My first thought was what bride and groom would surrender the details of their wedding dinner to an unspecified whimsically selected cooking crew at the last minute…. And my next thought was, "Why not?" All it takes is faith in our food-obsessed culture. Two teams of America’s master chefs competing by improvising a dinner for 150 guests even at the last minute is full of promise … an adventure. A coup. It would not by just another pretty parade of dishes designed not to offend any finicky wedding guest by caterers anonymous. What the courageous couple could expect was real food, master chefs at work, a unique wedding celebration no one there would ever forget.
We judges at the Critics’ Table knew that part of the challenge was catering to the tastes of the bride and groom. In one case the meat and potatoes loving groom who asks for a carrot cake. In the other, a bride with more exotic tastes who flatly rules out lamb. As if it weren’t enough of a challenge, the surviving competitors would divide into two teams to plan, shop, and cook without their usual staff backup teams to do the scut work.
I’m off on assignment now, surveying cuisine and travel in Tunisia but I had a chance to see this segment on DVD before I left town. For me as one of the critics sequestered from the kitchen prep battle, it was amusing to see each team throwing together a plan based on the market and their own particular favorite dishes: the warriors both cooperative and competitive all at once. And how they struggled without recipes to create their wedding cakes. Indeed, I’m not surprised that Susur has never baked a carrot cake but decided with his restored cockiness to wing it. And if I’d heard him blithely telling Carmen “You are the girl,” i.e. good at backup for everyone else, it might have colored my final vote.
As the guests arrived so did Kelly and the three of us, all dressed up for a wedding celebration. I sensed some last-minute desperation by certain chefs at the serving tables but then the wine was being poured and waiters began passing the fabulous little hors d’oeuvre: the red pepper pancake, curried tuna, a tricky little lobster roll, the Indian fritter, a textbook perfect crab cake.
Certain dishes were standouts — Tony’s simple old-fashioned, fiercely rich scalloped potatoes for one and Jody’s rack of lamb that even the bride had to admit was good.
There was something very winning about the semolina cake with flowers everywhere to cover up the patches. And I thought Jody’s choice of banana a la Foster, cooked to order at the last minute, was a suicidal move. But for me nothing was quite as impressive as Susur Lee in his chosen guise of dessert Ninja. How clever to glue together a hundred or so cream-filled profiteroles with caramel to create that tall croquembouche as the wedding cake. Did he know that the croquembouche actually was the original wedding cake? The bridge and groom were required to kiss over the tip of it. More filled pate a choux balls became his profiterole for the children. You could almost forgive him the misguided carrot cake for his sublime bread pudding.
I thought his triumph was the cherry on the cake for his team’s victory. But then Jay worked himself into an indignant frenzy over Marcus’s beef. He found its tenderness to be a sacrilege of the cow. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic I’m not sure Jay growing up in England has enough experience with the great American Steak. Our aged meat is tender. Wagyu is even more tender. And I had to admit that good meat doesn’t need that much of a fuss. It was a very dim moment for Marcus. But poor Carmen was even sadder, having sacrificed her time to help everyone else on her team shine, she never quite got her act together.
Too bad Tunisia isn’t hooked up to Bravo. I can’t wait till I catch up as soon as I return.