The most exciting aspect of being a judge on "Top Chef" is the chance to taste the unusual, creative and, at times, outrageous dishes our contestants think up in the kitchen. As difficult as some of the challenges may be (our producers thrive on coming up with crazy ideas), many of the best dishes are created under the most stressful and unexpected circumstances. This was certainly the case with our Latin Lunch challenge, in which the chefs were asked to cater a Latin-influenced meal for the cast and crew of Telemundo's "Dame Chocolate," a Spanish-language soap opera shot at a dramatic mansion on exclusive Star Island in Miami.
First, let me tell you how gorgeous the location was. The home where the exterior scenes are shot is a massive, Spanish-style estate with extensive gardens and a glimmering pool, right on the water. Upon arrival, one of the producers informed us that legendary basketball star and Miami resident Shaquille O'Neal lives next door. When a few of us walked to the water's edge and peaked over the fence to the neighbor's yard, we could see the large basketball court on the other side, as well as a small, bobble-head statue of Shaq presiding over the dock! Wouldn't it have been fun if he had judged this challenge with us? Although, I am not sure our chefs made enough food to satisfy what I can only assume is one very healthy appetite.
Catering for a big crew on a tight schedule (and often tighter budget) is difficult in itself. We at "Top Chef" know this all too well, as we are our own traveling production that often falls prey to the unpredictability of being on location. We can all get pretty grumpy when not fed on time. Ironically, in this challenge the tables were turned. Our cast became the caterers and had to learn to adjust to cooking on a TV set. Thankfully, many of them had catering experience, so they were not totally in the dark about potential problems. Keeping food warm but not over cooked; Transporting it so it arrives intact and remembering to bring all necessary equipment, garnishes and serving pieces -- common catering catastrophes -- became the least of the chefs' worries. Mid-way through the cooking process, they discovered that they would only have half the time anticipated to finish their work. As often happens, the day's shooting schedule had changed and lunch had been moved up ninety minutes!
Interestingly, none of the chefs in the bottom four for this challenge were there because they did not have time to finish cooking. In fact, we were all impressed with how little the time constraints ended up affecting the final results. Of course, they all had to make adjustments to their plans, but for all the stress and running around they did in the kitchen, the chefs sure pulled it together for our guests.
In the case of both Hung and Casey, their chicken and rice were actually over cooked and quite dry -- two serious transgressions when catering for a group of eaters who count arroz con pollo among their cultural staples. For Sara N., the problem had more to do with communication. Regardless of whether she made her own tortillas or not, the dish was labeled a ceviche but showed none of a ceviche's signature characteristics. We could not detect the citrus that should have marinated and lightly "cooked" the scallop and shrimp. Because she used too much avocado, the dish seemed much more like a seafood guacamole than anything else.
Furthermore, although it wasn't terrible tasting, it certainly was not substantial enough to be a main course. Then there was lovely Lia, who I was absolutely heartbroken to send home this early in the competition. Sadly, her Smoked Rainbow Trout with Poblano Charred Corn Polenta Cake gave us no choice. It was mushy and void of much texture, under seasoned and most importantly, did not embody the essence of Latin American food.
On a high note, while the scheduling twist caused intense stress, it helped motivate some of the chefs to produce really excellent Latin-inspired food. Howie, who is always the first to admit that his weakness lies in not being able to budget his time properly, managed to rise to the occasion and steal the show! The result of his hard work was a Braised Pork Shoulder with Yuca and Sour Orange Mojo that everyone adored. It had just the right balance of spicy, zesty and tender meat, which was blended with a refreshing citrus and sweet onion crunch, and starchy, soothing yucca root. This dish was the clear winner for us all. To me, it represented how great Latin food can be, with its simplicity of presentation and vibrant depth of flavor.
Joey's Bean Stew with Lobster, Shrimp, Chicken and Chorizo was another surprising contender. At first glance it appeared a bit of a mess, but the smoky taste and hearty preparation could not be discounted. The addition of large pieces of lobster, shrimp and chicken to the beans not only elevated the style of the dish, but also the flavor, giving it a sophisticated twist. I also want to mention that many of us enjoyed Sara M.'s Chile Rellenos, a vegetarian creation that was overflowing with color and spice. The rice and vegetables were well cooked and seasoned, the queso fresco, which Sara made herself, was tangy and light. Another honorable mention goes to Tre for his tasty Jumbo Prawns with Yellow Coconut Sauce, Jalapno Cilantro Dumplings and Lobster Ceviche.
Someone on my blog last week asked if I ever get confused between the different dishes when there are so many of them to try. The answer is yes! It is especially difficult to keep track of the dishes in the first few episodes when we do not yet know the contestants. Thankfully, the show's producers help us by taking notes on who made what dish. The rest is up to us to sort out in our memories, as limited as they may be. This was definitely one of those days when keeping track required a bit of concentration. But for food and conversation this good, it's worth jogging your memory. I guess you could say we got everything we could have asked for on the set of a Telenovela...drama, passion and, of course, a lot of spice.