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Of Gas Stations And Microwaves

Tom Colicchio talks about making food on the fly.

By Tom Colicchio

First of all - a bit of disclosure: I wasn't around for this week's Quickfire Challenge. The first I learned of it was while watching the episode like everyone else. I have to say that I was, for the most part, impressed by the dishes that our chefs came up with using convenience-store ingredients. With the exception of Dave, whom I felt simply heated existing items (burrito, cinnamon bun) and placed them on a plate into a coy "morning after" presentation. The dishes were creative and smart, and our chefs tackled the challenge with a sense of humor. Who would ever have imagined Stephen cutting into a block of Spam? Certainly not yours truly...

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

Another staple of convenience stores is an appliance found in most home kitchens, and the focus of this week's Elimination Challenge - the microwave. You could feel the inner recoil from the 'pros' in the group - Harold, Tiffani, Stephen - even Andrea - when they learned they had to prepare a microwavable dish for a group of Junior Leaguers. The microwave, they've been taught, is declasse, strictly for amateurs, right up there with the George Foreman Grill. But I don't necessarily agree. The microwave has its place. Recently I was on a Qantas flight to Sydney where my friend and colleague Neil Perry - Australia's own Top Chef - provides menu consultation for the first-class cabin. I ordered the fish, and it was delicious; Light, delicately seasoned, not remotely overcooked or rubbery. The fish had been prepped, cryovaced (sealed in an air-tight package,) and microwaved just before serving. Clearly Chef Perry - a superstar -- had faced his own version of this very same challenge, and nailed it. So, ridiculous as it may have seemed to some of our contestants, the idea of a microwaveable meal has real, professional application beyond reality TV. And - on a side note -- silly as any of these challenges may seem, at the end of the day I'd rather watch C-span than tune in to watch a bunch of chefs in an optimal environment cook "perfect" food each week. Our chefs face their challenges - the silly and the serious -- on an even playing field; the rest is up to them. The chefs who did well this week understood (as many of our chefs did not) that this was not so much a cooking challenge as a reheating challenge. The task was to prepare a dish that would survive refrigeration and reheat well in a microwave.

Harold was a case in point - he decided on a dish that would actually improve due to refrigeration (turning that obstacle into an advantage) and wouldn't suffer from reheating. His Thai soup was delicious. And by choosing Escolar, a fish with a nice, high fat content, Tiffani made sure her dish would reheat well without drying out. Despite suffering from the flu and a high fever, she threw herself into the challenge with characteristic focus and intelligence, and even managed to charm her guests, so I guess my words to her last week actually had an effect. Others didn't fare so well. I was genuinely surprised at Lisa's dried-out, overly-herbaceous chicken breast. Chicken breast is quick to cross that line between cooked well and over-cooked, so reheating it can be a disaster. Its mild flavor requires judicious seasoning and a light hand with dried herbs, which can taste medicinal if overused. And Lisa's timidity in the kitchen (she complained of not being able to get to the equipment she needed) was a poor excuse. While I really like and admire Lisa, I expected better. Stephen correctly assumed that the microwave would steam his dish nicely in its banana-leaf wrapper, but the proportions were off -- too much masa left his "fusion tamale" dry, and there was waaaay too much fusion fusing in that one little dish (Japanese shiso leaf with Mexican seasoning?). And once again, his typical condescension didn't go over well with his audience. Stephen seems to be missing a crucial bit of emotional intuitiveness, which could ultimately cost him despite his talent.

And Candice...where to begin? Eggs, the main ingredient in a quiche, overcook in an instant on the stove. In a microwave? Forget it. But the biggest problem was that of the crust. Baked goods don't hold up to microwaving, as even most novices know. Candice tried to say she was "taking a chance" with her quiche, as though it was an act of culinary daring. But she wasn't taking a chance with microwaveable quiche - she was simply making a bad choice. Candice wants to be taken seriously as a chef, but she is often the first person to point out her own youth and inexperience, unconsciously begging a 'pass' from her diners. Sorry, can't have it both ways. Thanks to our readers for their patience with punctuation and other typographical errors; While our blogs have been carefully edited for errors, transferring to HTML can cause character changes or lost punctuation. Bravo is working to correct the problem.

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