True To Its Roots

The judge describes New York as the "ultimate culinary mecca."

Any epicurean-minded traveler who visits New York cannot help but be overwhelmed and excited at the chance to explore this vibrant, multicultural city. New York has always been considered the ultimate culinary mecca, and not just for its temples of haute cuisine. The blending and borrowing among cultures and communities over the last 200 years, and the history of immigration from every corner of the globe to all five boroughs, makes New York's edible landscape one of the most diverse in the world. Where else can you eat Polish, Indian, Italian, Chinese and Jamaican food in one day, all on a single subway line!

So it's of course fitting that Top Chef: New York begins with an Elimination Challenge requiring our contestants to investigate local markets in eight of New York's most famous ethnic neighborhoods, then asking them to create dishes inspired by what they've discovered. Pitting sets of two contestants against each other to determine whose dish ranks at the bottom of the challenge and whose comes out on top made our inaugural day in the Top Chef: New York kitchen all the more interesting. So too did the fact that our first Guest Judge of the season was none other than world-renowned chefJean-Georges Vongerichten, himself a first-generation American, born and raised in Alsace. After spending time in some of the most respected kitchens in France, Chef Jean-Georges trained extensively in Asia before settling in New York. He now owns and operates more than a dozen exquisite restaurants stretching from Central Park South to Hong Kong and Shanghai. Suffice it to say that JG knows a thing or two about fusing exotic flavors.

Before we delve into the results of this challenge, I wanted to mention how shocked I was to learn that Padma and Tom had eliminated a contestant during the very first Quickfire! How heartless to tell someone to pack their knives and go before they have even unpacked in the first place. Poor Lauren, whom I never really met, suffered a sorry fate when she failed at her attempt to cook a dish for Tom using the perfect brunoise, from 15 apples she had been forced to peel by hand in the opening sequence. If nothing else, her swift exit made it clear from start that this will be no ordinary season, just as New York is no ordinary town.I won't belabor the details of what I can only remember as one of the hottest days all summer (we had to break in between tasting every set of courses to cool down off- camera, for fear of practically passing out!). But I will tell you that in tasting the dishes prepared for us by the remaining 16 chefs, we discovered a few new and exciting flavor combinations ourselves. On the whole, the food we were served was really quite delicious. From Jamie's Deconstructed Greek Saladand Seared Black Bass to Jill'sJamaicanScallop Fritters, Hosea's Russian Trio of Smoked Fish, and Eugene's slam-dunk Indian Lamb, we were all pleasantly surprised at how creative they were, especially since a number of the chefs made it clear that the ethnic ingredients they used were unfamiliar to them until now.

The only true disappointments in terms one specific cuisine were the dishes from ourChinatown team. Both Patrick and Danny presented watered-down, uninspired dishes that did not do justice to the breadth of extraordinary Chinese food found in this city. When we tasted Patrick's Seared Salmon, Bok Choy and Black RiceNoodles, it was clear that his cooking did not measure up to that of his fellow contestants.

In contrast, Stefan's Middle Eastern Lamb Chops with Tabouli Salad and Beef Onion Skewer proved you don't have to be fluent in a given cuisine to understand the combinations of ingredients and techniques that make it work. His dish was modern in presentation but authentic in flavor, refined yet true to its roots ... just like New York itself.

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