Three nights before this challenge was taped, Tom and I stumbled into the new Table 8 Restaurant in South Beach (the original is in Los Angeles), exhausted after a long day of shooting a previous episode. It was probably around eleven o'clock and we were famished. It may surprise you to know that despite all of the eating you see us do on the show, filming of the Judges Table takes so long that we are usually very hungry and tired when we are done.
Luckily, Chef Govind Armstrong was in town and immediately made us very comfortable at the bar. While his bartender plied us with a slew of creative and potent cocktails, he instructed his kitchen to bring out a series of fabulously decadent snacks for us to try. The few I remember most were rich Kobe-style beef sliders, quarters of grilled cheese sandwiches with a plate of buttery, lemony, broccoli rabe, and zesty arancini (fried risotto balls) with cheese and tomato. These treats really hit the spot and, coupled with our drinks, made the perfect end to the day. When I discovered that Govind would be judging the "Top Chef" late-night snack food challenge a few days later, I knew he was the man for the job.
To me, late-night snack food, especially after a night of drinking, needs to be very savory and very easy to eat. It is no coincidence that most of us crave salty, greasy, fatty foods to coat our stomachs and sop up the alcohol we have consumed. Spicy flavors also seem to do the trick, perhaps because the fire in your mouth and belly help you forget whatever else you put in there earlier in the evening
For the most part, I thought the menus each of the teams chose for this challenge read appropriately. I was eager to see how they would work together to pull it all off in the cramped kitchens of their food trucks, or "roach coaches," as they are often affectionately called. Interestingly, many of the items they came up with were variations of bar snack recipes FOOD & WINE created in January 2006, when we declared it the Year of the Cocktail, including quesadillas, chicken wings, grilled shrimp and a killer burger with Stilton and sweet-potato fries. Check them out and let me know if they satisfy your late-night appetite!
I knew as soon as Sara N. began complaining about her outfit that the Orange Team was doomed. Cooking in a low-cut shirt and heels, while obviously not ideal, should have been the least of their problems, with hundreds of drunken mouths to feed. It became increasingly apparent, as well, that no one on their team was happy working with one another and that this spurred significant tension in the kitchen. Then, there was the Black Team, who seemed to embrace the challenge with a sense of humor and fun, quickly rising above the disappointment of discovering they were not going to spend the night partying in the club themselves. I know it is easy for me judge from the comfort of my living room after the fact, but from the very start of this preposterous night, I could not help but feel that the Black Team's energy and cooperation enabled them to produce better food, more efficiently. It also gave them the confidence to promote their dishes so well.
I found one portion of their offering questionable: Brian's raw bar. I have to agree with Tom that it did not sound very appetizing. Don't forget that texture plays a serious role in late-night eating (slimy food = very bad). It certainly is not what I opt to eat on my way home from a club on a Saturday night, but I guess he charmed his audience enough so that it did not seem to matter. And once Brian lured the clubgoers over, Tre sealed the deal. His Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp and Grits sounded like the ideal late-night dish (creamy food = very good). It was smoky, creamy, and salty, with just the right amount of sophistication to please the judges too. It was almost as satisfying to see him win with that dish as I imagine it was to eat it. I, for one, ended my night after watching the episode, completely satiated by the outcome.