So Happy Together

So Happy Together

Gail Simmons' behind-the-scenes take on Ted Allen's party.

Having Ted Allen as the guest judge this week definitely upped the ante for our contestants. Ted is an accomplished cook, and as we all know he has a great sense of style. He was also the first judge on the show who was not a professional restaurant chef. In some ways his dinner party Elimination Challenge forced everyone to work harder than they had before in order to impress him. I think they viewed Ted more as a discriminating critic than a teacher. And he brought with him a room full of San Francisco's most opinionated foodies, armed and ready to give their two cents as well! This was the challenge many of our chefs had been waiting for - a sophisticated, multi-course meal for a group of serious diners.

The twist of switching who cooked which course at the last minute was only one of the tests they faced as they entered the kitchen at Frisson. This challenge also required them to work as one cohesive unit for the first time in an upscale restaurant setting. They were forced to play off each other's strengths and weaknesses, share space and also share one single menu. Constructing a well-balanced meal of seven courses is no easy task, especially when each person is vying for his or her course to stand out from the rest. Overall, I thought they all did an excellent job, beginning when Stephen agreed to put his pretensions aside and act as pastry chef, since he could not be eliminated no matter how dessert turned out. Even though in the end it became Harold's responsibility, I was impressed with how well the two of them worked together. In fact, what stood out most for me through the entire meal was just that: the striking contrasts between our contestants, yet how unified they became.

Harold and Stephen could not be more contrary in their individual approaches to food. While Harold focuses on depth of flavor and simple, seasonal combinations, Stephen preaches style and sensationalism, cutting-edge creativity and fusion. To me, they are obvious products of their culinary backgrounds - New York vs. Vegas. And both have their place in the world of haute cuisine. The same can be said of Miguel and Andrea, a.k.a. Junk Food Champion vs. Health Food Guru. They may come from opposite schools of thought, but they ended up working together very well. Although in the past two episodes their partnership cost them both bottom seats at the Judges' Table, I was touched by their mutual respect and admiration. Last week, Andrea was willing to give up her immunity for Miguel. This week, when Andrea was eliminated, Miguel made a point of telling her how much he appreciated her friendship and was sad to see her go. Lee Anne and Tiffani have been at each other's throats since day one. Perhaps because they are both determined, talented female cooks in an industry still dominated by men. No doubt, they have both encountered their share of chauvinism and have had to push themselves harder than their male counterparts in order to get ahead.

I know I did when I worked in professional kitchens. We have all witnessed their claws come out in the past, but on this episode they were able to put it all aside. Lee Anne's winning course of Fig-stuffed Gnocchi with Duck Confit and Seared Duck Breast was exceptional. Even more so was hearing her credit Tiffani for its clever conception. And then there's Dave. Bundle of nerves, heart-on-his-sleeve, and totally volatile, Dave has become a sort of mascot to the group. Behind the scenes everyone commented on how eager he always is to jump in and help. He may have had the jitters in front of our diners, but backstage he was a positive team player, even if his fish course was forgettable. So what exactly is happening here? Why at the climax of competition is everyone getting along? (OK, almost everyone - Tiffani and Miguel are far from bosom buddies.) I believe the contestants are starting to learn that working together elevates them all. Just like in a "real" high-pressure kitchen where line cooks and sous chefs alike are often asked to take over each other's stations at the last minute, and they're also fighting to be noticed by the Executive Chef and get ahead.

At Frisson, the contestants seemed to realize that when service begins there is no room to think about sabotage. What matters is getting the work done to the best of your ability. Winning dishes will always speak for themselves. Of course, losing dishes stand out just as clearly. In each case this week the bottom three failed because their creators did not take the time to master them, and it showed. This was especially true regarding Miguel and Andrea. What bothered me most about Miguel was not his lack of concentration or calm in the kitchen, but that he was lazy in learning his ingredients. Chef jackets are actually designed for this type of situation! Those small pockets on the sleeve are made for holding pens and markers. All he had to do was use one. Write it down! I would much rather someone read correctly from a piece of paper than present their dish not knowing what it is.

Andrea put aside her usual conviction and copped out as well. Instead of owning her dish, she took a deliberate back seat, giving up on the challenge entirely. Why didn't she come up with a healthier alternative if she felt out of her league with fried latkes? She could have baked or roasted the potatoes and we would have been none the wiser. I was sad to see her leave. She is a kind, brave and very smart woman, but we all agreed it was her time. To quote our friend Ted, her dish was just not "Whiz-Bang-Decadent-Wow" -- and at this point in the competition, that is exactly how each dish should be!

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