OK, I get that TGI Friday's may have seemed like a bizarre choice to be part of an Elimination Challenge, but when all was said and done it proved to be quite an education for our contestants. As Padma explained at the start of the challenge, only a very small portion of American diners eat in fine dining restaurants, so knowing how to cook well for the rest of the population is crucial to being a Top Chef. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I wanted to touch on the brewing feud between Betty and Mr. Molecular Gastronomy.
During Season 1 I learned to have more patience with young, overzealous, at times condescending contestants (who will otherwise go unnamed). It is easy to see how Betty would be unable control her feelings about Marcel's ego, though I am sure in the thick of competition it is difficult for her not to let his antagonizing get in her way. It is interesting to note that in spite of his attitude, Marcel has yet to create anything that has wowed us. Meanwhile, Betty continues to impress, as shown by her back-to-back wins. Betty: stay focused on the prize and remember we all need to deal with big egos, learn to work around it. But I digress.... Spending a day with the Firefighters of South Pasadena was such a thrill! What the edited episode did not show was that twice during our visit the alarm sounded and, in the outrageous heat of that summer afternoon, over half the squad rushed out to do their ever-important job. Thankfully, they all returned safely both times, hungrier than ever! Unfortunately, we served them less impressive food than they deserved.
I was incredibly disappointed with the results of this challenge.
Guest Judge Stephen Bugarelli asked the chefs to create the next "Wow TGI Friday's entree that my consumers would crave." Only four of thirteen contestants served anything close to what I would consider satisfactory, let alone a winning meal. I would think having the opportunity to cook simple comfort food would present a chance to have a little fun. Sadly, this was not the case. I understand that at the Fire Station kitchen provided a less than perfect work environment, but it was not the lack of facilities that made the food inadequate. (A good workman never blames his tools.) In my opinion, it was purely due to their bad ideas.
For the most part, I thought the food we tasted was unappealing and uninspired. It is a sad state of affairs when people competing as top talent in the food industry have no clue what the real world wants to eat. I am truly sorry to be so hard on our chefs this week. I know how protective blog readers get when I criticize our chefs, but I really did want them to blow our guests away. Still, most of the food was just not very good! My reaction to Emily's dish spoke for itself. As soon as I bit into her (not so) Slammin' Surf & Turf it was clear she was at the bottom of my list. I regret not having the chance to get to know her very well, but I am confident she is capable of stronger cooking than this. So what was at the top? The single best thing I tasted at the Fire House was Ilan's Bacon Smoked Roasted Corn Side Dish. It was not necessarily appropriate for a TGIFriday's menu, nor was it an entree (i.e. main course), as Chef Bugarelli had asked, but it was so rich, buttery and "craveable" that I could not help loving every bite.
Sam's Summer Fruit Salad was also outstanding. The combination of cold, juicy, seasonal fruit with fresh herbs and chimichuri vinaigrette was the most imaginative way to present a healthy alternative that I have seen. However, it too was not an "entree" by TGI Friday's standards, and so could not be our winner, either. Cliff's Fish Sticks with Mac & Cheese was zesty and very satisfying. Who doesn't love either of these childhood favorites when they are done well? But it was Bada Bing Betty's Tuscan Portobello Melt and Spicy Red Pepper Soup that fully embraced everything this challenge represented. It looked tempting, tasted tangy and well-seasoned and was given a new twist by the addition of the mushrooms and spicy, roasted peppers. It reminded us all of warm childhood lunches on cold winter days. In fact, it just may give me another reason to visit TGIFriday's again soon.