Step It Up And Cook

Lee Anne Wong breaks down the holiday episode ... one partridge in a pear tree at a time.

Setting up for Christmas in the middle of the summer is always fun. We did it in Chicago too when we filmed the Christmas special. It was decided the day before the challenge that we needed to create a beautiful holiday table for the reveal. Because we were already swamped with Gail's bridal shower challenge, I went shopping for the ingredients and then left Louise on set to prep it all while we went on location for the bridal shower. The next morning we came in at the crack of dawn to finish cooking and plating all of the food. The table was missing something -- we had the ham, we had the goose, but it needed a centerpiece, something big. You try finding a whole turkey in the dead of August. My PA Bev found one that was frozen solid. We put that puppy in a 450°F oven (we had about two hours before the cameras would roll), thawed it a little, brushed it with some molasses and let it go for 30 minutes till it looked like a fully cooked golden brown turkey. The problem with the set was that the building had the front door open all of the time, so naturally the flies came to check out our Christmas buffet. We tried citronella candles (like in Puerto Rico) but alas, it was not enough. Sadly, and much to the chagrin of the camera and sound crew, we had to spray the entire Christmas buffet with Deep Woods Off. The things we do for television.

One Pot Wonder was an idea of mine from last season. It seemed fitting considering the Queen of Homemaking was to be our judge. I also tasted the beauty plates and here's my assessment:

Eugene's pork stew with cornstarch was not great. Maybe it's because he didn't attend culinary school, but the better choice would've been to use a roux (a mixture of flour and fat, traditionally butter) to thicken his stew. Cornstarch while often used for thickening, created a thick, glossy texture to the broth that was unnatural at best. Plus the pork was very chewy and the entire dish needed salt and acid. Stefan's veal goulash was very good. It was studded with small chunks of chorizo and I was most impressed that he tourneed his potatoes (turned them into little seven-sided footballs). It's one of those things that they make you do at culinary school that will give you arthritis if you do it long enough, hence my appreciation for his efforts. Hosea's paella was also very tasty, full of that saffron, seafood, meaty goodness. The pork with apples and bacon might be the first decent thing I had seen from Melissa in a while. And Jamie's scallop (you will begin to see a trend) was also very good, and well balanced. I happen to love making potato risotto. The key is to keep the potatoes just slightly al dente, so they retain their shape -- if you overcook it, then you end up with lumpy mashed potatoes (and do you really want a splash of vinegary verjus on top of your mashed potatoes?). The steak and cauliflower was good also, if not very basic. I don't necessarily think it was the best dish. I feel like Hosea and Stefan did well by cooking dishes that really were all cooked in one pot together, not cooked and then pulled out and set aside while you clean the pot to cook the next thing. But what Martha wants, Martha gets. Carla's turkey and apple stuffing was okay, though the turkey was a little dry and flavorless. Fabio's duck with mushroom polenta was bland with an overall soft, mushy texture. Italian grandmothers can't always be right I guess. The amfAR fundraiser was the first big challenge we had given them. We only required an hors d'oeuvre, though some people chose to do a slightly larger tasting portion. I figured 250 pieces of hors d'oeuvres could be done easily in three hours. The Harlem Gospel Choir came to set and the soulful sounds of Christmas filled the stage and I think actually filled the crew's spirits as well. The contestants' reactions were great and the challenge, while a little far-fetched, left plenty of room for interpretation. We set up the Prince George Ballroom (The Art and Lighting Departments did an AMAZING job decorating and lighting everything). We gave each contestant 2 tables, 2 portable gas burners, 2 chafing dishes, a cutting board, towels, and a pot washing station. The contestants got to bring a cooler each and 4 rolling racks. I also gave each of them a supply of various serving platters, trays, and risers for their table in addition to the disposable plates and forks, spoons, and cocktail napkins we gave them. It was a choice of plating individually or using the platters to let your guests come and take hors d'oeuvres. When you are alone and serving 250 people you have to consider the actual execution of your dish and how much time it will take and how many steps are involved.

I was on site setting up with Louise and Bev. We left Angie and Peder back at the stage to help load out the contestants and drive the cube truck over with their coolers and rolling racks. I got the call shortly after I got there. Angie was in a panic because the chefs and producers were freaking out (naturally). The fridges had been overloaded with hot food the night before and one of them broke down. The problem was with Radhika, Hosea, and Melissa's food. After speaking with Liz, one of the exec producers, we saw that technically we could still give them 2 hours to do something before they had to get in a van to come to the ballroom. I told Angie that Radhika should use the leftover duck legs in the fridge, but Radhika didn't want to use the legs. I told her that the closest grocery store would probably only have chicken breasts, which she agreed to, so Angie and Peder ran out and came back with 20 lbs of chicken breast and 2 whole pork loins. It was the best they could do in Bushwick at the last minute. By the time they got back the duck legs were already being cooked (thank goodness). I had spoken with Bengt and heard that all of the contestants were pitching in to help so we were confident they would be able to get it done in time. At this point the producers already knew they couldn't send anyone home because of the fridge incident (it unlevels the playing field, therefore we can't eliminate anyone), but the chefs didn't know this. The results were indeed a bit boring as I tasted all of the food porn once again. What struck me was that none of the dishes had a very "holiday" feel to them. Here's the lowdown:

12 drummers drumming: Stefan's chicken pot pie was precious and very good. The bechamel could've been a bit more flavorful but I liked his idea and it was the closest thing to winter warmth I could see. In their defense, it was August, though -- outside of fresh cranberries, you can get squash and root vegetables year round at Whole Foods.

11 pipers piping- Hosea's smoked pork loin with braised cabbage was really good, the smokiness of the pork loin pairing well with the smokiness of the chipotle pepper sauce.

10 lords a leaping: Jeff's Cheese Islands, while not attractive to look at, was also flavorful and delicious. The only issue is that it's a dish you can't make a lot of at once and it needs to be served hot. While Jeff seems to think he's running circles around the other contestants, I would have to agree, only in the sense that he reminds me slightly of Hung by breaking out into a full sprint from the pantry to the stove to his station (running IN circles, I'd say), if you watch this episode and episodes past.

9 ladies dancing: Fabio's crab cakes with rainbow slaw were reminiscent of TGIFridays.

8 maids a milking: Interestingly enough, I had no idea Melissa's original cheese was brie that had gone bad in the fridge. We knew we wouldn't be able to get her schmancy cheese in Bushwick so Bengt called me asking for gorgonzola dolce, which I sent Louise to Murray's for. It was in fact the overpowering flavor of the blue cheese that landed Melissa at loser's table, plus the fact that the beef disappeared beneath it's strong flavor and the bread was sloppily cut and also way too thick and unpleasantly untoasted. 7 swans a swimming: Jamie and the slimy scallops. Occasionally the Top Chef scallop gods will come slap you on the hand for using them too much.

6 geese a laying: Ariane's deviled eggs were, well, deviled eggs (and terrible ones at that).

5 golden rings: Eugene's ceviche with the pineapple circle and potato chip really mystified me. First of all, he should've learned from the last challenge that separating all of the components makes no sense. How is someone supposed to eat it? Dump the ceviche on the potato chip and then eat the pineapple or try to stack the chip with everything or eat it all separately in a certain order? Besides being too sweet, I thought it was a terrible interpretation of his number, and I was dying to see if he'd buy some small cippolini onions to make miniature onion rings.

3 french hens: Leah's braised guinea hen on puff pastry was good in theory but one of the most common mistakes with hors d'oeuvres is the base to topping ratio. If you have something dry and crumbly and thick like the puff pastry as the base then the topping should be moist and creamy and there should be enough of it to balance out the dry part.

2 turtledoves: Carla's chicken was indeed one note and overcooked in my opinion. She hadn't tasted her food once again as the salt levels were enough to get her sent home. The partridge in a pear tree: Radhika's improvised braised duck legs on toasted brioche with (check it out) Indian spiced pear chutney, was very good, though the bread was also still too thick.

All I can say is what an interesting Judges' Table it was that evening. The contestants having worked late the night before, were tired and not in the mood for criticism. Tom's little talk with them didn't really help at the time and even though they all escaped elimination at the end of the evening the contestants were complaining about the fact that Natasha Richardson was a judge and how she was unqualified, basically blaming everything but themselves for their performance. I ended up having another conversation with them the next morning. It was true that they had served mediocre food rather than amazing food. My pep talk came from a contestant's perspective, and while I got the death stare from some contestants (cross arms with the back-the-f***-off-look), I think I was able to get my point across to others. They had been frustrated and felt restricted by the rules of the challenges but I let them know that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to really challenge themselves and have fun with it, as it is rare for any chef to be able to receive direct criticism from a panel of experts on a regular basis. It's a chance to find out what you are doing wrong, both in cooking and in team dynamics, and correct your mistakes. These are lessons that last a lifetime, like what NOT to do for a wedding menu, and not allowing your teammate to serve the overcooked carrots. I also told them that it did not matter who was judging them. We are in the business of serving people so any customer has a right to their opinion and I am positive Natasha Richardson is more qualified and her palate more well traveled than even some of our contestants (I am sure she and Liam Neeson have eaten all over the world in the finest restaurants). Bottom line: it doesn't matter that she's an actor. And that's really what Top Chef is all about, or at least what I got out of it. As chefs, we make ourselves and our food open to criticism on a daily basis, but are usually somewhat restricted by budgets, seasonality, food genres, etc., and in most normal situations your customers won't come back to your kitchen and nitpick over the details of the food they just ate. It is through our creativity and thought process that we can overcome these restrictions and still deliver a knockout dish. Our challenges are meant to inspire our contestants and make them think (hence Gene and the improv charcoal pit), and I have always said that it is the talent and individuality of our contestants that drive the show, not the challenges. We just needed to make this bunch see that this was an opportunity to let go of all of the restrictions that they were so used to dealing with on a daily basis and have fun and just cook. You see it when Harold made the popcorn ceviche, and even when Hung made a Smurf village out of cereal. There's levity in the ridiculousness of being on Top Chef and I think now that we're pretty much done filming I think they get that it's one of the most unique experiences of their lives. For more behind the scenes, here's an interview I did last month with Zagat. Best wishes for a safe and happy holiday to all and I'll see you after the New Year!

Xoxo- Lee Anne

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