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Buggin' Out

Curtis Stone didn't know what he was in for in the bug Quickfire Challenge.

By Curtis Stone

Well, what can I say about our poor chefs’ Quickfire Challenge? Let me tell you, it’s hard enough being in an unfamiliar kitchen, cooking under extreme time restraints and against the best chefs in the country. But cooking with an ingredient that you have never cooked with before, that potentially grosses you out or, in Suvir’s case, simply goes against your beliefs — this had to be one of the toughest Quickfires in Top Chef Masters history.

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I thought I was in for an easy ride with this job. Apparently not. I had to eat all of these dishes! Now it’s not the first time I had eaten an insect. I’ve tried crickets before in Thailand and actually quite enjoyed it. I’ve even eaten a large worm (10 inches in length) with an Aboriginal elder in the middle of the Australian outback, so I felt quite well-prepared. Trust me, I was not.

I take my hat off to the chefs as some of the dishes were actually quite tasty like Hugh’s tempura fried crickets with sunchoke and carrot puree. However I can still remember the horrible texture of the hornworm and coconut soup and the scratchy legs on the soy crickets. Now, understand: this not a criticism; I was really impressed that our talented chefs rose to the occasion and, in most cases, put something edible on the table.

The Elimination Challenge was something I was really excited for. There is nothing better than raising money for your charity and here we really gave our chefs the ability to turn on the magic. I have to tell you as a chef, the first thing you do when you have a dinner like this is make a timeline. Some chefs will be meticulous about it and write it all down and others will just do it mentally. Simply put, you work out what you need to do to create the food in time for service and divide that into individual jobs, including how long each should take. That way, you give each component the right amount of attention, and you know how long it’ll take to get the whole meal done. So, if you have 10 jobs to complete before service and they take on average 30 minutes each, it will take you five hours to prepare for service. Why am I boring you with all this chef-y information? Because I want you to understand the implication of those curveballs we threw and how they could easily wreack havoc on anyone’s timeline. The chefs had to think on their feet, adjust their prep lists, and change their dishes as we threw different challenges their way. Not having running water, for instance, is a major pain. And as if that’s not enough, not having servers is even harder to manage, because the chef is now responsible for cooking and serving the food. And let’s face it, most chefs prefer to be in the back of the house finessing their dishes. The real challenge was to see just how well our chefs could adapt to an unpredictable environment. The key to being great under pressure is keeping your cool and serving the food you planned to serve. I was not surprised to see our chefs getting a little touchy with each other as we put so much pressure on them. Hugh and Naomi almost lost it trying to make up for the missing waiters. I loved the way Suvir and Traci kept their cool and focused on serving their chaat salad and rib eye courses. The flavor of Naomi’s celery velouté was seriously unbelievable. I have to say, it was my favorite dish. But the fact that all of these chefs could pull together and serve one the best menus I have ever eaten at a charity dinner is proof that they all deserve first place.

Now for my least favorite time of the night: sending someone packing. This honestly bums me out as the chefs always work so hard to serve such great food. But what makes this competition a serious challenge is that it asks the chefs to show off their strengths and, at the same time, reach outside their comfort zones. John is such a creative and talented chef, but this week he played it a little too safe with the shitake and prosciutto risotto.

Everyone who attended the dinner had a great time. There was an amazing amount of charitable cheer in the room and lots of money was raised, so a big thank you to our generous donors. Also a big congratulations to our outstanding chefs. What an amazing job under the harshest of conditions. I can’t wait to see what gets served next week.

Bon Appétit!

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