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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.


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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.
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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.

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Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Gail schools us on the science of innovative cooking and explains why George Pagonis' octopus didn't have any legs to stand on.

Bravotv.com: Let's talk about the Elimination Challenge, which was to create an innovative dish that pushed culinary boundaries.

Gail Simmons: I was really happy that Wylie was there for this challenge, of course. But I think the set up was a little anti-climactic in honesty. As a viewer, you didn't get a full explanation of how and why they were given this challenge. It was specifically because there are so many people pushing these boundaries, many of whom are in Boston, and particularly Michael Brenner. He is innovative for a lot of reasons -- he’s a physicist, but what he’s become known for in the culinary space is teaching an in-depth course at Harvard about the science of food and cooking, incorporating people like Wylie and as well as a long list of exceptionally talented and renown chefs from around the world, like Ferran Adrià among others. It is exciting and extraordinary, and having him there allowed us to present our chefs with this challenge. We always think about how the dishes taste and look, whether the meat is cooked well enough or the appearance of knife cuts are appropriate. All of that stuff is in affect science -- cooking is all chemistry and biology, reaction of cells to knives and fire essentially. Everyone has their own definition of innovation, and I think there was a lot of pressure to "innovate" in this challenge. Our chefs did well, but I wish they had been given more time to really push their own personal boundaries more.

 



Bravotv.com: Let’s start with the winner, Melissa, who had the seared duck breast with farro, walnut miso, and pickled cherries.

GS: Melissa really has stepped up her game and soared in the last two challenges; she won the last challenge (and a spot in the finale in Mexico), and now she’s won this challenge, too. Her duck was beautiful, though not necessarily the most groundbreaking dish I’ve ever seen in my life. But she was innovative enough that we felt her flavors were new, but the dish was at the same time beautiful, delicious. Here’s the tricky thing about being innovative, which I think George touched on when he was talking about the challenge too: is it takes time and practice to truly innovate. I can only assume that someone like Wylie tries a dish fifty times before it goes on his menu as a full formed creative work, that changes how we all perceive food. Innovation takes patience and some serious brain power. To come up with something in a few hours is a tall order when it needs to be totally delicious AND have a level of innovation that surprises and impresses us. Melissa knew her strengths and perhaps was more relaxed then she would’ve been otherwise, so she made that walnut miso pesto and incorporated it in a really creative, unusual way. It made her dish stand out, and by far it was the most delicious.

Bravotv.com: And then we had our runner, Mei, with her duck curry with vadouvan and yuzu yogurt.

GS: There was something about Mei’s dish that made me think it was the most innovative of the day in a number of ways. However it wasn’t the most successful, and that’s why Melissa took the win. Mei’s dish was not only breathtakingly stark and beautiful, looking so modern on the plate, but she also combined several unusual ingredients, which made for a very untraditional, very modern curry. It was innovative and it stayed with us. You could even see in Tom's reaction that it was a dish to think about. When you tasted it, you weren't sure it worked, but there was something enjoyable about it; the dish didn't simply come together in your mind. It wasn't straight forward. You needed to take a pause, then a second bite, and by the third and fourth bite you started to understand all the different parts, which were very exciting. I think with a few more tries, Mei would’ve really nailed that dish. I was proud of her for pushing us all that way.

Bravotv.com: Then in our bottom two we had Gregory and George. Gregory did the salmon in tom kha broth with roasted tomatoes, crispy chicken skin, and crispy salmon skin.

GS: There were a lot of fun, tasty components to Gregory’s dish. If this challenge had been to show us an interesting representation of salmon or Thai flavors, he would’ve gotten it right. The thing with Gregory is that as skilled as he is, we were really hoping that he would come out of his comfort zone. The flavors he used were what we have seen from him previously. We didn’t really see a lot of innovation from him. That doesn’t mean we don’t think he worked hard or didn't do a good job. He gave us something that he felt was different in presentation, but the flavors were definitely in his usual wheelhouse. As he said himself when cooking beans in the Quickfire, he felt uncomfortable because he's more accustomed to using Asian flavors and ingredients. So here he was in the Elimination Challenge using Asian flavors. On the other hand the dish tasted great! We loved it, we just didn’t think he fulfilled the challenge of being innovative like we know he could have. And then there was George. . .

Bravotv.com:  Yes, he had the charred octopus, yellow split pea puree, and green apple harissa.

GS: George also stayed in his comfort zone in some ways -- he's cooked us octopus before, so charring octopus did not feel innovative at all for him, I actually felt disappointed when he told us that's what he had made. However, there were probably twenty other components of that dish that did make it feel somewhat innovative. The green apple harissa was one of them for sure. The fact that he called it harissa may be taking some license, but that's OK. I loved it, it went so well with the octopus, and it was something new that all of us had never seen. That said, the rest of the dish didn’t make sense all together. At least three or four of the garnishes he added didn’t serve a purpose on the plate, rather, they detracted from the dish. He spent his time making too many components. They may have shown technique, and you could tell that he was really pushing himself, but it all still has to be one cohesive plate of food, first and foremost. I think it didn’t work because he let himself get preoccupied with all the other pieces instead of focusing on doing one thing really well in an innovative way.

Charring octopus did not feel innovative at all for him, I actually felt disappointed when he told us that's what he had made.


So George's was the dish we least enjoyed eating and thought was the least successful, that’s why he went home. I think George did a tremendous job. He came back once already, and he could come back from Last Chance Kitchen again. He’s a great cook, has a great attitude, and I think he absolutely gave his best throughout the competition, which made everyone better. I don’t always say that, but I think when he came back, he really changed the game and the whole season was better for it.

Now, onward to Mexico!

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