Welcome back and Happy New Year. I was pleased with this week's Quickfire and Elimination Challenges because I thought that, by forcing our remaining chefs to start with an idea unrelated to food, they allowed a window into the creative process. We got to see the starting point for each chef, and to follow them through their execution and representation of that idea -- be it a color or a deadly sin -- on the plate. In the process we got to learn a bit more about each chef's personality -- are they a glass half-empty or half-full kind of person?
Take Elia in the Quickfire, for example. My mind reels from all the possibilities one has with "White" as a starting point. Fresh ricotta cheese, cream, cauliflower, root vegetables like turnip and parsnip, the radish world -- jicama and daikon. You've got egg whites and lardo, an extravagantly flavorful form of bacon fat. Sour cream, goat cheese, mozzarella, every white fish in the book, and don't even get me started on potatoes. While Elia's dish turned out fine, her initial reaction to the challenge -- "what the hell am I supposed to do with white?" -- was telling. For others, the challenge, rather than providing a springboard for ideas, seemed limiting and pushed them in a very rigid direction: Witness Ilan's red on red beef tartar with beet chips. "Red" overtook his creative process and lost him the critical eye he needed to use negative space effectively on the plate.
The other thing that was interesting about these challenges was they did a great job of illustrating people's different work styles. I remember being asked to participate years ago in a mystery box challenge for New York magazine staged at my good friend Alfred Portale's restaurant, The Gotham Bar & Grill. Three other NY chefs cooked alongside us. I don't remember what was in the box, or even what we all came up with. What I do remember was that the five chefs in the room had five very distinct styles. Alfred was methodical and detailed -- he sketched out his whole dish ahead of time and then created lists. Another chef was noisy and talkative, trying one thing and then scrapping that idea and trying something else. I tend to work in a pretty focused way, without the final, completed dish in mind. For me cooking feels like sculpture. I dive into the ingredients and once I start working, the dish begins to reveal itself. Each step inspires the next step until a completed dish emerges. I also taste as I go, and let that guide me as well. The important thing is that there is no wrong or right way to go about this. Alfred's work style -- while completely different than my own -- produces some of the most delicious food I've ever eaten. That said, when people with different work styles are asked to collaborate, it can be tense. Witness the group's frustration when Marcel asked for time to deliberate in coming up with his "deadly sin" dish; the rest wanted to brainstorm as a group, but that simply isn't Marcel's style. When I nose my way around the Top Chef kitchen, I see different work styles at play and I don't judge anyone who seems to be verbal, or actively darting about while working -- I recognize it for the personal style that it is (disorganization is another thing altogether -- that's not a style, that's a liability). Cooking can be a very solitary act, so I do my best to ask questions that will open it up for the cameras and the viewers. I recognize the time pressure our chefs are under, though, so I'm never offended when someone says, "I can't talk right now, chef, I'm cooking." Believe me, I've been there.
With a couple exceptions, I was impressed with the results of the Seven Deadly Sins Elimination Challenge. Sam's Wrathful Ceviche with popcorn was a great choice. Ceviche is fish that is literally "cooked" by the acid and fiery spices in the dish, and popcorn implies explosion -- I thought this was an example of concept and execution coming together nicely. Elia's prideful dish of Roast Chicken and Vegetables was delicious and a crowd pleaser. Her presentation -- displaying the chicken's puffed out breasts and carving them tableside -- matched the sin, and there was pride and confidence in its simplicity. Cliff's Seafood Bouillabaisse was tasty, but his concept -- a soup "overwrought" with shellfish and vegetables -- didn't scream "greed" to me. Some at the table took issue with the stew itself -- the broth was a bit thick, almost a sauce, and there wasn't enough of it. Marcel's Cherry Tarte Tatin with cherry foam and chocolate was too precious and contained to truly represent "lust" (and the foam thing is getting old). Ilan's Chocolate Cake with Nut Brittle suffered from his inclusion of the funnel cakes. They may have been delicious when they were first fried up in the Top Chef kitchen, but deep-fried foods are a poor choice for serving later -- they become limp and soggy. Saturating them in sweet syrup and crisping them in the oven didn't remedy the problem. If "warmed over" was a deadly sin, then Ilan would have had a chance.
Betty's slothful Trio of Slow Roasted Soups was a disappointment. I can't argue with her idea of serving something that required no effort (or even teeth) to eat, but her execution was poor. The soups weren't strained correctly, leading to unappetizing lumps, and the flavors failed to excite. I thought the dish lacked imagination, so in that one sense I guess she hit the nail on the head -- her creative process and technique seemed as lazy as her deadly sin.
The real surprise for me and the others was Michael's "envy" dish. His idea of presenting two ingredients on a plate with one that could be "envious" of another was nothing short of brilliant. When he ran it by me in the kitchen I had doubts about whether he could pull it off, but he definitely did; the fish was cooked perfectly, the lemon-thyme beurre blanc was simple and offset the fish beautifully, and the presentation was tight and skillful. My first reaction was that Michael -- who was taking heavy-duty painkillers after an emergency wisdom tooth extraction -- should cook on Vicodin more often (just kidding, spare me the hate mail). But when I thought about it, I realized that Michael has no doubt spent the last few weeks watching and listening to the cooks around him. He's been picking up good habits and learning that there is a lot more out there than the food he'd been exposed to in the past. I think of this in terms of a basketball metaphor -- a minor player on the team is bound to improve more among stronger players, rather than among people at his own level. And while I would never advocate a professional chef cooking on any kind of drug, in Michael's case, he was a bit out of it from the dental work and medication, which may have helped him escape the petty Marcel-baiting that seemed to bog down some of the others, especially Ilan. Which leads me to my final thought: Now that we're down to only seven chefs, the tension and stress levels are rising. This is to be expected, but it seems to be playing out especially in the group's growing antagonism towards Marcel.
Marcel is the kind of guy who has probably pissed people off his whole life -- dating back to the playground -- without really understanding why or how. Faced with people's negative reactions he lashes back in even more annoying ways, creating a cycle. Under ordinary circumstances, the others may have been willing to brush off Marcel's irritating behavior, but with little sleep and mounting pressure, they're regressing instead into a group of petty sixth-graders. This reached a head for me when I saw the group decide not to serve his dish during the dinner party (Elia was the lone dissenter in this). I replayed the episode to see what Marcel had done to spark this little mob mentality, and realized he hadn't done much, other than speak forcefully. Obviously, the group was primed to be angry with him over the slightest infraction. I wanted to see some leadership -- someone who would step up and say, "Marcel may be the most annoying guy in the world, but the show must go on. Let's put our heads down and get this meal over with." Imagine if a restaurant line came to a screeching halt every time some cook pissed off another? Trust me; it would be the end of restaurant dining as we know it.