Some Dim Dim Sum
Tom Colicchio goes into detail on his participation in the Quickfire Challenge.
Happy New Year! I hope everyone’s 2011 has gotten off to a good start.
Before I write about what happened in the episode, let me write about what didn’t: I never said that the chefs were cooking against me in the Quickfire Challenge. No, I was just the pacesetter … which was a lot of fun, and gave me a fresh appreciation for our chefs.
The backstory? The challenge was sprung on me two days before we shot it –- the producers approached me and asked whether I’d be game to do it, which, of course, I was. I did a walk-through in advance to familiarize myself with the kitchen. Our chefs know where the pots and pans and oil and vinegar are, but I’ve never needed to take note of any of that, so I did the walk-through to get the lay of the land … and that was pretty much it. I showed up for the Quickfire Challenge and we shot it in real time. Of course, they had to edit it down to fit the show’s format, which means that some funny moments didn’t make it into the episode. What had happened with the tub that fell off the table while I was cooking is as follows: In my haste to open the bottle of olive oil, it flipped over, coating everything with oil, which got under the tub and caused it to slide off the table with a clatter. Meanwhile, I’d run to the pantry area for another bottle of olive oil, which I was attempting to open with my teeth, so I wound up holding the bottle in my teeth while running back to the table. I’m sure it was a sight to see. The whole time I was cooking, I was thinking of the producers’ admonishments to me that I absolutely HAD to bring in the dish at under 10 minutes! I wanted to use elements that would cook quickly, and I also focused on not making more than I absolutely needed to make. I needed two dishes: one for the judges and one for the cameras, so I knew I could get by with only six clams. I grabbed them as soon as I saw them, because I knew I could shuck them as quickly as anyone, and they’d add a lot of flavor. Zucchini cooks quickly, and I cut only as much as I’d need. Tomatoes didn’t even really need to cook, and, again, lend a lot of bright flavor. Herbs and olive oil were all I’d need to add. I brought everything to the stove with me so that I wouldn’t lose time moving back and forth. I only cooked the fish on one side, then flipped it and brought it in the pan to the table, knowing that the pan would still be hot enough to cook the fish on the other side in transit … and I brought the dish in at eight minutes and thirty seven seconds! It was important to me that the chefs tasted the dish when I was through. Since they are ultimately judged on the quality of the dish they prepare, I wanted them to know I hadn’t merely gone through the motions of cooking, but had actually cooked a really tasty dish in that time frame.As for the Elimination Challenge, it was not nearly as fun. What can I say –- that kitchen was a hot mess. I simply cannot fathom the absolute lack of coordination, of planning, and of the ability to simply put out the food. When assessing the challenges, I always ask myself, “If I were down there, what would I do?” In this case, where 200 people were seated at once and the food needed to keep passing them on carts, I liken the challenge to when my cooks and I do stand-up parties with large groups. I don’t like to do passed food; I prefer the guests to have food from my restaurant. So I just do small plates with smaller versions of what the guests would have received had they been dining in the restaurant that evening. One regular dinner portion might make as many as eight smaller ones. My cooks and I put our heads down and just keep plating, plating, plating. When I showed up in the kitchen the afternoon of the dim sum challenge, however, the chefs seemed to be milling about, waiting… for something… with no plan for just pumping out plates of food. It was a disaster in the dining room, and a terrible experience for us judges. It was so uncomfortable to be eating while all the tables around us were filled with hungry people watching us eat. At one point, in fact, we all said, “We can’t do this. We can’t eat. Please give these dishes to other tables, and we’ll eat after they’ve all been served.”
As for the food itself, there’s no need to rehash the various dishes, since there’s nothing I can add to the comments made by the judges during the episode that will lend much more to your knowledge about them. I will say that I hope this is the last time we have to hear Fabio gripe about his being at a disadvantage for having to cook food outside his milieu: He landed himself in the top four by cooking Chinese food. And to all the Casey fans out there who are about to write in to tell me that Jamie should have been sent home instead, I have one word for you: “inedible.” I like Casey very much, too, and I applaud her for going out on such a limb by making chicken feet. And no, she was not sent home because the American judges are not accustomed to eating the feet of fowl. She was sent home because the particular dish she made with them was inedible. Not just bad, but inedible. Jamie’s dishes, and those of the other contestants on the bottom this week, while poor, were edible. However even the Chinese patrons, who not only eat chicken feet regularly but who truly relish them, could not eat Casey’s. Perhaps had she made them herself they might have been better, but that was another risk she chose to assume in leaving their execution to Antonia while staffing the front of the house. I doubt it, though. It’s rare that a dish cannot even be eaten; when it happens, the chef responsible for it clearly must be the one sent home.
So this was not our chefs’ finest moment. But this is New York City, where they can reinvent themselves in an all-new challenge in an all-new neighborhood next week.