One of the things that distinguish a great chef is his or her love of food. Notice I didn't say fine food. Or fancy food. Good food doesn't have to be fancy, but it takes a lot of maturity and self-confidence to realize that.
My first cooking job was in my family's swim club in Elizabeth, NJ. I ran the grill, making burgers and hot dogs and grilled cheeses. My next job was at Burger King. By the time I got to Evelyn's -- a big, homey seafood restaurant -- I was hitting my stride. I started out as the guy who peeled the shrimp -- pretty low on the totem pole. By the end of my time there I was responsible for all the purchasing, and I pretty much worked every station in between. Now, Evelyn's is not fine dining. It's a good, run-of-the-mill seafood place. But I don't remember ever thinking that preparing that kind of basic food was beneath me. Maybe that's because the idea of a "celebrity chef" didn't really exist back then, and it wasn't something I or anyone I knew aspired to. I think even back then I derived a sense of satisfaction from preparing food well, regardless of how basic it was. I'm a great admirer of conceptual chefs like the great Ferran Adria (El Bulli, outside Barcelona) or Wylie Dufresne (wd-50, NYC) who experiment with culinary practices to push the envelope of flavor and texture. But when it's time to eat at home, I'm pretty certain Ferran isn't serving beet foam or foie gras cotton candy to his family. The man has a solid command of the basics, and probably roasts a chicken, or braises a piece of meat, just like the rest of us. Just as a great abstract painter starts with exceptional drawing skills before branching out expressionistically, Ferran started with a complete command of the basics, and used that as the stepping off point for his stylistic evolution.
I guess that's why I'm always kind of surprised and amused by young chefs who label themselves "molecular gastronomists" before they've had a chance to establish their own foundation, or who insist that basic food is "just not what I do." For one thing, I think the idea of a chef who only does one thing is silly. To do any food well (especially fine food) requires that a chef be well-rounded, and have a solid command of the basics. Eventually, a chef will arrive at their style, but it takes years of grinding out good, well-executed food to get there. Our Guest Judge this week, Stephen Bugarelli, is the Senior Executive Chef for TGIFriday's, and good, basic food is the concept behind his entire organization. TGIFriday's is not trying to reinvent the wheel or take American food in a new direction. It seemed clear to me when Stephen arrived on our set that he sees TGIFriday's menus as an opportunity for diners to revisit the foods they loved growing up, only updated with an adult twist. The Elimination Challenge was designed to give our chefs a chance to do exactly that with one of their own childhood favorites. It allowed them to show off their personal style while also demonstrating that they could adapt that style to the taste of the general public. Best of all, the winner of the challenge was going to have their name on menus in over 500 TGIF locations -- huge exposure for a fledgling chef. The chefs were each given $100 and 30 minutes to shop. After prep and a couple hours in the kitchen, they had 15 minutes in the kitchen at the South Pasadena Fire Station before presenting their food to the two groups of happy firefighters seated with Padma and Gail, and the poor suckers who ended up sitting with me.
Right off the bat, some of our chefs took on a superior attitude towards the challenge. Marcel reminded us that, as a molecular gastronomist, "Comfort food isn't what I do." Emily sniffed that she was a practitioner of four-star cuisine, not a mass producer. As I'm sure you can tell by now, I don't have a lot of patience for this. Just cook the damn food, will ya? Some of our other contestants -- notably Michael and Mia -- seemed energized by the challenge, seeing casual, comfort food as their particular milieu. Michael, especially, seemed to have an advantage, since he'd worked at a TGIFriday's. We figured he may have absorbed some of the company's mission and philosophy while there, and could tailor his efforts accordingly. That's why I was genuinely surprised to see his dish -- possibly the sloppiest, least tasty steak sandwich I'd ever encountered. The cooking lacked technique, was presented haphazardly, and gave off the impression that he didn't care. The sad part was that Michael genuinely believed he had given us a great dish. Frankly, I couldn't tell if Michael was simply underestimating his diners, or genuinely doesn't know from good food. And presentation aside, the dish would have tasted a lot better if back in the store he had kept the cheese, and returned the beer.
Marcel was quick to blame Michael for the fat in the deep fryer being too cool to cook onion rings. I give him credit for leaving them off the plate -- this showed confidence in his other components. His pork chop with mushroom sauce was good, if not memorable, but I would have liked to see Marcel shelve his natural petulance and roll with the problem he'd been handed. Kitchen equipment breaks down occasionally, and older equipment isn't always up to speed. It's a chef's job to adapt. Marcel's inability to let it go, coupled with his need to provoke his peers, could end up a real liability for him down the line. Cliff also went for comfort food, with a delicious mac n' cheese (about as comforting as comfort food gets) and fish sticks -- both items that immediately convey childhood. My only quibble (and it was a small one) is that I think the mac n' cheese would have been better baked to get that nice, crispy edge. But, overall, the dish was good and well prepared. Ilan's childhood memories were of corn in the summertime, and since it was in season, he turned it into a delicious side dish, adding layers of smoky, salty flavor with bacon.
Frank's dish of "mushrooms" on a hollowed bread stem, stuffed with mushroom duxelle, greens, and oven-roasted tomatoes, was a head-scratcher. I could see he was aiming for a whimsical toadstool tableau straight out of Alice in Wonderland. The problem was, Frank lacked the finesse to pull it off. Very few chefs have the true technical precision to make whimsy like that work and taste delicious. (My friend Thomas Keller comes to mind, with dishes like his Oysters and Pearls -- a savory pearl tapioca custard garnished with oysters and caviar.) Unfortunately, Frank's dish was a clunker. Now here's a bit of insider, only-in-the-blog info: The day of the Elimination Challenge, L.A. was basting in its own juices at a temperature of about 110 degrees and the fire station lacked air-conditioning. We were sweltering. Sam's decision to serve a summer fruit salad was a stroke of genius. Not only did he display impeccable knife skills and a confident use of fresh herbs, he showed true chef instincts by responding to his diner's environment. The dish had great flavor and was completely refreshing -- which, on a day like that, was its own form of comfort. Emily's surf & turf was, quite simply, inedible. Somehow she had managed to oversalt the dish to such an extent that we could barely choke down a bite. One of the first things every neophyte chef learns is the necessity of tasting their food as they go (using a clean spoon, NOT a finger). Emily insisted that she had tasted her dish, but either she forgot and didn't, or her taste buds are calibrated very differently than the rest of us. Elia's fish tacos with guacamole spoke of her Mexican childhood. They were tasty, and fun to eat. The guacamole did a good job of offsetting the heat of the salsa in the tacos.
Carlos' dish of chicken-fried shrimp with corn, red pepper and lime was also good, but in the oppressive heat, it was starting to get hard to appreciate the heavier, fried dishes. Same goes for Mia's meatloaf sandwich with spicy ketchup relish. Good, but better suited to a cold, winter day. Marisa made dessert, where she is most comfortable. And while it wasn't bad, the dish had an unwelcome busy-ness to it; strawberry crisp with pecan-streusel topping, caramel sauce, vanilla whipped cream. There are plenty of people who think a dish is better if it trumpets a long list of ingredients, but I'm not one of them. There was a certain irony to the fact that Betty, like her nemesis Marcel, faced equipment issues. In her case, the griddle lacked heat, so she ultimately switched her grilled cheese sandwiches to saute pans, finishing them with only seconds to spare. Marcel deliberately tried to mess with her head, but Betty had the support of the rest of the chefs who cheered her on, right down to the wire. Her grilled cheese with portabellas and red pepper soup put an adult spin on a childhood classic (grilled cheese and tomato soup) and the flavors were clean and good. Because Betty didn't consider the challenge beneath her, her choices were exuberant, innovative, and they hit just the right midpoint between comforting and healthy. I'm not sure that she taught the molecular gastronomists anything, but as far as I can see, the brass at TGIFriday's could not care less.