Tom Colicchio

Tom assesses the early competition.

on Oct 2, 2013

Frog tastes like gator, gator tastes like turtle, turtle tastes like chicken. 

They all taste like chicken!

I love eating in New Orleans, my aversion to okra notwithstanding. When I arrive, I’m smelling beignets and po-boys and chicory coffee before I’m even off the plane. So I was psyched to learn that Season 11 was taking me from home in the Big Apple to the Big Easy, not that the natives often call it that.  

And nor would our contestants. We barely gave them time to set down their suitcases and claim their beds before making it difficult for them with a Mardi Gras parade “throw”… but with a twist: alligator, frog, or turtle as your protein, cooked in a swamp for a hundred people… GO. 

So many of our contestants had never cooked with these proteins, and they can seem daunting to the uninitiated. Not that our chefs shouldn’t have expected to encounter them at some point during their sojourns in New Orleans -- how could we not have expected them to cook with something like alligator, with the whole season set in this town? So personally, I’d have studied up a bit in advance of coming. But that’s just me.

For those of you who wonder how to handle these proteins, here’s your “lagniappe” of the day, an extra little gift for actually taking the time to come read my blog after watching the show:

Tastes like chicken. 

Actually, here’s the tip: frogs’ legs require a quick sauté. Don’t overcook them, just till they’re done. I’d say that gator’s like cooking a chicken breast, whereas turtle is more like braising a shoulder of lamb —  it has to cook a long time. It’s clearly the hardest of the three proteins to work with and requires the most skill. Of course, the payoff is that the turtle has a lot of flavor. A lot.

The three top dishes of the challenge showed a combination of intelligence and creativity on the part of their creators:

Having heard that alligator could winds up tough and chewy, and knowing that she’d never cooked it before, Nina thought of a way to cook it that would be sure to hedge her bets against the protein coming out too tough. She knew her target audience and used flavors they’d appreciate and the heat that works so well in that climate. The fact that she nearly buckled under the weight of the beads she was decorated with by the evening’s end (we could barely see her head for all the beads) showed that she’d hit the mark. 

On the other hand, if you’re serving people in a swamp and you’re not going to make them sweat to cool them off, then a cold dish is the way to go, and Carrie provided that. Again, a thoughtful choice. She was artful -- cold frog is not easy to pull off -- and gave us a great dish despite her evident opening night jitters, so it’ll be interesting to see what she does once she gets into a groove.

And Sara’s dish was delicious as well. The flavors were layered and complementary. The protein was featured well, and in a manner the locals would respond to. 

As for the bottom three, Aaron’s was actually a good dish. The only problem was that the pasta could never hold up in a swamp. At some point in the competition, this could be enough to get him sent home. But not this early on. Aside from the pasta not being al dente enough, though, the dish was solid, and so Aaron was never really up for elimination.  

As for whether Patty or Ramon should go home, Patty’s dish was not as weak as Ramon’s. Her mistake was in not making enough of her original dish for 100 people, but she corrected that mistake in time, smartly reworking the dish to serve everyone. Her problem was that in doing so, she simplified the dish to a degree where it was not as advanced a dish as we would expect from a Top Chef contestant. But it wasn’t flawed. Ramon’s was flawed, and flawed is worse than simple but basically OK. Ramon's dashi was watered down by his addition of ice to the point of being nowhere. This was a major flaw in execution that Ramon did not remedy, which is why he was eliminated. Will he be able to hold his own long enough in Last Chance Kitchen to come back? We shall see… 

Thanks for tuning back in for Season 11. No more NOLA slang from me, I promise.