I must admit that when I arrived in the Top Chef kitchen for this week's Quickfire and saw all that pig's blood, pig's ears and hooves, and other very gory meaty bits like chicken feet, and calf hearts and brains assembled together, I was stopped dead in my tracks. It made quite an impression on me, to say the least. There is an Edwardian butcher shop in my neighborhood in Notting Hill, London, and at times I have become a bit weak in the knees passing by its window seeing whole skinned rabbits and such, but nothing -- not even eating warm bull's cojones in Spain after a bullfight -- was quite like this.
Something about all those parts together on one table felt a bit like being on the set of a culinary Wes Craven or Dario Argento flick. All this while in the middle of a heat wave. I couldn't help but think how far I'd come from my vegetarian roots. This wasn't an episode I'd be sending to Granny back in Madras. I had to applaud the efforts of the chefs as well as how game Michelle Bernstein was to try everything. For once my gluttony and earnest fork were abruptly curtailed.... But not for long.
The kitchen at Social restaurant in Hollywood was stocked to the gills with everything one could imagine: fresh fish, meat and poultry, succulent produce at the peak of season from some of the best farms in California, herbs and spices and oils and vinegars, chilies of many varieties, sauces, dried fruits, and everything else one could want. I do understand that in a competition setting the pressure to stand out makes you think of a lot of crazy things, but, why, why, why would you want to use bottled pomegranate concentrated juice when you had access to all these other fresh ingredients? It seemed that no one except for maybe Ilan and Michael who made the Paella, and Marcel and Frank who did the salmon tartare, had clear ideas for a concrete, finished dish. Those two dishes stood out clearly because I felt they met my expectations as a diner.
The tartare was very light and tasty and I like both versions of it together -- it looked pretty on the plate, and it was a fitting dish given its place in the order of courses. I have had many of those tartares in my day (a particularly delicious version from a decade ago of salmon tartare with dill and cucumber ribbons at Cafe Luxembourg in Manhattan's Upper West side comes to mind), and while it didn't blow me away with originality it was executed just fine and I enjoyed it very much. Also, I appreciated the lightness of the dish given that we had so many courses to come and I knew that not all of them would be in tasting portions. (Little did I know I would be given spoonfuls of Pepto Bismol and tiny cubed pinapple, prickly pear and basil juice for a dessert/palate cleanser later on but hey....)
My favorite was the paella and I thought the decision to create the crusty bottom of traditional paella by frying the risotto and putting that crust on top was an ingenious one and a great use of leftover food from the night before; part of the challenge for this week, by the way. I also thought the crab was crunchy and delicious and a perfect complement on top of the paella. It went well with the inherent Spanish theme of Social's decor and menu. It looked really scrumptious when it arrived on the table, and was sizzling hot and satisfying to eat. I finished the whole plate.
How strange that the other dishes didn't really make an impact, because I expected all of the contestants to do very well in this challenge. I was actually happy for the contestants, thinking: "finally a whole kitchen with great products and no restraints or weird conditions, just make an amazing meal." And yet, all that freedom seemed to throw them off their game. Maybe we just gave them too many choices and it kind of got them delirious?
But I cannot tell you as a woman how disappointing it was to have that line of the losers being almost all female save for Carlos. As women, most of us cook everyday for our families (not saying men don't, but I would bet that in homes across the globe, from Idaho to India, from Chile to Copenhagen, there are more women at the stove in the home every night than men) and we should be practiced at making something substantial. Why then all these spoons of Pepto Bismol and cubed pineapple!? I was so surprised that the pastry was from Betty and not Marisa given that she had the penultimate course, why not shine with what you know best? Even going way back to the Asian food fair that Korean layered thing, while having the Asian ingredients, was harder than the rock of Gibraltar.
I will say in Marisa's defence that I thought the berry crumble she made at the fire house during the TGIFriday challenge was delicious and beautiful but a crumble is one of the easiest desserts to make, my nine-year-old stepson can do it. I was very, very sorry to see Josie go -- her enthusiasm, big smile and friendly attitude could teach some of the other contestants a thing or two about how to behave graciously, especially on national TV. She also had the humility to acknowledge that she made some miscalculations. After all ,who of us hasn't burnt the toast every once in a while? I know I have.