And For My Next Trick
Lee Anne Wong talks protein.
And for my next trick, I am going to pull frozen scallops out of Spike's hat. Sorry I haven't logged in my two sense about this situation yet. I was getting buried at work last week and had to attend a wedding out of state this weekend. Here's the deal: This episode was all about partnering with Allen Brothers, a wonderful Chicago based meat and seafood company, well-known for its steaks.
The Quickfire took place at their establishment, so we only saw it fit to link the Elimination Challenge to them so the story of the episode would make sense. There was no better fit than Rick Tramonto, a Chicago icon, and his new steakhouse, Tramonto's, which served the long bone ribeye from Allen Brothers on its menu. First of all, those of you who are questioning the integrity of Rick Tramonto or his restaurants should just stop right there. When we first scouted Tramonto's, it was also my first time meeting Chef Rick. He was completely warm, gracious, and welcoming to our entire crew. I mean, what a great guy, seriously. He surprised me by giving me a bag with a copy of each of his cookbooks in it. (They are great and you should go buy them, especially his new one Fantastico!) They are now proudly part of my ever-growing cookbook collection.
The Allen Brothers tie-in to the Elimination Challenge was that they donated a bulk of the proteins for the challenge. Keep in mind, as the culinary producer, it's my job to keep within my food budget for each episode, and the budget's never as big as you think it is. I worked with Chef Rick's corporate chef, Greg Biggers, on making sure the fridge would be stocked with a plentiful variety of proteins and produce for our contestants to work with. However, Tramonto's was not donating this product -- we had to pay for everything we requested and used. Chef Greg sent me his inventory list with current prices attached and I had to budget out what we could order and what could be donated. While this is not uncommon, I want you to understand why I got the scallops donated, rather than pay for 5 lbs of them. There's nothing wrong with frozen seafood, but there were no scallops on Rick's menu at the time, and if there had been, he certainly would not have been using frozen scallops. So all of this hullabaloo at the end of the day is MY fault. I knew the scallops were frozen, and besides the fact that they would be free, they may have been perfectly suitable in other applications, such as a seafood stew or sausage. It still doesn't excuse the fact that Spike knew this also. He observed the quality of the scallops the minute he opened the bag and he STILL chose to use them. It was bad judgment on his part either way.
Chefs have to make these kinds of decisions everyday, checking their proteins and produce when they get it. I often send seafood back to the purveyor if it's not the quality I need it to be. Spike could've done something else. Here's what I had in the cooler for them to use, a combination of things from Allen Brothers, Whole Foods, and Rick's Restaurant: filet mignon, skirt steak, dry aged NY strip, bone in rib-eyes, the long bones from the Quickfire, prime sirloin, duck, sweetbreads, bacon, quail eggs, white anchovies, colossal shrimp, those damn scallops, jumbo lump crab meat, hamachi, tuna, halibut, oysters, clams, salmon roe, and caviar. I know you may be a little peeved that we say "Rick is handing over his restaurant" but Tramonto's is a steakhouse with a very focused menu, so we wanted to supplement enough proteins into the cooler so the five contestants could have some variety with their menus. Rick was completely unaware that the scallops made it into his cooler and quite frankly it never occurred to me that they would become the heart of the story because Spike couldn't make a smart decision when the time came. And don't forget, he had first choice. Incidentally, you all know I've expressed my frustration in past blogs with all of the contestants battling it out like gorillas for the scallops all the time when I stock the fridge with so many other beautiful proteins. (Wait, gorillas don't eat scallops. They don't eat lamb either.) Scallops, National Sponsor of the Quickfire for 60% of Top Chef contestants. For once, the scallops send someone home. Ironic, no?
Aside from the actual scallops, the rest of his dish was just not good. It lacked acid and the hearts of palm were overcooked and the mushrooms were under-seasoned and mushy. His steak dish was the worst of the bunch. He took that beautiful long bone ribeye and paired it with a sweet potato puree that would rot your teeth out and blanched brussels sprout leaves and slices of cipollini onions, which were barely there, with absolutely no seasoning, no herbs, no citrus, and more importantly, no sauce. I know Spike has not necessarily been everyone's favorite, but he's always been very sweet and polite to me so maybe it's that whole thing when certain contestants turn into caricatures of themselves when they're in front of the camera, and I've known a few. I hear he's got some new projects lined up so I wish him the best of luck with everything.
Stephanie's Veal Sweetbreads were absolutely delicious. They paired perfectly with the sweet and sour (that's why they call the sauce "saor") raisin and pine nut sauce, the buttery fennel, salty-smoky-chewy bacon bits, and crisp haricots verts. I love sweetbreads and I love her analogy with the Chicken McNugget. The first time I ever had sweetbreads was at Gramercy Tavern when Tom was still cooking there. Sublime, like a Chicken McNugget, lightly crisp on the outside, only creamier and sexier on the inside. I have never looked back, but that is far and away one of the greater culinary memories of mine, the moment when I discover another delicious taste and texture. Thanks Tom.