Let me get this off my chest right away. I would have absolutely used corn in a purée in the quick fire just so I could have the moment to present: uni-corn... I know, they are endangered and I should be more sensitive, apologies.
This quick fire is pretty high on the difficulty scale however. Pairing uni (not every chef there is probably experienced with it, and certainly not whole, like Isaac) and wine, plus the intimidating and steely presence of Dana Cowin. Dana has always shaken me a bit. Behind her Anne Hathaway-esque charm lay the power to just crush you and your career at the wave of a finger. She's an absolute power player in our industry. I'm nervous now even writing about her.
Also, outside, the weather...
I've been quite fascinated with the intricacies of the Top Chef experience. The factors that don't get a lot of coverage in the average recap. I'm going to focus on these in this blog. In this episode, being outside is one of them. It's a big difference. Physically, you have to deal with the elements. Wind, dust, and sun in your eyes are a few basic obstacles within the challenge. California, for those not familiar has every terrain imaginable, from snow topped mountains to sandy beaches, to barren dessert; all sometimes only hours apart. The elements certainly can make cooking uncomfortable and being uncomfortable will likely be a bigger part of this season's tournament. The chefs will be racking up the miles in the car and traveling a lot, and even the familiarity of their in studio Quickfire kitchen might not come into play often. A Top Chef contestant should rest whenever they can, but this traveling circus is going to make it difficult. Rest, stay hydrated, do not drink too much alcohol, etc. This competition is absolutely an endurance sport.
As is the case often in Top Chef, one chef who has a bit more of an intimate relationship with the theme (wine pairing, due to her sommelier boyfriend) dominates. Grayson has been playing with a chip on her shoulder so far, and has seemed combative at judges table. It's hard for me to not call to mind and reference Jen Carroll's historic elimination in All Stars. It's hard to come back, gain some success in the real world and then throw yourself back into the mental pressure cooker thinking you could lose it all...again. Hopefully with this win, Grayson can get her game confidence back and bring balance to the farce (that means stuffing in French).
The elimination challenge as well is a decidedly difficult twist for this early on in the game. Thinking it's a team challenge, the chefs break off into units of friendship and mutual respect, picking a partner that they think will strengthen their chances of winning, only to find out their friends are now their frenemies. One strategy early on in Top Chef is to surround yourself with talent until the field is whittled a bit. Remember in Hunger Games, when the strong tributes all ganged up together. Yup, Top Chef is just like that... just without the murder and costumes...
The table that day in Santa Barbara was picturesque, the scenery absurdly gorgeous. The talent seated at the table, myself excluded, was Southern California's finest. Plus, major beard envy happening here for me.
It was a long meal, and the type of educational bonus I consider as a personal benefit. Sitting and talking with such diverse talent is special and it got me thinking hard about influence. The way judging and commentary works is that everyone gets the chance to comment on each dish. With 10 chefs and experts all commenting on 15 dishes, you really get to know someone's preferences as a diner or judge. It's also incredibly important to hold your ground on your own opinions, even if many distinguished others disagree or feel differently. Even within the main judges you start to see "party lines" loosely formed at a point. The process of this judging and commentary is a show in its own. Filled with tense on camera and behind the scenes moments of personal peril. Do you risk your own career implications if you disagree with Dana or Tom? Not get the dope special plates sent to you if you differ your tastes from Jon and Vinny from Animal? As a judge, I absolutely have to call it the way I see it and taste it, integrity is the most important part of my job and each and every one of my colleagues from judges to producers. For the random guest though? I wonder if they feel pressure sometimes...
The winning dish was a good example of this. Kwame's dish was good, the presentation was odd, but very unique, the flavors intense and umami driven. It was sauced heavily, but appropriately. It was a jacked up retro crab Louie sort of thing. For all of its simplicities and oddities it stirred much conversation. And I certainly enjoyed it. Tom however absolutely loved this dish. So much that I'm pretty sure Kwame is now running for president of Top Chef which apparently is a thing?
Wesley, who was very adamant about expressing that he took over a restaurant I parted ways with well before his arrival there, served a horrible piece of beef that was NOT cooked sous vide correctly with a weird stenciled sauce, that on any other day would send anyone packing. But not today. Lucky for him.
Team Frances and Jason we're doomed from the jump. Jason is incredibly studied, well spoken, enjoys floral prints, and also seemingly way too nice. His decision to bow to Frances' genre of cuisine could have been fatal. If this challenge was set up differently, Jason easily was a bottom three that afternoon.
Frances' dish was a squishy, wobbly knock off interpretation of the classic black cod with miso dish popularized by Nobu Matsuhisa, and fervently copied by many, and for good reason. It's fatty, salty, sweet, acidic, oceanic, and craveworthy. Unfortunately, Frances' dish lacked the char and sweet salty umami combo of the classic. I always applaud the use of black cod, specifically in competition as it's almost impossible to screw up...almost.
See you next week in Palm Springs where I just finished an amazing James Beard dinner with a few legends of our industry. Check out what I was up to then and now on @RichardBlais on Twitter, Vine, and Instagram and @Richard_Blais on snapchat!