Top Chef: The Final Four
Gail Simmons predicts who will pack their knives next.
Last night's episode sealed the fate of the final four -- three women -- Lisa, Antonia, and Stephanie will face off with the even-tempered, pink-clogged Mr. Blais in Puerto Rico next week.
I'm very excited to see that three women have made it to final four, and I think this is the year that the Top Chef title will be awarded to a woman. Richard's quite talented, that's for sure, but he's got some serious competition from Stephanie and Antonia. Lisa, not so much. She's gone next round, mark my words.
The Quickfire Challenge this week was a true test of chefness on many levels. First, it tested butchery, which is not something that many cooks know how to do. Trimming down and small butchery is one thing, but fabricating whole sides of beef and large animals is a rare skill among the restaurant chef community.
I wrote a story about a month ago on a local restaurant out in Brooklyn called Diner that's been using a small family farm in the Hudson Valley for their grass-fed beef. When the farm, Fleisher's, began selling only whole and half animals, the restaurant had to either find a different meat supplier (which they didn't want to do) or train one of its employees. They chose the latter and found a willing participant in a guy named Tom Mylan, who trained up at the Fleisher's farm to become a butcher. The need for in-house butchers is only going to continue to grow as more and more small family farms begin supplying farm-to-table and locavore restaurants with beef, lamb, and pork. The reason is simple: Small family farms can't afford to spend the time and money butchering animals into convenient cuts of steaks and chops. They're spending their time and resources on the more important stuff: making sure that the animals are raised right.
The Quickfire Challenge also tested another fundamental chef skill -- cooking meat to temperature. That's something that so basic any chef should be able to do it with his or her eyes closed, but as we've seen time and time again on Top Chef, sometimes it's the most basic skills that are the hardest to nail. What I think Top Chef gets right is this combination of testing the most important basic skills, alongside with more "advanced" capabilities like patience, palate, creativity, thoughtfulness, and presentation. To be a great chef, or a Top Chef, I suppose, you've got to master it all, from the most simple task -- like cooking a steak medium rare - to the most challenging, like creating a menu in the course of three hours, and serving it to a fine dining restaurant filled with hungry diners. That's why this week's challenges were so compelling.
In the end, Spike, who was the winner of Quickfire, lost the Elimination Challenge for something I thought was so surprising -- his insistence on sticking to those dreadful water-logged scallops. Why? There was no rule that said he had to stick to that protein. He could've cut his losses and perhaps made something on the fly and made it to Puerto Rico.
Last night's challenge did hook onto a major dining trend here in New York City and that's the steakhouse. The list of exceptional steakhouses has grown over the years from iconic stalwarts like Peter Luger's, the Palm, Sparks, Old Homestead, and Smith and Wollensky to include high end temples of grass-fed, house-aged, and Wagyu beef like Chef Tom's very own Craftsteak, BLT Steak, BLT Prime, Porter House, Quality Meats, and most recently Steve Hanson's newly opened Primehouse, which I just reviewed last week on my blog, The Strong Buzz.
While many of the best steaks in the city are served at these steakhouses, what's even more impressive to me is when I find a great steak at a regular restaurant. Here are two of my favorite spots for just that: The NY Strip Steak at The Little Owl, 90 Bedford Street (at Grove), 212-741-4695. Chef Joey Campanaro was Top Chef Season One Harold Dieterle's mentor way back when they both cooked at The Harrison. They've both since departed, and you'll find Joey cooking at his snug little West Village gem, The Little Owl.
While the most ordered dish on the menu is his gravy meatballs sliders -- sliders made from veal, pork and beef and smothered in Sunday gravy and snuggled into homemade garlic Parmesan rolls -- my favorite dish is his NY Strip, which is one of the most flavorful steaks you'll find in the city. It's a rather gargantuan portion of beautifully seasoned buttery meat, grilled perfectly to medium rare (just the way I like it) and served with quick saute of radicchio, pancetta and balsamic that is shamelessly bold. If you are a fan of quiet little flavors this is not the steak for you. This one is a big bossy baritone.
The Ribeye Tagliata at Centro Vinoteca, 74 Seventh Avenue South, at Barrow Street, 212-367-8040. Chef Anne Burrell is probably known to most as Mario Batali's sous-chef on Iron Chef, but to New York City's most discerning foodies, she's the spunky chef with a shock of blond hair cooking her heart out every night (in a mini-skirt) at Centro Vinoteca, where she dishes out heaping bowls of gorgeous homemade pasta (the pici with sausage ragu is a must), and a mouthwatering array of piccolini (little nibbles) like arancini, eggplant cakes with ricotta, and Parmesan-crusted wedges of fried cauliflower with a spicy agliata.
One of her hidden talents, however, has nothing to do with pasta and everything to do with steak. Her Ribeye, sliced thinly in the Florentine Tagliata style, comes with a crisped potato prosciutto fontina cake and broccoli rabe, and is one of the best steaks in the city. She credits her meat supplier, Pat LaFrieda. And while I agree that the quality of the meat is a testament to his sourcing, I've gotta give Anne credit where it's due. She seasons that meat just right and grills it so its got a beautiful char and just melts in your mouth. You may go for the pasta, but you'll leave craving that steak.