Just a few weeks ago Tom, Padma, and I were lucky enough to return to Chicago for the first time since shooting the season, to help host Art Smith's annual Common Threads fund-raising gala, World Festival. It was such special evening and great to be back in town celebrating an important cause with our new friend and his dedicated team. The evening raised over $392,000, which will enable 653 scholarships for children to be part of Common Threads' programming, as well as help launch their Los Angeles office.
Art founded the organization in 2003 with a mission to educate children from every walk of life on the importance of nutrition and physical well-being, and to foster an appreciation of cultural diversity through cooking. As a former anthropology major, with a lifelong food obsession, I was instantly taken by his infectious commitment to creating healthy, informed communities. Art's kindness in giving Top Chef the opportunity to tape an Elimination Challenge with his kids and play a role in Common Threads was one of the more rewarding experiences I have had on the show to date. Spending the afternoon with these enthusiastic chefs-in-the-making reminded us not only how fun cooking should be, but also how vital it is to encourage good eating habits in children.
Our challenge was a difficult one indeed, especially for professional restaurant chefs used to having access to expensive and rare ingredients in their efforts to impress us. Cooking a meal for a family of four on a strict budget of $10 total may have been a rude awakening for our cheftestants, but is probably a realistic dinner estimate for most of the country. Thankfully, after the initial shock subsided, almost everything the cooks made that day, with the outstanding assistance of their Common Threads sous-chefs, was really enjoyable. I was truly impressed that our chefs were able to prepare so much with so little.
What I appreciated most about the top three chefs in the challenge was their ability to incorporate new and sometimes unusual ingredients, in simple and flavorful ways. Nikki's One-Pot Roasted Chicken with Apple and Mixed Vegetables, Cucumber and Tomato Salad was familiar enough that everyone could identify with it, but her addition of brussel sprouts and apples gave it a hearty, healthy twist. Andrew went out on a limb by serving Chicken Paillard with Basil and Parmesan with a Fennel, Orange, and Apple Salad. I have spent many wasted hours trying to make some of the children in my life eat vegetables like fennel, and have never succeeded! I was in awe of how easily he was able to do so. Rest assured, I will be taking his recipe with me on my next visit with my nieces and nephew.
It was Antonia's Stir Fry Whole Wheat Noodles with Bok Choy, Chicken, Edamame, and Cilantro that was the biggest hit. Having a young daughter of her own obviously gave her an edge over her fellow contestants, as she needs to think about cooking good food at home for her child all the time. Her dish included bright, fresh vegetables, whole wheat noodles (which are fun to eat, no matter how old you are!) and a good shot of lean protein to round out the mix, in the form of edamame and chicken. She presented a dish that was cooked straight from her heart.
Antonia's winner plate lay in stark contrast to Mark's dish. When criticized for not having enough protein in his Roasted Vegetables in Red Curry with Cucumber Salad and Garlic Naan, Mark claimed he did not feel the need to add meat to his vegetarian entree. Never once did we insist meat was necessary either; there are plenty of ways to add protein without dropping steak in the center of the plate (think beans, tofu, nuts, and legumes)! His rebuttal seemed to miss the point we were making altogether. Our issue was that Mark's food was not well planned. Compared to the other dishes we were served, his was the least complete. It was also the least liked by our young diners. I credit Mark with attempting to introduce the relatively foreign flavor of curry, the concept of which had nothing to do with why he went home. We chose to eliminate Mark because, in addition to its lack of nutritional value, the curry he made was actually not very good.
I am still not sure why Mark took Tom's distance and analysis so personally, calling it out at Judges' Table. In order to be as objective as possible, we are all instructed to maintain a professional and detached relationship with the chefs. Perhaps people think Tom is at times harder on them because he identifies so closely with their plight and wants to push them to be the best they can possibly be. It is possible Mark misconstrued this as some sort of personal vendetta, but I assure you it is not the case. This challenge brought to the forefront what we try to do at Top Chef and in our jobs every day: Sew together the common threads we share in order to enrich our culture and possibly inspire a few more little hands to get dirty in the kitchen along the way.