Hangin' On

Marcel Vigneron on what it takes to get to the finale.

I'm writing this blog from an airplane and haven't slept in over 32 hours, so when all of you nitpicking English majors want to correct my grammar, just keep that in mind. I would also like to add the fact that I am single-handedly writing this blog. There are no PAs, agencies, publicists, ghost bloggers or anything like that; it's just me, my misspelling, and an attempt at conveying my point of view.

So, is it me or is this season getting better and better through its progression? Not only is it improving from the culinary aspect, but also the competition is beginning to get fierce and therefore the drama is starting to develop, which as we all know makes for much more interesting TV.

I loved this Quickfire challenge for several reasons, but first and foremost: Le Cirque and Sirio Maccioni -- need I say more?! No, but obviously I will let you know why this challenge meant so much to me. You see, I recently had the opportunity to meet and cook for Sirio in the Dominican Republic at his newly acquired restaurant El Pescator at Casa de Campo. He offered me a position as the chef de cuisine working for his Executive Chef Paulie Scordino (whom I know quite well and have the utmost respect for). Unfortunately, I had to decline, although I have decided to stay on as a part-time consultant. Therefore, I too have had the opportunity to cook and discuss food for and with this fabulous man whom is the epitome of "style, grace, and elegance". Furthermore I am quite familiar with how high his quality standards are.

So I wasn't surprised to see that in this setting of Le Cirque New York with the challenge of recreating a classic French dish that my boy Hung seemed to really excel. He asked poignant and intelligent questions, not to mention busted out a solid dish that Sirio applauded. Although he obviously wasn't the only one -- Casey also proved that she has what it takes to hang in the kitchen when the heat is on. As for the rest of the crew, I wasn't too impressed.

Sara's performance was a disaster from the get-go. She asked amateur questions like "Do you steam the potato first?" She wasn't able to adapt to Le Cirque's well-equipped kitchen, had no sense of timing, and after all that served a raw piece of fish! I agree with Hung that this challenge was not rocket science! I mean they got to sit down, enjoy the dish with Sirio, and discuss it with the chef. All of their Mise en Place was laid out for them, there was ample time, and they had one of the best kitchens in New York at their disposal. I mean that's a gimme -- come on -- everyone should have slammed it out of the park! So you can imagine my surprise when I saw Dale fumbling with the French Mandolin, in Le Cirque of all places, and he served a piece of under-seasoned fish to Sirio (how embarrassing). Then Malarkey, the "fish chef", served what looked like a burnt peace of fish that wasn't fully wrapped.

Maybe it's just me, but I like the fact that Hung didn't reveal his techniques to the other cheftestants -- it is a competition after all. Dale can imply that "Hung has no heart, and that he is a different kind of chef". Well he's right on one accord -- the latter of the two -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it comes to comparing him to some of his competition. Bedsides Dale asking him how to cook the dish, which is again embarrassing for Dale, it kind of reminds me of the dunce at school who would ask the brainiac for answers to the SATs.

Now on to the Elimination: This very basic challenge sounds extremely simple, but therein lays its complexity. Not only does it take a highly skilled chef to take such ordinary ingredients and elevate them to a higher level, but the contestants are facing an extremely intimidating panel of heavy hitters with refined palates who know food extremely well!

So let's start at the top and work our way down. Congratulations to Hung for his third win in a row. His dish was simple yet refined and elegant, but yet it had a humble quality to it that really seemed to allow the ingredients to sing in harmony together. He also showcased independence and several different techniques from a vast culinary repertoire.

That having been said, I would like to cover something for those of you who don't know. Sous-Vide is a cooking technique that consists of vacuum packaging your food in a hermetically sealed heat-proof plastic bag, thereby allowing you to eliminate oxygen, to have total control over your cooking time/temperature, and lastly to seal in vital flavors, aromas, and nutrients. To a chef it is very much like any other cooking technique such as sauteing, frying, poaching, etc., so it made me laugh when Casey tried to knock him for utilizing the same cooking technique more than once. I wanted to say, "How many times have you braised during the competition?" I don't care how good of a cook you are or how many tricks you have up your sleeve, if you can't utilize your repertoire you might as well be tying a hand behind your back. Also I must admit, I am a wee bit jealous of this season's chefs because we didn't have a cryovac machine -- the BTUs on a GE range are far superior than that god-awful Kenmore Elite Pro (That's right I said it), not to mention I had to sneak up to a rooftop in downtown LA to get away, while they are basking in penthouse hot tubs. I could probably go on and on, but those are just a few of the things that make me green.

Casey's coq au vin looked like a very delicious dish that frankly I would probably want to devour immediately upon having it placed in front of me. I like the way that she, and Brian too for that matter, chose to use ramps (wild seasonal onions) from the greenmarket. This decision allowed for them to really accentuate and play off of the onion aspect of the dish. I also like the fact that she drew inspiration from her family and her childhood. This came through in her food, and it's almost like the judges could taste exactly where she was coming from in this dish. Brian's peasant's pie was very rustic and obviously not refined, which is perfectly fine. It seemed to lack in elegance but he obviously made up for that in taste which is prominent in the hierarchy of food critiquing.

Apparently Dale never got the memo to never to do duos, and the funny thing was his dish wasn't even a duo at all. Just because he used both the breast and the thigh with two different cooking methods and two different mashed potatoes (Oh la la) doesn't constitute a duo or duet as he called it at all. It was a pour concept and, despite what Tom said, a poor execution. I mean he forgot a component, and did anyone see the onions on his dish or did he forget those too?

Last and least Sara, please don't use the fact that you are not classically trained as an excuse. Some of the best chefs in this industry come from the school of hard knocks. But that may explain why you had so many culinary oxymorons on your plate: confit of onions (impossible), Israeli couscous risotto (what the f--- does that mean). The only thing done right was the potatoes and she didn't even call them gauffrettes. Well that's all for this time. I look forward to next week in Aspen; it should be an interesting episode, especially considering the French classically-trained chef Eric Ripert is the guest chef. I am also quite curious to see who will be in the finale. Are we going to have our first female Top Chef? Is this one going to go to the immigrant with the American dream, the "big gay chef", or will it be Malarkey? Who knows -- watch what happens!

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