Here's some of the things the producers of Top Chef don't tell us: Who should win. Who should go home. Who to keep for the sake of drama. Here's the thing they told us this week: Pick the five best Quickfire chefs, so that the other five can cook Thanksgiving dinner for them. I know I'm going to get blamed for this flagrant break with custom. But hell, as long as the producers weren't telling me which five to pick, I was OK with it. Clearly, though, the losing five were not.
She was unhappy at being in the lesser category -- equal parts humiliation and true disenchantment with me as a judge. It's funny -- taste is a very subjective thing. While I appreciated that Elia's family mixed fruit and meat flavors at their traditional holiday celebrations in Mexico, to my palate the meat hash, though tasty enough, didn't mesh well at all with the ambrosia salad that Elia lumped beside it on the plate. What I learned, though, was that Elia could handle losing the challenge (buffered somewhat by being one of five) but she couldn't handle losing faith in someone she had respected. She had tasted Cliff's dish and found the flavors wanting, and couldn't fathom that I disagreed (for the record, Cliff's dish didn't blow my mind, but it was better than the five that lost). Elia's disillusionment colored everything from that moment on -- she lost all motivation to compete. Later she asked me to justify my decision, which I was happy to do. Only when Elia came to see that I had truly chosen based on my personal palate -- which differs widely from hers -- was her equilibrium restored so she could focus on the task at hand.
The Elimination Challenge asked the five chefs to reinvent the traditional flavors of Thanksgiving with a cutting-edge twist. The chefs were given an hour in the kitchen to plan, and then a chance to prep and cook in their lofts -- a rough simulation of a home kitchen (if your home kitchen had a camera crew hovering overhead). This was a tough challenge in that it was asking for clashing concepts -- traditional and cutting edge -- to work together. Sadly, the group got off to a mundane start. Rather than spit-balling ideas -- how to get the flavors of turkey, cranberry, stuffing, etc. across in unexpected ways -- the group's meeting became little more than a chance for Betty to divvy out tasks. Surprisingly, iconoclastic Marcel suggested that they work together to find inspiration as a team. He was quickly shot down in favor of individual courses -- mistake number one. Love Marcel or hate him, the man at least has ideas. The group sorely needed another idea person to help break down their conventional mindset right from the start, but Elia was still too preoccupied and angry to contribute in a meaningful way. Now, I love Thanksgiving -- it's one of my favorite meals. Every year my son Dante and I make our way over to Craft early that morning to make the stuffing (the kid's a whiz with sausage). And while I don't necessarily prepare a cutting-edge Thanksgiving meal for my own family, I liked this challenge because I thought it would really give our chefs a chance to break out and get creative. Imagine if the group had worked together to reinvent the meal as we know it, maybe by taking traditional stuffing ingredients -- bread, oysters, sausage, fennel, sage and wrapping them in turkey skin to form an avant-garde sausage? Or how about a turkey confit with oysters, poached in butter and finished with cranberry gelee and a fine dice of sauteed sweet potatoes? Thinking along these lines would have meant breaking down the concept of a Thanksgiving meal into its individual flavor components, and then playing with them in a skillful, imaginative way.
Betty pretty much ruled that out by cleaving to a traditional concept presented in the traditional way -- turkey and all the trimmings -- and the others never questioned it. In his frustration, Marcel took on the main course, figuring that if he couldn't rescue the entire meal from mediocrity, he was at least going to put his stamp on the entree. In order to start working, he had to deal with the pigsty the male chefs have been calling home, which resembled a frat house after hell week. Marcel dumped everything in his path into a pile, thus whipping Frank (who was clearly egged on by the other guys) into an overheated froth. Drama, drama, drama. Clearly, Marcel could have gone about things in a less irritating way. But to threaten him with violence because he messed with your toiletries? (Quick tip, Frank: As a top chef, threatening your staff with physical harm can get you brought up on charges. You might want to work on your anger management skills.) But let's get back to the food. Michael's dish -- a twice-baked potato with shrimp, a parsnip/potato puree, and corn with cheese. Each of these was decent enough (the baked potato was actually delicious), but cutting edge? Why? Because they were three beige items on the plate? Because he had doubled (or tripled) up on starches? If violating the rules of Cooking 101 is cutting edge, than I suppose Michael's course fits the bill. But one needs to know the rules in order to break them, and it has to be done with a certain knowing panache; Michael served his dish up without even a hint of irony and it was clear that he was cooking based on some indistinct notion of "starchy side dish," without giving the actual mandate -- cutting edge cooking -- a second thought.
Carlos' dish was even worse -- mesclun greens that could have come from a bag, dotted with roast vegetables, burnt onions, chipotle peppers and queso fresco. Now, I have nothing against salad. I have enjoyed delicious salads, and have prepared them on occasion. But given the chance to show off, to express myself, to do something cutting edge -- I wouldn't pick a salad. Carlos' choice to go with it (or rather his failure to stand up and challenge the arbitrary inclusion of a salad course) was less about winning than it was about falling safely somewhere in the middle. His tepid execution of the salad only confirmed this. It showed us that Carlos lacks the killer instinct -- the desire to win, to rock people's worlds -- that sets apart a top chef.
Elia's soup was delicious. Served hot, the perfect texture, and full of rich, earthy mushroom flavor. It was a welcome departure from the limp courses that preceded it. Problem was there was nothing cutting edge about it. It was cream of mushroom soup. I was sorry to see this, because I know that Elia is capable of interesting choices. Her resentment going into the challenge kept her from throwing some real ideas into the mix early enough to affect the meal, or at the very least, her dish. Imagine all that could have been done with a soup course in this challenge -- how about turkey consomme, poured over small dumplings of turkey stuffed into cabbage leaves, and roasted fall vegetables?
Marcel's turkey entree was the only dish that met the criteria of traditional thanksgiving flavors reinterpreted in a cutting edge way: He served an unusual roulade of turkey breast, turkey farce (a puree of the dark meat) and stuffing, garnished with a cranberry foam and cranberry gelee. Unfortunately, the poached turkey was bone dry -- a problem Marcel blamed on his lack of a thermal immersion circulator. For the uninitiated, a thermal immersion circulator is a piece of equipment that keeps water at a very low and steady temperature (usually between 100 and 120 degrees). Ingredients are vacuum sealed in a pouch and immersed in the circulator to cook gently over a long period of time. Marcel improvised with saran wrap and a pot of near-boiling water, which is hard to keep at a low and steady temperature and led to him overcooking the dish. Certainly a thermal immersion circulator would have helped, but without one, Marcel needed to adapt his concept. One way would have been to roast the turkey roulade wrapped in some type of fat -- bacon, prosciutto or even turkey skin. If Marcel was wedded to the idea of poaching, then he should have at the very least buttered the saran wrap thoroughly before rolling the whole thing up. In other words -- he should have adapted his idea to fit his equipment.
Lastly, we had Betty's course -- an assortment of flavored Creme Brulees. The dessert failed on two levels -- conceptually, there is nothing cutting edge about Creme Brulee, and, though Betty disagreed, flavoring it with chai or pumpkin doesn't make it so. Secondly, they were poorly executed -- the creme had the runny texture of pie filling, and the Brulee of sugar was burnt. The best thing I can say about this meal was that at least we weren't subjected to a "refresher."
Tony Bourdain was our Guest Judge and he was a blast to have on set. He knows good food when he tastes it, and he's not afraid to speak up about it (to hilarious effect -- he literally had us rolling in the aisles). But all the fun couldn't distract us judges from a very real dilemma: Of the five chefs, Marcel was the only one who truly tried to meet the cutting-edge challenge, but his dish wasn't that good. Elia, on the other hand, didn't aim for cutting-edge at all, but her dish -- while fairly mundane -- was well-executed and delicious. What to do? Tony went with Elia over Marcel -- hers was the dish we all enjoyed eating the most. It was a tough call, and frankly, I'm not sure who I would have rewarded -- the better idea or the better execution? Luckily, the Guest Judge chooses the winner and I was exempt from having to decide. The permanent judges however, decide who goes home, and in the end it was a clear choice. We had no shortage of misses in this meal, but in my book it was Carlos who truly failed.
Betty, misguided as she may have been, actually believed she was doing something cutting edge. Michael served up at least one tasty item (the twice baked potato) and while he never once came close to cutting-edge, he pushed himself by also taking on a canape and cheese course (served, oddly, after dessert, but he gets points for trying). Carlos, it seemed, wasn't playing to win, merely to skate by. His goal seemed to be to cleave safely to the middle and frankly, that's not good enough. A top chef has to aim higher than that. I really believe that the extent to which the chefs in this competition throw their backs into it is a reflection of how hard they're going to throw themselves into every plate that leaves their kitchen one day. Their diners deserve nothing less. Happy Thanksgiving to all of our viewers -- I hope your holiday is filled with friends, family and good food for all. Tom