Aspen holds a special place in my heart. In 1991, Food & Wine magazine included me in their "Best New Chefs" issue, and handed out the award at their annual Aspen culinary festival -- and my life was never the same from that moment on. I've attended the annual Food & Wine Festival in June ever since, and I love it every time.
There's lots of great food in Aspen, and like all good food towns, the best chefs gravitate towards ingredients that are local, readily available and wonderful -- like brook trout, or wild game. For this reason, the Quickfire challenge, which called for the chefs to prepare a trout dish in a campfire environment, was fitting. Strangely, Casey, Brian, Dale, and Hung were surprised to find themselves in this quintessential Colorado setting for the first leg of the finale -- haven't they watched the previous seasons?
That said, I felt a bit bad for the chefs -- scaling and filleting a fish while hunched over a sawed-off stump is bad enough. Cooking said fish for Eric Ripert, chef of perhaps this country's most revered seafood restaurant ... yeah, that was kind of messed up.
A quick side note about that. You'll notice that I referred to Eric as chef of the country's most revered seafood restaurant, not the country's most revered "seafood chef." Because I think the idea of a seafood chef is silly (ever heard anyone referred to as a "meat chef" or a "poultry chef?") I've tasted meat dishes Eric has served and they would blow your mind -- he's a great chef, period. Whether you're cooking in a seafood restaurant, a Mexican cantina, or a vegan bistro, you need the full toolkit of skills, regardless.
Which is why it should not have mattered to our chefs whether they were familiar with elk, or not. Immediately, they should have recognized that it fell into the category of game, which provides important clues as to how it should be cooked. Game like elk or venison is full-flavored but very lean, which is why it makes a great alternative to steak for red-meat lovers looking to cut back on fat. What does this mean for a cook? Only that the meat has to be handled carefully -- even the slightest bit of overcooking will dry it out. In fact, I tell the servers in my restaurants to steer guests to another red meat if they ask for their venison cooked medium, or medium-well; there's simply no way to keep the meat juicy enough beyond medium-rare.
But despite the low fat, game has a rich, strong flavor (think hanger steak over filet mignon) which means it holds up well against sweetness and acid, and will go great with caramelized flavors. I usually think of elk or venison as autumn/winter food, but if it's going to be paired with summer flavors, it's a good idea to bolster the seasonal ingredients a bit, like Casey did with her smoked tomato butter -- the smoke allowed the summer tomatoes to stand up nicely to the elk.
What I'm getting at here, is that creating a dish is never arbitrary; the main ingredients will tell you what they need, and how they should be handled, if you're paying attention. Hung's dish was, as usual, very well executed. He paired his elk with boulangerie potatoes, which get their name from the boulangeries, or central bakeries, in French villages where people would bring their food to roast after the daily bread was baked. Meat would be roasted on the top racks, potatoes down below to catch the juices dripping from above. And yet, the dish didn't completely work for me; it didn't feel as though Hung had fashioned a dish around elk per se, rather that he swapped elk for the lamb (or whatever) that was usually center stage in that dish. Hung's lack of excitement about the meat came through, and nothing on the plate felt like it was there because the elk demanded it.
Casey's dish didn't have that problem.
As mentioned earlier, she gave the tomato butter an innovative twist by smoking it. Somehow that felt (and tasted) right in that setting, and against that protein. As Eric pointed out, the sauce actually elevated the entire dish. Both of us felt, however, that she had undercooked her meat -- it was certainly edible, but would have benefited from some more time on the fire. Brian's dish was all over the place -- a colorful hodgepodge (and sideshow) designed to distract from the fact that the elk hadn't braised long enough to become melting and tender. I'm a big fan of braised food, but I'm not going to braise anything unless I have the time to do it right because the beauty of braising -- which is a combination of quickly browning, and then long, slow wet cooking -- is that it can take a secondary cut of meat, like the shank or the shoulder, and turn it into a star IF you have enough time to allow the meat's tough connective tissue to gradually break down into a rich sauce. Even better if you can serve it the next day, when the braised flavors really come together. Brian knew he only had three hours, but he forged forward with his plan anyway. Sadly, all the funny shtick in the world couldn't save the dish. Nor could the mystifying blue cheese options -- the dish didn't need a pungent Roquefort or Gorgonzola to finish it, and leaving the choice of cheese to the guest seemed wishy-washy and inconclusive. It wasn't too hard for us judges to come to our decision; Brian was going home.
Our big surprise of the day was Dale. His dish was focused and delicious, and all the more impressive because of his ability to switch gears when the goat cheese tart didn't pan out. Dale quickly swung into a Plan B by cooking cauliflower and potatoes in milk, straining them and sauteing them. They were delicious with the elk -- which he cooked perfectly -- and even better than his original plan. I think the ability to think on your feet and turn a potential problem into an advantage is one hallmark of a great chef. I've been called upon to do it more times than I care to remember because I'm not always cooking in my own kitchen, where the equipment works, and the ingredients are consistent, prepped and ready to go.
These days, chefs are asked to cook at charity benefits, private parties, television studios where only one burner works -- you name it. It's always good to have a Plan B. Dale has made it to the finale without yet making a strong impression of who he is, and what his food is all about, but I found it moving to learn his story -- through no fault of his own, his dream job evaporated one day, spiraling him into depression. It really showed how hard this profession can be -- success can have more to do with financial backing than culinary skill. It made me realize that while some may view Top Chef as only a TV competition, it can provide the jump-off for truly talented individuals who, without the right connections, may never otherwise have gotten the chance.
Witness Harold Dieterle, from Season One, who now cooks at Perilla, his own New York City restaurant (it's great, by the way). Lee Anne Wong, who has gone on to become Top Chef's own culinary consultant -- she has a hand in every aspect of the show. Ilan, who used his win to fund his culinary travels and is preparing to open his own tapas place, and Tre, who was surprised to discover on returning to his restaurant in Dallas that he is now a full-fledged food celebrity, with a host of options available to him. I'm glad that this show gives deserving people real opportunities, and I'm glad to be a part of it. Best of luck to you, Brian. You had a great run, and you will be missed. Tom
PS My comments in last week's episode about Casey's incorrect labeling of her dish as Coq au Vin seem to have stirred up a lot of sentiment on the Bravo boards. Many of our loyal readers pointed out the countless cookbooks that call for chicken in their Coq au Vin recipes and the scores of fine establishments that prepare the dish with chicken instead of an older rooster. You are 100% correct. Loads of restaurants also serve "Ahi Tuna" which is redundant but sounds good. (Ahi means tuna in Hawaiian, so they're serving "Tuna Tuna.") Many restaurants also serve rockfish as "red snapper," take shortcuts like pre-cooking their meat, and get away with a million other things because most diners don't know the difference. But let's be clear: Casey wasn't cooking for most diners. She was in a French culinary school, serving a panel of the most esteemed chefs on the planet, and within that group, a couple of the most esteemed French chefs in the world, for whom the term Coq au Vin has a very specific meaning.
Even the mere addition of quotes, as in, "Here, ladies and gentlemen, is my take on [add quote fingers here] Coq Au Vin" would have demonstrated to us that she knew the difference between the real dish and the delicious braised chicken that she did serve. (And for the record, no one's saying a rooster is not a chicken -- what's at issue is the age. Old birds have tough, connective tissue which, after many hours, yields a collagen-rich sauce with a distinctive flavor that cannot be simulated in a quick braise.) I am in no way disparaging Casey's grandmother's dish, or anyone's grandmother's dish. All grandmother's dishes belong to a special, revered category all their own. But realize, please, that Casey didn't lose the competition because she called her chicken Coq au Vin. I didn't feel she lost at all. It's just that Hung won, because, all things considered, his dish was better. Trust me -- I ate it. And as for my pathetic spelling -- you got me there. Guilty as charged.