Since we judges are normally stashed away in coolers during QuickFire I had no idea how shocked and devastated Susur Lee was by his flameout. As we watch him tackling the fruit, he is so sure of his superior knife skills that he is convinced his fruit dish can’t fail to win “artistic honors.” And then his dismal score puts him in a snit. What a tantrum. How quickly he blames the judges for not understanding Asian ways. So petty. And so wrong. Quite frankly, I’m shocked to see him so unlike the charming Susur Lee whose food I loved and raved about at Shang in the Thompson Hotel on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
And given Jody’s self-doubt as she analyzes the competitors and sets out to tackle her tart only to freeze the dough, I find her triumph and surprise at winning to be quite touching. Since this was a High Stakes QuickFire, she is thrilled to get a free pass into the finals.
Lucky for Susur Lee, his wife on the phone that night did not indulge his megalomania. Instead she calmed him down, so he could focus on the real goal: “My job is to win,” he vows. “Now I am very motivated.” All these master chefs come to win but rarely are they as fierce and determined as Susur and quite frankly not all of them are as experienced.
The Elimination Challenge, to modernize a classic family dish and please the cast and crew of Modern Family, turns out to be nightmare face-off. Just shopping to feed 125 people, managing the prep work, then moving it all to the Studio canteen, reheating and serving – coitus interruptus as Jody calls it -- is a killer assignment. That’s why they’re all on the run.
Seeing the kitchen action we judges do not normally see as the show airs on Bravo is a revelation. I am always surprised to see what chefs help each other in the kitchen and which ones stand back pretending not to see a colleague wrestling with disaster. Maria – whose sweet disposition comes right through the plasma screen -- suggests Debbie sauté her undercooked pork belly but alas, neither the glaze, the apple butter or Debbie’s wonderful winter squash slaw, can overcome the chewiness of undercooked pork. And in the combination of precooking and warming, Maria’s salmon went in the opposite direction – too cooked. All the judges loved her almond milk but that wasn’t enough to overcome the salmon syndrome.
A simple flaw like too much salt defeated Jody’s homey braised chicken thighs with semolina gnocchi. Still she might have won if Susur’s roasted chicken curry with corn and vegetable cake had not been totally delicious. It was impressive too that he also managed to make his Indian garnishes, the tomato jam chutney and corn with fresh chili mint chutney to feed 125, calm, comfident, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
All three critics agreed. Five stars for Susur. With the Modern Family vote, he got the highest score ever so far. I wonder if our enthusiasm for his cooking would have been diluted if we could have heard his unfiltered comments caught by the cameras. It’s how the food looks on the plate and how it tastes in your mouth that is supposed to count, of course. But I would be affected by attitude too. Lucky for Susur, we’re mostly distanced from kitchen tantrums. He’s looking like the master to beat right now.