Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Turning Up The Heat

Lee Anne Wong reports on South Florida cuisine, and what makes good BBQ

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Now that the first episode is over, the contestants have had a few days to live together, check out each other's food and form opinions about each other. For those of you who are not used to living with roommates, try taking on 14. This episode, we begin to see the cracks in the sidewalk.

I love this episode because both challenges are so straightforward. Norman Van Aken is a legend unto himself, part of what is known as "The Mango Gang," a group of chefs who include Douglas Rodriguez, Alan Susser, and Mark Militello. These guys put South Florida on the map with their "New World" style, combining the flavors of the Caribbean, South and Central Americas, and Asian cuisine while incorporating Florida's local ingredients. Norman's is a restaurant that has been around for over 10 years, and in restaurant years, that is no small feat.
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I sourced over a dozen varieties of local Florida Citrus for the Quickfire, working with the wonderful people over at the Fresh Market. The display was meant to get the contestants' blood pumping and I think most of them did a great job with the Quickfire. I personally love working with citrus fruit and having so many different varieties can either inspire or overwhelm (like in Sara N's case).

As Chef Van Aken begins to tastes everyone's dish, it's easy to see that he has a very refined, if not critical palate and the fact that this is all about Florida citrus means that no one's going to fool him with fancy descriptions of what he or she has made. Hung's ego should now be apparent to all but he's got the skills to back it up as he wins immunity from the Elimination challenge. We had scouted several different locations for the BBQ and settled on the Aqua properties sitting on the intra coastal waterway. This is a shout out to all of the production assistants who spent days assembling all of the grills on set. Good job, guys.

So how do you make high end, gourmet BBQ? Well, I'll tell you what you don't do...you don't throw drumsticks on the grill. We had to call The Fresh Market the day before they went shopping to ensure that they would have enough proteins on hand for the contestants. Thankfully they did, and the only one who ended purchasing lamb was Micah. Our field producers are constantly with the contestants and are always taking notes about their conversations and what is going on so that it can be used for story once editing time comes. For the record, Micah did miss her daughter, though I am also sure that part of the crying was due to the frustration of being in the bottom three for the Quickfire.

Two hours is not a whole lot of time to prep and pack everything and now that they are 14 in the kitchen, there's a lot less room. I remember watching Joey and the drumsticks and shaking my head. It's not that I'm a hater of the drumstick -- I happen to love chicken legs -- but maybe not at an Ian Schrager party. Of course there was Sara N. and her Habanero peppers (the gloves are in the pantry!!!).

Brian caught my eye as I watched him poach and chill a homemade seafood sausage. I happen to love making seafood sausage and was impressed with the fact he made his own forcemeat rather than buy pre-made sausage at the store, like Camille and Sara M. Their excuse was that they couldn't find casings. Just so you all know, any market that sells fresh sausage usually has casings somewhere in the back. It's just not an item that is normally on display. Brian however missed the casings too but opted to use plastic wrap to form and shape his sausage while it cooked and chilled.

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We gave them 2 hours to get their grills going and finish their dishes before the guests arrived. I had done a test run on a grill in the parking lot days before to find out how long it would take to light the charcoal, get the grill hot and cause the charcoal to burn. I'm from upstate NY where barbecuing and summer are synonymous (though rare due to real estate). I jump at the chance to get on a grill here in the city whenever I can.

It was interesting that some of them had never gotten a grill going unless it was turning a knob on the gas grill in their respective kitchens. The challenge for most of the chefs was grasping cooking time on the grill and how their service was going to run once they began serving. This was also an opportunity for them to flex their salesman skills when dealing with the guests. In Brian's case: a used car salesman, and I say that in the most affectionate way.
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I think Micah surprised herself with the end result, but obviously knows how to talk a quick game at the Judges Table. She bought the lamb because it was on sale? Right. By the time Sara's fingers stopped burning, she had put out a simple but flavorful dish that captured the smoky flavor of the grill and was easy to eat. If you haven't tried Vietnamese barbecue I suggest you run (don't walk) to the nearest Vietnamese restaurant. In the end, Mr. Malarkey took home gold for his Chino-Latino seafood sausage. You can learn how to make his winning dish this week on my online show The Wong Way to Cook. It is deceptively simple with a lot of bright flavors. Just remember to make sure you are using the freshest seafood possible.

So now the question for the judges is not using the barbecue at all vs. not making something that is upscale enough? I think Tre did phone it in. The salmon that I had tasted was actually under seasoned and I had wished there were more pronounced acidity and peach flavor to his barbecue sauce.

Joey's drumsticks missed the concept of the challenge altogether and were clumsy and messy to eat. Less than glamorous, though obviously he had no problem throwing stones at Howie. With Howie, I believe he jumped the gun to overcompensate for not having his food ready on time for the last challenge. A little bit of Clay-itis, resulting in a dry, overcooked pork tenderloin.
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Sandee was sent home because she, in fact, did not grill anything at all. I had provided each of them with a small sautee pan and a saucepan on site for saucing and accessorizing so that they could truly create a gourmet dish for this challenge. The problem was that Sandee forgot to use the actual grill to impart any flavor on her food. While tasty, I agree with Chef Van Aken that the sweetness of the date overpowered the minuscule slice of lobster on the skewer. Sandee is a young chef in terms of the fact that she has only been cooking for 3 years. She has already accomplished so much in that short period of time and is continuing to hone her skills in lovely South Beach. I wish her the best, as she is a truly sweet and talented individual.

Watching this episode made me grill-hungry. Thankfully I'll have a grill to use when I head to Los Angeles for the 4th of July (again, NYC backyards are hard to come by). My barbecue will include marinated rib eye and skirt steaks and bacon in many shapes and sizes (bacon wrapped prawns on the grill, billionaire's bacon, and bacon chocolate cake). Can't wait to fire up the barbie (insert Australian accent). Until then, as my friend Harold would say, keep it hot.

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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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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

Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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.

Bravotv.com: 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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