The Final Four
This week's episode just may be one of my favorites yet. Why? Because it was all about the food. It provided two very straightforward challenges, without gimmicks, that gave both the judges and the viewers a great way to analyze the cooking skills of our five remaining chefs. Casey, Dale, Brian, Sara, and Hung were all excited about finally making it to New York City, and, frankly, I was delighted as well -- after weeks in a hotel in Miami, I was finally able to get home and sleep in my own bed. Ain't nothing else like it. I understood the thrill for our chefs; New York has become, arguably, the epicenter of fine dining in the country, and possibly the world. I regularly play host to chefs from France, London, Hong Kong, Sydney, Spain -- everywhere -- who show up to see what is happening here, to eat, and to take notes. For many young chefs, running a successful kitchen in New York is a sign that they have truly arrived. For me, making the leap from New Jersey to New York in my early 20s was a huge psychological leap, as well as a geographic one; New York felt like the big stage -- if I screwed up there, it would be visible for all the world to see.
And on their first foray into NYC, what better place for our chefs to get their feet wet than Le Circque? The place has been around for over forty years, in three different locations (few restaurants survive even one move, much less two.) The dish the chefs were asked to replicate is a classic created by my friend Daniel Boulud, when he was at the helm of that legendary restaurant; a filet of sea bass wrapped in potato, on a bed of leek fondue and oyster mushrooms. (From what I could see, the sauce, which could have made the challenge truly difficult, was provided to the chefs fully made, since creating that from scratch would have exceeded the time limit.) What's key here is the thickness of the potatoes -- too thin and they would burn before the fish was cooked through, too thick and the fish would overcook before the potatoes were done. I found it interesting that Hung asked about the mandolin setting the chef used to pull this off, since, of everyone, he was the one who ultimately was able to eyeball the dish and get it right. Still, I can't blame him for trying to hedge his bets.
Hung is out to win, no question about it. And with the exception of Hung, the chefs seemed daunted by the 20-minute time limit. In truth, this condition hews closely to the demands of a real restaurant. Chefs must prepare each dish while their guests wait, and few diners are willing to go longer than twenty minutes or so without food. Appetizers, of course, eat up some of the waiting time, but most people polish off an app in minutes; back in the kitchen, the chef knows he is racing against time. I actually think the chefs were more nervous about performing in front of a real New York City line crew; these are the people who are in the trenches every day, fighting their way up the classic kitchen hierarchy through dogged hard work and sheer talent. It probably wasn't hard to figure out what the line cooks at Le Cirque thought of our reality-TV contestants; no doubt they viewed them as a bunch of amateurs looking for a shortcut to the big time (no one said cooks were easygoing).
Of all of the chefs, Sara, who has spent the last few years making cheese, seemed the most thrown by her environment, casting about nervously for saute pans, garbage, dishwashing station, etc. Given her unfamiliarity with this kind of kitchen, she would have done well to take a minute to locate everything first before plunging in. She should have known that the sea bass -- which would have taken about six minutes to cook without the potatoes -- needed at least ten to cook correctly with them. She alluded to her filets being thicker than the others (when would she have seen the others' ingredients? She went last.) And she tried to pawn her failure off on a lack of classic French training, but I think that's a crock (more on this later); nothing about this dish is particularly French. It required solid cooking skills, a clear head, and common sense. Casey did a good job, applying her usual meticulous attention and good instincts to the dish (and using the mandolin helped with her less-than-ideal knife skills). Although the episode showed Sirio appreciating her dish the most, I could see by looking at it, that she, (as well as Brian,) didn't get the potatoes wrapped fully around the fish (they should have trimmed the filets to fit the potato slices). A small detail, but one that separates a good dish from a great one -- I'm sure this was discussed but didn't make it into the final edit; Sirio Maccioni hasn't made his reputation by not sweating the small stuff. And Dale pulled off everything but the most basic step of all -- seasoning. Without salt and pepper, the most beautifully prepared dish is going to taste like garbage.
The Elimination Challenge was similarly straightforward. Although it was staged at the French Culinary Institute and the ingredients were selected by French chefs, the challenge was not to make a classic French dish so much as to demonstrate that you can make great food from humble yet important ingredients. When you think about it, this is at the heart of every national cuisine. And in fact, very few people these days receive a true, classic French training (which to my lights includes working under a raving lunatic as an unpaid serf in a village somewhere in, say, Lyons.) As a teenager, I cooked my way through the classic text Repertoire de la Cuisine because there were no famous French restaurants in Elizabeth, New Jersey, let alone one that would have allowed a mouthy Catholic school dropout like me through the door. Eventually I made way to France and studied in some great kitchens, but I would have been equally served working in one of the great Italian kitchens like Gualtiero Marchese in Milan, Italy's first Michelin three-star restaurant, or Da Guido in Costigliole d' Asti. Chefs who came up under Marchese or Lidia Alciati received training every bit as valid as someone who studied in France, and in fact, it was the Italians who brought the idea of gastronomy to France in the first place, with the arrival of Catherine de Medici. I think French cuisine is exalted as a training ground because the great chef Escoffier was the first to codify the essential techniques -- roasting, braising, sauce-making, etc. -- and create the idea of a functioning kitchen hierarchy that could be replicated successfully anywhere. My point is, that to win this challenge, our chefs didn't need to cook French food, or demonstrate perfect French technique. Rather, they had to show that they could make good food. Period.
Our guest panel was probably our most impressive and daunting to date: Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder of the French Culinary Institute, Andre Soltner, who is a living legend -- for decades Lutece set the standard for French cuisine in New York City, and he was famous for never leaving the kitchen (in fact, he lived right upstairs.) Before running Le Cirque, Alain Sailhac earned the first ever four-star rating from The New York Times while at Le Cygne in the '70s. Jacques Torres is a world-famous pastry chef and chocolatier, Nils Noren, who helped introduce Swedish cuisine to New York at Aquavit, embodies the ideal of an international chef. Cesare Casella opened the legendary Tuscan restaurants Beppe and Maremma in New York (cooking what he famously calls "Tuscan cowboy food.") Each is legendary in their own way and I'll say it; I was star-struck, and more than a little bit humbled to be introducing them on our show. And while they hail from a variety of culinary traditions, they all know and appreciate good food when they taste it.
So what about the food? Brian's Shepherd's pie with pheasant sausage and braised chicken looked odd (the ramps turned the mashed potatoes a bright, almost radioactive green) but the dish was deeply flavorful and satisfying once we got past the appearance. To a one, all of us at the table were in agreement; it tasted great. Casey's dish was delicious, but it suffered from mislabeling. Coq a Vin is very specific -- (the dish literally means "rooster with wine") -- and the dish calls for a lengthy marinade and long, slow braise which yields a rich broth from the connective tissue of the old bird. Casey called her dish Coq a Vin out of a sense of nostalgia for her grandmother's dish (also similarly mislabeled), but it smacked of a pretentious trend I hate; gussying up a straightforward dish by giving it a fancy name. I actually like it when I see simple descriptions on restaurant menus. If Casey had introduced her dish as "Braised chicken," it would have set all of us up for a pleasant surprise, rather than invite comparison with a true Coq a Vin. Despite that, her dish was focused, nuanced, and soulful.
Hung's dish was excellent, and he got a chance to show off a bit of his culinary technique; he cooked the chicken Sous Vide, which means vacuum packed and poached slowly in hot water. The advantage to this is that all of the chicken's natural juices stay in the bird, and marry seamlessly with the herbs and seasonings introduced into the pack. Many top restaurants use this method -- it allows for a high degree of control, it imparts a great texture to the meat, and is fairly idiot-proof. Sometimes proteins that are cooked sous vide can be a bit sterile, to my taste (I actually like to "feel" the hand of the chef in my food) but Hung offset this by layering on a crisp, mouth-watering chicken skin which is not easy to pull off; his was cooked perfectly.
Chef Soltner took issue with Hung's Pommes Dauphine for not being light and airy. I agreed, but it is a testament to how good the rest of the dish was that as a whole, the judges were willing to let this go and give him the win. Dale pretty much blew it. He decided to wow us by putting a "duet" of roasted and braised chicken on his plate, which in of itself was not a bad idea -- I often prepare dishes with one protein cooked two ways -- but he was in over his head. By aiming for a "high concept" that required elaborate plating, he lost focus and forgot a key element of the dish -- the truffle honey sauce that would have knit both components together and made it a complete dish.
And finally, there was Sara. Perhaps she was thrown by her poor showing in the Quickfire, or maybe it was the collective wattage of the judges that intimidated her. Either way, her dish fell way short; She presented us a Jamaican fricassee of chicken, which was not a bad idea; a fricassee is essentially a quick braise -- a protein browned lightly and then cooked in wine or sauce, and the ingredients in the challenge were ideal for that kind of dish.
Sara's problem boiled down to technique; the dish was bland and disappointing; none of the Jamaican spices that make up her vernacular were discernible on the plate, and the flavor just wasn't there. If we had decided to send only three contestants on to the finale, our choice would have been clear; Hung, Casey and Brian were the obvious winners, Sara and Dale, the losers. But we had decided upon four, so we had to choose; poor concept or poor execution? In the end, we let Sara go and Dale squeaked by. Sara was a good competitor, and a good teammate. Her reaction to being sent off had more to do with having to say goodbye to her new friends, and I found myself moved by the obvious camaraderie she and most of the others shared.
All you Hung-haters out there are no doubt foaming at his cold and unabashed desire to win above everything else. In my opinion, he's merely being honest -- as he said at the beginning of the season, he was there to win. Period. And I don't fault him for that. But Sara's tearful goodbye reminded me that for a good many of us the process itself is meaningful. Sara hopes to make a name as a master cheese maker, and frankly, she can achieve that without having won Top Chef. I wish her luck, and hope I'll be serving her cheese in my restaurant one day soon.