Popcorn and Truffles

Popcorn and Truffles

Tom Colicchio was not happy with this week's outcome. He reveals why.

Well folks, we're down to the wire now. With only four chefs left, the level of scrutiny on each has ramped up, leaving very little room for error. Even the smallest stumble can decide the contest.

But before I get into it, I'd like to say this: I wasn't at all happy with the outcome of tonight's show. I'm not even going to try to lie about it.

All was fine in the Quickfire. I thought the challenge of having each of the chefs rework a familiar junk food was a great idea. While a major goal of any chef is to be original, sometimes that involves reinterpreting old favorites -- classic or otherwise. To do this well demands some knowledge of historic cuisine, the confidence to experiment, and a healthy sense of fun.

Harold demonstrated all of the above with his Ecuadoran ceviche, garnished with a popcorn cake. Drawing from his knowledge of South American cuisine, where popcorn is a frequent ingredient, he created a dish that was refined and delicious, with clean and authentic flavors. Tiffani did the same, imaginatively reworking the classic low-rent corndog with chorizo and duck sausage and a side of hearty, dark beer. Lee Anne pureed shrimp and scallops into a mouse, and stuffed the mixture into sausage casing to make a memorable hotdog, garnished with spicy asian mustard and lotus chips. I thought it was great. All three were working on an imaginative plane, and backing it up with strong technique.

Dave, on the other hand, failed to impart any creativity or whimsy into his tired seafood nachos. His frenetic mindset showed itself in his cooking style: Even with the least complicated dish, he was frantic and disorganized, and his finished dish demonstrated a lack of fresh ideas.

The Quickfire challenge, while not granting immunity, was intended to be taken into consideration during judging of the Elimination Challenge. Sadly, it didn't happen that way.

The chefs were driven to Napa Valley to cook for some of the region's most important chefs and one outstanding vintner - John Shafer, father of my good friend, Doug Shafer. They were instructed to prepare a dish that highlighted black truffles and the amazing 2001 Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet - a wine whose extraordinary flavors and limited allocation made it an instant collector's item when it first hit the market.

Each competitor received $250 for ingredients (a good sum, considering the wine and truffles were not part of the budget) and use of Copia's Julia Child kitchen - a state of the art facility named after one of my culinary heroes. Outside of Copia's kitchen is a magnificent herb and vegetable garden - itself a source of inspiration. Harold, Tiffani, Lee Anne and Dave wasted no time getting out there to pick ingredients which I was happy to see (some of my best cooking has been inspired by walking through gardens) and Harold, despite feeling lousy, was practically buoyant at the idea of cooking for chefs - no kids, socialites or junk food in sight.

A quick word about black truffles, fungal cousins of the wild mushroom, but a breed unto themselves; Black truffles are prized for their earthy, funky aroma and nutty flavor. They hail primarily from the southwest of France, and were traditionally sniffed out by pigs (lately harvesters have switched to dogs, since the pigs also liked to eat them.) The truffle's short growing season and arbitrary growth pattern makes it a highly prized ingredient that can run well over a thousand dollars a pound. Every chef I know loves to work with truffles. I love to shave them over simply prepared risotto or pasta, spoon black truffle- vinaigrette over rare steak, or store a truffle overnight in an airtight container with eggs for a New Years' breakfast with my family. The trick is not to overdo the dish or mask the aroma - let the truffle be the star of the show.

I stopped by the chef's house the night before we left for Napa and did my best to convey this without coming right out and saying it. I had actually shopped that day for ingredients with the plan of surprising the four of them with a home-cooked meal, but production nixed the idea at the eleventh hour; they felt doing so may have encouraged the chefs to jump in and help, possibly biasing my judgment the following day. Instead, we spent the evening chatting over a bottle of wine which gave me a chance to really appreciate each of these talented people.

Early the next morning the chefs went to work, and later in the day we sat with my Napa valley colleagues and prepared to taste.

Tiffani started us off with a dish of seared lamb loin, cauliflower puree, and truffle & foie gras-stuffed gnocchi. The dish was big on flavor and well executed, however some felt that the cauliflower brought out too much acid in the wine. I would have liked to see more textural contrast; while the gnocchi were decadent and the puree was delicious, together they made for too much soft food on the plate.

Next up was Harold with a great dish of roast lamb loin, sunchoke-creamed spinach, and sauteed chanterelle mushrooms with a black truffle sauce. Doug Keane, from Cyrus restaurant, pointed out that the mushrooms were gritty, and Lisa Doumani, of Terra, felt that while the dish worked nicely with the wine, the truffles were not well-integrated. Overall, though, the flavors were clean and bright, and everything was skillfully executed.

I was busy shooting off my big mouth about too much lamb when Lee Anne appeared to introduce her efforts - our third lamb dish of the night. In typical Lee Anne fashion, she stayed professional, and presented her dish of crusted loin of lamb, butternut squash and truffle risotto, braised treviso with mushrooms and cherry/red wine demiglace.

Lee Anne's lamb was a bit overcooked, but the real issue was that the dish was too busy. It would have worked nicely with two, maybe three, of the flavors but everything together felt chaotic, and the truffles were lost in the mix. James McDevitt, chef of Restaurant Budo, pointed out another flaw of the dish: Lee Anne's use of truffle oil, and I agreed. I'm not a fan of the stuff: It's like artificial vanilla extract - something you'd never choose over the real thing. Truffle oil was overkill, and the fake truffle flavor it imparted overwhelmed the genuine article. Lee Anne allowed insecurity to creep up on her, and it showed on the plate.

Enter Dave. In the past, his food has often been characterized by a lack of vision, and plodding technique. That was definitely the case here, with his truffle and cognac macaroni & cheese with beef filet and collard greens. But through happy accident, his was the dish that best picked up and integrated the flavors of the truffle (heavy cream will do that). I found Dave's hand-wringing presentation unprofessional and was unimpressed by his silly spiel about chocolate and wine. But Dave had two things going for him.

1. He didn't cook lamb.

2. On their day off, chefs don't want to eat 'restaurant' food. Frankly, after long days of fancy ingredients and elaborate cooking, our weary palates crave something mundane and homey. Like macaroni and cheese.

And his was good. Not excellent. It didn't require a hell of a lot of skill, and certainly no finesse or originality. The accompanying filet of beef felt like an afterthought. But it was basic, it wasn't marred by truffle oil, and it tasted of comfort and familiarity. And it accomplished the goals of the challenge - the dish highlighted the flavor of the truffles and John Shafer felt it worked best with the wine. Thus after a season of mostly generic and uninspired cooking, Dave - the weakest remaining hitter on the team - stood up in the 9th inning and sent one home. It was his Aaron Boone moment. Harold also did well, despite the gritty mushrooms - the chefs recognized his skill and the nuance of his choices. Which left Tiffani and Lee Anne. Gail, Katie and I were sad because in our hearts we knew that both women belonged in the top three, but we were obliged to respect the guest judges' decision. Tiffani has had a string of successes, and has beaten her competition through sheer talent, hard work and force of will. Lee Anne has been consistent and often inspired. She has shown leadership, organization, and solid technique. And yet one of them had to go.

I want to take a moment here to discuss Tiffani's controversial "attitude." While she and I disagreed about the kid challenge weeks ago, I never held it against her - Tiffani was willing to voice what others on her team clearly felt. While she could be tough on people, I never saw her criticize anyone else for sport or out of spite. She made enemies because she was brusque, opinionated, and unwilling to give an inch in her pursuit of the title of Top Chef. Would her toughness and determination have been denigrated in a man of similar talent? Do male chefs get criticized for being demanding and relentless? Is it possible that our distaste for competitive women keeps them out of leadership roles? Or that our preference for easygoing women over strong, outspoken ones clouds our judgment of their talent? It's worth thinking about. In the end, we made our decision based on the dish; Lee Anne didn't lose because she was the third person to serve us lamb. Tonight was the night she faltered, plain and simple. If I had had my way, based on overall performance to date, we would have sent Dave packing and Lee Anne would have joined Tiffani and Harold in Las Vegas. But even without the title of Top Chef, I know Lee Anne will continue to do well in the culinary world - she is a terrific person, a hard worker, and a talented chef. I like to see nice people finish first...who doesn't? But given the choice, diners would rather pay for great over nice. With Harold, Tiffani and Dave remaining, we'll see who has what it takes to be great in Vegas.

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