As I write this blog, I am in the throes of planning for the 2008 FOOD & WINE Best New Chef Awards, which take place this week in New York City. Each year, FOOD & WINE scours the country in search of the 10 most creative and talented young chefs, who we believe will go on to be the nation's next culinary stars. This year we'll announce the carefully chosen recipients to the press and food industry at a celebration on Thursday night. This being our 20th anniversary of the program, we have invited over 20 Best New Chef alumni to cook at the event. Old friends who have won in years past will attend and cook in our honor, including many friends of Top Chef, such as Tom Colicchio, Rocco DiSpirito and, of course, Daniel Boulud!
Daniel (my former boss of many years) was actually part of the "inaugural class" to receive the award, back in 1988. His year of award recipients was particularly remarkable, as it also included industry luminaries Thomas Keller, Nobu Matsuhisa, Hubert Keller, and Rick Bayless. It is amazing to think that back then these leading chefs were relative unknowns. They were young and ambitious, still conceiving their signature styles and the dishes that would eventually bring them national fame and legendary success. Their dreams were not unlike those of the cheftestants on our show today. How fitting it is that he was the guest for this week's challenge!
Creating a dish inspired by one's favorite movie in the process of preparing a multi-course meal has to be one of the more exciting and liberating challenges the chefs have been given so far. I was actually envious when imagining the potential culinary concepts I could have fashioned based on some of my favorite flicks (just picture the possibilities for kitschy gastronomy inspired by Back to the Future). I couldn't have been more pleased with the food our chefs created in this Elimination Challenge. Upon completion, it looked, for the most part, well-made, thoughtful and delicious, especially the two top dishes. I must admit to thinking at first that Stephanie and Lisa's NY Strip Steak with Braised Short Rib was born out of a somewhat inappropriate scene from Top Secret! -- one that would not translate at all to anything I would want to eat (if you have seen that movie, you know exactly what I mean). But the addition of the Apple Pot Sticker and Caramel Sauce sounded like a savory and inventive way to bring it all together.
Andrew, Richard, and Dale took a big risk with their Willy Wonka-inspired Smoked Salmon with Faux Caviar and Wasabi White Chocolate Sauce, since these ingredients are not ones you often see together on a well-balanced plate. There is nothing I enjoy less than a chef's attempt to use contrasting flavors and irrelevant tricks on a plate just for the sake of being controversial. If the sum of its parts is not harmonious, a dish will never be a success. However, when a chef is able to combine flavors rarely used together, in a synergistic way, it can be an absolute revelation! I was angered and surprised to hear the losing teams' reactions to this winning dish in the "Stew Room." Obviously, on paper the dish sounded suspect, but the fact that they were able to pull it off and receive praise from the diners and all the judges proves they deserve even more points for going out on a limb. I wonder if anyone from the losing teams even tasted the dish. You simply cannot judge the success of a dish if you have not eaten it. Isn't cooking about experimentation? If chefs never took risks like this, how could the craft evolve? I applaud Andrew, Richard, and Dale for their bravery, as well as their confidence in believing they could execute this unusual palette with both a delicate touch and the strong determination it required.
I also agree with my co-judges' choice of who to send home this week. It appeared as if Manuel did not contribute at all to the conception of Spike's Good Morning, Vietnam Summer Roll with Black Vermicelli, Chilean Sea Bass & Pickled Swiss Chard. Compared to the other teams' dishes, theirs was also the least interesting and the least cohesive on the plate. Manuel's departure (the contestants all called him Memo) is bittersweet. I could tell from the little time we spent together that he was respectful and caring, and an attentive chef. Although his journey on Top Chef has ended, I am fully confident that his career holds many happy surprises in store.