Las Vegas Vice
Gail isn't sure if all the chefs understood the challenge, but she sure did eat well ... for the most part.
The first episode of every season is somewhat overwhelming, not just for our new contestants, but for us judges as well. A new city, new kitchen set,17 nervous new faces, the task of tasting their food in one short sitting and immediately having to send one person home – the first Elimination Challenge a long and stressful day. No wonder we are usually looking for a strong cocktail and a little fun by the end of it. Luckily, shooting in Las Vegas provided countless opportunities for cocktails and after-hours high jinks (I will save those stories for another blog). This brings me, conveniently, to the topic of vices. Last I checked, a vice was defined as an immoral or evil habit – smoking, excessive drinking, or gambling, for example. Of course, Las Vegas is the perfect place to indulge these practices around the clock. My vice, as discovered soon after arriving in Sin City, comes in the form of a blackjack table and a gin and tonic. Although I am proud to say that during my recent proximity to both, I never allowed them to do any real damage – a test of will of which I am quite proud.
Knowing someone’s vices certainly gives you insight into their psyche, which is precisely why I was so intrigued by this first challenge: to cook a dish inspired by your biggest vice. Here was a chance to get to know our new contestants and learn what darker forces drive them. Many presented dishes that showcased vices you would come to expect in the fast-paced world of professional cooking: copious amounts of alcohol (mostly spirit- or wine-based sauces and marinades), cigars or cigarettes (smoky flavors added to meat) or a general tendency toward excess in any form (over-the-top plate presentations). Others chose to highlight a shortcoming or personality flaw: procrastination, stubbornness, or a hot temper, to name a few. While it’s true some interpretations of the challenge were a bit of a stretch from what was asked, we didn’t get too caught up in definitions, provided each chef served us a revealing story and a well-prepared, appetizing plate of food.
The trickiest part of judging this type of challenge is that, because there were so many dishes to evaluate, we were forced to divide them into groups of four or five, and then choose a top and bottom chef from each. It is important to keep in mind that our picks for strongest and weakest were not chosen by examining the results overall, but by deciding who was best and worst in each heat, so to speak. I will happily admit that most of what we tasted surpassed my expectations, both in cooking technique and the chefs’ success at spinning their personal depravity into something smart and tangible. I loved Mike Isabella’s smoky, spicy Olive Oil Poached Halibut with Eggplant Puree as well as Jennifer’s Poached Halibut with Whisky, Bourbon, Scotch & Black Peppercorn Sauce. Robin’s sacrilegious penchant for pork and Ashley’s wine-soaked Chicken Liver Ravioli in Red Wine Sauce also won me over, even if they did not win in their groups. Then there was Ron. His touching story of refugee survival – while not really a vice, per se – paired so sincerely with the Jerk Bass, Collard Greens & Haitian Hash. We could not help but appreciate his use of bright island flavors, ever symbolic of hope and a fresh start. But it was Kevin’s ingenious riff on procrastination that took our breath away. His delicate, slow-cooked Artic Char combined with the quick Salsa Verde of Turnips was as good as or better than any restaurant dish I have eaten. It was thoughtful and concise – and his skill in its preparation was totally apparent.
On the flip side, we definitely tasted a few clunkers. Hector’s idea to deep-fry his steak ruined a perfectly beautiful piece of meat and undermined what could have been a very straightforward depiction of his love of cigars and smoke (after all, isn’t that what a grill is for?). I thought Jesse’s interpretation of “excess” as a Whole Bird Braised with Whisky Reduction, Yukon Potatoes & Fried Egg was clever and appealing, but we could not forgive her overcooked chicken breast; an elementary mistake, especially in light of the caliber of food we had already eaten. Eve’s Shrimp & Scallops in a Curry Cream Sauce and Jen Z.’s Chile Relleno Stuffed with Seitan & Tomatillo Salsa were the most disappointing. Both were confused in their intentions and did not deliver on the flavors promised. Above all else, neither dish tasted very good. Between them, we chose Jen Z. to pack her knives, as we all agreed her dish showed little sense of refinement or basic skill. There was no spice or heat to the chile; the pieces of chopped seitan inside were uneven, underseasoned and clumpy, as was the breading. Finally, the portion size was completely incongruous. In a glittering pool brimming with promise and talent, that chile sunk to the bottom with a heavy thud.
Side note: I want to reiterate that as judges we do not see any of the interviews, kitchen antics, or behind-the-scenes footage of the chefs in action while we are shooting the show. Our producers are quite strict about this to deter us from developing any opinions about or relationships with the cheftestants other than through the food we are served, and rightfully so. With that in mind, I was shocked and disappointed when I recently viewed this first episode and heard Mike Isabella’s sexist commentary. Hot-tempered and foulmouthed indeed. He may have cooked us a delicious dish, but his attitude left a bad taste in my mouth. For better or worse, my feelings about each chef’s personality will stay out of the kitchen and away from the Judges' Table. But would I have judged him differently had I seen this side of him in advance? I guess we will never know ….