I was thrilled to hear that Alfred Portale would be our guest judge for the episode. He is not only a New York legend, but also known worldwide for what I can call truly American cuisine. I have never had a mediocre meal at Gotham Bar and Grill and if you haven't dined there yet, you should. Eloquent, knowledgeable and to the point, he was the perfect judge for this episode.
I sourced the live shellfish from all over the country, but the real gem of the fish tank was the live conch, supplied by one of the only (and best) conch suppliers in the country, Whitewater Clams, located in South Florida. I had only ever worked with frozen conch meat before so it took a few tries with the conch remover to get it out of its shell. The reward was something so sublime, sweet and delicious that I instantly became a fan of fresh conch. (All of the leftover seafood went into making a very expensive seafood and coconut ceviche when Shannon and I cooked an Easter feast for the production crew, one of our rare days off).
I tasted most of the Quickfire dishes and Brian's was indeed spot on with very simple and classic flavors that let the fresh seafood sing. While I did enjoy CJ's and I thought it was beautiful, I felt that the ham, cauliflower, and other stuff overwhelmed the clams he used, of which there were only a few pieces on the plate. In some strange way it reminded me of Stephen's dish from the Quickfire we did with Ted Allen.
We had scouted the Miami Elks lodge a week before the challenge. That may have been the swankiest Elks lodge in America, complete with a bar room, swimming pool, pool tables, and the sexiest shuffle board table I have ever seen (much to Shannon's and my delight, as we are enthusiastic shuffle board players here in NYC). It was bit of debate coming up with a list of dishes for "family favorites". I am positive we all have our own stories...
Wednesday was "Prince Spaghetti Day" when I was a kid. We wanted to give them dishes that were relatively well known and see if they could put their creative twist on it. Shannon and I had a ball making the dishes for display, equally fascinated and yet somehow disgusted by the loads of cream of mushroom soup that we went through. For the record, canned tuna fish is one of the five foods I refuse to eat. I will not consume it in any way, shape, or form. Bad childhood experience, I'll leave it at that. It pained me to make the tuna casserole.
Now I loooove macaroni and cheese, but to be honest I eat tofu more often than digging into a hot gooey bowl of mac. I was surprised that not a single contestant chose to use any soy or wheat based proteins as a meat substitute. Thinking about it now, in terms of fine dining, there are usually vegetarian options on every menu but rarely does tofu make an appearance unless it is an Asian fine dining restaurant. In any case Brian would've been much better off stuffing the cabbage with tofu or ground turkey, rather than his blatant disregard of the challenge parameters (we had hung a poster in the pantry listing high cholesterol foods to avoid).
Many of the contestants took a literal approach, like Camille's remake of tacos. It would have been nice to see CJ somehow use a piece of rare seared tuna or even some sort of tuna tartar. I found Dale's dish to be a creative and innovative take on chicken and dumplings, which is one of my favorite things to make. Dumplings are normally a doughy batter that steams on top of the stew while it cooks. He made actual potato dumplings, and stuffed them with chicken. Brilliant. While not a fan of buying pre-made foods for the challenges, his choice to use instant mashed potatoes was a smart one. Reminds me of Cake-gate.
Howie's pork chop and fennel apple salad was porktastically delicious. All of you who were screaming for Howie's head last week should try making the recipe, which you can see on this week's webisode. Howie, in my opinion, is a big softie on the inside. He takes the competition seriously, and while he's not necessarily there to make friends, I found his ethics in the kitchen and at judges table to be admirable -- a stand up guy who needs a hug really. I was happy to see him win this one.
Just so you know, they each only had to make 5 dishes in total, so the time limit should not be an excuse why one would not make their own sausage (I made my sausage in less than 45 minutes). Lia's an incredibly capable chef, but her dish was uninspired. While she still should've checked the oven settings, Sara Mair's raw chicken may have been due to Hung's lack of consideration for the rest of his fellow contestants.
Whenever there is a challenge, I turn on all of the ovens and deep fryers to preheat an hour ahead of time so everything is ready to go when the contestants get in the kitchen. For Hung to turn off the only convection oven in the kitchen, after he was done using it, shows either complete apathy or a moment of stupidity. Sara's dish was still not even close to chicken ala king, but I wanted to comment on the whole oven turned off situation because it could have affected many more chefs in the kitchen had Sara not been the first to suffer. (Note: when the convection oven is on cool down, there is still a considerable amount of heat being circulated on the inside and the fan is still blowing, so when you open the door it is easy to think the oven is still on.)
Micah's not un-American at all. She just never had meatloaf as a kid. While her references to what we as Americans like to eat could have been misconstrued as derogatory, it's just because she honestly is not familiar with the food that was on the table. Her dish was terrible, more like an odd meat terrine in a ring mold than a meat loaf. The flavors were off and the texture was dry and mealy.
I have no doubt that she is a good chef, just not this time. What you don't see is her role early on as the house mom, cooking for the other contestants in the penthouse. She cooks out of love, and because she enjoys it, and maybe was not cut out for the competitive nature of Top Chef. Her experiences as a world traveler makes her cuisine compelling and interesting and I am sure she has a bright future with her catering company and her daughter by her side -- all the best Micah. The Miami Elks lodge rocked. I would've liked to see Tom in a giant buffalo hat with horns, like Fred Flintstone. But for today, Howie is the Grand Puba.