It was the wrong night for me to attend a progressive dinner party.
I was overdue to have back surgery (which I finally had in October), and my back was particularly bad that night, which made walking from house to house – not to mention the simple act of sitting – a misery. So I wasn’t exactly in a party frame of mind. But our hosts were very gracious, and I had my friend John Besh with us, whom I don’t often get to see, which helped me make it through.
As you know, our chefs were asked to cook a dish for a course of this progressive dinner party. Cooking for a dinner party is totally different than cooking at a restaurant. There are so many things I would do at home that I wouldn’t consider doing in a restaurant and vice versa.
For example, cooking for a dinner party at home gives a chef the opportunity to make things whole, and then slice them. At home, I’ll make a whole roast, keep it self-contained, then slice and serve it; I would never cook ten individual pieces of filet mignon.For those of you who thought that every challenge would require that the chefs cook Tex-Mex, sorry to disappoint, but here was a challenge that essentially asked them not to. Quite the opposite, the chefs were given free-rein and a chance to showcase their signature styles. I think that our chefs got too caught up with trying to deliver the “wow factor” rather than just making good food. Yes, one of our hosts said he wanted the food to be “a conversation starter,” but it should be a conversation starter by being well-conceived and well-executed, rather than by being gimmicky. And yes, one of our hosts said something about nothing being too rich for Texas, but that didn’t mean that our chefs should overdo their dishes and throw too many elements onto their plates.
The winning dish was a study in smart cooking. Paul listened to his clients and delivered a dish that was well-balanced in every way. The textures complemented each other as did the flavors. It was presented well and was a manageable appetizer.
As for the four dishes on the bottom, they were all very problematic. All showed a lack of thought. Chris J.’s dish was all gimmick, and an ill-conceived one at that – would you want to eat a cigar? I love cigars, personally, but I wouldn’t want to eat one, nor would I want to tuck into its ashes. Chris C.’s cupcake dessert was a riot of disparate items on a plate – it made no sense whatsoever. And Ty’s dish was poorly executed and completely out of proportion. Again, I couldn’t understand it.
But, sadly, Chuy’s was the biggest loser. The overcooked salmon was unpalatable on its own; combined with goat cheese, I didn’t want to eat it. Smoked fish is paired with cream, which is why mild cream cheese works with lox. But goat cheese is pungent, and I can’t figure out why Chuy would think it paired well with salmon. Think about it: In Italy, we do not put parmesan on fish dishes. And then, despite acknowledging that this was a dish he had served at his restaurant in the past, Chuy couldn’t execute the dish properly because his proportions were off: In order to warm the goat cheese inside, he had to overcook the salmon.
When faced with four poor dishes, we judges enter into a debate. It comes down to ascertaining which was the judges’ very least favorite of the four. We look at various factors, including the esoteric “How bad was the overall dish?” Was it seasoned poorly, overcooked, handled badly, plated badly? Could the dish be improved if cooked again? If we had to eat them again, which one(s) would we just not want? We all weigh in, and we eventually arrive at a consensus.
This time, it was Chuy’s dish that wound up on the chopping block. I was surprised, frankly, that Chuy went out of the competition so early. From the solid dishes he’d presented before, I assumed he’d be with us longer. But as we’ve seen in seasons past, it can happen that a good chef makes a poor choice, commits an error, has a bad day. As this shows, we don’t judge the chefs in any cumulative way; we judge each dish before us on its own merits.This is a strong group of chefs in a difficult competition, and they need to be on their toes at all times because they can’t slide by on the strength of last week’s food.
On to next week, then. Have a good week, y’all.