Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Low Spark And High Heels...in The Roach Coach

Bourdain takes a closer look at the challenge that eliminated Sara

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Two questions screamed for answers after last night's challenge: bourdain_307_01_320x240.jpg

1) If you're a Miami chef, how, how, HOW can you screw up a Cuban sandwich? More to the point: WHY would you?

This week, Howie -- who is perilously close to becoming Mr. Know-It-All -- seems to have been caught transfixed in the headlights of an oncoming snack wagon, and for reasons known only to his phrenologist, decided that the beloved Miami classic, the Cuban sandwich, is not good enough. Worse, after much experience (he says) working in Miami nightclubs, he came to the shocking conclusion that what drunken hordes of clubgoers really want, immediately after spilling off the dance floor, is his creative riff on a classic. Crustier bread! "Better" raw ingredients! An "homage" sandwich, roughly manhandled onto a griddle between unevenly heated sheet pans. No, Howie. No.

What anybody who's even been to a nightclub understands is that drunk people want hot, cheesy, greasy, and familiar food. They want it fast. And they don't want to be challenged to think. They're done thinking (at least until tomorrow, when they turn over in bed and see what they went home with). A cheap-ass deli ham, roast pork, cheese, and gherkin on the same bread everybody else uses -- properly mashed down flat -- and you would have had some happy customers. Post-nightclub customers are the dream of every late night diner and snack bar operator in that they are oblivious. Howie chose to rudely wake them up. If this crowd was going to notice anything in the interlude between the ear shattering, molar-shaking thump of the dance floor and whatever ill-considered coupling or porcelain bowl worshiping lay in their near future, it's that there was something...wrong...and...different...about this thing they were being told was a Cuban sandwich.

2) Speaking of oblivious: If, in spite of your superb technical skills, excellent training and fine, creative mind, you are consistently ending up on the bottom of the dog pile -- and you are presented with an easy lay-up of a Quickfire Challenge, why, why, WHY would you choose to step forward and proudly push your head -- once again -- into the meat grinder? Lab rats and domestic pets, after sticking an appendage into a light socket, usually refrain from doing so again. Yet Hung, week after week, after taking a full dose of house current, jams his nether regions directly into the fuse box.

How hard was it to win this challenge? Dale won with the very sensible -- but hardly genre-bending -- peach cobbler ice cream. Had Hung stuck to sweet stuff and stayed away from CAULIFLOWER(?!!), I have a hard time believing he couldn't have, at very least, avoided being the very worst. Who EVER finds themselves yearning suddenly for cauliflower in their ice cream sundae? Who has ever -- in recorded history -- thought to themselves: "Gee...this ice cream would be so much better if only there were tempura flakes on it"? Or yearned, while spooning vanilla ice cream into their face, for FOAM?

Hung was absolutely right when he said, dismissively, "any monkey can go with fruits and berries." But any monkey also knows better than to make the same mistake over and over and over again. Learn from the wisdom of Krusty's trusted consigliere Mr. Teeny, Hung. He has all the answers. In the above examples, we find two excellent examples of how to fail in the kitchen before you even start to cook. Bad decision-making doomed Hung in the Quickfire and Team Orange in the Elimination. Both Howie and Hung neglected to ask themselves the most fundamental of questions; ones that every restaurateur has to ask him or herself before even opening for business: " Where am I?" and "What will people like here?" A little soul-searching might have indicated that they probably don't like bogus Cuban sandwiches in Miami and that nobody likes cauliflower on their ice cream -- anywhere.

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Compare and contrast with the winners of the Elimination Challenge, Team Black: Brian, when asked how his team chose their menu and divided up responsibility, answered with pure, textbook good sense. They looked at the space and the facilities in which they would have to work -- and worked with that, designing a very clever and appropriate menu to both situation and environment. Crispy fried stuff from Hung on the fry station...Sara M. playing to her strength with jerked soft tacos...Tre working the bacon-wrapped shrimp with grits comfort food angle...and Brian shrewdly staying out of the way of potential gridlock inside and instead, working out front, where he could serve as raw bar guy, expeditor, and carnival barker. A good plan, knowledge of the terrain, and efficient deployment of forces equals good execution.
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Team Orange couldn't get out of each other's way. The only thing that saved Howie from being dropped down the greasy chute this week was Sara N.'s abysmal performance. Being bummed out, depressed, pissed at Howie, or in uncomfortable footwear does not excuse falling behind on sliders! There are drunk people out there! They want sliders! They want them now! They don't even care if they're all well done -- as long as they're hot...and here! This was an opportunity to win the day (as drunk people love sliders) but for God's sake: Cook them ten at a time! Twenty at a time! You're being compared to nothing more elevated in the annals of cuisine than White Castle for God's sake!

I can only imagine that the never-shy Howie was looking to thin the herd by allowing Sara N. to twist in the wind. There's really no other explanation that neither he, CJ, nor Casey stepped in to forcefully tell Sara to unscrew her head out of her fundament and start loading up the griddle. Not that it would have helped. Sara N. seemed to have decided to lose as soon as she realized she'd be working in heels. I gotta tell ya; I've worked with women cooks who could crank out a hundred fifty meals off a very busy grill station in freakin' stilettos and still have the energy to give Howie the beating of his life -- so that don't cut it as an excuse. And putting ice in a vanilla shake, by the way, was a very bad idea.

After finding out she'd have to pack her knives, Sara N. suggested she might have been "too nice" for the competition. Maybe so. Howie, on the other hand, suggests that he might well be an asshole and that he doesn't apologize for that. I'd suggest he reexamine his position here. It might be okay to be a buttwad in the cause of victory, but it's not okay to be a buttwad when what you've got to offer Miami is a bogus Cuban and bad leadership.
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In the end, Sara N. didn't lack for talent. She lacked fire in the belly. All chefs, at various points in their career, must reach an accommodation between what lives in their hearts and the requirements of the marketplace, and of the situation on the ground. They must choose every night between head and heart, compromising in ways large and small according to circumstances.

It's interesting that some of the most compelling struggles to watch on this season's show are not between contestants. It's the struggle between experienced, "principled" Howie and his own darker, more pigheaded side. Howie's got plenty of heart. Last night, he simply fell down when it came to using his magnificent, sweat-slicked, battering ram of a noggin. It's the struggle between Hung's big talent and his even bigger ego. Here's a guy who should cook more with his heart and less with his overloaded brain. He should think about the things that gave him comfort as a child, his very first ice cream cone; what ice cream did to him. Not what he can do to ice cream. That's something I'd like to see.

***A Final Note: Concerning Rocco DiSpirito's typically gracious and good humored response on this site to my torrent of abuse: It is natural, as some have suggested, to assume that I'm jealous of Rocco. In fact, I am. I'm jealous of Rocco's talent in the kitchen. He had an extraordinary proficiency with food -- one most cooks would cheerfully have sawn off a finger or an arm to replicate -- and an ability to "envision" (and then execute) truly delicious and original creations. That he chose to turn his back on this rare and unique gift does indeed stick in my craw.

Watching Rocco's trajectory in the cause of the bitch-goddess fame is like watching a young Eric Clapton put aside his guitar for a career as a mink rancher. You just want to scream, "Play, damn you! PLAY!!" (Or in Rocco's case, "Cook! Cook!!"). Two years cooking in his own 40-seat restaurant, in even a crummy neighborhood of NYC, and Rocco would shut snarkologists like me up forever -- and restore a "gravitas" to his reputation he should never have lost. I'd be the first guy trying to scrounge a reservation, and -- if he offered anything like the food I had at Union Pacific -- the first to loudly sing his praises.

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Gail dishes on Doug Adams' flawless return to the competition and why Melissa King's dish failed to hit the right artistic note.

Bravotv.com: This week we had the Last Chance Kitchen finale between George and Doug, and Doug ended up returning to the competition.

Gail Simmons: It looked like a really close battle -- Tom was really happy with both of their dishes. I will say if I had to put money on it, I would have guessed it would be between George and Doug at the end. They really are two of our stronger competitors. Obviously George was just coming off of his elimination, and it didn't surprise me that Doug stayed at the top of Last Chance Kitchen since being eliminated. I was thrilled to see him in Mexico with us.

Bravotv.com: Great! So he comes back, he wins and then onto the Quickfire Challenge. Any thoughts on this part of the competition?

GS: I'll just say that I’m a big, big fan of Chef Olvera, and I’m so glad we were able to get him on the show. His main restaurant, Pujol, is in Mexico City, but he has Moxi at the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel, where we were  lucky enough to eat the night that I landed, and a new restaurant here in New York that I am really excited about called Cosme. His food is very much rooted in Mexican ingredients and Mexican cooking, but his food is so modern. He really is one of the most talented chefs in the world at this moment, and I’m glad he judged the prickly pear Quickfire. They filmed it right in the center square of San Miguel; it is an amazingly gorgeous place. It was a really great setting for our first challenge in Mexico.

Bravotv.com: Then we have the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by an artist's piece of work, and Doug won with his brisket.

GS:  This challenge is interesting, because San Miguel is such a mecca for artists; it’s an artist colony that has produced incredible work for years. The city itself is so visually inspiring, as are the artists that work there. Their work is so varied, so vast. What was unique in this challenge was that it forced the chefs to take inspiration from an unusual source and think about their dish in a different way. All of the artists are very different, from a graffiti artist to someone who does more abstract landscapes. It was truly exciting to see what the artists did with the canvases they were given and what they shared with the chefs.

I tasted Doug’s dish first and understood it in an instant; it needed no explanation. But when he did talk about it, I realized it had so much depth not only in flavor, but in its purpose. He had an immediate connection with the artist he was paired with -- they were both from Texas and she reminded him a lot of his mother. There was a deep sense of home and comfort between them, which I think allowed him to cook so purely, so simply. The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not "chef it up" too much, he kept it pure. He modeled the presentation of the dish exactly off of the painting itself with those colors from the Mexican landscape -- the deep reds of the earth, those dark greens and browns -- which made perfect sense. His brisket obviously tasted like Texas, but it definitely had an air of Mexico. It had the tomatillo, the masa, and even the red brisket itself was reminiscent of Mexican flavors, since Mexican cuisine has had such an influence on Texas to begin with. The dish was about his roots on a lot of levels. I devoured all of it, it was so hardy and comforting, but it had an elegance and finesse to it in the plating -- the ingredients he chose to put side by side as opposed to stewing them together -- made it special.

The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not 'chef it up' too much, he kept it pure.

Gail Simmons

Bravotv.com: And then we had Gregory's grilled strip loin with ancho chile, beets, cilantro puree, and valencia orange sauce.

GS: Gregory’s dish was excellent too. He did a perfectly grilled strip loin. He was worried about it before we tasted it, but it came out perfectly. He made three incredible sauces to go with it, which drew a lot of inspiration from his artist's painting. The first was this ancho chile sauce and then this beautiful green cilantro puree. The ancho chiles were reminiscent of the peasant farming, the green cilantro tying into the earth. Then there was the orange sauce, which completely changed the dish. When you first tasted it, the dish was earthy, it was deep and complex, it had the Mexican chiles that really shone through with the beef. Then you got a splash of that orange sauce, and it balanced everything out in a way that surprised us. It was so inspired, you could tell that it echoed the sunshine in the painting. It conveyed the artist’s vision of this peasant toiling in the soil through this glorious sunshine, and that’s exactly how the dish tasted.

It was a really close battle between Gregory and Doug in this challenge; both of them did such a great job. Ultimately we chose Doug, because we thought there was an unmistakable depth to his food and it was completely flawless.

Bravotv.com: Let's move on to Mei, who had the snapper and bass crudo with chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles.

GS: In true Mei fashion, her dish was completed beautifully and precise. It was very tightly conceptualized -- every drizzle, every piece of fish, every garnish was perfectly placed, and it was a gorgeous plate of food. I loved her relationship with the artist she worked with, Bea. They had a lovely conversation, which was great to see, and the dish clearly reflected Bea’s work. The chicken skin, the fish, the splashes of color were all inspirations from the painting. Every bite of Mei's dish had a little surprise; there was a little spice, a tiny bit of salt, and a beautiful splash of sweetness, which made it so fun and so playful.

My only criticism of Mei’s food comes from a presentation standpoint. Because Bea’s art was so outrageous and so loud and loose and free in a way, we had hoped that Mei’s food would’ve reflected that. We thought it would have allowed her to loosen up her presentation a little bit. Of course, I respect that she stayed true to who she is and how she presents her food. It was a dish that took a lot of technical skill and was really enjoyable when we ate it, we had just hoped to see more playfulness.

Bravotv.com: And then we had Melissa's smoked eggplant ravioli with shrimp, chorizo, and cotija.

GS: Melissa’s dish was absolutely decadent, delicious, delightful. We all agreed that her smoked eggplant ravioli was perfectly made -- it was smoky, very rich, and the pasta was well cooked. That alone was as good as anything else we had eaten that day. Where we thought she fell short, relative to the other dishes, was that there definitely was less cohesion between the artist's work and her dish. Shrimp, chorizo, cotija cheese, and eggplant can go together, but in the way she plated them, they weren’t really talking -- the shrimp was over here, the sauce was somewhere else, then there was the eggplant ravioli. There didn’t seem to be a line that connected them all. And when she described it in relation to the artwork, we really weren’t sure it conveyed that dramatic splash from the graffiti art. We needed more from her. There was such a direct conversation between Doug and his artist, and it really felt like they were working on the same piece of artwork together. Melissa’s dish, although tasty and very pretty, did not have that same depth. I’m not just talking about flavor; it’s really about the inspiration and the connection, not only between the ingredients on the plate, but between the chef and the artist. His work was really beautiful (and watching the show I regret not buying a piece from him at the time). But it can be hard to translate art, because it’s something so personal. In the end between the four of us we decided that on that day it was Melissa’s dish that did not measure up in terms of the inspiration and connection like the other dishes did. So she was eliminated.

Bravotv.com: It seemed like one of the tougher eliminations this season.

GS: Yes, it was. It always is at this stage of the season. But it was a really great challenge too. I think regardless of winning or losing, Melissa really loved the process and that was so great to see. It was an intellectual challenge that was hard to interpret, and I think they all did an incredible job. I’m really going to miss Melissa. I honestly think she is a huge talent, and I know she is going to do well wherever she goes next.
 

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