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Pity the competing chefs on Episode 3. It wasn’t as if they could just flip open their copy of Larousse Gastronomique for instructions on how to skin a green worm! While I wasn’t present for the, um, buggy Quickfire Challenge, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have minded it a bit. (And in an interview I did a few weeks ago with the always wonderful Ruth Reichl—oh, how I missed her this week—she confessed a similar sentiment.) I’ve eaten bugs in lots of different parts of the world, from Mexico and other regions of Central America to Southeast Asia. Weird? Yes, sure, especially for someone like me, who was raised largely on pot roast (and, of course, the occasional duck à l’orange). But gross? No way.
You see, it’s all about context. When you’re in the Isan region of Thailand—a place in the northeast part of that country that I’ve been a few times—and a local cook offers you a salad of lemongrass, lime juice, chiles, and stir-fried queen ants gathered that morning from the grove of trees behind her home, there’s nothing remotely yucky about it. The experience is no less appealing than, say, being served a plate of pan-fried shrimp at a seaside osteria in Italy—shrimp are, after all, little more than the roaches of the ocean.
Happily, the chefs stood up admirably to this week’s next challenge: working as a team to make a 10-course meal under some seriously harsh circumstances. No running water? Their prep time being cut by 30 minutes? The last-minute revelation that they would be sans waitstaff? Any one of these curveballs would have devastated the average chef. (I would have thrown in the towel after curveball No. 2.) But they weren’t devastated, and they didn’t throw in the towel. And in fact, most of them excelled spectacularly.
As the meal progressed, Danielle, Curtis, Alan, and I were (largely) blissfully unaware of all the backstage handicapping. The meal we ate was truly satisfying. We weren’t left waiting or wanting, as we had been during challenges past; the dishes came out in a seamless, steady flow. What a testament to the cheftestants’ genuine professionalism!
Plus, something else: I think these guys are at last getting accustomed to the strange and unnatural parameters of being contestants on Top Chef Masters. Not only do they now clearly understand the on-hand ingredients better (no more oversalted scallops!), but I sense they’re also beginning to comprehend which dishes function best in the competition. Even under conditions as adverse as the ones they were given tonight, they’re figuring out how to execute makeable foods with a high level of complexity—practical dishes that show off their skill sets. Take Naomi’s celery velouté with Meyer lemon oil. I’ve only ever known velouté as a sauce, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It came in a small, square bowl, with a spare garnish of fresh herbs. Had the soup been anything less than extraordinary, this Spartan presentation would have backfired. But Naomi’s dish was immaculately prepared, with layers of flavor that astonished. Her ability to harness such pure, raw celery flavor in a cooked soup was a master stroke. It was warm and smooth and rich but tasted as though you were crunching into a piece of just-picked celery. Wow.
Naomi deserved to win. Her “velouté” was a bold choice. Would I pay $100 a plate for what was essentially cream of celery soup? After having eaten it, yes, emphatically. It was the high point in a really fine lineup of dishes. (I also loved—loved—Suvir’s well-balanced but safe chaat salad and Floyd’s puffed rice–flaked sole in its bright and sour rasam, a South Indian soup made from tamarind and asafetida.) Naomi’s dish gave us a glimpse into her capabilities as a chef. Until now, she’d cooked only desserts—we critics hadn’t gotten a real sense of what she could deliver.
John’s risotto, on the other hand, while as simple and unassuming at first glance as Naomi’s soup, failed to showcase technique and depth of flavor the same way. I adore John. He’s a seriously smart, talented, and hilarious chef. But you can’t play it safe and make risotto on a challenge like this one; you have to bring some showbiz to every dish you send out.
More about another standout dish: Traci’s. She served three things tonight: a grilled beef rib eye (total perfection); a frizzle of fried shallots; and a braise of broccoli, chard, garlic, and anchovies.
Traci’s vegetable braise was, she told us, based on a dish her dad used to cook for her when she was a kid—he’d cover greens or whatever late-summer vegetables he had on hand with a good dousing of olive oil, pepper, and mashed anchovies and cook it all, in a big, covered pot, over a low flame for an hour or two. Look, I’m Mr. Stir-Fry—I generally like just a wisp of heat to touch my vegetables. But there’s something to be said for really cooked vegetables. Many of the world’s great cuisines—from Italian to French to Indian—boast a roster of dishes that transform raw vegetables into something profound. Slow-stewed Southern-style collards? Bring them on! That amazing braise of wild greens I ate last summer in northern Greece? The memory of its richness haunts me to this day. Long, slow cooking can, ironically, make vegetables taste more like vegetables, bringing out their deep, dark, mysterious, soulful, umami-packed qualities.
Nowadays, the trend in luxe dining is to dis vegetables that aren’t quickly cooked. Frankly, it upsets me to hear people say things like, “Ew, long-cooked vegetables remind me of cafeteria food!” Nothing could be further from the truth. Slow-braised vegetables can be delicious, and they deserve a place in our culinary lexicon. They aren’t swampy.
James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine