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James Oseland explains why the bottom three days were impeded by their literalism.

By James Oseland

I don’t really think of myself as a romantic guy. Usually when any sort of lovey-dovey nature starts to rise in me, my first instinct is to throw cold water on it. Still, this week’s challenge really touched me. We critics — what a pleasure it was to see Gael Greene again! — hadn’t met the lucky couple beforehand; we simply watched their engagement unfold from a few feet away, just like you viewers did.

Watching them share a meal together, knowing that they were in love and that this meal was going to lead to a tremendous commitment for them was incredibly moving. It reminded me of my own relationship with my partner, Daniel, and of all the wonderful things about being in love: stability, joy, respect. Watching a couple just starting on this journey made me feel incredibly lucky that we are who we are in life — all of us — that we can share life with each other, and grow and learn together, and even that food can play a significant part in that. (Now if only American gay couples could enjoy the same legal rights as their straight counterparts: Maybe thinking about that, and how that affects my own life, is one of the reasons I got teary-eyed at the meal’s end.)

As it should be for a romantic meal, the food this week was generally great, with all six cheftestants delivering dishes that far surpassed the low-bar, “Is it edible?” threshold of the past few episodes, where the challenges were pretty, well, out there. Even in the bottom three dishes, there were strong things to cheer for, though it wasn’t as much of a hair-splitting distinction as the chefs seemed to think it was. Hugh pointed out, when facing the Critics’ Table, that he, Traci, and Celina had delivered the most literal interpretations of our special couple’s touch-points, though I don’t think that was as much in his favor as Hugh seemed to think it was. Instead, it seemed to me that all three of the low-scoring chefs were hampered by their literalism. Had these chefs ever been in love? It certainly wasn’t coming through in their dishes. Hugh’s steak and potatoes was the sort of paint-by-numbers dish you’d expect to eat at a wedding, not an engagement. Traci’s apple galette was by-the-book, and failed to demonstrate her extraordinary talent. But Celina’s hyper-literal take on “a pretzel and beer” was the most egregious of the bunch. Her pretzel was masterfully prepared; her cheesy beer sauce was very, very good. But as a whole dish it was uninspired — too earthbound in its conception. Gael suggested that Celina might have instead made something like a lobster pot pie with a pretzel crust — what a fabulous idea, Gael. Another approach Celina could have taken was to pick up the salad theme to which she was so committed, and include pretzel-inspired croutons. If ever there was a moment for an interpretive flourish, this challenge was it.
Among the top three dishes, I thought that Floyd’s Kama Sutra shrimp hit exactly the exhilarating note that the evening was going for: It had “date night” stamped all over it, without descending into corniness. Floyd learned from last week’s brush with the bottom three and returned to his roots: intense spicing, bold but light flavors. It was a sexy, gorgeous plate of food. But for all Floyd’s success with his dish, I was happy to see Naomi’s braised chicken win: It was rustic, flavorful, and soulful. As a plate of food, it was comforting. That’s maybe not the feeling I’d be going for on the evening of an engagement, but the chicken’s hominess did double duty as a wish for the happy couple, that their marriage become as welcoming and fulfilling as a good meal on a cold night.

James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine.

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