If you watched the show last week, you know that I was unhappy about what all of the chefs put out -- vocally so. That talk I gave was meant to send a message. Clearly, the chefs got it. The food was, for the most part, much improved. It was much more imaginative, and the cooking of it was far better. It was all far more on par with what I expect from chefs competing on Top Chef, which shows me that these chefs are capable of rising to the challenge. Having stepped up their game, hopefully they will continue to keep it stepped up.
I was glad to see chefs tackling game, like elk. Elk, as with all game, is very lean. Game typically has fifty percent less fat than farm-raised meats, which is a double-edged sword: the leaner meat makes it a healthy choice, but one that’s tricky to cook. It should be kept rare, and it usually helps to wrap the meat in fatback or bacon or something to keep the outside moist, too.
It was clear to all the judges that of all the chefs who had flaws in conception and/or execution, it was Eliza who would be going home. Her elk was basically OK -- a little grainy, but OK -- but Eliza really got sent home for the whole dish. Biggest problem? Those carrots. They were a mystery to me. I just don’t know how a person could possibly try to make them the way she did. They were dry, cooked through yet somehow still hard, as though she were trying to make carrot leather. They were just terrible.
Contrast her dish with Brooke’s, which was really, really great. Talk about a risky dish -- on paper, that dish would make you ask, “WHY?”… and yet in actuality it was so good. Shellfish and meat do have a natural affinity for each other -- pork and shellfish are commonly seen together, and, in fact, I do a lot with that combination in my restaurants. Lamb was a somewhat unexpected selection for the meat, but it all just worked. The lamb wasn’t overly “lamby,” the rice was a great foil for the squid, the textures worked incredibly well together, and, all in all, everything was in balance. It was great to see Brooke go all out and show us her inventiveness as a chef.Whereas Danyele’s nervousness brings up a point I’ve mentioned before that’s worth restating. There are a great many chefs who, while terrific chefs, would not fare well in this competition. In this kind of competition, where there is very little time to come up with a dish and cook it, you have to commit 100 percent to the choice you make, only tweaking it should you find along the way that you need to fix something that just isn’t working. If you start second-guessing yourself, your food becomes unfocused. If you’re not confident in selling it, the food reflects this lack of sureness. I usually find in this competition that a chef’s first instincts are his or her best instincts, which is why experience gives a chef a leg up: the more experience one has, the greater an instinct one develops about how foods go together… and the faster one will be at arriving at a smart dish for any given challenge. This competition bends itself towards someone who is very comfortable thinking on the fly and moving quickly.
And so just because we send someone home, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she isn’t a good chef; it may just mean that he or she isn’t good at working under the unique pressures of this particular competition. The chef may be less experienced or may simply be one of those chefs who needs to spend time working through his or her dishes… which there simply isn’t time to do in this competition. There are a lot of great players in pro tennis who just may never win a grand slam tournament. They’re still great players. I’m hoping Danyele can move past her nervousness. We’ll see…
Fun fact, by the way: I first met Chris Pratt during the filming of The Five-Year Engagement. Chris played Jason Siegel’s best friend, who becomes a big chef, kind of by accident, and lands on Top Chef. Emeril, Padma, and I had a ball filming the scene, which we all basically ad-libbed all the way through… but it wound up on the cutting room floor. Good thing we didn’t quit our day jobs.