OK. Think about the way lettuce grows -- sun hits the plant and the chlorophyll causes the leaves that soak up the sun to turn dark green. It also causes them to turn tough and unpalatable. The leaves inside are lighter in color because they’re not undergoing photosynthesis and have less chlorophyll. These inside leaves are crispier and juicier, and they have better flavor. Salad-making is the first thing a chef will learn in culinary school, and it should not then be taken for granted. When you are served a good salad, it has an appetizing brightness and freshness to it. When you get a bad one, you know it instantly. Soggy, wilty, and/or tough greens are an instant appetite-kill, and we were presented both. I was surprised that Chrissy overdressed the salad, and more than surprised that she served us the outer leaves of the lettuce that should have been thrown in the garbage. Clearly, she doesn’t know how to use romaine lettuce. It’s a weird hole in her body of culinary knowledge, but, as with Carla’s need to know how to supervise those who execute your dishes, it’s not knowledge that one can lack and still become Top Chef.
On the other side of the spectrum we find Kristen’s onions and mushrooms. I was so glad about this win. I try to imagine how many thousands of pounds of mushrooms we’ve served in my restaurants since we first opened our doors to customers -- let’s leave it at “many.” The mushroom is not a forgiving ingredient. Mushrooms have a very high water content. Overcrowd the pan, and they’ll go greyish and mushy and bland. Whereas when you see one cooked properly, it’s a beautiful brown and the flavors are intense. Believe me when I tell you that Kristen could easily have been sent home for either of her two dishes -- it’s easy to mess them up. In fact, in a very crucial way it’s easier to slip up with them than with a more “complicated” dish: when you make a dish with only one component, there is nothing else behind which you can hide an error. It’s a tightrope walk -- you either walk it to the other side and succeed, or you fall to your death. All or nothing. I was so glad to see Kristen take her one-component side dishes as seriously as any other dishes on the menu, not treat either of them as a throwaway, and execute each of them so adeptly. She nailed them -- there were no flaws in either dish. Of everything that was cooked in this challenge, hers were the best examples of how to make those particular products. Her mushrooms were better-prepared mushrooms than the steak was a well-prepared steak or the crab was well-prepared crab. Sure, there were strong dishes in this challenge, but the simplicity of hers made Kristen’s perfect execution of them all the more gratifying. You know me by now -- I am all about taking the finest ingredients and preparing them as simply and perfectly as possible, so as to let them shine.