Hola, Pantalones de Azucar! (After the past week’s natural disaster cavalcade here in New York, I am inspired by Mayor Bloomberg’s heartwarming attempts to speak Spanish.) Hope everyone is feeling sunnier this week, and that you enjoyed TCJD’s second episode.
As you may have noticed, this was one where the esteemed, beyond talented, lusciously maned, kindly genius and all-around fantastic fellow, Chef Hubert Keller held down the judging seat we often share, so watching the finished episode opened my eyes to a lot of behind-the-scenes undercurrents I’d missed. I thought the most fun way to share my discoveries with you would be via a list. Without further ado, here are my top 10 high notes:
10. Sticking with the competition and giving it your all after you’ve fractured your wrist is bad-ass. Whatever else happens, you have to give Rebecca credit for not skipping a beat and just charging right back into the thick of things without a second thought. That wasn’t a burn, it wasn’t a cut -- it was a break. I know chefs are made of steel, but broken bones are freaking painful. Not to mention how much more complicated every single task in the kitchen is when you only have one good hand.
9. Margaret Braun is one of the most intriguing people you’ll ever meet. She not only makes some of the most whimsical but technically brilliant and addictively delicious cakes you can imagine. She just has this really lovely and cool presence and spirit. She is pretty low-key yet hilarious, and really generous with her time and ideas. I remember a cake she made to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the South Beach Wine & Food festival, this past February. Gail and I attended the event together, which was held in this wild, edgy parking garage-turned-community space called 1111 Lincoln Road, and could not stop eating the succulent, rich chocolate cake that Margaret created. I had to be led away from the table.
8. Lemons can be the pits. Asking the chefs to create “the new lemon dessert” and to “reveal the secret of the lemon” was a smart Quickfire, because not only are lemons so strong in flavor and acidity that they are tricky to pair, but coming up with ways to present them that actually haven’t been around forever is doubly challenging. I will tell you that this summer my go-to dessert for home entertaining was a torta di limone from Top Chef Master, Obi Wan, and all-around great guy Jonathan Waxman’s new cookbook, Italian My Way, that never failed to make my guests drool. But I digress. I have never met or even heard of anyone allergic to lemons before Orlando, so I can only imagine how difficult it was for him to ensure his dish was good. Poor Nelson’s imagination got the better of him, and he tried to do too much and ended up with not much. I liked how inventive and kooky Katzie was with her “fettucine,” and Matthew’s cake looked perfect…just different enough and truly mouth-watering.7. Matthew declares that “Carlos will dump liquid nitrogen on anything.” This made me laugh out loud, not because it was directed at Carlos or because it was entirely true about him, but because there are always a few chefs who use those tanks as attention-getting crutches, and really beat a dead, freezing horse. It doesn’t matter how you made it, it matters how it tastes.
6. Orlando probably isn’t a great poker player. Dude cannot suppress a grimace whenever anyone says anything less than positive. When he freaked out about Margaret’s comments regarding his chocolate and lemon combo, it didn’t make him look good. Margaret is so polite she was probably couching harsher criticisms in mentioning her personal tastes. But I get it -- it’s a high-pressure situation, and nobody likes hearing bad news after working so hard.
5. The inspiration and setting for the Elimination Challenge, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, is a national treasure. Every time I would drive past this gleaming beacon, I would almost wreck, because it is just so beautiful, you can’t believe it’s an actual building. So I’m so glad the chefs got to be inspired by Frank Gehry’s creation in crafting their cakes.
4. This was no cakewalk. The teamwork it took to not just design the visual aspects of the cake, but to get three or four chefs to agree on flavors for each tier that would be exciting and bold but also complement the rest was enormous. The teams that talked it out and worked as a unit prevailed, obviously, and those who thought it all the disparate parts would somehow come together did not. I worried that Carlos was driving Rebecca and Sally crazy, but however they worked through it, they came out beautifully. Also: there really are a million stairs up which they had to carry those cakes. And it was hot. Yikes!
3. Cohesion is key. Yes, everyone wants to show off as an individual, but these team challenges are really important and really telling. You can’t just decide on your little piece of the cake, as it were, and hope that everyone else figures out their bit. It was sad to see Nelson’s delicious and architectural masterpiece suffer because of the other elements, but it seemed he hoped the others’ pieces would complement his more gracefully. On the Blue Team, Amanda summed up the troubles best, “We just didn’t push the edit button.”2. Sometimes taking a spicy risk pays off big- time. It seemed everyone but Melissa was a little nervous about her decision to use cardamom. She considered it a safe flavor, but a lot of folks find it a bit unusual, and when not wielded carefully it can certainly be overpowering. I loved seeing her choice pay off, especially after all that happened last episode, and that she was picked last because of it in this challenge. She stuck to her guns, and her cake was surprising, bold, and taste-tastic, it was clear.
1. It came down to which individual chef let his or her team down most substantially. The painful question, “Which is worse: a broken cake or an ugly cake?” might not have a definitive answer, but it was surely debated extensively at Judges' Table. Orlando’s pieces fell off before the judges’ eyes, Craig’s Fantasia drum cake was amateurish and sickly sweet, but Vanarin got sucked into the world of those tiny instruments, which as we saw did not come out well at all, and his cake was too dry and bland to make up for the design flaws. A tough choice, I am sure, but even in episode two, the competition is just fierce. Until next week, sweet dreams!
For more sweet musings and happy inspirations, please follow me on Twitter @DKyrillos.