Episode 7’s Quickfire Challenge, in which the chefs were asked to perform basic mise-en-place tasks—chopping vegetables, separating egg yolks, and so on—at warp speed was pure eye candy. I was spellbound watching Rick Bayless’s lightning-fast egg beating and Suzanne Tracht’s Jedi-style oyster shucking.
But the best moment was observing the dueling onion choppers, Hubert Keller and Art Smith. Hubert was old-school French all the way, slicing the onion halves lengthwise and then crosswise to make perfect little cubes, while Art did a sort of “God Bless America” free-for-all—which worked just fine, and faster. That was a small triumph for cooks, like me, who don’t believe that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything.
The Quickfire Challenge was great entertainment, but the gloves really came off during the signature-dish swap. Kelly, Jay, Gael, and I had the advantage of having sampled, before the judging started, the original dishes prior to the chefs’ interpretations; that gave us an additional perspective when it came time for scoring.
Hubert’s dish, seared diver scallops on sea urchin–spiked mashed potatoes, was a pretty literal interpretation of Anita Lo’s original dish. Sure, they were some of the best scallops I’ve ever eaten—sweet and lusciously tender—but, honestly, the dish was fairly tentative as culinary reinventions go.
Anita’s interpretation of Hubert’s food, on the other hand, was an intellectual tour de force. She took what was essentially a lobster bisque—what Hubert called a “cappuccino”—and transformed it into a splashy yet delicious array of mini-dishes. The poached lobster on the warm, fluffy Southern biscuit comforted me to the core.
Michael Chiarello’s fig-stuffed rack of lamb was a take on Rick Bayless’s rack of lamb with black pasilla rub and mission figs. Michael so thoroughly diluted the essence of Rick’s Mexican-style cooking in his execution that he lost me. The sweetness of the figs overpowered the gaminess of the lamb, and the chickpea passatina, which had the texture of mealy baby food, just didn’t move me. Neither did Art Smith’s take on Suzanne Tracht’s chopped-sirloin dish, which he repositioned as Scotch eggs. They didn’t turn out so well: the lamb was underdone to the point of being a turn-off. Even his sweet and appealing cherry tomato tartlet wasn’t enough to redeem this plate of misguided food. I wish Art had done something in the traditional American vein, which he has cleverly mined over the years—a meat loaf, maybe.
Suzanne’s grouper with spring vegetables and gnocchi—a reinterpretation of Art’s seared grouper with hearts of palm and trumpet mushrooms—was sprightly, but the wind was taken out of its sails by the fact that the fish (admittedly a very difficult one to work with) had overcooked to the point of chewiness. And it was cold. Very cold. Star-killing cold.
With such talented contenders on the ropes, it was knockout time. Rick’s roasted quail on sautéed radish greens was the champion. Admittedly, when the bird came to me, I couldn’t stop thinking of that scene in Eraserhead when a whole, naked teensy fowl starts doing disco moves on the plate, but once I got over that and cut into the dish, it was sublime—the essence of brilliant, assured cooking. The quail was savory and tender, and the pomegranate–red wine glaze sauce showed a perfect balance of sweet, sour, and salty. It was a respectful homage to Michael’s original dish. It was stop-the-presses good, which is why it got my five stars. The fight was an easy one to call—at least from where I was sitting.