In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to say upfront that I am Canadian. I moved to New York for culinary school a year or so after college and have only been in the United States for the better part of a decade. I tell you this not because I think you are entirely interested, but because it explains that
I know relatively little about American Thanksgiving, the most widely celebrated, cross-cultural holiday of all. I want to be clear that I am by no means a Thanksgiving expert. Sure; Canadians have their own Thanksgiving too, the same weekend as U.S. Columbus Day -- we eat a bit of turkey and hang out with family, but it is far less of an occasion. In the years since I moved, I have spent the holiday at generous friends' homes and have even cooked once for a large group of ex-pats and others who do not spend it with their families.
Most often, though, I use the holiday as an excuse to go back to Canada for a relaxed, non-celebratory, long weekend (as I will be doing again this year). I must admit to feeling a little left out in the past. After all, any Thursday afternoon spent eating your brains out with friends and/or relatives in honor of those who did it before you, watching a little football and taking a nap is my kind of holiday! So it was with great pleasure that I was able to celebrate an extra Thanksgiving this year, just a few months ago, in the sticky heat of a Los Angeles summer. My real family may not have been around, but Tom, Padma and our guest judge, (the side-splitting and outrageous) Tony Bourdain -- as well as the winning contestants from this week's Quickfire Challenge who did not have to cook -- more than made up for the fun and shenanigans they would have supplied.
What makes Thanksgiving food so delicious anyway? That I can tell you: the colors and creamy flavors of roasted fall vegetables; the caramelized golden skin and richness of turkey meat; the tart, bright tang of cranberry sauce and the sweet, velvety texture of warm pumpkin pie are all pretty hard to resist. At no point did we ask the chefs who were cooking our meal to depart from these time-honored traditions. We merely asked them to give us a modern twist on them and hoped the food would still taste good. I will never understand why Carlos decided to stick with a salad. I know he believed adding roasted squash and queso fresco would set him apart, but compared to the work done by every other member of that team, it could not compare, even against dishes less edible. I am not suggesting great salads are easy to do, but in this specific challenge, I actually believe he failed. It was not cutting edge. It tasted fine, but was limp and unoriginal. I had no problem agreeing that it was his time to leave the competition.
Elia's mushroom soup with walnuts was by far the most successful dish from a culinary standpoint. It hit all the high points that a good soup should. It was soulful and smooth, nutty and earthy. It did not start a culinary revolution, but was just modern and playful enough to get noticed. I loved it!
Marcel made a valiant effort as well. He finally was able to put his mad-scientist theories to work. His dish was sort of whimsical, inventive and pretty to look at, even if the turkey was slightly overcooked. I especially liked his play on cranberry sauce, which was made into an airy foam as well as a clear, bright gelatin that contrasted beautifully against the plate and the meat, in both appearance and taste. No one could say he was not cutting edge, especially in relation to his competition.
On the other hand, I was totally indifferent to Betty's creme brulee duo. As far as dessert was concerned, hers was neither horrifying, nor at all memorable. It was Mike's side dishes that shocked us the most. It simply defied all logic that he purposely chose to make not one, but THREE heavy, beige, starchy items without a trace of green in sight! Not only were they the farthest from cutting edge one could imagine, but they were all enormous in portion size and somehow glaringly inappropriate. Corn rolled in cheese? Twice baked potatoes with shrimp?All of a sudden I felt transported back to 1956, not subtly eased towards the culinary landscape of our future. The only redeeming factor was that he sincerely cooked every dish from his heart. In spite of their appearance, they all tasted OK. I thought Tony Bourdain might explode from sheer excitement. We definitely gave him something to sink his teeth into, not to mention his sarcasm. And that, in and of itself, is always something to be thankful for....
Wishing everyone a healthy and hearty Thanksgiving! PS. Speaking of family dinners, I was invited to a friend's fabulous Filipino feast this past weekend and found myself dining beside none other than Daniel Vosovic, from Project Runway's Season 2 (and a member of my Bravo family). How fun to discover that he is not only as talented and cute as I hoped, but also that he loves to eat!