“Enthrall me with your acumen.” -Hannibal Lecter
Our chef careers are shaped in many ways. We get jobs after school washing dishes to start. We watch the whirlwind of kitchens around us and learn what we can. Soon, for those who are enthralled with the frenetic pace of the kitchen, we develop a yearning for learning. This is the turning point. Endless fascination occurs that can only be fed with more learning, more wonderment. Books begin to play a vital role in the quest for knowledge.
When I was young I was working at a French restaurant in Hull Quebec. I was 23. I was green beyond belief. I bought books, I read, I wondered, and I dreamed. I wanted to get better with what was now the only employment I longed to succeed in. I remember walking into the cookbook store in the Byward market in Ottawa and buying Charlie Trotter’s eponymous first cookbook. It was stunning. It was new to me, everything about what he was doing. It sent my mind racing about what was possible. It pushed envelopes and opened doors with flavored oils, modern sauces, elaborate garnishes, and towering plating styles. It was, for me, a revelatory text.
Charlie passed away Tuesday at the age of 54. Too young, too brilliant, and too utterly important to so many young chefs to lose at such a young age. Only last weekend I was talking with Andrew Carmellini about Charlie’s influence and career -- Andrew being one of countless amazingly talented chefs who saved up to make a trip to the Charlie’s place in its heyday. I only had the books to eat but they meant a ton to me. RIP. Chef -- you meant a lot to so many.
Back to reality television. We find Carlos talking about his obstacles, and he seems to have come over many in his life, head first with lots of energy. He is a passionate guy. I like him.
The chefs go back to get some sleep and Brian wakes up on top of Travis. This TV moment is now legal in many states and I will take the progress. Now if we can just keep SNAP programs from being completely defunded. Call your congress-people, people.
Sara is trying to keep the demons out of her head. Vanquish those demons. She styles her hair to take her mind off the stress. Then J. Besh comes in. He is thrilled to take them to the next challenge.
They walk to the posse of Toyota Rav 4s and drive and drive and drive to a farm. There are cows and vegetables and Creole tomatoes. The Quickfire is 20 minutes to make a tomato dish. That’s not a lot of time. Padma opens the trunk to reveal… wait for it… pots!Travis is out to prove that tomatoes exist in Vietnamese food. Stephanie, deadpan as ever, is lamenting the fact that she can’t think of anything to cook. Bene is striking out so far with tomatoes, even with his cultural tomato-rich roots .
Bene: Chilled Tomato Watermelon Soup
Balanced. Besh he loves.
Carlos: Olive Oil Poached Tomato with Red Onions, Cilantro, and Basil
Besh likey too.
Stephanie: Creole Tomato Steaks with Vinaigrette and Olive Oil
Stephanie is not happy. Is John?
Nina: Chilled Watermelon Tomato Soup, Jalapeno, Fresh Basil, and Shaved Zucchini
The soup is cold. That’s good.
Nicholas: Caramelized Melon, Cherry Vinegar, Tomatoes, Watermelon, Cucumber
Justin: Tomato Skin Tartare with Squash Blossoms and Olive Oil
Besh continues to be positive.
Travis: Seared Creole Tomato with Steak, Feta, and Wilted Arugula
Louis: Tomato Seed Bouillion, Tomato, Watermelon, Cucumber, and Zucchini
Juice is good.
Brian: "Toad in the Hole" Creole Tomato with Andouille Sausage
Patty: Roasted Tomatoes in Olive Oil and Sherry Vinegar, Arugula, and Asparagus
Padma thinks it tastes better than it looks.
So Besh may be being a little too positive in this walk-around. I think he’s just hiding his negativity. Bottoms are Patty, T-Dog, and Dead Pan Cmar. Tops are Nina, Carlos, and Louis. Winner is Nina. She is graced with immunity. There is a fast turnaround to a farm-to-table dinner. Stephanie Cmar throws up nervous energy again as this challenge is positioned. Philadelphia Cream Cheese is needed in all dishes.
They have rented a country villa from Air BNB. It has pool. They jump in. They cook steaks and onions and vegetables. They live it up and drink beer. I always love the odd blurtings like “Wow -- look at all this! Holy crap!,” “Fantastic!” or “Nina wears tight t-shirts!” They just sound so excited all the time.
Nicholas talks about his kids and his future restaurant and his need to win this thing. Then he tousles his hair and goes to bed.
La Provence is schmear central. Sarah does not like “riding the middle.” I don’t know what this means but sounds like it may chafe. She’s also “hot in the field.” These youngsters with their hip language.
Louis is getting creative. If it works great; if not he’s screwed. Risk taker. Bene is cutting up birds. Nicholas is losing his mind.
Justin is making sure he’s gonna show up, but really he has no choice. He’s in the middle of nowhere with no Rav 4 transport unless he cooks for the Besh chefs. Nicholas is frying what looks like dough snakes or breaded penises. Besh drops in to check on the people. He hair is perfect. His hair is always perfect. Travis claims that his knife is so sharp that it has maligned the lamb. I have never heard of this problem. I suspect it has little to do with the knife he claims is “too sharp," and maybe something to do with the hand that is holding said knife. User error is common in our business.
Alas, they begin to get food on plates. The diners amass to drink champagne and get all judgy with it. Besh goes over what he has seen so far and his expectations. He has high hopes and really really good hair.
Patty: Snapper Crudo with Cream Cheese Vinaigrette
Looks pretty, but maybe dull overall. Gail likes carrots cause they taste like flowers.
Brian: Summer Squash, Zucchini Tagliatelle, Poached Oysters, Cream Cheese
Carlos: Poached Beets, Pickled Carrots, Peach, Habanero, and Cream Cheese Sauce
They like the complexity.
Nina: Crispy Zucchini Blossoms with Eggplant and Cream Cheese Puree
Alon, who is awesome, likes the crispness. I like Alon so I will leave it at that. Nina continues to wow.
Sara: Island Spiced Lamb Chop Stuffed with Cream Cheese and Curry Powder
Undercooked lamb. Busy too, but not in a good way.
Bene: Roasted Chicken Breast, Caramelized Onion, and Tarragon Cream Cheese
Bene is not very happy. This is a foreshadowing moment. The diners agree.
Carrie: Vinegar-Braised Chicken in Cream Cheese Sauce with Chilled Cucumber
She feels good about it. Gail thinks it’s gloopy and soupy.
Justin: Duck Breast, Eggplant Vinaigrette, Chanterelle Mushrooms, and Corn Puree
They like Justin’s dish. Smartest use of very little cream cheese?
Travis: Seared Lamb Chops with Moroccan Succotash and Cream Cheese Aioli
Besh likes it. Tom says, “Really?,” which is Tom’s way of saying Besh is crazy.
Louis: Graham Cracker with Blackberries and Cream Cheese Mousse
I gotta say Louis takes some chances but he sure can cook…. usually. This time he comes up with a soggy-bottomed bar.
Nicholas: Funnel Cake and Carrot Cake with Peach Flavored Cream Cheese
They love what he’s done. Besh was surprised. It looks pretty cool actually. I am not the guy who loves savory veggies in dessert (aside from carrot cake), but this looks like one sweet garden with a fried dough thing next to it. One man’s funnel cake is another man’s churro is another man’s penis-shaped donut.
Shirley: "Philadelphia" Steamed Egg Custard with Macerated Blueberries
Scrambled eggs win no battles.
Stephanie: Cream Cheese, Peach, Cherry Mousse, Cream Cheese Short Dough
Not impressive to judges. She’s not proud either.
The chefs talk it through in the Stew Room. Judges pop up on the screen. Besh was let down. Travis gets all defensive about his poor knife work and again blames the knife. Tops get called and Justin, Nina, and Nicholas. They loved them all and were really quite impressed with the dishes this trio made. Besh gives the win to Nina. She’s cleaning up.
Bottoms are Bene, Travis, and Sara. Captain Vietnam looks feisty, and is trying to explain his malaise. Bene explains his vegetable debauchery. He made a mess. He knows, I know, he’s better than that. Sarah is silent about her lambs.
Bene is out. Godspeed in a good career. He’s a gem of a guy and a very talented chef. Sometimes that’s hard to see on the TV, and tonight was just not his night.
Follow me on Twitter @hughacheson.