First, let me start by saying this episode was a monster, but in it I got one of the bigger thrills of my life. OK, Grant Achatz. I had the privilege of trailing at Trio in Evanston while he was the star chef there. Not only was it fascinating to watch him and his team work together, from conceptualizing an idea to refining existing dishes, but it is even more meaningful to me now to see his evolution as a chef. My meal at Trio may have been the best I have ever had (I distinctly remember each of the 24 courses of my Tour de Force tasting menu), and I have eaten at Alinea on three subsequent occasions, each time a completely different and fulfilling experience. It was an honor to have Chef Achatz join us amidst his busy schedule. Some of you may know he is a recent cancer survivor, having battled a life threatening rare form of mouth cancer. He is a hero and a giant in the culinary world for his courage and focus as he continued to work in his kitchen while receiving treatment for his condition. Thankfully he is in remission now and was able to join us for this very rockin' Thanksgiving episode.
The TC Cookbook/Swanson thing was a complicated challenge for us to figure out. I had to choose the recipes and then stock the fridge with plenty of the ingredients from each recipe, each labeled on it's own tray, and then also supplement the pantry with additional ingredients for when they went to go make soup (unbeknownst to the contestants). For the most part, most of the soups were very good. I was particularly a fan of Danny's Ham and Egg Soup, which was rich and thick like a stew with a soft poached egg in it, crunchy bread crouton like French Onion, and lots of ham and cheese in a rich, flavorful broth. Leah's White Asparagus Soup was very good (I can't believe she hates white asparagus) and we knew by letting her pick her team it would create an interesting dynamic amongst the contestants (The talented vs. the misfits? Well, apparently at least in Leah's mind).
The concert was in Rochester, which is a seven-hour drive from NYC. Most of the crew and the contestants were taken up in buses. Team Culinary, fully aware that we would be building an outdoor kitchen, had to drive a cube truck full of equipment and rentals that would be needed to make sure that the teams could pull this off. I sent Peder up to Rochester in the cube truck that morning (I had to stick around for the quickfire) and he went to the market to set up the Butterball display that evening. Louise and I got into Rochester, driving our mini van (or the party wagon, as we like to call it), late that evening and went to bed right away as we had to build the kitchen the next morning. I love 4 a.m. wake-up calls. I didn't get too much sleep, probably because I was guilt-ridden by actually knowing that the contestants would be finding out that they were cooking Thanksgiving meal with only toasters, microwave ovens, and one hot plate. The funny thing about this challenge is that it was one that I had proposed to Shauna and Liz many seasons ago. I had done an episode of some cooking show for Fine Living in which I showed college students how to make a three-course meal using only a microwave and toaster oven. We all thought it was a great idea, but I more or less had it in mind for something like a fancy, multi-course meal for 20 people, not Thanksgiving for a roadie crew of 60. I actually laughingly told Shauna that I thought it was totally devious and mean that we'd put it upon them for a challenge like this (to which she responds, "I know, but this is Top Chef," which of course is the universal explanation for many of the crazy things we make them do).
There was a ton of discussion over culinary needs in setting this challenge up. How many microwaves and toaster ovens do we give them (one per contestant)? Should we give them a hot plate (yes, but only one)? I made sure each team had trays, platters, hot boxes, sterno, chafing dishes, the necessary equipment and electrical appliances to pull this off. We were outdoors so we had to buy a dozen coolers and order 300 lbs of ice. We built an outdoor pot washing area for each team, as there was no water source. We had to work with Grip and Electric to make sure the microwaves and toaster ovens wouldn't blow a fuse. And so on and so forth. So at 5 a.m., with my eyes still half shut, Team Culinary and the unionized roadie crew from the arena built an outdoor kitchen in less than 3 hours. Surprise! (First REAL challenging twist of the season). Yep. The contestants gave me dirty looks for the rest of the day. BUT, outside of the toaster oven microwave fiasco, they had everything else they could possibly need to make a fabulous meal, including blenders, food processors, kitchen aids, chafing dishes, hot boxes, and a ton of sterno. They had a huge pantry provided, and all the small tools and Gladware they would need to get through the challenge. I was thrilled to see that apparently Eugene was the only one who used his brain at the supermarket by picking up charcoal and making a fire pit out of one of the chafers. Not against the rules. Ariane realized that the hot box could act as an oven also, with the use of sterno and charcoal. This is exactly the point and what we want from our contestants; flexibility and resourcefulness.
I can't speak to the stupidity of both team names but both put out respectable food considering the conditions. The actual eating and serving area was a good ways away from the outdoor kitchen, so they all had to do quite a bit of running back and forth to get their stations set up. I sampled both teams food and at the end of the day, I preferred Team Cougar's a bit more, not to say that it didn't have its missteps. I think for me it was Ariane's delicious and moist turkey and Eugene's sweet and tender smoked pork loin. I found Team Sexy Pants' (again, stupid name) turkey to be dry and the gravy uninspired. Plus Team S.P. put out a salad bar, which may have been suitable for the Foo Fighters but to me screams Ponderosa. Part of being a chef is sometimes not giving the diner the choice, so I would have rather seen them make several interesting composed salads rather than fill a few bowls with canned chickpeas, olives, and shredded bagged cheddar cheese. Did I mention how much the salad bar turned me off? Team Cougar fell flat with not only its desserts (The bar-fait was really not good), but also with its salads and sides. What you don't see is that Richard had also made a mozzarella and tomato salad coated in basil pesto, which was fine, but really had no place on a Thanksgiving menu. It was a close call however, and Radhika's Vegan Cornbread Stuffing was a hit with all of them. And by the way, that episode was by the far the worst clean up I have ever had to do for any challenge in five seasons as the outdoor kitchen was destroyed by the rain, and the serving and dining area had only been "tidied up" by Team Cougar. Cry me a river Eugene. Unfortunately for sweet, sad Richard, his time was up. I thought he was very creative and had a great attitude the short time I got to spend with him. He left me a really nice note in his recipe book, which was turned into me after he left. I saw him recently at a TC event in Grand Central so he's doing well and I wish him the best. So the big thrill of my day? I got to look at the rider in which the Foos talk about their likes and dislikes. They have a whole paragraph dedicated to bacon. Bingo. I made bacon gift boxes for each one of them, complete with Bacon Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies and Billionaire's Bacon. After the Foos had judged the contestants and were on the way up to their dressing room to get ready for the show, Liz drags them over to say hi to me. Dave Grohl had his back turned to me and Liz says, "Dave, I just want to introduce you to our culinary producer..." and he turns around, points at me with a big smile in surprise and shouts, "Lee Anne!"
I almost passed out. I'm not usually star-struck very easily but this was Dave Grohl. And Taylor. And Chris. And Nate. I love the Foo Fighters and all of their music. So I start babbling like a drunken teenager to Dave and then feebly hand him a bag full of four bacon gift boxes, each individually sealed with bacon tape, to which he responds, "No way! We used to belong to bacon of the month club!" (I love you Dave Grohl). Handshakes, hugs, and the gift of pork were exchanged that day, a memory that will forever be burned into my teeny-bopper heart.
We were allowed to watch the show from stage right. Unbelieveable. Pat Smear was on hand to join them for a few songs. Later that evening I was out at a local bar with the crew when Tom, Padma, Gail, and Shauna showed up. They had been partying with the Foos backstage and said that after the show they devoured the bacon gift boxes and went bonkers over the cookies and billionaire's. Ahhhhh, spreading the pork gospel to the rock gods. It couldn't get anymore perfect and I hope to be able to someday bring more bacon their way. I have to start cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my entire family, like right now. I hope you all have an amazing holiday, and remember: turkey and dumplings the day after.