Gail Simmons explains why this week's challenge was so important, and why how of the chefs just didn't "get" it.
Sorry to be a bit late with my blog this week. I am just back from the 28th Annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where, I am pleased to report, Top Chef had a stunning presence. Of course, Season 6 winner Michael Voltaggio was with us to redeem part of his prize—the chance to show his skills in a cooking competition against Top Chef Masters Season 1 winner Rick Bayless. Their Classic Quickfire was a 25-minute challenge in front of almost 1,000 people—and they both did an incredible job. Chef Rick took the title this time around, but Michael, assisted by celebrity sous-chef Allison Janney, still did us proud. In addition, Tom and I performed two cooking demonstrations titled “In the Top Chef Kitchen,” and many former contestants celebrated the culinary weekend with us, including Harold Dierterle, Sam Talbot, Eli Kirshstein, Jennifer Carroll, and Mike Isabella, not to mention Bryan Voltaggio too! It was great to catch up with all our friends in such a festive environment.
Now to the episode at hand. Before we get into the details of the Elimination, I have to give some credit to our producers for coming up with one of the most brilliant and entertaining Quickfire Challenges in the history of the show! It was such a smart way to demonstrate how difficult cooperation, in food prep as in politics, can be. Although I was not there to witness this Quickfire firsthand, I clearly remember Padma and our crew trying to explain to me afterward exactly what they had witnessed. When I was finally able to view the episode, I quickly understood just how hysterical and clever it was. I loved the “bipartisan” spin on making a sandwich—one of the most common and seemingly simple meals of all. I loved that the chefs were paired in the most random way and forced to share an apron, making it impossible to have any kind of personal space. But most of all, I loved seeing how they tackled splitting the work, from slicing bread to grilling chicken. Although I laughed out loud, it also brought to light how difficult compromise for the greater good can be.
Which brings me directly to the point of our second Elimination Challenge.
The quality and cost of school lunches in this country has been a heated topic of debate for many years, but never has it been more vital a cause than at this very moment. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years, which ultimately can lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer and more. In children! Simultaneously, one in almost every four children in this country has felt the pang of true hunger and is food-insecure in some way—again, that’s over 17 million children! Hunger means not being able to focus and learn, poor immune systems, behavioral and emotional issues, and a lifetime of health consequences going into adulthood. Lack of access to nutritious food, and education about food choices, is a big part of the problem. This is why funding for healthy, balanced and fresh school lunch and breakfast programs is so important—and why the First Lady started her Let’s Move initiative, with a goal of ending the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation. As a nation, we simply cannot afford to sit quietly by on the subject. As a food professional myself, I certainly cannot watch on the sidelines while the future goes to waste. Getting our kids fed well and keeping them fit is nothing less than imperative.
At the outset, I think our chefs were genuinely excited and impassioned by their challenge: to cook a school lunch for 50 children using the same allotted amount that the average public school is given each day, a whopping $2.60 per child. Watching them struggle at Restaurant Depot and in the Top Chef Kitchen with how to actually translate that amount into a healthy, well-prepared and kid-friendly meal was another story. They all quickly realized just how hard this challenge is and just how acute the problem. What we tasted in the school cafeteria that day certainly gave us a lot to talk about. I was quite surprised that even after our guest judge, Sam Kass, assistant chef at the White House, explained the importance of making the food as healthy as possible, several dishes had little nutritional value and many used fillers like rice or even sugar to supplement for taste as well as abundance. Tracey’s Chicken Burger with Fiesta Rice on a roll, for example, was far more white rice and white bread than burger. Angelo’s lame little piece of celery with a dollop of peanut butter “mousse” and a silly tuile was not exactly what I would call a hearty snack, let alone actually appropriate for a school cafeteria. Then, of course, there was Jacqueline’s Banana Pudding with Strawberries. The quantity of sugar in it was stupefying. The texture was slimy; the taste was starchy and way too sweet. Thank goodness for those few strawberries on top or I would not have been able to swallow it. Just as Chef Sam explained, since Jacqueline chose to make a dessert using poor-quality product (unfortunately often the case in schools, as it is all they can access), in the form of underripe bananas, she felt the need to supplement the dish with a ton of extra sugar in order to make it taste more appealing. This in essence negated the purpose of the challenge and the point of trying to serve a fresh fruit-based dessert in the first place. We had no choice but to send her home for it.
Although Amanda created her Braised Chicken Thigh with Sherry Jus mostly from healthy ingredients (i.e., low fat, low calorie, no additives), I am still in shock over her choice to use sherry (yes, sherry, a fortified wine from Spain) as the base for a lunch served to children. Not only was it inappropriate and unrealistic, but that single ingredient also monopolized a portion of her team’s total funds, forcing Tamesha’s, Stephen’s and certainly Jacqueline’s dishes to suffer because of it.
We were mostly impressed with Andrea and Alex’s Picnic Coleslaw as well as their Grilled Apple Cider BBQ Chicken, both of which were prepared using less fat and fewer calories than usual in creative and delicious ways (i.e., subbing yogurt for mayo and taking off the chicken skin). Tim’s Mac & Cheese with Whole Wheat Crust, Skim Milk and Low-Fat Cheese was well done, if somewhat lacking in flavor, and Kevin’s Fresh Melon Kebab & Orange Chantilly Dipped in Yogurt was a fun, clever way to get kids to eat fresh fruit for dessert.
A massive gap still seemed to exist between how Kelly, Arnold, Lynne, and Tiffany were able to stretch their budget as compared with any other team’s effort. Their menu looked and tasted fresher and more complete. It included Arnold’s crunchy fresh salad of Roasted Corn with Cilantro Lime Vinaigrette & Chili Oil; complex carbohydrates in the form of oats that Kelly used to make tortillas for her Braised Pork Carnitas Tacos with Pickled Onions & Cilantro; and nutrition-rich vegetables, like sweet potatoes and black beans, from both Lynne and Tiffany, who still found a way to include chocolate sherbet! What’s more, the kids loved the teams’ dishes so much that they literally started chanting about them in unison when they finished eating. This menu was a success from start to finish, despite some infighting during the planning process. It gave me hope that, with a little creative thinking and a lot of teamwork, America can rectify its hunger and obesity crises (which are, by the way, very much connected). It just requires us all to do our part. So, Let’s Move!