Arriving in Aspen for our Season Three finale was for me a little like coming home. Since I have the great fortune of spending time there on a regular basis to work on the annual FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen, which takes place each June, I know the town and many of its generous and colorful residents fairly well. Although I am there at least three times a year, I rarely get the chance to take in the local culture and activities, save for the occasional half day of skiing if my meetings finish early enough, or a quick hike on one of the area's exquisite trails. I have certainly eaten in many of the town's fine restaurants, but have never been invited to one of its legendary ranches to dine with local cowboys and cowgirls. When we were informed that this would be the Elimination Challenge scenario, I knew we were all in for an exciting night.
What I did not know until I watched the episode was just how much the final four contestants had already been through by the time I met up with them at Moon Run Ranch. Their hot-air-balloon ride and the trout Quick Fire challenge they'd survived the day before seemed stressful enough, let alone having to cook elk on the fly for a barn full of ravenous Colorado rodeo folk.
Were you as disappointed as I was watching the Quickfire? Was it me or did it look as if they all were a little off their marks and slightly more frazzled than usual? I am sure it was the combination of their long day of travel, unfamiliar surroundings, high altitude and the lack of work space they were given to do the job. Whatever the reason for their nervousness, both Brian and Dale seemed off to a messy start and even Hung was acting forgetful. At least Casey's dish was worthy of praise and earned high marks in the hallowed opinion of guest judge Eric Ripert, a chef who knows a thing or two about cooking fish and seafood.
If it had been anyone else competing in the finale I may have been worried, but that night at the ranch I was reminded that this was no ordinary country shindig: The four chefs who were cooking for us are without a doubt four of the strongest, toughest, and most focused people I have encountered in a long time. They have traveled with us across the country via Miami to Newark, New York, and finally the Roaring Fork Valley to show just how determined and talented they are. If they could make it through the 12 previous challenges, the late nights of grueling conditions, unfamiliar kitchens, and our often unforgiving critiques, they could surely make it through this.
Personally, I was proud to show off their skills to our diners and also a little saddened knowing only one of them could emerge victorious at the end of such a long and winding road. As we say time and again, we are beyond the point of mediocre food and mediocre ability. Each of the four dishes prepared were tasty, interesting, and showed great skill, which made it especially tricky to choose who to eliminate. In order to do so we had to carefully deconstruct each element and nitpick every choice they made. Quickfiire winner Casey's Mushroom Crusted Loin of Elk with Cauliflower Duo was elegant and flavorful, and the addition of her smoky tomato butter added a smooth finish and a complex counterpoint, but her meat was slightly undercooked and the cauliflower concoction was confusing to the eye and the palate.
One conversation I wish our viewers would have seen more of was when Hung was confronted by the fact that although we know he is incredibly skilled as a cook, his food can convey an air of robotic perfection and a lack of what we called "soul." His reaction was not only vehement but full of conviction. He waxed poetic for several minutes about his life growing up in the kitchen and how food has been a guiding force ever since he could reach the stove. His energy was convincing but we all were puzzled by why he had not shared any of this before. From what we learned, I can only assume that in addition to growing up with an infatuation for cooking, he also grew up in a world of extreme discipline and perhaps competitive spirit. How else could we account for his guarded nature and unending drive? Make no mistake: These are all great qualities in any chef. But at times, a chef must also have the insight to know how to show compassion, accept constructive criticism and know there is much that can be learned from the people around you, if only you know how to listen and where to look.
But this is all an aside from our task at hand -- to judge his dish. What struck me most about it was that, if you removed the elk itself from the equation, his garnish seemed far more suited to fish. In fact, tomatoes, fennel, and lemon are ingredients often used with light, summery seafood dishes, not with rich game. I also did not personally care for the contrast between the elk and the strong flavor of lemon zest in his sauce. Although the meat was cooked to perfection, I think the dish suffered from an identity crisis.
Now on to the winner of the night: Dale's dish showed us just the right balance of skill, subtlety, and sense of humor. He had the sense to change direction when he saw his goat cheese tart did not set properly and had a plan in place that worked just as well. His Spiced Elk Loin with Cauliflower, Fingerling Potatoes and Huckleberry Demiglace captured the true feeling of the challenge, and when all elements were tasted together they truly created a combination that was better than its individual parts. Now, isn't that always the ultimate goal? If Dale's dish was a ballet, gracefully dancing across our tongues, Brian's dish was a rodeo.And although we may have been serving its participants, we did not necessarily want to eat one. I have always been a fan of his infectious charm and enthusiasm, but this time he got a bit carried away. To say his dish was simply Whiskey Braised Elk Shank with Potato Puree, Pancetta, Corn and Asparagus Relish would be a gross understatement. There must have been literally eight or nine other ingredients added to it, including nuts, herbs, and a choice between two blue cheeses to sprinkle on top. It did not taste bad, but compared to the other three dishes it lacked focus and restraint.
PS Click here to view a recent video of me and four-star chef Daniel Boulud, as he shows how the original Paupiette of Sea Bass from last week's Quickfire Challenge is made!