A Whetstone from Good Meat
The farm fresh challenge really hits close to home for Tom Colicchio as he reflects on the conception of Craft.
"A clever cook, can make....good meat of a whetstone." -Desiderius Erasmus, Dutch priest and scholar (1466?-1536)
And if they try to be too clever, they can make a whetstone from good meat.
This was an interesting episode, insofar as the Quickfire Challenge required cooking with the worst of ingredients while, in contrast, the Elimination Challenge provided the opportunity to work with the very best available anywhere. As Jamie said in dismay upon learning of the Quickfire Challenge, without great ingredients it's hard for chefs to do good work. This could not be more true.
It was my time in France over 20 years ago, working in the kitchen of Michel Bras, that taught me this lesson; what I began at Mondrian and continued at Gramercy Tavern really culminated in my conceiving of and opening Craft, which was created to focus on the ingredients and create meals that honor them. And, in doing so, it also honored the farmer. I work closely with farmers of small, local farms, and I make it a point to visit the farmer's market as often as possible, always striving to get the food from the ground to the table as quickly as possible. Being at the forefront of the Farm-to-Table movement, I have been so glad to see chefs like Dan Barber pick up the mantle, so I was excited that this week's Elimination Challenge would bring the cheftestants to his exceptional farm to cook. He and the farmers of Stone Farms, as well as we Top Chef judges, were really looking forward to seeing what the chefs would do with all of the amazing produce and lovingly raised animals. We were all let down. The ethos at Craft is to take the finest ingredients available and prepare them as simply as possible, so that the flavors and textures of the ingredients themselves will shine. "Cooking simple" is like walking a tightrope without a net -- simplicity isn't as simple as it seems, because there's nothing to cover up mistakes; there are no heavy sauces to hide behind. It requires forethought about how best to help the ingredients sing. It requires skill and precision, and, of course, an abiding reverence for the elements themselves.
When animals are raised as they are at Stone Hill and are fed the right ingredients, you don't need to do a whole lot to them. You don't want to remove the flavor -- and moisture-rich fat from the pork -- that made no sense to anyone. And even worse, you don't want to take a beautiful leg of lamb, which was as tender as such meat could be, and do what Ariane did to that lamb. It was completely hacked up and then rolled. A chef would usually roll lesser ingredients, but here there were these muscles you'd want to keep intact. Ariane's treatment of the lamb showed no respect whatsoever for the animal that died to feed everyone. It was more than disappointing, it was upsetting, most of all to the farmers who had worked so hard to raise the produce and animals. It felt to them like their work just wasn't honored. The irony of Ariane's losing the Elimination Challenge with the very protein that had won her prior challenges is not lost on us. But the work of each chef is judged anew in each successive challenge, and while I certainly overstated in the first sentence of this blog, Ariane's performance this week made her the clear choice for elimination from the competition. I'm not thrilled that Leah and Hosea kicked back and did nothing while that meat was both literally and figuratively butchered right in front of them, but at the end of the day, she is the one who did the actual damage. I will make one more point that did not come across in the episode, about Jeff's choice to make fried green tomatoes. I appreciate when a chef uses something that would otherwise go to waste and manages to create a fine dish. But this episode was shot at the height of tomato season. There is a narrow window of time in which to get a remarkable tomato. This was that time, and the vine-ripened tomatoes at Jeff's fingertips were among the finest to be found anywhere. Dishes with green tomatoes are usually made at the very start of tomato season before they've ripened or at the tail of the season with those that never did. So while I commend the impulse to create with ingredients that might otherwise be overlooked, I question the judgment of doing so under these circumstances.