When "Top Chef: Season Three" premieres on the East Coast, I will be deep into the throes of another aspect of my job at Food & Wine Magazine, managing the many moving parts of the 25th anniversary Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, the nation's most venerated food festival. It is here where the country's top chefs -- from Thomas Keller to Bobby Flay (and of course my good friend Chef Tom ) -- winemakers and food experts, along with thousands of enthusiastic eaters, gather each year to celebrate their love of all things culinary in the most spectacular setting you can imagine.
Now don't think I do any of this alone: I am joined by a team of food obsessed co-conspirators whom I can only describe as the coolest, smartest, most committed people I know, not to mention the gracious support of the City of Aspen and over 500 local volunteers who spend countless hours working hard to ensure that, for four miraculous days in June, Aspen, Colorado is the center of the epicurean universe. It is one heck of a party, if I do say so myself. But before I get too caught up in the festivities, I cannot help but tell you how excited I am for Ilan Hall, our Season Two winner, to experience the magic that is this very special event. As part of his prize, Ilan will be the star a number of times this weekend: cooking a prestigious charity lunch to help support Food & Wine's Grow for Good campaign, along side eco-focused chef Ryan Hardy of The Little Nell, and in a race against the clock cooking challenge (something at which we all know Ilan excels) that pits him against mastermind Jacques Pepin, in our annual Classic Cook-off.
Watching this first episode I cannot help but wonder: who will be joining us next year in Aspen? Who of these 15 strangers has what it takes to make it through the grueling challenges we are about to set before them? That first day may not have been as nerve-wracking for me as it was for them, but it certainly was intimidating. The first glimpse I got of our new crop of hopefuls was when they placed their uncommon surf-and-turf creations before us. Making my way through each one I became hopelessly aware of how difficult it was to keep them all differentiated. In order to do so, I had to play a little mind game with myself linking these outrageous combinations of land and sea critters to the people who cooked them.For better or worse, I will forever connect Brian with slithering snakes and electric eels -- the same goes for Sara M and her black chicken claw, or Sara N and those stunning razor clams. Unfortunately, Clay now lives in my memory as an overcooked wild boar chop with a scorpion fishtail garnish.
It was far easier to remember the two best dishes we tried. Tre took us all by surprise with his Ostrich Filet, Tomato Risotto and Abalone sauce. Although classic in presentation, the flavors were anything but. Perfectly seasoned and seared, the richness of the meat contrasted beautifully with the tomatoes and the risotto was as creamy and satisfying as it sounded. What I liked most about his dish was that had this been an actual restaurant setting, the visual appeal would make it extremely approachable for any diner who may be hesitant to taste these unusual ingredients in the first place, let alone eat them together. We all loved that he was also able to incorporate the two into one cohesive and logical dish. Nothing was forced or unnatural, in contrast with Dale and Clay's dishes. Tre was our clear winner and, with luck, one day we may even see it on his restaurant's menu.
Hung's precision and mastery of technique was apparent as soon as he laid down that plate. The slow poached (sous-vide) black chicken was balanced and incredibly tender. The raw geoduck and fennel with innards sauce, ginger and scallion was not only subtle but also very imaginative. I stand by the fact that his dish could have used some color, but the delicate presentation of texture and flavor could not be rivaled by any of his competitors on that day. I don't want to spend too much time on our bottom four contestants. I think it was obvious as to why they were chosen and why Clay went home. What I would like to mention is how impressive I found Howie and Dale to be with their humility and articulateness about their mistakes.
While they remained confident in their own skill and stood behind that which they knew they were capable of, they both had great insight into what went wrong. As I am sure the many esteemed chefs who gather at the Food & Wine Classic this weekend would agree, two of the most useful tools in any kitchen are open-mindedness and the ability to learn from your mistakes.