Lee Annne Wong goes behind-the-scenes of the Dame Chocolate Challenge.
The "Easy as Pie" Quickfire went fairly smoothly. I secured 2 cases of frozen pie crusts, leaving each contestant with 4 pie crusts to work with. The reason why we gave them 90 minutes was in case some fool decided to take the challenge literally and make a whole pie (which would actually be 2 whole pies, since they always have to make a camera plate). Again, I stocked the pantry with a large variety of sweet and savory items, meats and seafood, fruits, vegetables, and other pielicious goods like flaked coconut and almost a dozen different cheeses.
I didn't watch the challenge, but when I went to the food porn table (yes, that is what we call the camera plates) I was slightly surprised that everyone made tarts. I think Sara Mair may have been the only one to use the dough in a different manner on at least one part of her dish by rolling it up into a cigar and also making a crust beef wellington style. When I was discussing the challenge with the creative team initially, I had stated that there are all sorts of different things one could do with frozen pie crusts, including empanada-like treats and even deep frying it for a different texture.
Looking at their plates too, it seemed that many of them went overboard. In Brian's case, it's the "look what I can do in 90 minutes", making 4 different things. The same goes for Dale, but his entire problem was the salmon overwhelmed his sweet tart. In making several things and putting them on the same plate you have to be sure that they'll not only complement each other, but that they belong on the same plate in the first place (salmon and whipped cream anyone?).
I sampled all of the camera plates, and without knowing who won, I thought Joey hit his out of the park. All three tarts were distinctly different sweet interpretations, but went very well together. I also enjoyed Sara Nguyen's savory quiche with bacon and cheese. After watching this episode, Hung seems to be full of excuses, if not in complete egomaniacal denial. Yes Hung, the freezer is working. No Hung, not using dark chocolate had absolutely nothing to do with why your mousse did not set up.
We challenged them to cater a Latin inspired lunch for the cast and crew of Dame Chocolat, a hit novella on Telemundo. I love Latin food. I not only eat it often, but I enjoy cooking the classics as well as creating my own dishes inspired by the fresh ingredients and bold flavors so often seen in Latin cuisine. It leaves plenty of room for interpretation as one could take notes from Mexico, the Caribbean, and any South American country. I head back to Mexico City and Oaxaca in August to cook for 2 weeks, and I can't wait to get to the open air market as the produce and dried goods are out of this world. Though there would be close to 60 people in attendance, we only required them to each prepare 20 portions. The budget was ample at $7.50 per plate. My first reaction to cutting their time in half was, "Oooooh. That's mean." But this is Top Chef where pressure's the name of the game. I think one of the toughest parts for them was getting it all packed up within the hour and a half. We gave them 3 hot boxes and 3 speed racks to transport their items, plus each of them had a cooler.
They also had their choice of a chafing dish, serving bowl or platter, depending on what they were preparing. Casey hit the nail on the head when she commented on the hot boxes and chafing dishes. Yes, it does keep cooking your things, but part of being a successful caterer is taking that into account. We had at least 3 different on set caterers throughout the season, and the one of the reasons for so many changes is because many times the food was dry and overcooked, not to mention gray and lacking in flavor. But that is neither here nor there. I am positive all of the contestants had eaten a catered lunch before so part of the challenge was figuring out what would hold up well over time.
Shannon stuck around the kitchen to make sure they got everything packed up properly while I was over at Star Island setting up for their arrival. The gigantic pile of pots, pans, and dirty dishes you see as they finish getting packed up was a daily occurrence. Guess who cleans all that up? I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Bill, our Unit Production Manager, and the entire crew of set PAs for helping us turn the kitchen after every challenge (you guys are phenomenal!). Imagine a dozen of us washing all of those pots and pans by hand and putting the pantry and fridges back together after the whirlwind of cooking. Whether it was a 20 minute Quickfire or even when we were down to seven contestants, it was always as if a hurricane had demolished the kitchen, and there was still the same amount of mess. One of the more glamorous parts of production.
When the cube truck arrived on set I unloaded coolers, hot boxes, and speed racks. It smelled wonderful. However, Lia's smoked trout squares were on the speed rack and I remember thinking how unappealing they looked and the fact that they did not resemble anything remotely Latin. I had to leave set to do more shopping for the Quickfire the next day, so Shannon stayed to supervise and told me all about their dishes that evening. As a viewer, I think Tre's, Joey's, and Howie's dishes looked the best. I can't comment too much because I did not get to taste anything, but I think Tre's dish look sophisticated and I like that he used seafood. Joey's dish went with a meat and seafood combination and the fact that it was a stew was a smart decision. I love chorizo in just about anything. I was on set when I heard from some of the producers that everyone was most concerned about Howie's dish.
I too was slightly concerned but I think he made a great decision by cutting the shoulder into smaller pieces. I made his dish for this week's webisode. There is plenty of acid in his braise with the citrus juice, which helps to break down the proteins and collagen while braising. Pork shoulder is the perfect cut of meat for roasting, like Tom said, or braising. It is a flavorful muscle that is well marbled with fat, which keeps it moist. The sour onion mojo adds the perfect vegetal crunch and acidity to cut through the richness of the soft meat. Obviously, I am pork's biggest fan. Soft, slow braised pork makes me murmur sounds close to that of Homer Simpson ("mmmmm.....poooooorrrrk....magical animal.....").
I apologize to the vegetarians I have offended, but I just can't help it. Congrats to the Grand Poo-bah for winning again, and also for the gracious gesture of giving his bottle of wine to Joey. (I have always known that Howie's a big softie).
As for the bottom four, I'll refrain from saying any more about Hung, I am sure you are all thinking the same thing I am (like how to wipe the smirk off his face). Casey ran into the same problem with dry chicken. At the time, neither probably took into account the fact that their dishes would be sitting over sterno for at least an hour. In regards to Casey's rice, she knew it was overcooked and mushy in the kitchen and still decided to serve it, which was probably not the best decision. I wish Sara Nguyen cooked with a little more confidence. At least on the tellie, I could not see any seafood nestled away in her guacamole.
I was so sad, but not surprised, to hear that Lia was eliminated. She works at one of the top rated French restaurants in America. I know and am friendly with many of her Jean George colleagues, as I used to work for the man myself (it is a small incestuous community of cooks in New York City, we all know each other and have partied together at one time or another). Although I had never formally met her before TC3, I willing to bet we were at the same JG party at least once.
Her coworkers stand by her, and I know first hand that Jean George does, as I spoke with him about her for a good 10 minutes while we were at a chef auction together last month. She is an incredible talent, with a mature and professional attitude in the kitchen that should make her a role model for not just females, but all young cooks. I consider her one of the contestants eliminated before her time. I'm sure I'll run into her soon though, maybe at a JG party. I'm on a plane to Los Angeles right now. I am headed west to attend Project by Project's 10th Anniversary Food and Wine Benefit as it's official "toastmaster". Maybe I'll see some of you there!