I was nowhere near the Top Chef kitchen for this week’s Quickfire challenge -- I’m not usually there for Quickfires -- but now that I’ve watched the episode I sorely wish I’d been there in person when the chefs had to open their wooden boxes, clearly wondering whether they’d come face to face with live rattlers. Their expressions spoke volumes. Rattlesnakes are associated with the arid desert regions of the South and Southwest, but we have our share up here in NY, by the way -- the Adirondack Mountains, for example, are riddled with them. I’ll admit, though, that while NY State is home to rattlesnakes, I’ve never cooked one in my life. I salute our chefs for gamely (no pun intended) rolling up their sleeves once the shock wore off and getting to work on their snakes. I believe that they all worked very hard on the Elimination Challenge as well, and, as I made a point of saying on air, both teams did some very good work. But the judges still have to determine which team performed better and eliminate someone from the other team.
Having the chefs cook for terrific young Blanca’s Quinceanera was a fitting first challenge for Top Chef Texas. Mexican-Americans make up 31.6 percent of Texas’s overall population, with Mexican-Americans comprising over half of San Antonio’s population, with Houston boasting the second largest Mexican ancestry community in the United States, and with Dallas weighing in with the fifth largest Mexican-American population in the country. The contributions of Mexican-Americans to Texan culture, including cuisine, are legion. We sought to honor these contributions with this week’s Elimination Challenge.
In asking the chefs to cook for Blanca’s Quinceanera, though, we were very clear about what we were asking for: We wanted elegant food (and, to quote Padma, “a fabulous cake”) in the tradition of the foods of Blanca’s family and community. This raises two points for me:
First, be careful not to pigeonhole “Mexican Food.” Which raises two more points for me:
a) Anyone who thinks that “Mexican Food” is about rubbery tacos and chimichangas should make a pilgrimage to Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo in Chicago, or, for that matter, should sample the dishes of our guest judge, Johnny Hernandez. Check your preconceptions at the door.
b) As with any large country, Mexico has many cuisines. The seafood-centered fare of Veracruz on the Gulf is very different than the food of mountainous Oahaca, “the Land of the Seven Moles.” All Italian is not red sauce and meatballs. All Indian is not curried lamb. If they were thoughtful in asking what foods Blanca and her family like, the chefs would also have been discovering the region in Mexico from which her family hailed, which would have given them insights into the spices, seasonings, and ingredients that could, in turn, have inspired them. They also could have asked directly -- I don’t know whether any of them did.
Second, while they were asked to prepare elegant “Mexican” food, the challenge gave them ample opportunity to be true to the dishes they were honoring while still putting their own stamps on the food. While this might sound like a tightrope walk, it really isn’t -- it’s one of the creative, joyful aspects of being a chef. If a particular dish is traditionally flavored by cilantro, for example, incorporating a cilantro fluid gel could bring the cilantro flavor to the dish in an original way. Using a flour tortilla in a dish that calls for a corn tortilla as Keith did, on the other hand, is merely a misstep, as the flour tortilla becomes sodden and unappetizing, and the flavor of the flour tortilla does not permit the flavors in the dish to shine as that of a corn tortilla would have. There's a reason that corn tortillas are the traditional choice for enchiladas. Further, Keith’s presentation was wholly inelegant, in direct refutation of the goals of the challenge. Put aside the fact that Keith inadvertently undermined Lindsay’s shrimp dish by buying precooked shrimp. Of the four chefs at the bottom this week, Keith made the greatest number of errors in his own dish, and it was the weakest. This was not his challenge. I appreciate Keith’s graciousness in his exit interview. I know Keith to be a talent, and I know that he will do well in his career moving forward.
The Pink Team was literally a case study for the adage, "Too many cooks spoil the broth." The chefs on this team could not seem to work together well, as this competition sometimes calls on them to do. Lindsay was absolutely right not to cook her shrimp dish when she discovered that the shrimp was precooked, though the dish she did help cook landed her in the bottom four anyway, since the judges don't know what happens behind the scenes and judge purely on the dishes placed before us. Still, had she made the dish with the precooked shrimp, it might just have gotten her a ticket home. We'll see what she cooks next week, when, presumably, she is not at a greater disadvantage in terms of ingredients than her peers. Have a good week.
P.S. To "Dog Lover" -- yes, I do read the comments you all write. My work schedule just doesn't leave me time to reply. I'm glad people are watching, and I'm glad that many of you are inspired to write in. We can't change things up mid-season as people often request, since it was already filmed, nor can we add anyone to Restaurant Wars for the same reason, but I like writing the blog and enjoy reading everyone's replies. Keep the comments coming, everyone.