The empty house phenomenon happens every season. You either go through it very calmly, satisfied with the notion that you'll make it to the end, or your eyes start to get shifty, realizing every single person left in the house is your competitor, and pretty boy Ryan might be gone but now you've got Spazz McGee and Mr. Wizard to deal with. (And Jen, who is still doing it for Zoi.)
The Dessert Quickfire. First of all, these contestants HAD to know this was coming. When I heard we secured Johnny Iuzzini as a judge I knew he would be perfect for the challenge. Johnny and I know each other very well from NY and I consider him to be one of the top pastry chefs in the country, let alone New York. We always have to think about the "reveal" for the contestants, meaning where they are, or what's on the judges' table for display. Shauna had approached me and wanted suggestions for the reveal. We didn't want to dump a mountain of sugar and eggs on the table and put a bunch of raw ingredients out. Instead, I suggested smothering the table with pastries (I knew Johnny would look good on camera -- I wanted the table to look better). In a ho hum sort of way, she gave me the green light. My production vehicle happens to be a minivan. Why do I have one you ask? Specifically because you can fit so much shit in the back, and believe me, there are times when Shannon and I cram it full. Everyone on set likes to make fun of the soccer mom mobile. I love it; so does Shannon. However, production needed to borrow the minivan to shoot B-roll (sliding side doors) on the day I went shopping for the pastries for the Quickfire. In all of my minivan paranoia I said, "What are you going to give me instead?" I need a vehicle with A LOT of space. I had called Whole Foods the day before to warn them that I was cleaning out their pastry case. We ended up driving something the size of an Escalade. Let's just say the only way we could see behind us was if we used the side mirrors. We stuffed the SUV with boxes and bags of cookies, cakes, and pastries from floor to ceiling. It was very laughable two hours I spent with Shannon in Whole Foods because as he shopped for all of the Quickfire pantry ingredients and I just stood in front of the pastry display case and recited, "I'll take two of those, one of these, two dozen of those." Mind-boggling fun. So much fun I almost went into diabetic shock. We pasted the receipt next to the door in our culinary office, which everyone got a good laugh out of the remainder of the season ("What the hell is THIS for?"... "Pastry Quickfire." ... "Really?!?!?" ... "Yep, guess how much?") At this point the person tries to find the end of the receipt. We could've decorated a Christmas tree with it, it was so long. Setting up the table was even better as we had crammed every single fridge in the TC kitchen with cake boxes. After pulling it all out the morning of the Quickfire to see how much I had to set up, we were like, "WOW. That's a lot of pastry (stop licking your fingers)". Surprisingly enough, we managed to plate and display it all without eating any of the sweets (It was also 7 a.m., not an ideal time for Death by Chocolate). We had the table ready by 10 a.m. and when Shauna and the rest of production came in to look at the table, they went nuts. Wouldn't you?
Those of you who bought the TC cookbook already know that Richard was going to win the Quickfire. I tasted all of the desserts and some were good, some not so good. It's nice to see a lighter side of Dale in this episode and his take on halo halo was strangely addictive, with a spicy, avocado-coconut milk mixture poured over the shaved ice and other components. I was actually rooting for him to win this one because it was so unusual and so good. Spike's Pineapple Rum Raisin Cavity was just that ... it was so sweet I almost had to spit it out. The buttermilk cake was very classic, though a little dry. The chocolate cake was good, but unrefined in appearance, the same applying to Lisa's dessert, which tasted nice, but I wasn't a fan of the way it was plated (as the wontons got soggy, the whole thing just kind of melded together on the plate in a multicolored pile of sweet). Mark's plate of mini pavlovas lost points for being a petit four plate rather than an actual dessert. I love lemon desserts but unfortunately Antonia attempted to make a lemon crÃƒÂ¨me brulee that never set and ended being lemon crÃƒÂ¨me anglaise soup underneath that sugar crust. Richard's banana scallops were very tasty. He accented the combo of bananas and chocolate with the creamy avocado guacamole and tarragon and minced cilantro stems. It was conceptually the most creative dessert and Richard won the Quickfire, deservingly.
What struck me as so great about this episode is that we get to see the lighter side of the contestants. I adore Richard's earnest confidence. Antonia's and Stephanie's sense of humor remind me very much of my own. Mark's fashionable dry wit and even Spazz McGee made me laugh (a couple of times, too). I think the only one still complaining is Lisa. I was sad I didn't get to go to Second City, but it's actually the first time the contestants have EVER gotten to go out for a real night on the town. We caught a quick drink in the Mission after shopping for the street cart challenge, but it was one drink and it never made it to air. I think Season 2 contestants were locked in their loft the entire time, and we know how pissed the Season 3 chefs got when they arrived at Nikki Beach and found out they had to cook. I was happy to see them have such a great time at Second City and I had wanted to know how their improv categories actually came to be. The best part was seeing their realization of why they were there. At the end of the day, this was a fun challenge and I'd say half of our chefs embraced the concept. Production wanted to throw several twists in for the chefs. We knew we'd be asking them to move in the middle of their challenge. Someone had suggested turning off the gas and lights at some point and I replied that while most chefs have had to deal with some kind of terrible situation like the power going out, or the Ansil system going off right before service, this would not only be setting our chefs up for failure, but it was also potentially dangerous. I suggested, rather than killing the power, taking away all electrical appliances. At the end of the day, it's a very good twist. The one thing that chefs take for granted these days is power, as in electricity. I knew that while this may not affect all of them, it would definitely play a role for some of them. Most chefs rely on their blenders, food processors, etc, on a daily basis. Spike and Andrew argued the point I did with Shauna, there weren't blenders a hundred years ago, but there was certainly soup. Andre Soltner tells me stories of when there were no temperature gauges on the ovens and one would adjust the temperature on the oven by propping open the oven door with a rag. Mousses were made by hand mincing everything and passing it through a fine mesh sieve by hand. Any good chef will know how to get by without electricity. Though it did occur to me that if Andrew is so emotionally connected with his food mill, then maybe I should've taken away the blenders for good. They would've loved that.
The soup was delicious. While Spike's determination to make squash soup was suspect, they did an amazing job, especially without a blender. The texture and body of the soup was perfect, and the vanilla cream complemented the warm, rich flavors of the soup. Nikki and Mark's pork tenderloin was good, but boring, the bacon looking very similar to Lisa's winning bacon a few episodes before (he even baked it the same way Lisa did). It was pork tenderloin over sweet potato puree, nothing to write home about.
For those of you who don't heart Richard already, then you should after his Seinfeld impression (you can even hear the cameraman guffaw at his joke). Not to mention he seems like a great guy to work with, from a chef's perspective. I love this dish in it's brilliance and also because it tasted amazing. We do a lot of sous-vide cooking in my kitchen in NY and one of our favorite things to do is cook things sous vide in beef fat. This especially works well if you roast some beef bones and also throw them in the bag. You get that delicious roasted meat flavor. Dale's green curry was sinus clearing and addictively good. I eat a lot of tofu and I think they did a phenomenal job of interpreting green, perplexed, tofu.
The minute I had heard what Antonia and Lisa were doing I raised an eyebrow. I love polish sausage/ kielbasa. In fact, I tried going to the Bohemian Beer Hall Garden where there's always fresh kielbasa on the grill last weekend, the first weekend of beautiful weather in NY. The backyard was closed which meant no grilled kielbasa. I was so disappointed. Rather than embrace the challenge, they took the word improv too far. I can think of a million ways to interpret drunk, magenta, polish sausage. Beer braised kielbasa over stewed red cabbage is the most basic thing that comes to mind immediately and there are another hundred ways you can dress that up too. I borderline believe someone on their team should've gone home instead because they both failed to meet the criteria of the challenge (it had nothing to do with the "slight wording change" as Lisa had said).
However, Jen's continual phallic references bothered me, as the plate itself did not look remotely sexual, just a big mess of food. The main ingredient was asparagus. The piece of Bucheron on each plate was EASILY a 3-ounce chunk of cheese, which is not only too big of a portion in any sense, but taste-wise drowned out the delicate flavor of the asparagus. When you cook a semi-aged goat cheese such as Bucheron, the texture does not lend itself well to heat. The fat separated out of their goat cheese, leaving a greasy, unpleasantly mealy consistency. The bread was a leaden addition to the plate, and all in all just a mediocre dish.
While I enjoyed seeing Johnny, I was sad to see Jen go. Again, everything is judged a single challenge at a time, and she is WAY more skilled than some of the remaining contestants. She is the Tre of this season, having gone home too early. I had found her food up until that point to be not only inspired and original, but food that I would eat anytime. So I wish her the best of luck. She does not need it as she is a very well-known and respected chef on the West Coast and has already been recognized nationally through James Beard and other industry publications. Hopefully this experience was good for both Jen and Zoi; they are both incredibly talented women and I wish them all the happiness in the world.