Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

A Matter Of Consistency

Tom on the so-called worst dish in Top Chef history.

The day I accumulated enough miles to graduate to business/first class was a cause for celebration - no more yogic contortions in cramped seats, no more neck strain from watching movies on high hung communal screens, no more dismal airplane meals... I learned that in first class the seats were indeed better, but the food was still a disappointment. Oh well, I figured. I'm three-quarters of the way to flat; at least I'll catch upon my sleep.

In recent years, though, I've seen a real effort (at least in first class) to turn airline food around, especially on international flights, where airlines have enlisted well-known chefs to lend a hand. Here and there I've actually experienced greatness, like the time my friend and colleague Neal Perry flew me to Sydney on Qantas to cook for a charity fundraiser at his restaurant Rockpool, and sample the first class airline menu he'd created along the way. All I remember from the meal was a luscious piece of Tasmanian sea bass poached in a light herb broth with olive oil, but the fact that any dish from my flight stands out as terrific (and I don't just mean terrific for airline food,) was actually shocking, and laid to rest for me the myth that food can't be good on a plane.

From what I can see, there are a couple things that came into play in this challenge. The first, and I said it in tonight's episode, is if you put good food into the box, you'll get good food out. Incidentally, this rule also applies to stocks, stews, kid food, and all other things that people assume will somehow miraculously turn out fine even in the absence of high quality ingredients. So, the need for good ingredients was a given.

Second, was the need to winnow those ingredients down to fit the parameters of cooking on a plane. Everything was going into a tiny convection oven for a minimum of ten minutes. Whatever item the chefs chose was going to have to be something that was actually improved by this rapid blast of dry heat. There would be no room for gentle basting, a slow simmer, or coaxing out flavor with handfuls of fresh herbs. The skill here was going to be in choosing what to cook, and then executing with precision, since all the proteins and vegetables would need to be prepped so that everything cooked at the same rate. Thus, both the consistency of the food itself (i.e. an oily fish, versus a drier, flaky one) and the consistency of the prep work were important factors.

Without question Casey's veal and Hung's Chilean sea bass were the standouts for both of those reasons. I'm not a big fan of Chilean sea bass, but in this context, it was the perfect choice; a fish with a moist, oily flesh that is virtually impossible to overcook. The accompanying vegetables were light and flavorful, and worked well with the overall dish.

Casey's veal was also a great choice. Veal is moist and dense, and actually benefits from being cooked to medium, as opposed to medium rare, which gave Casey a more forgiving window. She seared the meat off beautifully ahead of time in the Continental kitchen, and used the cook time onboard to bring the veal to temperature. Casey's decision to prepare a cauliflower gratin alongside was also smart - the gooey, melted cheese made the cauliflower flavorful yet comforting, and kept the dish from drying out.

I wish I could say the same about the other entrees. Sara ran into major problems with her fennel and coriander salmon. Salmon is a fairly oily fish, but Sara's portions were of varying thickness, which meant that a few were way overcooked and sadly for her, those portions found their way over to Tony and me. Bourdain called it 'cat food' (the man lives for those snarky sound bytes) which, once I stopped laughing, I found a bit harsh. Compared to Sara's usual sure-handed touch, this dish was definitely a disappointment, and the dry flavorless couscous she served on the side didn't help.

Brian's NY strip steak was unwieldy; I'm all for large portions, but this felt like the big steaks Grandma serves in Napolean Dynamite - huge hunks of meat that lacked the finesse one expects in first class. But Brian's real problem was his bizarre purple Peruvian lobster hash. The lobster was overcooked into rubbery little nuggets and the dish just plain didn't work. Despite getting shaker-happy with the pepper, Dale's steak and shrimp surf 'n turf was tasty. His big error was that he miscounted his portions, and came up short, leaving one hapless unfed passenger. The guy was cool about it (it probably helped that he was a real-life flight attendant), but I can promise you the actual jilted first-class passenger would've raised hell. Noisy, pissed-off, write-a-letter-to-Corporate hell.

CJ's pan-seared halibut on toasted faro was overcooked. But his side dish of roasted broccolini with breadcrumbs and a mint vinaigrette carries the distinction of being my single least favorite dish in three seasons of Top Chef. I'm actually baffled as to how CJ achieved this with such innocuous ingredients. My wife was mystified at my reaction: 'So he overcooked it,' she kept saying, 'Big deal.' My only answer is that it had to be experienced to be understood; The oven's dry heat somehow turned the blanched broccolini into musty, desiccated swamp vegetables punctuated by a bracing, medicinal slap of warm mint. I can say for a fact, without even having stepped into that galley, that there is no way CJ tasted that dish before he sent it out, as even the most novice chef is taught to do. In tonight's challenge, this dish put us over the edge and sent CJ home. I can hear the outrage brewing among our loyal viewers and message board habitues even as I type...But wait! You're thinking. CJ's broccolini may have sucked, but Dale left off a dish! He came up short! When Dave did that in Season One you sent him packing! Clearly you guys are a bunch of inconsistent namby pamby producer pawns that can't make up your minds from season to season and challenge to challenge.

The important thing to realize here is that as judges we absolutely strive for consistency, but the context changes with each and every challenge, thus subtly altering the debate. We don't say to ourselves, "Aha, Selves! The rule is that leaving a dish off means automatic disqualification!" We say, "In this case, leaving the dish off overshadowed the other factors." In an episode of Season One we argued whether it was worse to leave off a major part of a dish or serve something so bad it was practically inedible. In that particular case, inedible was worse.

This never comes up when there's a clear winner or clear loser to a challenge. It's when the results are close that other factors come into play - two dishes are neck to neck, so we ask ourselves who stepped up? Who played it safe? Who forgot something, vs. who forged forward with a bad dish? It is simply impossible for us to cleave to some strictly defined criteria when the context shifts - sometimes in subtle ways - from challenge to challenge. Did we discuss that Tre had stepping up and taken leadership? You bet we did. But in the same breath we all had to agree, he f**ked it up. The food he served was terrible. We didn't send him home for sticking his neck out, we sent him home for doing a bad job.

And when we're debating, we rarely stop to think about how it will seem once edited into a scant three minutes (or frankly, what will contribute to the episode's drama - an impossible abstraction at that stage of the game.) We're usually too focused on the food, and we assume the gist of our long debates will make it into the episode. Often it does. But when some of it doesn't (and to be fair, the editors are charged with reducing hours of debate down accurately AND creating enough nail-biting drama to keep you from clicking over to Pimp My Ride) it makes the judging seem inconsistent and hence, unfair. I get it. I really do.

And herein lies the central maddening reality of reality TV. A typical judge's table debate lasts for about two hours, and sometimes much longer. Trust me when I say you don't want to watch it in real time - it's edited for a good reason. But in the editing, some information, some key factors or trains of thoughts, by necessity are left out. When Mia chose to pull herself out of the competition in Season Two, we let her go. We told Howie the same thing in last week's episode - you can leave, dude, but the decision of who goes home isn't yours to make. When he realized that martyring himself wasn't necessarily going to spare one of his colleagues, he opted to stay. Sadly, when the editors make their choices, many of these details lose out to the overriding narrative thrust a one-hour program demands. I'm not going to lie, it bothers me too. But I don't see a way around it other than, say, writing a blog after the hatchet job is done.

Best of luck to you, C.J. You're a great guy, with a towering sense of humor to match your height. You will be missed.

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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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. 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. 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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