This episode made me so sad, as a viewer and also as someone working on production. (Like your mom used to say, "I'm not mad at you....I'm just very, very disappointed.") Here we are at the last challenge before Hawaii and we get to see not only the best, but also the worst of the contestants. Their adolescent B.S. gets in the way of all the hard work they have done thus far and, in my mind, is a discredit to their cooking and talent.
Let's talk about the Quickfire. It was longer than usual -- two hours, in case anyone wanted to produce a baked good with the Nestle product. Out of all of the contestants, I commend Elia for rocking out two dishes. God knows they all had enough time. In and of that, did any of the dishes impress?
Sam's dish was actually very tasty (sneaking bites off the camera plate again), with an intriguing flavor balance of salty, sweet, fruit, spice, and the richness of the chocolate. Marcel's dish, while visually attractive, didn't do much for me. It was creative, but relatively bland, and the phyllo cannoli didn't stand up to the potato puree and got soggy pretty quickly. Cliff's dish was a good, balanced take on mole.
Elia's mole was VERY heavy, probably due to the fact that she used an excessive amount of chocolate in the sauce (which is surprising, because she is from Mexico). Her cremeaux, however, was probably one of the best things I had tasted since I had been there. A light as air, creamy texture that melted in your mouth, with a very delicate chocolate flavor...this was a dish I'd pay $$$ for in any restaurant. And then there were Ilan's chicken liver bon bons. I happen to love chicken livers, just not with chocolate. Brave move, but not a move I'd try if Eric Ripert were judging.
I remember reading the rules for the elimination challenge. I made a funny ha ha on set because I had said to them, "This is it guys. You've got plenty of budget, and plenty of time. Bring your best. Trust me, you don't want to be me." At this point almost everyone on production got a good laugh in.
Sam had first choice of proteins after winning the Quickfire. I am entirely glad that the contestants understood that they would be cooking a five course meal for 13 couples celebrating a romantic dinner and did a menu that would make sense as it progressed (rather than 3 lamb dishes). Elia took an incredibly big risk by doing a dessert, even though it was not required. I'll talk more about that later.
First of all, Santa Barbara is absolutely gorgeous. We had scouted Epiphany a few days beforehand and it is a lovely and charming little restaurant. The owners, Alberto and Michelle Mastrangelo, were incredibly welcoming, and the Chef, Ron True, is such an awesome guy (he actually used to work for Tom at Gramercy). The biggest challenge for the contestants would be turning out five courses in that tiny kitchen. And we could not have asked for a more perfect day to film this last challenge. When it comes time to plate, Sam is ready to go. His dish was beautiful. He had these amazing, plump U-8 diver scallops (meaning eight scallops per pound, that's how big they were). His sauce combined the lobster with umeboshi plum, which is very salty and tart. I thought it was a delicious foil for the sweetness of the scallops and the earthiness of the beets. Plus it looked good in addition to being very tasty.
I had been watching Ilan prep, and smart boy that he is, he stuck with what he knows. Ilan chose a classic Spanish dish, fideos and clams. This is a dish I order all of the time at Casa Mono and, after all of the noodles have been consumed, and every last clam shell picked, I usually sop up the broth with whatever bread I have left on the table. His version was equally divine; a beautiful marriage of saffron, tomatoes, and fruity olive oil, crispy on top from the finish under the salamander, and enough garlic aioli to give it a savory, aromatic heat. It was outstanding and deservedly the winner of the challenge.
And now we come to Marcel. Yeah, yeah, the potato hearts are precious. But am I experiencing deja vu? Anyone remember the duo of salmon with beets at Social? What was interesting was that he chose to use not only beets, but also celery root, in the dead of August. His rationale was that he knew the episode would air in winter. My comeback is that it's still 70 degrees in some parts of the country in January (though current weather patterns would prove otherwise). To me, a perfectly juicy and ripe tomato screams romance and sex in the right context. He overlooked the very basic rule of a chef and went with an ingredient that completely ignored seasonality. Lord knows why he was thinking of production value, rather than his dish. And alas, his dish did lack acid. Lucky for him, Sam has a better attitude in the kitchen than he does. In terms of cooking and plating the dish, he had 25 minutes after Ilan's dish went out, which is plenty of time in my mind to sear off the salmon and get everything on the plate.
I think Cliff is a great cook. I was actually rooting for Cliff. His sirloin was a disaster. Pureed lentils are the least romantic thing I can think of, and his were not only thick, but not a smooth puree ... just a chunky mess. With the budget he had, he could have chosen a more tender cut of meat, too, like ribeye. All of the vegetables and the plum sauce ended up being a mess of flavors and textures on the plate. If "fat" is sexy, perfect steak frites would have been a much sexier choice. Being the last lady in the competition, I wanted Elia to do well. To be honest, she is an excellent cook and a perfectionist, but very emotional and melodramatic. Her choice to duplicate her Quickfire dessert I found to be lackluster and puzzling. (Who does versions of the same dish twice in one challenge?)
All that aside, it could have been a really great dessert. I was waiting for Stephen to leap out of the shadows to steal her heart-shaped cookie cutters. She made several mistakes. First she had an issue with her cremeaux base, which she cooked, so it did not whip properly and she had to make it again. Her puff pastry was not as baked as it should have been and she erred by piping her cremeaux onto the pastry too early and then sticking it all in the fridge. Cooked puff pastry and the humidity inside a fridge do not mix well, and you usually end up losing that buttery shatter. Her fatal mistake with the chocolate was not in tempering it (which makes for a better finish, adding a glossy shine to the chocolate), her mistake was the fact that she piped the chocolate directly onto a sheet tray instead of a piece of parchment paper. Parchment would've saved her a world of hurt.
I created the menus for the guests and had triple checked with each contestant regarding the wording and descriptions of their dishes. I remember thinking that hers was especially wordy. As a chef, you can pigeonhole yourself in such situations. "Chocolate Heart" was on the menu, therefore there better damn well be a chocolate heart on the plate. What you don't see is that there is 20 minutes on the clock when she starts to panic about the chocolate situation. And then she despaired and gave up. I was actually standing in the doorway watching her and really biting my lip. It took all I had to prevent myself from shouting out, "Scrape up the damn chocolate, melt it again and pipe out chocolate hearts onto some parchment!" She had the time. It was very sad.
At the same time, I absolutely wanted to hug the rest of the guys for not letting her give up. They all came together to help her out when she was really struggling. In the end, it was still a beautifully presented dessert, and her berries were gorgeous, each cluster hand-picked by Elia. It is the perfectionist in her that is her most admirable quality, but in this case interfered with her ability to adapt. All in all, they made an outstanding and memorable meal and I know all of the couples truly enjoyed the privilege of sampling their cuisine.
Enter B.S. I can't even begin to comment on how their antics pissed everyone off. There are probably thousands of people who would've loved to be in their place and it is such a shame to see how their immaturity got the best of them. Cliff very well may have gotten sent home anyways for his beef and lentils, but getting disqualified is a really crappy way to go out. It was a very disheartening day for production.
I know that between the end of filming in L.A. and the finale in Hawaii, they all had some time to reflect. The premiere party in NYC happened in October, and for a night, we were able to celebrate ...Harold, Dave, Candice, Andrea, Cynthia, Miguel, Brian, and myself...Elia, Sam, Suyai, Mike, Marisa, Josie, Marcel, Ilan, Carlos, and Cliff...and everyone had an amazing time, together. Yes, the spirit of competition sucks, but I hope the value of friendship and such a unique experience stays with this group as it has with me. Sam, Ilan, Marcel, and Elia all deserve to go to Hawaii. They are the top four out of fifteen and believe me when I say you will get to see a more mature and focused side of them when they get to the Big Island. Until then, aloha. The best is yet to come.