Tom Colicchio breaks down the chefs' variations on this week's star ingredient -- conch.
This week’s Elimination Challenge was not an easy one. Fair enough, it’s the finale –- it shouldn’t be easy, right? I’m not referring to the chefs diving for their own conchs from the ocean floor, but cooking them well on the sandy and windy beach and finding a way to feature them for a table comprised largely of Bahamians –- who know the protein quite well –- posed a challenge. Even just getting the conchs out of their shells was difficult. While conch is available in the States, it isn’t available live, so even Richard, who had practiced cooking with the ingredient in preparation for the finale, had not had practice at removing the conch from its shell. The closest we come up in the Northeast is a whelk (looks similar, but they’re different; a whelk’s a carnivore while conches are herbivores, for one thing.)
I love conch. I typically go to the Bahamas once a year to fish, and I always ask the cab driver to stop off on the way to the hotel for conch salad. They mix the conch with peppers, onion, scotch bonnets and what they call sour orange, and let it all marinate. Sometimes some scallions, as well. The only thing that would make it better would be the addition of some olive oil, but they don’t use it. Still, it’s really delicious. I always have the obligatory conch fritters that everyone in the Bahamas makes, as well as cracked conch, in which they slice the conch very thin and grill the whole thing. It’s also quite delicious. I look forward to all three dishes when I come to the Bahamas.
So I was looking forward to a challenge in which conch was the featured protein. All in all, our chefs did a nice job… once they got the things out of their shells. Once you do, the meat can get tough on you pretty quicky, so it’s usually best to marinate conch. I hoped in this challenge to really taste the conch in each chef’s dish -– I wanted the conch to be an integral part of the dish, though we judges still had to take into consideration the whole dish when judging.Mike’s dish not only best featured the conch, it was one of the most successful dishes of the season. Gail couldn’t say enough about the savory pineapple, for good reason –- it was seasoned so well. The banana leaf lent a satisfying smokiness to the dish and gave it a flavor that was hard to put your finger on. The conch vinaigrette was absolutely delicious, and the fish inside the banana leaf was very nicely cooked. All of the components came together beautifully, and as good as each one was, the whole was even greater than the sum of its parts. It was a terrific dish.Mike was on a high going into the challenge, having won the last one in addition to besting Michael Voltaggio in that Quickfire Challenge. Contrast his mental state with that of Richard, who spoke at length about hating all of his dishes. He called it an “artist’s thing,” this urge to smash his dishes the moment he’s completed them. I disagree. A chef could never put together a menu if s/he hated his/her dishes. I like the dishes I create to greater and larger extents, and put the ones I consider most successful onto my menus. I know that psychologically speaking, people often fluctuate between feelings of inadequacy and grandeur, counterintuitive as that might seem, but if Richard hates all of his dishes, why does he always think he should have won with a dish that he hated? Just asking…
Richard’s dish was solidly good, and that sweet potato pasta even had me fooled –- I thought at first that he’d made homemade pasta on the beach. Had Mike’s dish not been so fantastic, Richard would have won with his. Antonia didn’t feature her conch as well. And, as Tiffany herself stated, Tiffany was outcooked by the other three chefs. Her placing the cold ceviche into the bowl with what was supposed to be a warm chowder was a strange choice. Chefs have made soups where one spoonful is hot followed by another that’s cold, but that was not what Tiffany did here –- the whole dish was just lukewarm. Further, the dish was not as well seasoned and the flavors not as well developed, and the overall dish was a bit sweet in a way it should not have been.Not that Tiffany should feel bad for a moment. Tiffany is young and doesn’t have a strong resume or a lot of experience. She makes up for that by doing her style of cooking well, and she came a long way in this competition on that strength. Having made it to fourth place in the company of eighteen accomplished chefs is a reason for her to hold her head up high. She is opening a restaurant in Dallas soon. When I’m down in Dallas, I’d love to come by and eat some of her food. It’ll be a treat to do so in her own place, as opposed to on our show, where she was comporting with and conforming to our various challenges.
There are three contestants left, with two episodes to go. It’s anyone’s game at this point.