Funnily enough, I actually participated in a promotion by Bombay Sapphire last fall. I had entered as a joke, and ended up in a Perfect Pairings Cook-off here in New York between Chef Marcus Samuelsson, my former employer and mentor, and Chef Aaron Sanchez, a good friend of mine. I was on Marcus's team, and we had a mixologist and three other food enthusiasts. We were asked to create a Bombay Sapphire cocktail and pair it with 4 dishes in 15 minutes. (We won!)
It was great to meet Jamie Walker. Visit the Bombay Sapphire website to check out his skills. I had avoided gin since college, but have found a renewed taste for it, and I love cooking with it, too. What I found to be interesting about this challenge was that, while everyone had to pair a dish with their gin cocktail, no one opted to use the 8 bottles of Bombay Sapphire I had in the pantry to help accent their dish. (Flambe anyone?) I had also supplied a HUGE variety of proteins in the TC fridge for them to use, and they all fought over the scallops and foie gras. Typical.
For the record, I am a fan of cocktails with food, and mixology is here to stay. Its history begins centuries ago with the creation of herbal potions and tonics to alleviate certain ailments, as well as for recreational consumption. As the general public becomes more knowledgable and enthusiastic about what they are eating these days, I recommend venturing away from the classic wine pairing every now and then. Mixologists are the ninjas of cocktails and a good mixologist can pair even the sweetest drink with the right food. Ergo, Hung should suck it up and accept defeat a little more gracefully.
This was everyone's first team challenge. Normally, teams are chosen by knife draw, but we (producers) thought it would be more interesting this time around to let everyone choose their own teams. I was unaware of the politically correct drawing of names, which ended in shambles anyways. The team dynamic is always interesting, as there are moments when I think the contestants realize they need to work together in order to be successful. There are also moments that the team dynamic wouldn't win even with Tom on their team (Joey, Howie, and Casey being a great example).
Everyone is caught in their interviews complaining about the budget for this challenge. We gave them $150, and they only had to cook for 12 people plus a camera plate, which averages out to roughly $11.50 per plate (which was more than enough in my opinion). Because each team had to make 3 tiny tastings for each course, I figured it would be no more than 3-4 ounces of protein on each plate. They had the money for it, so part of the overall challenge was how they spent it (also part of the "team" element). I'll go through this challenge course by course. Keep in mind, they are feeding Barton G, who owns his own restaurant and catering empire, and members of the Chaines de Rotisseurs, a prestigious gastronome's club.
The first team, Brian, Lia, and Hung, worked fairly well together and to be frank, their dish was tight. It was not only beautifully presented, but they worked together to put forth a progression of flavors, textures, and temperatures. I ate the camera plate and it was delicious. Lia's winning dish was a thoughtful combination of creamy avocado, smoky roasted poblanos, cool cucumbers, with just the right amount of sweetness and acid in the tomato and lime syrup to balance the olive oil poached shrimp (which is one of my favorite ways to cook). You can make this simple dish at home by watching (you guessed it) this week's episode of "The Wong Way to Poach Shrimp".
Team Tuna almost went down in a ball of flames. Again, so many beautiful proteins to choose from at the market, and they go for the tuna (zzzzzzz...). Joey and Howie had the most to lose, and I am still dumbfounded by the fact that they had not tasted each other's dishes. Casey's especially. Watching them plate was a nightmare, too. The production team was set up on the floor above the kitchen and dining room space and we had a full view down into the kitchen through a glass window. Joey and Howie had their tuna down as first course went out and kept fussing with the plates. We sent each team out in 20 minutes intervals, so the tuna sat around for at least a good 20 before it hit the table.
Which brings me to the meat course. Filet mignon, in this instance, was decidedly boring in my opinion. A more innovative and cheaper option would have been to buy two whole ducks. One part breast meat, one part leg confit, and one part with the liver. Or how about three different cuts of pork on the plate like tenderloin, belly, and braised shoulder? All of the teams took the "trio" theme too literally. The rules stated they had to use the same protein. It said nothing about different cuts. However, they were fairly successful. My one observation in looking at the whole plate was that Sara Nguyen's was the weakest. It was a butter-poached piece of tenderloin with blanched (and relatively unseasoned) itty bits of carrots and asparagus and a sauce. I bring up the 20 minute interval thing because, technically speaking. this is all she produced in 2 hours and 40 minutes.
And last but not least, the dessert debacle. It's always hilarious when the contestants attempt dessert because, like clockwork, Tom comes off set and starts ranting in absolute disbelief as to why they would throw themselves under the bus trying to do something they are neither practiced nor skilled at. When we have these challenges in which they have to create multi-course menu, it's because of my season that we explicitly do not require them to create a dessert dish.
Yes, Dale was the instigator. Sara Mair and Camille are just as much at fault for going along with it. Pastry is a science, with measurements and exact times and temperatures. Yes, props for taking the risk. However, "risk" being the key word, don't take it unless you are sure you can pull it off. In a game where someone's going to be sent home, they failed as a team to make a smart decision from the start and then it just went downhill from there. And for the record (somebody call Marissa), 1 tablespoon of powdered gelatin equals 4 sheets of leaf gelatin.
I heart Camille. She is a sweetie pie and I joined her and some of this season's cast for their premiere at her restaurant, Paloma, in Brooklyn. She's already successful and has a loyal following so I have no doubt her experience with Top Chef will work in her favor. It's raining cats and dogs out right now, so I gotta jet. Til next week!