People think that I have a hand in the weekly Elimination Challenges. I generally don't, but this week was the exception to that rule. With Chef Jean-Christophe Novelli as guest judge, there would have been some sort of pastry challenge, but in light of my locker-room pep talk to the cheftestants last week, the other producers and I decided to scrap it and, instead, to implement a challenge that would accomplish two things:
The chefs had started this Season on good footing, cooking well in the first episode, but they seemed to be struggling after that. So the first thing we wanted was to give them a chance to cook whatever they wished with no restraints from us, to just lay it all out there. Second, whenever we criticized their food, this season's chefs tended to have looks on their faces that said that they thought we were just out of our minds. So we wanted them to taste each other's food and learn firsthand where the judge's comments were coming from.
And I'm pleased to be able to say that overall the dishes were better. As I've said before, the contestants tend to get bogged down in what the challenge is, to over-think it, and to forget that the point is to make great food. Here, the challenge was simply to make great food. Jeff's dish had nice components, all very good, but it seemed like amuses on a plate as opposed to a cohering dish. Radhika's soup was a bit overspiced, but I thought it was good. Fabio was getting a little overconfident. He should most certainly have checked his lamb; he would have had time to make it perfect. His pasta was great, the ravioli filling and mushroom sauce were all really good. Toby's analogy to British stars cast in a film in supporting roles and upstaging the lead actors was very apt for Hosea's dish. His vegetables were great, but the halibut was overcooked. And Jamie's dish was great. There's no rule that says she can't continue to make scallops, and her frequent decision to use them probably had a lot to do with the offerings available at Whole Foods Market while we were shooting the season. I thought the chefs' personalities came through; I thought their limitations did, too. Which leads me to the notion of judging blind. Since Season One, I've frequently been exhorted to judge blind, as though we may be influenced in our decisions about the food by our knowledge of who created it. As I've said before, we don't know what's going on behind the scenes all season (until we watch it much later, when it airs!), nor do we make decisions based on personalities. We just judge the food. But as this challenge proves, it makes no difference whether we are judging blind or not - though we were not told in advance of eating the food, it was pretty obvious pretty quickly, at least to me, who had cooked what. Even without even tasting the food, you at home would have known right away that the Indian food was Radhika's and the Italian food was Fabio's. (As with Jamie's scallops, there was no reason Radhika couldn't continue to infuse her food with an Indian sensibility despite her protestations in Episode One that she would not be doing so, or that Fabio couldn't continue to draw his selections from Italian cuisine.) And beyond that, having actually eaten everyone's food through six prior challenges, it was readily apparent to me right away who had made what. So much for "blind."
Toby and Jean-Christophe were the only ones at the table truly judging blind. As an aside, I think this was a good introduction to Toby. He's exceptionally witty and thought at first that he was being called on as a judge to use that wit and take potshots at the chefs, but he quickly realized that they were all very serious-minded about their food and about this competition, and he switched gears and began assessing the food in earnest. He's fun to work with and I know you'll enjoy him as the season progresses. Meanwhile, blind or otherwise, all of the judges were in accord about the two weakest dishes.
Interestingly, they were the weakest for opposite reasons, both involving creativity in cooking. Unlike last week's challenge, this one was not the producers' attempt to be creative but, rather, an open invitation to the chefs to be so; the contestants could not have had a greater opportunity to show us who they were as chefs. And Melissa gave us fish tacos. I stand by what I said at the Judges' Table.
Eugene, on the other hand, went in the other direction and was being creative for creativity's own sake. It would take a far more skilled and experienced chef than Eugene to find a way to make daikon meld well with basil and tomato. OK, he wanted to use it in lieu of a noodle - great. But that doesn't mean it can just be substituted for pasta. It still tastes radishy. I'm not saying not to try unconventional pairings. A dish by Pierre Garnier with duck breast, clams, and truffle comes to mind, for example, that was delicious. But that's because Garnier is both talented and seasoned enough to pull it off. Eugene is getting too far ahead of himself. He's not yet far enough along to connect those dots effectively. If he wanted to use basil, perhaps the daikon could have stood in for a rice noodle in a Thai-inspired dish. But what was nice to see was his willingness to take risks and push the envelope.
In general, I was glad to see the chefs step up their game this week and put more of themselves into their work. This week marked the midpoint of the season. Roughly half of the chefs are left, and now that they've tasted and judged each others' foods, let's see if that affects how they move forward from here...