This week's episode -- in some ways, until the final Judge's Table -- was my favorite episode to date.
From the first moment that we all sat down with Chef Alan Wong for the celebratory lunch (one of the most delicious meals of my life, by the way) through the end of the evening -- there was a palpable excitement in the air, all due to the amazing ingredients, the spectacular locale, and the sight of four motivated, talented individuals cooking in a beautiful outdoor kitchen, for everyone to see. I really got a kick from seeing how each of the contestants interpreted the challenge -- their choices spoke volumes about them as chefs.
Ilan decided to mix Hawaiian techniques with Spanish flavors. Elia was aiming for a fusion of Mediterranean and Hawaiian flavors. Sam seemed bent on modernizing the Hawaiian dishes with a lighter, sophisticated touch, and Marcel chose to deconstruct the Hawaiian dishes altogether, and apply his molecular gastronomy to recreating them in his own, unique, wacky Scientist way. I strolled the kitchen a number of times and, aside from the minor tension that comes from chefs working busily in the same space with shared equipment, I didn't notice anything awry. I was practically giddy -- I could see how carefully Sam, Ilan, Elia and Marcel had prepared in the two months since our initial shoot. They had worked on a variety of ideas, researched Hawaiian cuisine, and carefully selected and brought along some of the ingredients they had grown to rely upon as chefs. Honestly, it felt as though it was finally about the food.
And what of the food? It was all really good, but two dishes stood out: Marcel's deconstructed Hamachi Poke with Pineapple "Poi" was terrific. Finally, Marcel had found a context for his molecular gastronomy that made sense. Nowhere was there a foam-for-the-sake-of-foam, rather his esoteric techniques allowed him to accomplish things that couldn't have come from straight cooking, but with a clear respect for the Hawaiian flavors and textures. Witness his clever use of an aerator and xanthan gum to thicken raw pineapple into a light, airy "Poi" (a pineapple custard would have been a more conventional choice, but would have sacrificed the flavor of the raw fruit that is so prevalent in Hawaiian cooking).
Overall the dish was playful but focused, the flavors clean, and the presentation beautiful. The other clear success was Ilan's Morcilla and Squid Lau Lau. The dish truly borrowed from both Hawaiian and Spanish cuisine successfully; at lunch the day before, Chef Wong had emphasized how important cooked Taro leaf is to Hawaiian cuisine, and of all the chefs only Ilan attempted it -- Taro leaves are not easy to work with, and they have a strong and distinctive flavor. Ilan's chopped Morcilla (a Spanish version of blood sausage) and Squid was flavorful enough to stand up to the Taro's flavor and actually enhance it. All in all, a great dish, and one that fully embraced the challenge.
It felt to me that Sam played it a bit safe with his Poke with Sea Beans and Yuzu juice, and his Macadamia Coconut-milk pudding, delicious as they were. While I have no complaints about his food, neither of the dishes stood out for originality or seemed particularly personal to Sam, and he certainly took no risks by trying to cook using an unfamiliar Hawaiian technique. In fact, neither of the dishes were actually cooked. I'm not saying that a raw dish doesn't have merit -- it just was a safer route than attempting to cook something -- that's one less (major) thing to screw up. Elia, on the other hand, did utilize an unfamiliar Hawaiian technique by steaming snapper in Ti leaves, and we gave her props for that, but unfortunately she chose red bell pepper and peas (evoking neither Hawaiian or Mediterranean flavors) to accompany the fish, and the dish was bland. If Elia was determined to use peas, I would have like to see her connect the dots between peas and Taro -- both are starchy vegetables -- and use them to create her own "poi."
Eli's Poke of raw tuna was also a nice enough dish, though I found the olives a bit overpowering. The problem was, I didn't feel it retained anything of the Hawaiian vernacular the chefs were charged with interpreting. The flavors -- olives, capers, and tomato -- could have evoked Italy or the South of France just as easily, and the fact that the fish was raw wasn't enough of a link to Hawaiian cuisine. One of my favorite dishes to prepare at the raw bar at Craftsteak is crudo -- an Italian iteration of the same dish -- super-fresh fish, sliced and dressed with flavors that enhance the qualities of the fish itself. I felt Elia had given us a lovely dish of crudo, without a clear sense of place or Hawaiian tradition.
We had more or less made up our minds, when Ilan and Elia suddenly piped up about Marcel's behavior earlier that day in the kitchen. The judges struggled to understand exactly what Marcel had done to provoke the other three -- to elicit a charge of cheating, no less.
The only example of untoward behavior Elia could come up with was Marcel moving her steamer on the stove, so that he could use the burner underneath. Now, for the record, I've worked shoulder to shoulder with other cooks in many busy kitchens. There is never enough time or enough room, frankly, and everyone does their best to complete their work without stepping on someone else. It's not a violation of protocol in a busy kitchen to move a pot -- provided it isn't actually cooking -- to make way for one that needs fire. It's good manners to point it out -- but every professional chef understands the need for a working burner, and every cook has been there. There's no such thing as "reserving" a cold burner for later, at least not in any of the kitchens I've been in. And when Elia admitted that Marcel hadn't caused any injury to her dish by moving the steamer, I pretty much hit the end of my rope.
Now I'm not naive -- it seemed clear that Elia was alluding to other behavior that may have transpired. Marcel, as has been pointed out ad nauseum -- rubs people the wrong way. He's quick to needle, pontificate or toss out unwelcome comments that may have been better left unsaid. He's fairly uncompromising in his vision, and views mundane ideas with contempt. All of this makes the guy more of a social maladroit than a villain. Jokes, insults, and tough banter are part of every kitchen I've ever been in, and most people just let it go. My sense is that by this point, Marcel had already tipped the scales of his competitor's tolerance so far away that anything he said or did, regardless of how harmless, was going to be interpreted badly by the other three.
At another time I'll be happy to ruminate on how important popularity is to the role of a Top Chef. Sure, it's important to have the support of your troops as you head into battle (or at least their respect). And I know there will be plenty of people who believe that Marcel can't be a Top Chef -- no matter how good his food is -- because of his failures on an interpersonal level. But when Elia stood up and accused Marcel of cheating -- a charge I take very seriously -- I wanted actual examples of malfeasance, or I didn't want to be bothered. Neither Elia, Ilan or Sam could come up with one. And by then I was sick to death of it all. Marcel's annoying -- I get it -- now let's get on with the food.
Ultimately, Ilan and Marcel went at tonight's challenge with the most imagination, creativity and personality. Both adroitly did the thing they do -- applying Spanish flavors and chemical wizardry -- with flair and respect for traditional Hawaiian cuisine. And on that basis, these two were chosen to go forward into the next, and final phase of the Top Chef Finale.