A Good Bach

Gail talks about the impressive dishes she and her fellow judges enjoyed in this week's episode.

Everyone knows Las Vegas is the perfect bachelor/bachelorette party destination. Naturally, our producers could not pass up the chance to have our chefs cater a “battle of the sexes”–style challenge — the men cook a selection of hors d’oeuvres for one excited bachelorette; the women prepare the same for her bachelor counterpart. Throw in cocktail pairings using three classic shots (a gingery Moscow Mule, tequila straight up, and the sweet and sour Golden Delicious) — plus a private pool complete with cabanas — and you have the makings of fun-filled day.

I must admit that, after six seasons of Top Chef, distinguishing one dish from the next isn’t always easy. One sure sign of success is when we, as judges, enjoy a dish in the moment and actually remember it fondly afterward. Thankfully, the outcome of this particular challenge impressed us all. Several dishes were not only memorable, they were downright exceptional. We agreed right off the bat that the men served a more balanced, skillful menu in this challenge. Even their worst dishes did not come close to being as disappointing as a few dishes from the women’s team. Aside from the men being strong overall, the four dishes we chose as our favorites displayed unique cooking techniques or flavor combinations we had not seen before — a commendable feat considering the sheer quantity and variety of food the four of us have consumed in our lives.

For starters, Mike V. gave us an Apple Sorbet with a Goat Cheese Cookie, created to mimic the flavors of the cloyingly sweet Golden Delicious in a much more sophisticated way. I was shocked at how well he was able to deconstruct the shot and bring the flavors together again in perfect balance. The sorbet was tart and fresh, not to mention expertly made on the spot, using liquid nitrogen, a method we have seen people attempt unsuccessfully on the show (remember Chef John Besh at the Magic Castle on Top Chef Masters?) The cookie was a savory, subtle complement to the apple and an excellent finish.

Hector wowed us with a tofu dish to make any vegan proud. In stark contrast to Jenn Z.’s seitan tragedy from last week, here was a perfect bite, packed with citrus and chili flavor, yet delicate in texture and appearance. It paired naturally with the tequila shot and redeemed him from his outrageous deep-fried steak of the previous challenge. Eli’s Thai Tuna Tartare was one of the more original takes I have seen on this most ubiquitous dish. His clever use of coconut milk made it rich and sweet, while the puffed wild rice added nuttiness and an irresistible crunch. But it was Bryan who provided us with the party’s show-stopper and the winning dish of the challenge: a Sweet & Sour Macaroon filled with Guacamole, Corn Nuts & Corn Puree, an ingenious play on “guac and chips” encased in the most perfect dollop of meringue. We owe this small miracle partially to the arid desert weather, which allowed him to bake something so temperamental, regardless of the scorching heat. Tasting a dish as creative and playful as his woke us from our jaded comas and made all four of us hungry for more!

Honorable mention must also go to Ash for his spicy, sticky chicken wings, Laurine for her Moroccan lamb chops, Robin for her duck mole, and Jennifer for her octopus in citrus vinaigrette. They all held up well in the intense sun and were smart, flavorful dishes, appropriate to the occasion and executed with ease.

I do not think I need to rehash all that went wrong with the bottom four chefs in this challenge. If you watched the episode and reached this point in my blog it is clear that the dishes from Eve, Jesse, Preeti, and Ashley simply could not compare. Their food was not well seasoned, not skillfully executed, not half as refined. In a word: sloppy. What the chefs fail to keep in mind is that even though a dish may be a “crowd-pleaser” that does not make it a “judge pleaser.” Like it or not, it is our palates deciding who goes home each week, regardless of what the client or guests may prefer. With so much talent this season, there isn’t much room for anything less than outstanding. We all agreed that Eve was in over her head the most. Her Shrimp & Avocado Ceviche was waterlogged and tasteless, while the salsa she paired with it was far too strong. Sadly, she took the fall.

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