V For Vendetta
Padma Lakshmi on Hawaii, tropical cuisine, and watching Sam and Elia's exits.
I guess Elia's new look should have served as an ominous foreshadowing of the first half of the finale.
While they seemed mild mannered enough on the plane and at the lunch with Alan Wong and the rest of us, the calm, sweet atmosphere didn't last that long in spite of the beautiful surroundings. While it's true that Elia had been defending (or at least not ganging up on) Marcel for many weeks, while the others shined him on, she obviously had a change of heart. She complains about his long description of his dishes that yes, took long, but I don't see why she should care. Why at the 11th hour do you cry foul about cheating? It seemed as if she'd watched the other episodes or been influenced by her colleagues. I was sorry to have to tell her to pack her knives, because I really like Elia. (It's why I look so weird when I tell her, kind of fighting back emotion.)
I remember in the first episodes I would ask her questions just to hear her beautiful accent. But the evidence was clear.
It was really hard for me to tell Sam to go as well. In the end you work such long hours for weeks and weeks and you do get to know these people. Their struggle to win is palpable. I think that's why the show is so compelling, almost gladiatorial in certain ways. Needless to say, it was a very difficult and emotional Judges' Table for me. I could see that they had all poured their hearts and souls into this competition. And you do go on a journey together. It was also my first season, and I will never forget the experience.
But it was a joy it was to touch down into lush, tropical Waipio Valley, full of taro leaves. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park. There were wild horses and cool streams running through our path on the very steep drive down and we were literally transported to a secret Polynesian paradise. Chef Alan Wong was the perfect host, gracious and knowledgeable; he had a quiet, friendly dignity. He taught us all so much about food and the history of the Hawaiian Islands. It was a pleasure to sit with him at his table. It was also lovely to see that helicopter come down into the valley with our contestants. After slaving for weeks and weeks in that hot kitchen in LA, I thought they deserved a treat like that. In spite of their behavior towards each other at times, they did work hard all season long.
Now let's get to the food: Sam made a refreshing poke and I thought his addition of sea beans gave his dish a nice fresh crunch. I would have made something a bit more substantial for my savory dish, but it was tasty, and a perfect way to start the birthday dinner. I love that he used the Japanese citrus fruit juice, yuzu; I just wish he'd used a bit more so that his flavors were bolder. I use yuzu myself a lot in dressings for salad and in hot sauces and chutneys. Plus, since there is already so much Japanese influence in the history and culture of Hawaii, it was completely harmonious. His dessert was so yummy and creative. The marriage of mascarpone and coconut milk was a silky sinful experience on the tongue. The touch of sea salt was a successful surprise.
Unfortunately I and the other judges were the least impressed with Elia's recipes. It was such a shame because as a female chef I was really rooting for her. Her technique was spot on, and her packaging the steamed opakapaka (snapper) fish in ti leaves was traditional, and probably reminiscent of the process used for tamales too, but there was not that much creativity inside that package. Basically she just used local fish to make a vaguely Franco-Italian tasting dish. The peas and carrots were uninteresting too. I wish she had used some of the Hawaiian flavors in her dishes; they would have melded beautifully with her own heritage and technique. Elia spoke so eloquently about why she loves food and cooking at the lunch in the beginning, I just wish she had been more articulate through her food. She certainly has it in her. Her tuna poke with olives, capers and lemon confit only echoed those Mediterranean tastes again. While perfectly respectable, the dishes lacked originality when compared to her competitors.
I loved Marcel's tiny tapa serving of hamachi poke on a taro chip. I think it was an ingenious way to add a touch of salty crunch and he used an indigenous ingredient to boot. His pineapple poi left something to be desired, even with the addition of the xanthum gum. It was too runny for me to be called poi. I didn't think there was enough of weight to it. Poi has the consistency of porridge, not thick gravy. While it was airy and light, it was too sweet to be on the palate. It would have benefitted from a bit of salt to contrast the tart sweetness. His technique and knife skills were flawless, as was his presentation. The salmon lumi lumi with, yes, yet another foam (I can't believe he did another foam!!), scallion oil and lotus root chip was the best savory dish of the night. It was substantial and had a lot of flavor. All of us had no problem deciding that he should move on to the finale. His mad scientist way of using all those chemicals and gadgets has been interesting to watch all season long.
Ilan did the most ambitious dish, using taro with morcilla and squid. My main problem with Ilan's dish is that the fibers caught themselves in the back of my throat, feeling itchy and causing the reaction chef Wong warned him about. It felt like eating the peel of a kiwi fruit. The flavor of the morcilla permeated the whole dish, and the squid had a nice texture and was cooked well, but that scratch kind of ruined it for me.
While my co-judges didn't get a bite of it on their plate, we did hear two or three people at the other tables saying the same thing I did. But that didn't make the edit. I still applaud Ilan for working with a product he'd never tried before. And when feeding that many people, I guess a small margin of error is forgivable. His fried dessert was delicious. It had the lovely fragrance and aroma of saffron with that golden hue and I thought it was extremely creative. And Ilan was right about his presentation -- it wasn't beautiful, I wish it had been as he's usually good at plating. Lucky for him, his flavors were spot on. I think the fact that he made his own sausage and brought it with him to Hawaii showed ambition as well as forethought. In the end, I'd rather have something be tasty than pretty, but maybe in the last round we'll get both?