First off, I want to apologize for my long absence from this site. On May 10th I opened Craftsteak, at the new MGM Grand Resort and Casino in Connecticut, and like any new restaurant, it became my sole mistress for the past few weeks. Each time I open a restaurant, the first night still feels like my own personal episode of "Restaurant Wars" (minus the schlocky decor). Thanks to my talented and sleep-deprived staff, we made it through to a successful opening, and I can finally focus on something other than steak. As luck would have it, this week's challenge was all about ... steak.
I liked this week's episode, and not just because it dovetailed perfectly with my own efforts. I thought it illuminated some important basics about technique and ingredients.
First off, the importance of butchering. Butchering is not some archaic skill best left to others -- it's an essential part of any chef's technical repertoire. Spike won the Quickfire hands down because he had butchering experience and it showed in the clean, even, tomahawk steaks he created from one massive "109" (butcherspeak for a rib roast.) Leaving aesthetics aside, well-butchered meat is essential for proper cooking so that one area doesn't cook more quickly than the rest. It's also a good deal more economical to purchase large cuts of meat and butcher them yourself, since a good kitchen will find a use for every bone and scrap. A knowledge of butchering also affords one a more subtle understanding of meat that translates into better cooking. For example, the meat on a rib-eye is ever-so-slightly fattier up by the neck than by the loin, which means it needs to be cooked differently than the rest -- something you may not get from eyeballing the meat.
Watching the chefs cook their steaks was also interesting. Most of the chefs seemed to have a basic understanding of how to sear and develop nice color on their tomahawks, and I was pleased to see how many of them chose to pan roast their steaks, which allowed them to properly baste the meat with butter and herbs without inviting leaping flames to char the meat. (For the record, a charred steak tastes bitter. One should aim for a darkly caramelized crust on their steak, not stripes of burnt char.)
Equally important is the resting time - once the steak is off the flame, it needs to rest so that the juices, forced into the center by the heat, can redistribute throughout. Cutting into a steak before it is fully rested will produce the dreaded bullet effect -- a red bulls-eye in the center, surrounded by drier, grayish meat.
As for the Elimination Challenge, I thought it was a good one in that it approximated the challenges of dinner service in a real restaurant. It called for skillful, straightforward cooking, without hoops to jump through or last-minute hurdles out of left field. There were enough covers to put the chefs under pressure to cook quickly, but not so many as to be unmanageable. I was glad to get the chance to expedite - it gave me a way to connect with the chefs on shared turf, without the judges' table between us. Rather than add to their nervousness, I actually sensed that it relaxed the chefs to know someone else was driving the boat so that they could just put their heads down and do their jobs.
The most glaring mistake of the night was Spike choosing frozen scallops as the cornerstone of his appetizer. Why was this an issue? For one thing, a scallop's abundant natural sugars convert quickly to starch, so a frozen scallop will be far less flavorful than a fresh one, recently harvested. When you sear a nice, fresh scallop those sugars will caramelize beautifully, adding to its natural sweetness. When frozen scallops thaw, they soak up liquid and this moisture will make it impossible to get a nice sear on the surface, no matter how much you pat them dry. (One should always choose scallops at the market that are dry, over ones that have been resting in liquid, for this very reason.) On top of that, seafood that is frozen is manhandled and thrown about in processing, which is why so many of Spike's scallops were torn or broken. Put simply, while you can destroy a nice ingredient by cooking it badly, this doesn't hold true in reverse: it's nearly impossible to turn a mediocre ingredient into something tremendous, even if you cook it well. (The rare exceptions to this are stone fruit, which -- if imperfect -- can improve when grilled or roasted or used in a pie, and less-than-great tomatoes, whose flavors can be concentrated by slow oven-roasting. But that's about it.)
Now I understand that not everyone has fresh ingredients (especially seafood) available to them at all times, and there are many perfectly decent home cooks and restaurants throughout the country that, by necessity, must rely on some frozen ingredients. But that wasn't the case here -- Spike had first choice among a walk-in filled with high-quality fresh options. He didn't have to use the frozen, and, frankly, he should have known better. Even after I quizzed him about this, Spike seemed to miss the point, saying he was going to try to make the scallops "look good on the plate." That's just backwards logic: If you worry first and foremost about making a dish that works on all levels, trust me, it's going to look good on the plate.
Rick Tramonto took Spike to task over this, which brought on Spike's feisty reply, "With all due respect, the scallops were in your walk-in." My heart sunk when I heard this because I've known Rick for years and can say with certainty he doesn't use frozen seafood in his restaurant. Along with the high-end steaks they had provided for the show, Allen Bros. had included a variety of other products to round out the restaurant's existing stock, including frozen scallops, which is how they came to be in Tramonto's walk-in. I learned later that Rick knew this when we taped the show, but chose not to make a federal case out of it. But as a colleague and fan of Rick's, I feel it's important to set the record straight.
Lo and behold, the resulting dish of scallops with hearts of palm and oyster mushrooms was less than inspired. There was a depressing sameness to all of the flavors on the plate, with none of the meaty sweetness of a nice, fresh scallop to elevate the final result. Spike's main course - a beef chop which, though nicely cooked, was served with brussels sprouts, cipolini onions and a cloying sweet potato puree -- failed to redeem his appetizer. The dish was reminiscent of an old-world steakhouse meal, but it wasn't memorable and it lacked the inventiveness and flair his fellow chefs brought to the challenge.
For that reason Spike was sent home. It was clear he was well-liked by his peers, and he was a great addition to the Top Chef roster due both to his personality and his talent (not to mention his hats.) I wish him nothing but the best.
And before I wrap up for this week, I have to comment on last week's episode because it's clear Dale's dismissal has been a real bone of contention with viewers. Interestingly, after watching an episode purely as an audience member -- in other words without the benefit of having been there -- it's finally sunk in why our viewers get as riled as they do when the judges' decision doesn't jive with what they've seen I wasn't at the Judge's table last week. I saw the same version of the show as everyone else.
And based on what I saw, I expected Lisa to go home. She made two dishes that didn't work, and Dale made one. Dale was also credited with executing the short ribs (albeit from Spike's recipe) that were the team's sole saving grace. The judges said they let Dale go because his scallops were the worst dish of the night, and while I know there was plenty that was discussed among them that didn't make it into the episode, and while I certainly didn't taste the food, (which is my typical snarky response when someone gripes about my judgment -- "Look, buddy, YOU didn't taste the food,") from what I could see it was a pure numbers game. Lisa's two lousy dishes against Dale's one. End of story.