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Come On, You Wanna Lei Me
It all comes down to Elia, Ilan, Sam, and Marcel. Lee Anne Wong on the final four.
Aloha. Welcome to the Big Island.
I had never been to Hawaii and was pretty excited when we touched down (even with lost luggage and 80% humidity). We spent several days at the Hilton Waikoloa getting ready for the arrival of the cast and crew, working with the staff at the Hilton, the Hawaii Visitor's Bureau, and the Department of Agriculture. There was a lot of work that needed to be done to set up for the actual shooting, which lasted roughly five days.
Let's talk about this episode. The one thing I did not get to see was the B-reel of the contestants packing their bags in their respective hometowns. (NY vs. Vegas again, baby!) It seems that they have all been practicing their skills and have put a lot of thought into the upcoming finale.
One of the new things production allowed them to do was take as much equipment and ingredients with them that would fit into their luggage (legally 210 lbs. as long as it was not perishable), and wow, did they bring a lot. Watching their reunion on the airplane, we see that the spirit of backstabbing has not quite died -- even with two months off. (I spoke too soon last week about the maturity part.) I can't really blame them though, six hours is a very long plane ride, but that's what iPods are for. I remember thinking how great it was that they were going to fly in on a helicopter into Waipio Valley. First of all, Waipio Valley is located on the Northern tip of the Big Island.
To drive down into the valley is an adventure unto itself. You need a vehicle with 4-wheel drive to drive down the side of a cliff. It is not only a very narrow road, but also steep with a winding slope of 45 degrees. Once you actually finish crawling your vehicle down the slope you have to drive through the woods (or should I say jungle) and through a river. We shot on a beautiful taro farm. I happen to love taro so it was nice to actually see how it is grown.
Working with Alan Wong and his team of chefs was also very exciting for me. I helped them to set up all of the traditional Hawaiian dishes and had the pleasure of chowing down on the leftovers. We all know about my love of pork, and Chef Wong's Kalua Pig was a soft, smoky, meaty delight, and quite frankly puts most of the barbecue I have ever had to shame. There was a wide variety of dishes, not all shown in this episode, such as tako luau (octopus and taro leaf stew), opihi on the half shell, seaweeds and kukui nut. It was feast for the eyes and stomach.
What is so amazing is the culture and history behind these traditional dishes. The blessing was a nice touch for everyone, and we had the production blessed the evening before when the crew arrived. It was very special and I can honestly say that both times it was as if I could feel the spirits of Hawaii running through my body. (I got a pretty serious case of the chills on both occasions.)
Building the outdoor kitchen was no small feat. For one, the Hilton Waikoloa is a massive property. Thankfully, I had the help of my A-team, Jeff and Sarah, who are chefs in the Islands, and were hired as my culinary assistants. We had to move all of the food product outdoors, make it look good and keep it fresh, and make sure the contestants had all of the equipment they would need, in addition to covering details such as electrical outlets, creating a water and ice source, and setting up a dishwashing area.
Watching them work was fun. I was slightly shocked to see that no one grabbed any of the local beef and pork. Other than Ilan, everyone opted for fish. What was also pretty shocking was the lack of local produce in their dishes, and the fact that not a single one of them used any fresh herbs to accent their food. Three poke dishes. 'Nuff said.
Let's start with Sam. I believe Sam to be the most mature cook out of all of them, in attitude and also in ability. His poke was flavorful and appealing to the eye, though I would have to agree with Tom that larger more precise cubes of fish would have been better. While his flavors were spot on, I think his decision to play it safe was what got him eliminated. It was not that his food was bad (it was quite good actually), it was the fact the Marcel's and Ilan's dishes were better. Sam's signatures, pickling the seabeans and combining the sweet and salty flavors of mascarpone and coconut with Hawaiian clay salt, were not enough to convince the judges to send him to the final two. I didn't stick around for Judges Table that night because I had to get up so early the next day, but I was VERY surprised to hear he was eliminated the next morning.
Elia's dishes were very tasty, but I think they lacked vision. Her poke, with all of the Mediterranean ingredients, is no longer poke. It becomes tartare or crudo. Also, the choice of peas, carrots, and red bell pepper in her lawalu was uninspiring. She could have used any of the fantastic local vegetables that we also had out on display and made it her own, maybe by putting the lemon confit in the lawalu to add acidity instead of having it overpower the tuna in the poke. She leans towards very simple and clean flavors, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for her for that (it takes a lot of discipline). Her 180 on Marcel, however, took me by surprise, and in the end only makes her look bitter. If the judges and guests were standing in front of me, I'd try to sell the hell out of my dishes too. Just let the man talk, if your food is better, then you have nothing to worry about. And if you are going to accuse someone of cheating, you'd better have proof.
Marcel's interpretations of the dishes were very good, and they were the judges' favorites at the end of the night. He deconstructed the ideas of the traditional dishes and distinctly made them his own. Over time that is the one thing I grew to respect about Marcel, the fact that he has a point of view with his food. If you were to line up his dishes next to everyone elses, you would know which one was his. While he is still a very young chef and has much to learn, his devotion and focus to his particular style of cooking is admirable. His poke with pineapple poi was good, but the lomi salmon with the tomato chili foam was a knockout. He put a lot of thought into his dishes and the judges took notice.
Ilan was my choice for the winner of the challenge. He distinctly combined two types of cuisine, Hawaiian and Spanish, and took a huge risk by using the taro leaf. The responses from the guests to his dish were mixed, to be honest, because the taro leaf could have used an extra half hour of cooking. But the fact that he used morcilla (dried blood sausage) that he had brought with him combined with the squid and taro leaf, really shows that he understood the challenge of showcasing his cuisine through the Hawaiian cooking techniques. Now what is haupia you ask? Haupia is a traditional Hawaiian dessert made from the thickest, most delicious coconut milk I have ever had. It is sweetened with sugar and firmed up with cornstarch. Think of it as coconut soft jello. While Ilan's use of saffron is almost as abusive as Marcel's use of foam, the dish he made was delicious, and you too can learn how to make it this week on my webisode.
Elia is a very strong cook. I know how badly she wanted to win this competition, and it stinks to come so close. She had spoken with me afterwards and I remember telling her that she had nothing to be ashamed of. The fact that she was the only female and had made it that far was tremendous and she should be very proud of herself. I hope that she has gained some perspective since then, and uses this experience to fine tune her style and cooking. It's a glass half full kind of thing, and she's got the skill and potential to become a force in the fine dining industry.
It was good to see Sam's exit interview. I think his positive outlook is great and he knows that regardless of whether he won or not, Top Chef was an experience that would not only boost his career but help to focus his cuisine. Sam is a great guy and a whole lot of fun to hang out with. I hope that we'll be able to cook together this summer, and I know that regardless of where he is he will be enthusiastically making his mark. So get ready for the finale. It's a chef's dream challenge.