Sorry for my absence — been on the road again, starting with filming the finale for season 6. I’ll breeze over the past few episodes, and finally, here we are at the Wynn, at Alex Restaurant, with The Bocuse d’Or panel, Gavin Kaysen, and one of the most well-respected chefs in the world, Thomas Keller. The funny story behind this is Shauna Minoprio, who executive produced the first five seasons of TC, tried for SO long to get TK on the show. Shauna didn’t work on Season 6, but the girls got her a cookbook signed by TK that said something to the effect of, "I’m here. Where are you?"
But yes, we captured yet another god among gods, in addition to the world-class culinary Olympic organization. Tom and I looked at each other and said, "It’ll never get any better than this, right here, right now." The debate he and I battle with the production sometimes is whether it's a cooking show or a reality show first. There was almost always debate about this during casting. Over the short time since Top Chef first aired, through the support of the fans, industry, and general worldwide glamorization of the food industry, the show itself has turned into something that I could never have imagined four years ago while I was locked up in the house on Baker Street with 11 other crazies. Back in the day when we had no sponsors, and it was like, Katie Lee who? Sex Shop Challenge what? And each of us just about had one set of Calphalon each to work with, and that was it. Since I began to work with the show, each new judge who signed on was another milestone, in the way we were perceived by our peers in the industry. It lent credibility to our work and the brand overall. Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, Rick Bayless, Jean Georges, Andre Soltner, I could go on and on. I hated the thought of living in Las Vegas for two months, and trust me the highlights in that respect were few, but I had forgotten what an epicenter for culinary greatness Las Vegas actually was. Season 6 would be brilliant. Season 6 would have the unicorn and TK and the Bocuse d’Or. We had arrived.
Let’s start with the Quickfire. Who here has made a turducken??? I have. Ballotines, (pronounced bah-yo-teen, for those of you who are up in arms about the pronunciation last week) are by no means simple, and require a great deal of precision, technique, and care. We had to give them enough time to cook with a recirculator if they wished to do so. I thought Bryan Voltaggio did an especially good job with his, the forcemeat being perfectly cooked. Jen, a seafood chef, made a calamari roulade that was delicate and balanced. Before I go any further, let me say what a rockstar Gavin Kaysen is. I’ve known Gavin for a few years in the NY culinary scene and he is always such a nice guy, beyond being a crazy young talent.
Here we are at the TC version of the culinary Olympics. We debated about how much time we should give them. I concluded that five hours was fair, in that they were only making one platter. In the real competition, while the chefs do practice for an entire year (sometimes more), they have to do two presentations, also in five hours, but they are a team of two. And besides (my ever present mantra) this was Top Chef. The girls and I set up the Alex. The contestants were read the rules after the Quickfire, and we revealed what their proteins would be: lamb, salmon, and caviar. I would provide the proteins and a limited pantry. They would need to think about their menus and then go shopping at Whole Foods for the rest of their menu. Team Culinary and I walked into our last casino (thank Jeebus) for this last challenge. By this time, I already knew my way around the maze of basements and back hallways in the Wynn, the Venetian, Mandalay Bay and the MGM. You want to meet a gentleman? Chef Alex Stratta. What a great guy. We worked with him and his staff to set up the kitchen with all small wares and molds for the chefs to use during the challenge. I brought the requisite two tons of equipment and pantry to set up the kitchen with. I also supplied the contestants with an equal supply of the following: lamb saddle, lamb loin, and lamb shank, a whole wild king salmon, and American sturgeon caviar. I set up the presentation table in the dining room with a cutting board that weighed around 100 lbs., serving napkins, towels, and a variety of carving and serving tools for each of the chefs.
Interestingly enough, while they were all intimidated and did quite a bit of complaining about how they would look like fools on TV and make a sham out of the very serious competition, it was Yukon Cornelius who griped the most, feeling that the competition was unfair to him, as his cuisine was rustic in style and out of the four, he was already at a disadvantage. We assured them that the most important factor in judging would be the quality and taste of their food. Presentation is always taken into account but if you make something beautiful that doesn’t taste good then you’re gonna lose anyway. Taste wins 100% of the time.
Kevin presented first. His presentation was indeed simple, but his lamb was perfectly cooked, and I do mean perfectly. The glazed beet and chard were tasty, though I wasn’t a fan of the asparagus and toast. All in all it was safe and well executed, though it didn’t seem like something that would take five hours to prepare (which is always in the judges’ heads ... what did you do with the time given to you?).
Mike Voltaggio was sick as a dog that day. I mean, he looked gray, like he was about to fall over any minute. I though his presentation was lovely, though odd that the salmon portion was not served as a whole piece but as individual portions. The salmon was also perfectly cooked but there were a few missteps after I had tasted the beauty plate: the texture of the cauliflower was off-putting and ruined the delicate pop of the caviar beads. And that cucumber cup (sigh) was just limp and under-seasoned, probably the worst thing I had had of his all season long. But it was evident where his time had gone, and his work was intricate and detailed, as usual.
Next came BV. As it came down to an hour I started to worry about Bryan. He was still running around and things were definitely not looking towards being finished, most importantly, his lamb crepinettes. He was still trying to form them with the caul fat and forcemeat when his clock hit 30 minutes. Caul fat takes quite a bit of time to cook off, and I knew he’d be cutting it close. In the end, Bryan’s gratin was good, if not a bit pedestrian, and his lamb was also well-cooked. But the crepinette — while I commend him for being the only one to braise the shank — the caul fat was not cooked out. Do you know what caul fat is? It’s the lacy layer of fat that surrounds the intestines of cows, sheep’s, and pigs. Properly utilized, it melts away into a delicious layer of translucent casing, usually used when making sausages, terrines, pates, and other wrapped meat delights. However, if it doesn’t cook out, well, you’ve all seen what half cooked animal fat looks like. Not something I want to eat. (Well, maybe just in the case of caul fat.)
Next came Eli. Eli made the fatal mistake of making his roulade/ballotine too big. He cooked it at low temperature in a water bath with the recirculator, but at low temp, with the time limit, it was too big and just absolutely and completely raw in the middle. Most plates came back with the meat barely touched. Beyond that, Eli came out looking pretty filthy, and put another nail in the coffin by plating with his hands, not the serving tools provided. Daniel Boulud watched this with a raised eyebrow. I saw it.
And lastly, Jen. Her salmon and caviar presentation was perfectly cooked. I found her sides to both be lacking in texture, but they were well executed. I think I remember wanting either a squeeze of lemon juice, or a tad more salt, but Jen is far and away the most technically proficient female chef we’ve ever had on the show.
Kevin’s angst was uncalled for, and he went home the winner! Onto finale!!!