I know what you’re thinking, and I agree -- how great was it to kick off our sojourn in music-centric Austin with iconic American singer Patti LaBelle?! I was as excited as our chefs were to have her as our guest judge this week.
I liked this week’s Elimination Challenge, as well. I think it’s a fitting one for the week before Christmas. Most of us who celebrated Christmas as a child can't help but think back around this time of year on holidays past And whether we look back with nostalgia or antipathy, the holiday meals we experienced are usually an integral part of the memories. The chefs this week were asked to pay homage to those who gave them a huge gift by first instilling in them their love of cooking. A perfect challenge for them, and, potentially, an inspiration to the rest of us as we enter into the Holiday Season and plan our own family gatherings and meals.
As an Italian American, I always loved the feast of the seven fishes that my grandmother made on Christmas Eve, but I use it as a springboard for my own feast; I do not make the same exact meal. I remain fairly true to my grandmother's timeless beet salad and salt cod dishes, but I do a fresh reimaging of the rest, which makes the entire meal, when taken as a whole, a creative take on the feast of my childhood. Think about it: there are surely plenty of dishes from your childhood that you remember loving but that you can acknowledge that you’d probably like a lot less if you tasted them today. Yeah, I loved cotton candy as a kid, but I don’t particularly want to eat it now. Furthermore, our taste in food in general is not the same as it was in decades past. Food has been updated, just as have fashion and décor, and with food, our palates. The chefs were asked to make dishes that paid tribute to those people who first inspired them. They were not asked to reassemble those dishes, and I consider it a dearth of creativity in Grayson that she chose a literal recreation of her father’s steak dinner, without giving any thought to modernizing that dish and making it her own. As a contestant on Top Chef, she should have known better. But the bigger problem Grayson faced (and one that she should have anticipated) is that if you really want to wow someone with a piece of steak, you’d best go out and get a piece of prime meat. Only four percent of meat in this country is prime. The rest is choice, which is fine, but if you’re going to go out there and center a competitive dish around a piece of steak, it should be the best piece of meat you can possibly find. Grayson’s wasn’t that.
The only reason Grayson didn’t get sent home was that Heather’s dish was so bad. And Heather’s was so bad because she had the wrong cut of meat. You want to braise cuts like shoulders, shanks and bellies, because they have a lot of collagen and connecting tissue that breaks down as it’s braised, creating a rich dish. You don’t want to braise cuts of meat like strip steak or rib eye or tenderloin. Heather could have braised that piece of meat for three days, and it would never have worked. As with Grayson, Heather needed to apply her creativity as a chef to the situation she faced: if she was inspired by her mom’s Beef Stroganoff, she could either have bought the right meat or decided to do a take-off on the Stroganoff using that beef and applying in a new way the flavors found in a Stroganoff, but she didn’t do either, and so what she did do wound up dried out and terrible. Chris C. knew that he had cooked his salmon too hard, but luckily, as with Grayson’s dish, his wasn’t the worst of the worst. Heather’s miserable Stroganoff spared Grayson and Chris the need to pack their knives.
Contrast these with the three dishes at the top this week: Sarah’s grandfather used to make sausage and her grandmother used to make stuffed cabbage… so she combined those two in a balanced and nuanced way that elegantly featured both. I doubt that Ed’s grandmother presented Kid Ed with that beautiful sunny-side egg atop her bibimbap. He honored the essence of her meal while creating a wholly current -- not to mention delicious -- version of it. And Beverly, too, understood exactly how to take inspiration from the dish of her childhood without just copying her mother’s dish. The resultant dish was beautiful and the flavors were there. These three dishes fulfilled the Elimination Challenge perfectly and were as memorable as the bottom three were regrettable.
Not that many of you will regret seeing Heather depart -- I know from viewer comments that she was not universally liked. The only thing sweeter for Beverly than being in the top three the week Heather was eliminated would probably have been had Beverly actually taken the win. But she was in the top three for good reason, and she should be very proud of her dish, win or no win.
Happy Holidays, all, and a Happy and Healthy New Year.