A Little Place Called Assspppeeennn
Lee Anne Wong offers insider insight on part one of the finale.
Hi, all. I'll have to pull this one from memory. I was in awe of how beautiful Aspen was when I first went for a scout. City girl that I am, it is often so nice for me when I go somewhere where you can actually see the stars at night. At 11,000 feet above sea level, the nighttime sky is a sight to behold.
The Quickfire was such fun to set up. It was the perfect welcome for our contestants, and very much screamed "Aspen". Trout fishing, and fishing in general, are a big pastime in the Rocky Mountains, so we thought it fitting that we set them up by Frying Pan River.
Let me start by saying that the contestants should not be surprised at all if we ask them to jump out of plane and make a dish at the same time. The rigors of being on Top Chef, if you last long enough, would have you expecting the unexpected. Contestants from all seasons have a common bond attached to many many jokes revolving around some of the crazy shit we go through (like the whole bow and arrow thing in Vegas a la Dave Martin). You HAVE to have a sense of humor in order to not lose your mind during the whole process.
Three out of the final four responded very well to the Trout Quickfire. Mr. Malarkey however, did not do so well and decided to complain about every detail, from the stump to the propane burner, rather than accept the fact that his trout dish was unfocused. Every one of them started on an even playing field, with stumps and propane burners, and the other three happily cooked through their first challenge.
I thought Hung's dish was great, if only lacking a little bit of acid. His trout was perfectly seared and the dish was beautifully plated. Dale's dish incorporated some of my favorite flavors: bacon, apple, rosemary, and bourbon, but also lacked acid. Casey's winning dish had all of the flavors of summer, including fresh corn and ripe tomatoes, which accented the delicate flavor of the trout really well.
On to the Elimination Challenge: I had an amazing time working with all of the chefs and local farmers from Aspen. Elk is a sister ingredient to venison -- lean and gamy -- but properly prepared it can be outstanding. The contestants had to cater to a large group of cowboys and cowgirls and make something gourmet. We provided four different cuts of elk: loin, chops, leg, and osso buco. Most went for the chops and loin. Brian made the brave decision of braising the shanks (osso buco). Because of the time limits we give them I am always pleasantly surprised when someone attempts to braise something because it's one of the best ways to cook.
Our Art Director in Aspen, Sam Gezari, did a really phenomenal job getting the ranch ready for the big party, right down to the contestants' names in rope and wood. The guests looked great and the beer flowed freely. I tasted all of the final dishes. Hung's was very good, though I found it to be slightly boring. Casey's dish was not all that bad either, but I think the sauce (was it chipotle tomato something or another?) did absolutely nothing for the elk. Dale hit a homerun with his dish. His use of spices, fruit, and red wine cut through the gaminess of the elk, while the creamy yet chunky texture of the cauliflower and fingerlings added a starchy balance to the dish. I was very happy to see him win this challenge, as cooking meat is one of his strong points.
Brian suffered an elimination reminiscent of mine. He overthought his dish, and there was just way too much stuff on the plate. I tasted his dish and it was actually pretty good. The meat was falling off the bone tender and it was full of strong favorite flavors of mine: horseradish, sour cream, blue cheese... I think he should have stopped there because the cherries, pecans, asparagus, corn, and other nonsense cluttered up the great flavor of his braised shanks, which again, I think he did an awesome job with. Even though the plate was cluttered with a billion ingredients, the dish was received well by the cowboys and cowgirls. At the end of the day, it's the judges you have to please.
Brian is a great chef and he can definitely cook things other than seafood. It's funny to watch him on TV because I had never realized how much of a chatterbox he was in front of the camera. Bottom line, he's got the talent to back up the sales pitch most of the time, and I am sure there is nothing but great things ahead for him. And then there were three...