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On an ordinary day Jar is one of the most comfortable restaurants in Los Angeles, and when I’m on my own, a seat at the counter is where I want to be. (And now that I’ve seen how tiny the kitchen is, I’m even more in awe of the wonderful food that Suzanne Tracht turns out on a daily basis.)
But this was no ordinary day. It turned out that Jar was the setting for the next Top Chef challenge –- and the guest of honor was going to be Christina Hendricks, one of my favorite actresses. When I was introduced, my hands were actually shaking. In person, she’s much smaller than she seems on the screen, and much more beautiful. Kind of scary beautiful, in fact. But what you can’t see on camera is what a truly romantic couple she and Geoffrey Arend are; she is constantly touching him and gazing into his eyes while he manages to say the words “my wife” in every other sentence.
They call themselves foodies, but they’re much more than that. They are serious cooks. They can talk for hours about the meals they’ve made, and Geoffrey apparently thinks nothing of getting up early on a Sunday morning to bake a few bialys for his bride. Watching them eat, and listening to them talk about food, is enormous fun.
But I was also intrigued by this challenge. This wasn’t just a test to find out which chef was the best cook or had the fastest knife; this was a conceptual contest, and with each dish we gained a bit of insight into how each of these chefs think. It also turned out to be a challenge in which experience really counted.
As we ate each dish, I was considering more than taste. I was also asking how well each chef had reinterpreted his/her '60s dish in a contemporary style. That was what made Mary Sue’s dish so impressive; she was able to look at something as simple, satisfying, and old-fashioned as a deviled egg, take it apart and reassemble the ingredients into something surprising, a dish to mirror modern tastes. (Her dish also happened to be delicious.)
And as far as I was concerned, Sue lost more points for failing to create a contrast between her dishes than for her inability to finish in time. She was offered a fine opportunity to contrast an old warhorse of a dish with an entirely modern one. The beloved duck a l’orange is traditionally cooked for a long time until its skin is crisp and the meat well-cooked beneath its sweetly sour sauce. That would have really stood apart from a rare slice of sautéed breast; she blew it.
Suvir’s veal Oscar was truly awful, but even at its best, veal Oscar is not a dish any sensible person would want to eat. Floyd had a similar challenge; ambrosia is a fine reminder that food could be really awful back in the '60s. But both of them, very intelligently, concentrated on the elements of the dish, and each came up with an exciting reinterpretation.
Too bad nobody was asked to recreate a cocktail. Just think what these chefs might have come up with if they’d had the opportunity to recreate a Rusty Nail or a White Spider!