I don’t really have that much to say about the Quickfire challenge, as it was pretty self-explanatory: Make toast. People in California really love fancy toast. That said, people in New York seem to really like fancy toast these days too. It’s one of those dishes no one thinks about and then all of a sudden is new again. And super trendy. Truth is, you can do so many things with toast to make it interesting and delicious. It was a harder challenge than it appeared. I was sad Amar went home that day, simply because I wasn’t part of the challenge. When they told me the results I was shocked.
The elimination challenge was particularly nostalgic for many reasons. First, because we were back in San Francisco where we shot our very first season and second, because we were not just able to shoot it at Fleur de Lys, the site of the very first Quickfire, but also because Fleur de Lys closed right before we shot this season and Chef Hubert generously allowed us to cook one last meal in his kitchen for the episode, for a pretty spectacular group of diners I might add. Fleur de Lys was one of the greatest restaurants in the country for many years and Hubert Keller has been an integral member of the Top Chef family since the show began. Not only was he the judge of our very first Quickfire, but he went on to be a finalist in the first season of Top Chef Masters, where he did the most incredible job. He was then a co-judge with me on Top Chef Just Desserts for two seasons and has returned to Top Chef for countless finales and other challenges over the years. To be able to honor him in this way was not just important I think for all of us in the industry, but for Top Chef in particular. Not to mention the fact that he is an exceptional human being all around and so is his wife Chantal. They ran that restaurant together like a force of nature for many, many years. So, there we were, back at Fleur de Lys for Top Chef, ten years later to celebrate them. Except this time we didn’t let him in the kitchen.
Our last few chefs had been cooking really well to this point. But that night, perhaps because of the pressure, because of the seriousness and the grand nature of the challenge, they didn’t all follow through as successfully as they have in the last couple of challenges. Let’s start with Jeremy, who won that night. His food was absolutely beautiful. It was the most concise and refined of the four dishes. He was smart to cook fish, which allowed him to control his timing better than the others, and he layered the dish with a lot of technique and great flavor. The dish showed off his skill as a chef as well as his understanding of classic French technique, a nod to the food Chef Hubert cooked so well at Fleur de Lys for so many years. Marjorie had the next best dish of the night, although it was slightly was flawed. She roasted lamb with artichoke puree and artichoke barigoule, a delicious shout out not just to French technique but also to the prestine produce of California. But her lamb wasn’t cooked properly and the dish suffered for it. It felt rushed and you could tell how stressed she had been in the kitchen.
The decision of who to eliminate came down to Carl or Isaac. There were an extra number of people at the judges table that evening. In addition to Padma, Tom, Emeril and I, we had Hubert with us of course. Isaac’s duck, although very rich and exciting, lacked technique and refinement. It was overcooked so the meat was dried out. Carl tried to accomplish a dish in three hours, which usually takes 24 hours or more when done properly. Though I understand his ambition, I think his ego got in the way here. He convinced himself that he could make it work, but there’s a reason you don’t rush certain techniques. There’s a reason some things take time and will only be successful if you respect their process. There’s a science to how you cook foie gras for a terrine in order for the seasoning to penetrate the layers of fat in the dish. You just can’t make it happen in three hours. It needs to sit overnight, it needs to rest and it needs to cook through thoroughly, gently and slowly. I would much rather eat dry duck that is fully cooked through and seasoned well than undercooked foie gras, which lacks seasoning and had an off texture. The rest of his dish was actually beautiful – the strawberries and black pepper were smart, thoughtful accompaniments to the liver. But the foie should have been the star and it wasn’t. So after much debate we decided it was Carl’s turn to go home. He’s an excellent cook. He’s smart and creative, with great training and impressive drive; he’s curious, strong willed and eager to learn. All these things will serve him well in the future, wherever he ends up.
Meanwhile, Isaac, Marjorie and Jeremy are off to Las Vegas.