Many people wanting to experience New York while they’re here will decide to take in a taping of a late-night talk show. Who were we to deny our chefs the same opportunity? Oh, but we don’t do things half-way at Top Chef. Why stop at seats in the studio audience when we could send them all the way on-stage and right into the middle of the action with no warning whatsoever? Our chefs are well used to being in the spotlight by now, though, so as you saw, it didn’t faze them a bit.
Jimmy Fallon was the perfect choice of late-night host to serve as a judge for this episode of Top Chef. I first met him years ago, when I was chef/co-owner of Gramercy Tavern and he was a regular there. He has long been really into food. He’s also a huge fan of the show.
This wasn’t the first time I’d hosted a party for Jimmy and his family. He’d bought just such a meal by me at a charity auction, which I did some time ago, and I enjoyed it every bit as much as I enjoyed this one. Jimmy’s parents are great –- when you meet and get to spend any time with them, you see exactly where Jimmy gets it all from. This challenge really didn’t feel like work –- we were all having a lot of fun together.
Speaking of having fun with people, Jimmy decided to have some fun with everyone prior to the episode, tweeting, “Is it possible to put too much paprika in something?” Folks began tweeting that he was surely giving away the episode (as you now know, he wasn’t), until I finally tweeted, “You people are reading way too much into this!”
Jimmy was looking for the basics. With all of the dishes on his list, all of which was basic, simple fare, there is a standard of what each dish should be. A chef can then put a twist onto the dish, can elevate it, but only as long as s/he has first just satisfied the standard.
Two of our three bottom dishes failed to do so. I’ll discuss them in a moment. Before people get up in arms that we didn’t send Dale home for over-salting his dish, let me remind you that everything is a question of degree. When Jen was sent home for her overly-salty duck in Season 6, she was one of the final four, the other three dishes showed incredibly skill, and hers was salted past saving. It was inedible. Dale’s was not inedible, merely too salty. The flavors were great, and the whole dish well-conceived. Had Dale not forgotten that the pretzels were salted, the dish may well have sung. People could eat and genuinely enjoy it for a time… until the salt eventually got the better of them. It was salty enough to land Dale in the bottom three, but in this particular challenge against the other dishes we were served, it was not enough to get him sent home.As for the two other bottom dishes, as I said, they didn’t meet the criteria expected of them: Tiffany made a decent enough soup, but it was more of a tortilla soup. It’s OK to take liberties with a dish, but hers was a complete departure from the task she’d been given, and so she wound up in the bottom three. The irony is that she knows how to make a very good chicken and dumplings! So we were quite surprised to be given an altogether different dish.
And Fabio’s “boo-ger” (he had fun with that word!) wasn’t a burger at all. He even said at the meat counter at Whole Foods that he was going to make a meatball instead. So he, too, departed from his assignment in this particular challenge. But then he stopped short of going all out with that, tried to do something halfway in between, and failed to execute what he set out to make. Gail correctly said that when you bite into a burger, you want that juiciness that is the hallmark of a good burger. What he gave us was too heavy on the breadcrumbs and was utterly dried out. This is why Fabio lost: we expected a juicy experience, so the standard of what a burger should be was not met. And the cheese was not “cheesy.” I don’t know what happened to his cheese sauce –- whether he scorched it or what (I didn’t care to explore it enough to find out), but it was grainy and really, really bad. Being a well-rounded chef means not only being able to make high-end food, but also how to make a burger. I serve complex dishes in the dining room of Colicchio and Sons and burgers in the front tap-room. We kept hearing from Fabio, “Asian food isn’t my thing… Burgers aren’t my thing…” You can only go so far in this competition by doing just “your thing,” what you know. Fabio was asked to make a burger and fries. He opted for something closer to a meatball, but with a cheese sauce on the side. And both components were poor.
Contrast these with the top three: Antonia was dealt the hardest hand of the challenge. She had never prepared or eaten beef tongue, but, unlike Fabio, didn’t say, “This isn’t my thing.” She found out not only how to prepare it, but also how to handle the brevity of time. Beef tongue would be tough if not cooked long enough, and she found out how to speed up the braising time by using the pressure cooker. I think it was generous of Richard to advise her about that. Beef tongue is traditionally found in delis, but it’s become more popular lately as people have learned more about small farms and local offerings and sustainability, and have wanted to take greater care not to waste good parts of the animals they’re eating. When prepared correctly, beef tongue can be really delicious. Once cooked, it lends itself to many different preparations. It can be sliced cold for sandwiches in traditional deli fashion, served warm in braising liquid with vegetables, diced as a garnish in various dishes…. We have lamb tongue in the lamb loin dish on my menu at the moment, in a lamb tongue, chickpea, and spinach ragout, and it’s a personal favorite. Antonia did a terrific job with her dish and was right to be pleased with the outcome. Angelo’s pulled pork was a great example of meeting the standard of a simple dish that I mentioned above, and then putting one’s stamp on it. His stamp came in the form of the Asian twist, and it worked out well. The pork was nicely cooked, tender, nicely seasoned and had just the right slight amount of heat.
And Carla’s dish exceeded the standard. You surely noted the visceral reaction of everyone at the table when we tasted Carla’s chicken pot pie. I couldn’t answer Padma’s question about the dish because I was too busy savoring it. Other jokes to the same effect were flying around the table, as everyone clamored for as much of that dish as they could get. It was the unanimous favorite. She was excited and inspired from the get-go, and she communicated that in her dish.
Let’s see what the Muppets make of the food in next week’s challenge. Have a good week.