Gail Simmons explains why this was one of her favorite challenges to date.
Over the six seasons of the show, we have been fortunate enough to visit some remarkable locations. We have had the privilege of exploring many of the most vibrant food cities in America as well as two tropical paradise islands. We have charged our cheftestants with cooking out of vending machines, with microwaves, on boats, in the rain, for children, weddings, and the elderly, for all possible walks of life and in countless unique scenarios. None of it prepared us for the exhilaration of cooking for the U.S. Air Force. This was, without question, the most emotional and significant challenge I have ever judged.
Spending the afternoon at Nellis Air Force Base and sharing time with its residents was humbling, to say the least. I often feel blessed to do a job that I love every day, but the generous and spirited people we met there certainly put our lives and worries in perspective. I was honored to learn that Colonel Belote and his brigade were truly excited about our visit and I relished our time together discussing food and their travels, as well as their impressions of our show. In fact, once the challenge was over that day, one of Colonel Belote’s commanders took Tom, guest judge Mark Peel, and I on an extensive tour, showing us the airstrip and its dozens of fighter jets waiting to be put to use. They were formidable to behold.
I was immensely proud of what our chefs were able to accomplish given the task at hand: to cook a hearty lunch for over 300 people, out of the Air Force mess, with no stovetops, no traditional pots and pans, and with mainly canned, frozen, or pre-packaged ingredients. Although the setup is actually quite standard for a kitchen of this nature, it is far from what our fine-dining chefs were accustomed to using. Not to mention the time constraints we imposed on them. Once again, the majority of food served was tremendous. That’s why we were even more disappointed in the two dishes that fell to the bottom of the pile. If our criticism of the weakest three chefs seemed harsh at the end of this episode, it was only because we were determined to show our best possible selves to the airmen and their families.
The issue we had with both the weakest dishes was not that they were salads. We all know that salads can be enormously creative, with incredible amounts of flavor, and that vegetables, especially when served raw, are an important part of a healthy diet. It was the fact that Preeti and Laurine’s pasta salad and Mike Isabella’s Greek salad were underseasoned to the point of being almost flavorless. In addition, the pasta salad was completely unimaginative. The fact that it took two chefs to make this dish and that it tasted so flat was unacceptable, when you consider what their competitors were able to produce in the same amount of time and with the same resources. Between them, it was Preeti who, we felt, lacked any insight into why her dish was singled out. As it happens every now and again on the show, she also seemed to forget that she was in fact cooking as part of a larger competition. Besides, it is never simply enough to scrape by with mediocre food. I am confident that, after such an arduous session at the Judges’ Table, she understood our decision to send her home.
While these two dishes were the low points, there were certainly enough highlights to make the meal a great success. One dish that was not given enough airtime in the episode’s final edit, but which we praised liberally at the Judges’ Table, was Eli’s potato salad, which accompanied Kevin’s excellent Georgia Braised Pork Shoulder. Here was a perfect example of a classic salad-style dish, which took simple pantry ingredients and elevated them into something greater than its parts. It was tangy and satisfying, with a mustardy bite, and had just the right amount of seasoning. As Colonel Belote stated, it imparted a sense of comfort and the memory of home, no matter where home may be. Robin and Hector’s Three Bean Chili with celery leaves was another addition to the lunch table worth mentioning, as was Bryan and Mattin’s Roasted Beef with Mushroom Demi-glace & Cauliflower Gratin.
Then there was Mike V.’s Braised Pork Belly with Soy-Mustard Sauce and Peanuts. The fact that he created this combination on the fly, using slab bacon, and thought to serve it all in a fresh lettuce cup like a taco was ingenious. It had such complex flavor – touches of sweetness, acid and fat, as well as layers of texture, from the rich pork belly to the crunchy peanuts and crisp greens. It was hard to believe we were eating it in an airplane hangar in the middle of the Nevada desert. This is a dish I would expect to see, and have seen in some variation or another, on the menu in some of the country’s most progressive restaurants! It has lingered in my mind over the past few months and I cannot help but crave it all over again while writing this blog entry. I hope the valiant U.S. Air Force men and women we met felt the same way about their meal—and that we gave them an experience they will cherish as they work tirelessly everyday to keep us all safe.