OK, So Jamie’s Gone: NOW What are You Mad at Me For?
Tom Colicchio reveals that he's been asking for a fishing challenge for years.
It’s no surprise to anyone who knows anything about me that fishing is one of my grand passions. I’ve been campaigning the producers of Top Chef for a fishing challenge for ages, and I was so excited to finally get one this season, in Montauk, no less, where I love to fish. I can’t tell you how lucky we got that day. It was a perfect day to fish, as perfect as it gets. You must understand that when we set up a shooting schedule for the season, that’s it –- it’s set and unmovable. If the weather had been nasty and uncooperative, or had there been one or more of the various factors such as the phase of the moon that adversely affect whether the fish will eat, the challenge would have failed the chefs.
We lucked out. As I said, the conditions were perfect, the chefs caught a variety of fish, and they caught a lot of them. As for Dale’s fish, I don’t think the editors quite realized what a big deal that catch was. That fish weighed 37 pounds. It was a trophy fish –- the catch of a lifetime! When folks have a good day on a boat, the captain justifiably considers the catches his/her catches, too, and believe me when I tell you that folks throughout the area heard about that fish –- the captain of Dale’s boat spread word about it!
Kerry Heffernan was the perfect guest judge for this particular challenge. My friend of 20-plus years and my fishing partner, Kerry probably knows more about fish than just about any chef out there. He’s very, very knowledgeable about the various species, about fish conservation, and, of course, about their preparation. It was a treat to have him judge this episode.
As soon as we were through introducing the challenge and the chefs had gone out on their two boats, Kerry and I headed out to a different area to fly fish for false albacore, which you don’t eat –- you throw them back unharmed. And periodically we would head over to the chefs’ boats to see how they were doing. Some of the footage of them was shot from a crew on our boat.When I’m fishing for food, though, I am sure only to keep what can be used. One of the reasons I wanted a fishing challenge is that when you catch and then take the life of what you eat to feed yourself, you have a very different respect for it than you might have had previously. You realize that something shouldn’t die and then go to waste. You also realize that conservation is so important. Back when I was fishing with my grandfather in the '70s and '80s, striped bass such as the ones caught by our chefs were in such decline. Ironically, it was the rise in PCBs in the Hudson that helped bring them back here. General Electric was dumping PCBs in the Hudson to the point where the level of PCBs in stripers was too high for them to be eaten. Robert Kennedy, Jr. was very active in bringing about the reduction of PCBs in the Hudson by prosecuting corporate polluters. The striped bass continued to proliferate all the while they weren’t commercially viable, though, and their numbers came back. Meanwhile, regulations were put in place to further protect them. In New York State below the George Washington Bridge, you’re prohibited from keeping anything under 28 inches long. So we just don’t keep the smaller ones. I personally will keep one striper, knowing that I will keep some for myself and my family and will give the rest to others.
I thought the challenge was great and that the chefs overall did a very good job. Did you notice the chefs’ enthusiasm about the farmer’s market? They were so excited to be buying produce that had just been picked that morning. This is Chef Geekdom on display –- this is what jazzes us. Angelo was on the mark when he said that the market’s offerings were dictating what dish to create. Once you’re an accomplished cook, this is how you cook. Chefs don’t work from recipes; they’re just cooking. It’s not about the recipe –- it’s about the produce, about what’s in season. The yield will speak to you, and if you know what to do with it, a great dish will emerge.
Part of knowing what to do with your options is knowing what you’re cooking for. This was a beach challenge, with the very freshest of fish and produce. The dishes need not have been overly complicated, as Richard, Marcel, and Fabio’s was. The dish was overly complex, to its own detriment. With fish that fresh, you want to highlight the fish.Jamie professed to want to do that, but when you’re cooking with minimal amounts of ingredients, everything has to be really good. The food must be seasoned perfectly –- you can’t hide behind anything, can’t mask anything with a saucy sauce. The fish was pristine; it must then have been properly fileted, cooked, and seasoned. Jamie’s was just bland; it was waterlogged. The cucumber water didn’t do anything for the fish. She needed to add some sharp acid, and to brighten it up with some herbs. The fish wanted it, but she didn’t do it.
Tiffani’s dish just disappointed. It went too far in the other direction: Far from bland, it was far too fishy because she left in the bloodline. I tried to point out her mistake to her during my walkthrough, asking specifically, “You’re leaving that in there?” but it went right over her head. This is probably why most people don’t like bluefish –- most places that serve it probably mistakenly leave in the bloodline. I’m surprised that Tiffani is gone so soon –- I thought she would have gone a lot farther in this competition. I did think her comments in her exit interview were very gracious and showed real growth, and I know she will continue to do very well as a chef as she goes forward.
Contrast with Richard, Marcel, and Fabio’s overly complex dish with Antonia’s Po' Boy. It was my favorite dish of the evening. It was just what you’d expect from a great fried fish sandwich, with beautifully fileted and prepared fish and a good amount of acid and relish. Once again, a chef in this competition has proved that if you give us a great rendition of a simple dish, it will resonate with us. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just good. As Richard, Marcel, and Fabio showed, fancy but less than good doesn’t fly. It wouldn’t have, even had we not been on the beach, seeking beach-appropriate food.Dale’s taco was conceived in the spirit of the circumstances, and, like Antonia’s Po' Boy, was beautifully executed. But Carla’s clever take on New York’s smoked fish and a bagel edged out Dale’s taco. Bluefish has enough fat in it to carry the smoke flavor –- smoking that fish was a smart way to go, and then Carla took a smart idea and elevated it to witty… and her perfect execution cinched the win.
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