That said, though, you’ll notice that Tiffani, who attempted to use Wylie’s techniques, wound up in the bottom four (partly because of presentation, by the way –- her plating could have been a lot more refined. She had a good idea, but executed it poorly.), whereas Dale T., who allowed himself to be sincerely inspired by Wylie’s work, but who then stayed true to his own method of cooking, actually won the Elimination Challenge. Dale said to himself, “I don’t use this bag of tricks. I do things differently.” But he completely understood and was excited by Wylie’s philosophy about cooking. Wylie always starts with an idea and then thinks, “How can I push this…?” He makes an egg yolk that isn’t actually an egg yolk –- it’s a mango. He plays with the diner’s perceptions, as though they’re facing a mirage … except that the result is always not only surprising, but satisfyingly so. The food is always really fine. Dale understood the take-away message of Wylie’s food and employed the playfulness, while utilizing his own techniques. And Wylie appreciated the message behind Dale’s result. We never asked the contestants to cook with the methods of the chefs they were cooking for, only to cook food the chefs would consider worthy of a place on their menus. In other words, to be inspired by the food and then cook their own hearts out. Frankly, any one of those chefs could have made any sort of great food and have woven a great story about how it was inspired by the food s/he’d eaten the night before … and we would have had to simply buy into what s/he said. Anything goes, when the challenge involves “inspiration."
Frankly, this is why I was disappointed that Fabio kept kvetching about how he knows nothing about Southeast Asian food. At the end of the day, a chef is inspired by everything around him/her. I don’t necessarily cook Southeast Asian food, but after returning from a trip to the region, a dish took shape in my mind that was inspired by the flavors I’d encountered while there: cuttlefish, with a spicy tomato syrup and a salad of cucumber, fennel, dill, basil, and then slivers of an Asian pork jerky. I’d never done anything like it in my life, but shortly after I got back, I created it for one of my “Tom: Tuesday Dinner” tasting menus, and it’s now on the menu at Colicchio and Sons. No one was telling the chefs to do an exact replica of what they’d eaten, just to find inspiration in it and then do their own cooking. Fabio could have eaten dinner at Ma Peche and then started playing with ideas: He could have said, for example, “Rice noodles … OK, I like spaghetti carbonara. Hmmm … I could use pork belly instead of pancetta. I can cook with Asian flavors, maybe using fish sauce instead of cream….” He could have taken what’s familiar to him and rearranged it with the ingredients he was seeing in that kitchen. He could have said, “I’m a good cook –- I can do this!” and have had a marvelous time being playful with what he found. But by repeating like a mantra “that’s not what I do, that’s not what I do, that’s not what I do…” Fabio seemed to have thrown his hands up from the beginning. He seemed closed to the challenge.
At Marea, Blais put a great dish together. I liked it better than Tre’s, actually, but I was outvoted. Spike’s dish was OK, not great, but it was clear that the poorest dish among them was Stephen’s. As I stated in my blog after the first episode, Stephen has a solid knowledge of food. But cooking is something you have to practice. Repetition is key. You don’t forget how to do it, just as you don’t forget how to ride a bicycle, but you have to ride that bike a lot to win the race. Stephen might have all the knowledge in the world, but he didn’t have the chops to pull off his dish. Plus, I found his choice to cook salmon a curious one, as salmon is not a Mediterranean fish. I was surprised that he struck so dissonant a chord between the salmon and the Mediterranean flavors he was trying to pair it with.