Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Snack Time

Padma Lakshmi talks restaurant wars, Mike's elimation, and the perfect snack.

This week's Quickfire was one of my favorites. I love snacks, I always have. They are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my favorite food item to conceptualize, concoct, and, most of all, devour. You can tell a lot about a chef's personality by what they consider to be a great snack, and how well they execute it. A successful, winning snack is something that is the right size -- much bigger than an amuse bouche and considerably smaller than a main course, it shouldn't fill you up like a meal but rather curb your hunger until the next course. The best snack is something savory, preferably with a crunch to it, but there can be great sweet snacks, too, such as a midnight snack of milk and cookies.

Successful snacks are also built to share and many benefit from being finger foods rather than something one has to eat sitting down with a knife and fork. I was very curious to see what the contestants would whip up. And I was pleased that none of them turned their nose up at working with mayonnaise, because this is an ingredient all of us are familiar with and a staple in almost every pantry in America. Some of the best snacks come from spontaneously using what is at hand, and this is perfect for the nature of the Quickfire Challenge.
padmasblog_yakura_320x240.jpg

While I would normally consider large chunks of lamb a bit heavy for a snack, Marcel executed his kabob with great skill. They were cooked perfectly, moist and succulent, with great flavor and balance because the zesty Madras curry powder that cut through the richness of the mayonnaise and meat. I've used this trick myself. Curry powder is great to mix into mayonnaise when making a quick tuna, egg or chicken salad. Since it is a melange of various spices, the work is largely done for you. So his snack was a winner. padmasblog_michael2_320x240.jpg

Mike seemed buoyed up by his "history" making sweep from last week, and decided that he would go all-out with his snack. I think he went too far. First off, the size of his snack was more like a meal, and the combination of shellfish and cheese and mayonnaise was a nauseating one. Rather than dump that huge glob of pure mayonnaise on top of his chopped lettuce and tomato, he could have made something more delicate to drizzle on top, such as mixing two or three of the required condiments with the chipotle pepper. This would have at least been a bit innovative. His snack was heavy and unpolished. A snack is supposed to whet your appetite, not smother it. But taste is subjective, and Mike is someone who "eats Mayo right out of the can." I've never even seen mayonnaise in a can.
padmasblog_cliff_320x240.jpg

Cliff's tartare was tasty and I liked the crispy toasts he made to scoop it up, they allowed the diner to decide how much of it to consume. Sam's sandwich was an ingenious one. It used all three Kraft products, layered sweet, salty, and sour notes all in one bite, and met the crunchy textural criteria by not only toasting his bread, but adding crispy fried tempura shrimp. His forte is definitely pickling (even back to the firehouse episode), and here his talent and creativity served him well. I would have never thought to pickle peaches in Zesty Italian Dressing, but it worked brilliantly and many great sandwiches are accompanied by some type of pickles. Usually they're sweet or sour pickles, but Sam brought an inventive new twist to this practice.

Elia also showed great creativity by mixing the yogurt and barbeque sauce with honey for a sweet snack. Sweet snacks are harder to pull off; especially when you don't know what order you'll be judged. Most people want something savory, but her snack was sophisticated, light, and well balanced. She also showcased gorgeous fresh summer figs and complemented them with the other ingredients. The cinnamon toast and almonds completed the snack in an exquisite, perfectly light-handed way. The biggest reason her sweet snack worked for me was because while it was sweet, it wasn't too sweet or overpowering. The flavors were clean and each played its music on the palate. I was very impressed with her.
padmasblog_elan_320x240.jpg

Ilan's Napoleon of tomato and salmon was OK, but he would have benefited by using flour tortillas rather than corn -- they tend to dry out quicker, as was the case with his dish. It's a shame he felt the need (again) to send up Marcel by joking of foaming the Italian dressing. Marcel's comment about it backfiring was spot on. Why take the Judges' attention away from yourself by mentioning your competitor when you have only mere seconds in a Quickfire to prove yourself? It seemed like an insecure waste of his energy, and he's a good enough cook to not need to do any of that. What's becoming apparent, episode after episode, is that he considers Marcel his biggest rival. Maybe that's not only to do with a personality clash. Perhaps that could be said of the other contestants, too. Elia, of course, is the exception in this.

padmasblog_snack_320x240.jpg

Our guest judge picked Sam and Marcel as his two winners. While I agree with him about Sam, I would have picked Elia over Marcel because her snack was much more innovative, clever and unusual.
Here are two recipes for snacks from my new cookbook Tangy, Tart Hot and Sweet, to be published in September of this year. They are really easy to make.

Mushroom and Goat Cheese Taquitos with Mint and Date Dipping Sauce 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1/2 cup chopped shallots 8 ounces fresh Portobello mushrooms, diced 1 teaspoon oregano 1 teaspoon thyme 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper 8 ounces feta cheese 4 ounces ricotta cheese 8 8-inch diameter flour tortillas Canola oil, for frying salt

Taquitos 1. Over medium high heat, heat olive oil in a large skillet. Toss in the shallots and after 2 minutes add the mushrooms. Saute for 2-3 minutes. Add the oregano, thyme and red pepper; stir for 3 more minutes. Add a sprinkle of salt and saute for a few minutes until the mushrooms are browned. Remove from heat. 2. In a large bowl, combine the feta and ricotta cheeses with the sauteed mushrooms, mixing well to form a paste. 3. Lay one tortilla flat on a cutting board. Spread two heaping tablespoons of mixture into a line across the tortilla, horizontally, near the end closest to you. Roll nearest end over the mixture and keep rolling until the tortilla is in the shape of a flute. Press down gently as you roll to distribute the cheese mixture throughout the inside of the flute. Be careful not to push too hard letting it seep out of the sides. 4. Secure the tortilla closed using a wooden toothpick as a straight pin (not perpendicular, but parallel to the flute) to hold the end of the tortilla shut. Do this with all the tortillas.* 5. Place a large skillet filled to a depth of one inch with Canola oil over medium high heat. When the oil gets hot, turn the heat down to just lower than medium and fry the taquitos on each side until golden brown. This should take no more than 1-2 minutes total; turn to brown each side every 30 seconds. 6. When done, immediately place the taquitos on paper towels to drain excess oil. When cool enough to touch, carefully ease out the toothpicks before serving. 7. Each taquito can be cut in half on an angle to serve, as they are quite filling (this also makes it easier to remove the toothpick). Serve with fresh mint and date dipping sauce. *Using tortillas that are room temperature or slightly warm are easier to manipulate the toothpicks into. So if you keep tortillas in the fridge, take them out enough in advance.

Dipping Sauce 2 cups fresh mint leaves 3 dried dates, pitted and chopped 5 serrano chilies, stems removed 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice Put all the ingredients in a blender or processor and puree to form a smooth uniform dipping sauce. A tablespoon of water can be added to blend if needed. It will keep for 2-3 days in the fridge. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Pan Asian Lettuce Cups with Curried Beef 2 heads butter lettuce 3 tablespoons canola oil 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil 1 cup diced yellow onions 1 teaspoon minced garlic 1 tablespoon minced ginger 1 1/2 pound ground beef (turkey or lamb can also be used) 1-2 tablespoons light soy sauce 1 teaspoon Madras curry powder 1 teaspoon dried mango powder (Amchoor) 1 cup roughly chopped fresh mint 1 cup roughly chopped fresh basil 4 green Serrano chilies, chopped with seeds 1 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice 1. Carefully separate the leaves of the lettuce to form cups. The firm middle leaves are best, and you'll need 6-8. 2. In a skillet, heat the Canola oil on a medium flame. Saute the onions, garlic, ginger, and green chilies until onions are glassy, about 5-7 minutes. 3. Add the meat, soy sauce and powdered spices. Cook on medium heat, stirring often to break up meat into tiny, tiny bits with no lumps. After the spices have been mixed into meat well, about 5 minutes, turn heat down to medium low and cook for an additional 35-40 minutes, until meat is well cooked and browned. If meat becomes too dry, a tablespoon or two of water can be stirred into it to keep it moist. Remove from heat. 4. Stir in mint, basil and lemon juice. Spoon mixture into lettuce cups and drizzle the toasted sesame oil over the top. Serve warm. Serves 6-8.


padmasblog_rest_320x240.jpg

Now for the Elimination Challenge: I did feel a bit sorry for the contestants. The parameters of the challenge were to come up with a concept for a restaurant, decide on the menus, and execute this for up to 24 diners. They had a $500 budget for food, $500 for restaurant supplies, and $500 for restaurant design/decor, and one server. Not easy or realistic. And I was shocked to see the walls of the place were not even painted. I think the designers left a little to be desired -- neither place looked remotely designed or decorated. If doing a diner, why not decorate with old 45 records and school pennants like Arnold's in Happy Days? They don't cost much.

Doing a casual Italian, or Trattoria, why not get simple red and white checkerboard tablecloths for a fabric store in bolts and old framed black and white pictures of Sofia Loren or some Fellini movie stills? What was that cheap looking floral tapestry? And the potted cactus, why? On Hollywood Boulevard you can get really cheap 8x10 pictures of almost anyone, how about Pavarotti, or Anna Magnani? The diner, too, could have used pictures of say...Doris Day. Anyway, you get the drift. The same challenge was done in Season 1 of "Top Chef", and I think to better effect. This is because the contestants took the decorating into their own hands, the space while raw was at least finished.
padmasblog_cliff2_320x240.jpg

While things like tempura don't usually come to mind when thinking of a diner, I felt that Cliff was that team's greatest weakness. Why didn't Elia stand up to Cliff? He can be intimidating but she knew she would have been better for the job. Sam's team had bigger problems with stray olive pits, no bread plates and no wine; their team was the worse of two losing teams. Their biggest weakness was Mike. Finally Mike's lackadaisical attitude caught up with him. Relying on his list, he failed to think on his own and take responsibility for at least the shopping. He kept saying he followed the list, I think "Top Chef" is looking for leaders, not followers.

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Gail dishes on Doug Adams' flawless return to the competition and why Melissa King's dish failed to hit the right artistic note.

Bravotv.com: This week we had the Last Chance Kitchen finale between George and Doug, and Doug ended up returning to the competition.

Gail Simmons: It looked like a really close battle -- Tom was really happy with both of their dishes. I will say if I had to put money on it, I would have guessed it would be between George and Doug at the end. They really are two of our stronger competitors. Obviously George was just coming off of his elimination, and it didn't surprise me that Doug stayed at the top of Last Chance Kitchen since being eliminated. I was thrilled to see him in Mexico with us.

Bravotv.com: Great! So he comes back, he wins and then onto the Quickfire Challenge. Any thoughts on this part of the competition?

GS: I'll just say that I’m a big, big fan of Chef Olvera, and I’m so glad we were able to get him on the show. His main restaurant, Pujol, is in Mexico City, but he has Moxi at the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel, where we were  lucky enough to eat the night that I landed, and a new restaurant here in New York that I am really excited about called Cosme. His food is very much rooted in Mexican ingredients and Mexican cooking, but his food is so modern. He really is one of the most talented chefs in the world at this moment, and I’m glad he judged the prickly pear Quickfire. They filmed it right in the center square of San Miguel; it is an amazingly gorgeous place. It was a really great setting for our first challenge in Mexico.

Bravotv.com: Then we have the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by an artist's piece of work, and Doug won with his brisket.

GS:  This challenge is interesting, because San Miguel is such a mecca for artists; it’s an artist colony that has produced incredible work for years. The city itself is so visually inspiring, as are the artists that work there. Their work is so varied, so vast. What was unique in this challenge was that it forced the chefs to take inspiration from an unusual source and think about their dish in a different way. All of the artists are very different, from a graffiti artist to someone who does more abstract landscapes. It was truly exciting to see what the artists did with the canvases they were given and what they shared with the chefs.

I tasted Doug’s dish first and understood it in an instant; it needed no explanation. But when he did talk about it, I realized it had so much depth not only in flavor, but in its purpose. He had an immediate connection with the artist he was paired with -- they were both from Texas and she reminded him a lot of his mother. There was a deep sense of home and comfort between them, which I think allowed him to cook so purely, so simply. The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not "chef it up" too much, he kept it pure. He modeled the presentation of the dish exactly off of the painting itself with those colors from the Mexican landscape -- the deep reds of the earth, those dark greens and browns -- which made perfect sense. His brisket obviously tasted like Texas, but it definitely had an air of Mexico. It had the tomatillo, the masa, and even the red brisket itself was reminiscent of Mexican flavors, since Mexican cuisine has had such an influence on Texas to begin with. The dish was about his roots on a lot of levels. I devoured all of it, it was so hardy and comforting, but it had an elegance and finesse to it in the plating -- the ingredients he chose to put side by side as opposed to stewing them together -- made it special.

The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not 'chef it up' too much, he kept it pure.

Gail Simmons

Bravotv.com: And then we had Gregory's grilled strip loin with ancho chile, beets, cilantro puree, and valencia orange sauce.

GS: Gregory’s dish was excellent too. He did a perfectly grilled strip loin. He was worried about it before we tasted it, but it came out perfectly. He made three incredible sauces to go with it, which drew a lot of inspiration from his artist's painting. The first was this ancho chile sauce and then this beautiful green cilantro puree. The ancho chiles were reminiscent of the peasant farming, the green cilantro tying into the earth. Then there was the orange sauce, which completely changed the dish. When you first tasted it, the dish was earthy, it was deep and complex, it had the Mexican chiles that really shone through with the beef. Then you got a splash of that orange sauce, and it balanced everything out in a way that surprised us. It was so inspired, you could tell that it echoed the sunshine in the painting. It conveyed the artist’s vision of this peasant toiling in the soil through this glorious sunshine, and that’s exactly how the dish tasted.

It was a really close battle between Gregory and Doug in this challenge; both of them did such a great job. Ultimately we chose Doug, because we thought there was an unmistakable depth to his food and it was completely flawless.

Bravotv.com: Let's move on to Mei, who had the snapper and bass crudo with chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles.

GS: In true Mei fashion, her dish was completed beautifully and precise. It was very tightly conceptualized -- every drizzle, every piece of fish, every garnish was perfectly placed, and it was a gorgeous plate of food. I loved her relationship with the artist she worked with, Bea. They had a lovely conversation, which was great to see, and the dish clearly reflected Bea’s work. The chicken skin, the fish, the splashes of color were all inspirations from the painting. Every bite of Mei's dish had a little surprise; there was a little spice, a tiny bit of salt, and a beautiful splash of sweetness, which made it so fun and so playful.

My only criticism of Mei’s food comes from a presentation standpoint. Because Bea’s art was so outrageous and so loud and loose and free in a way, we had hoped that Mei’s food would’ve reflected that. We thought it would have allowed her to loosen up her presentation a little bit. Of course, I respect that she stayed true to who she is and how she presents her food. It was a dish that took a lot of technical skill and was really enjoyable when we ate it, we had just hoped to see more playfulness.

Bravotv.com: And then we had Melissa's smoked eggplant ravioli with shrimp, chorizo, and cotija.

GS: Melissa’s dish was absolutely decadent, delicious, delightful. We all agreed that her smoked eggplant ravioli was perfectly made -- it was smoky, very rich, and the pasta was well cooked. That alone was as good as anything else we had eaten that day. Where we thought she fell short, relative to the other dishes, was that there definitely was less cohesion between the artist's work and her dish. Shrimp, chorizo, cotija cheese, and eggplant can go together, but in the way she plated them, they weren’t really talking -- the shrimp was over here, the sauce was somewhere else, then there was the eggplant ravioli. There didn’t seem to be a line that connected them all. And when she described it in relation to the artwork, we really weren’t sure it conveyed that dramatic splash from the graffiti art. We needed more from her. There was such a direct conversation between Doug and his artist, and it really felt like they were working on the same piece of artwork together. Melissa’s dish, although tasty and very pretty, did not have that same depth. I’m not just talking about flavor; it’s really about the inspiration and the connection, not only between the ingredients on the plate, but between the chef and the artist. His work was really beautiful (and watching the show I regret not buying a piece from him at the time). But it can be hard to translate art, because it’s something so personal. In the end between the four of us we decided that on that day it was Melissa’s dish that did not measure up in terms of the inspiration and connection like the other dishes did. So she was eliminated.

Bravotv.com: It seemed like one of the tougher eliminations this season.

GS: Yes, it was. It always is at this stage of the season. But it was a really great challenge too. I think regardless of winning or losing, Melissa really loved the process and that was so great to see. It was an intellectual challenge that was hard to interpret, and I think they all did an incredible job. I’m really going to miss Melissa. I honestly think she is a huge talent, and I know she is going to do well wherever she goes next.
 

Read more about: