I am jumping on a plane, headed back to New York from Aspen, CO. The 25th Anniversary Food & Wine Classic was a great success!
I am happy to report that Season Two winner Ilan Hall charmed the crowd and made us all very proud. Although he lost the Sunday morning Classic Cook-off to legendary chef Jacques Pepin, I must admit the food he prepared in this Quickfire-style challenge looked delicious. I had the privilege of being his sous chef for the segment and was impressed by not only how quickly he could think on his feet in front of an audience of close to 1,000 people, but also how well-spoken and witty he could be.
He played up the crowd, joked and bantered with Jacques as well as Jacques' long-time friend and sous chef Jean Claude Szardak, flirted with Cook-off host Sissy Biggers, and still managed to put up a good fight. A small crew of Magical Elves, Top Chef's production company, was on-site to film it all. Hopefully viewers at home will one day get to see just how well he fared.
Now, back to Top Chef Three and the "Upscale Barbecue" challenge our contestants faced in Episode Two. Thanks to Lee Schrager, director of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, the addition of champagne to an already beautiful setting made it one of my favorite days on set. What could be better than smoky, grilled meat, chilled bubbly and Florida sunshine? As most people know, many cultures and regions, in this country and abroad, are fiercely protective, not to mention very serious, about their barbecue.
The term barbecue can mean many different things to everyone, and as we all gathered around the grills, I looked forward to discovering what each chef would prepare. Tom, Padma, Chef Norman Van Aken and I were interested in dishes that raised those slow-cooked, smoky flavors to new levels by interpreting them in high-end ways. We also wanted to see how our chefs would do so while interpreting what barbecue means to them, regardless of their obvious regional differences.
Almost all the contestants rose to the occasion. I personally loved Sara's Vietnamese Barbecue with Rib Eye and Cucumber Salad. The sweet and spicy beef was loaded with flavor, and when coupled with fresh radish, chilies, and rolled in a crisp lettuce leaf it created a cooling crunch. The perfect food for a hot summer day.
Micah also served us a regional take on upscale barbecue. Hailing from South Africa, she felt strongly that lamb on the "braai" was the way to go and cooked it to perfection, adding cool mint, chili and yogurt sauce, potato salad and a wonderful pomegranate glaze. It certainly was not the most elegant dish that day in terms of presentation. At first glance I remember thinking it would be clumsy and too large a portion to eat standing up -- one of my pet-peeves when at an event without formal seating. But the combination of well-grilled meat and the tang in that glaze converted me on the spot. It was unusual, creative and very satisfying.
But it was Brian's Chino-Latino Seafood Sausage with shrimp, fish and scallop in a Chili Glaze that stole the show. The complexity of his preparation, stylish presentation, and dead-on technique was impressive to say the least. He won the challenge because he managed to combine the essence of barbecue with ingredients that felt luxurious and intelligent. It was clear that he also gave a lot of thought to serving his food in a way that allowed him to interact calmly with the diners in attendance. Keeping cool under pressure in such a hot setting is no easy task and he pulled it off with ease.
Sandee, although well-intentioned, missed the point of this challenge and because of it was sent home. Her Vanilla Poached Lobster with Pancetta Wrapped Date and Truffle Slaw was not terribly-prepared or inedible, but we all walked away from it with the same distinct opinion: this dish had nothing to do with barbecue.
Her choice to poach the lobster in vanilla butter, while perhaps delicious in another context, eliminated any trace of possible barbecue flavor and could have been made just as easily on the stove. The dueling flavors of dates, pancetta and butter also drowned out the subtly of her main ingredient. Tre, Howie and Joey were also at the bottom of our list for not being upscale enough, but they did all prepare food that tasted and felt appropriate for an outdoor barbecue setting -- as uninspired as they were.
Had Sandee perhaps grilled those lobsters it may have been another story.... I was sad to see her go as I go the impression that she was an earnest and committed cook. However, the good news is that at this early stage of the competition we were eating better than we ever had. I can only expect that the best is yet to come.