Survival of the Tastiest

Gail Simmons' alternative career would be a zoologist. A zoo challenge will just have to do for now.

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If I had to choose another career, I would definitely be a zoologist. Since I was a little girl, I have been fascinated by the animal kingdom, and have spent a decent amount of my free time learning about the habitats and diets of creatures both big and small. In college, I studied physical anthropology and for a while was especially obsessed with primates, but the behaviors of all animals -- from puppies to parrots, butterflies to buffalo -- interest me endlessly. I am one of those people who can watch footage of a lion hunt all afternoon or be transfixed by Shark Week on the Discovery Channel for days. Some might even say I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to animals. I'm already considered a food geek, so why not add another title to my resume? You can imagine how happy I was when I was told that not only would my first challenge of the season take place at the Lincoln Park Zoo, but that it would involve dishes based on the eating habits of a selection of some of the inhabitants. That evening also gave me a chance to chat with a roomful of like-minded people who were just as excited about what gorillas and penguins like to eat.
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This was by no means a simple challenge for anyone. Catering to a large group, in a venue you have never seen, is always going to be a bit unpredictable. Many contestants in seasons past have run into problems estimating what can be done in advance and what needs to be done "à la minute," on-site. In addition, having to incorporate specifically defined ingredients in a creative way, without its seeming contrived, is not an easy task. Surprisingly, most of the dishes prepared that night made sense in the context of their assigned animal's diets. While I was eager to see how the featured ingredients were presented, I was more interested in the skill it would take to serve tasty dishes, at the right temperatures, for the hungry crowd. I thought the most successful plates were the Vulture Team's marinated anchovy on a quinoa croquette, as well as the Penguin Team's squid ceviche with soy-balsamic tapioca, and Thai shrimp salad with fresh crab and crispy watercress. The fact that the food accurately reflected components of their given animal's diet was no coincidence, but these were the kind of inventive hors d'oeuvres I could have eaten all night regardless of their context. Honorable mention must also go to Andrew's yuzu and mint "glacier" for its wacky charm and surprisingly bright flavor, as well as the Lion Team's beet salad with yuzu, ras el hanut, and goat cheese foam, an incredibly delicate and balanced spoonful which I have thought back to repeatedly since I tasted it that night.
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On the other hand, while I understand that gorillas eat root vegetables, the black olive blini with fennel mascarpone, rutabaga, and beets seemed completely out of place at the Gorilla Team's table. Perhaps if it had been more flavorful and not as lifeless, I would have been more open to the choice of ingredients. The same can be said of the Bear Team's stuffed mushrooms. I think it was clear on the episode that besides looking quite unappealing, they were served too cold. But what may not have been emphasized enough was how bad they tasted. Forget that the mushroom-blueberry combo was in itself questionable. It was the addition of vast quantities of Pecorino cheese that took it over the top! No amount of heat could have saved those suckers. At least the team realized their mistake and tried to pull them before they offended too many people! Thankfully, the simplicity of their other cheese canape, with honeycomb on cranberry-pecan bread. and salmon à la plancha (read: grilling on high heat using a griddle or metal plate), made up for the mushroom disaster and saved them from losing the challenge entirely. Sadly, the Gorillas suffered a very different fate. Along with that weak attempt at blini, they also served an extremely watery, not to mention poorly-seasoned, crab salad with roasted pear and celery root. While the dish was Stephanie's doing, she did redeem herself by producing respectable banana bread with salted caramel and meringue. Valerie, I'm afraid, had no such luck. In fact, from the way it appeared, Valerie's contribution to her team's effort was tepid at best. She was the obvious choice for elimination that night. I know it's cheesy but I just can't help myself here: In this jungle, the only way to survive is to fight your way to the top of the food chain ... or else be fed to the lions.

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