Most of you know that I work at The French Culinary Institute in New York. I was super excited when I found out we would be filming there. Not only did it make it easy for me production-wise, but I was so happy to be back amongst my coworkers and friends after being in Miami for two months.
The Quickfire was great fun. The same day I flew into Newark (the day before the actual Continental challenge happened), we scouted a bunch of locations and then I drove into the city with one of our producers to meet the chefs at Le Cirque. The initial idea was that the chef in the kitchen (the oh-so-nice Jason Kallert) would show the contestants step by step how to make Sirio's favorite dish. Before we made any decisions, Jason and the chefs cooked Margit and me several courses, including the bass en papillote. I didn't know what I was eating at the time having not read the menu, but as a chef, whenever I am trying something unfamiliar, I tend to take my time and try to dissect the flavors, textures, and actual components of the dish. Slowly I discussed the techniques with Chef Jason and talked about the flavors and ingredients, many of which I was accurate in identifying.
I deemed that that would be too easy for chefs of their caliber to have show and tell with the chef and we should make the challenge more difficult by letting them eat it, and then asking one question a piece about the dish. Not all of the questions made the edit but I remember that some were smarter and more to the point than others. Either way, we filmed on a Friday night in one of New York's most celebrated restaurants. Sirio, should you ever meet him, is quite the charmer. One by one, the contestants cooked under the watchful eyes of Sirio and Padma as they both sat at the chef's table in the kitchen. So that you all know, Dale was the only one who washed his leeks before cooking them. They all did a great job, though, considering the task. I did feel slightly bad for Sara at the end because she had to cook her dish as the second seating landed around 8:30 p.m., which meant the kitchen was at its busiest. All things said, even with a quiet kitchen, I am not sure she would have made it anyway as the fish was completely raw in the middle and would have needed close to an extra eight minutes of cook time. Hung won through technique and speed, deservedly so.
We had discussed in Miami what the final challenge would be to get the last four to Aspen. Under the assumption that we would be at the FCI and one of our deans would be the judges, I thought very carefully about this. In past seasons we had given the contestants the most luxurious ingredients to work with. Considering that we would be at one of the premier cooking schools n the country, I thought it only fitting that maybe we pare it down and make the challenge entirely about technique and flavor, hence the chicken, onion, and potato. Having graduated from the culinary program at The FCI, these three ingredients were one of the cornerstones of learning classic French technique, and how to coax the best flavors and proper results from these deceptively ordinary ingredients.
As the Executive Chef of Events at The FCI, one of my jobs during the past five years has been to coordinate the chef demonstration program. I have always admired our deans, and it has been my privilege and pleasure to work with all of them on a regular basis, assisting them with their demonstrations and special events. Alain Sailhac has been with the school for over 20 years and actually used to be the head chef at Le Cirque. Jacques Torres, otherwise known as Mr. Chocolate -- and with good reason -- is our Dean of Pastry Studies and an absolute delight to work with (and also used to be the pastry chef at Le Cirque). I refer to him as "the Magic Man" regarding his amazing talents and pastry skills. Chef Cesare Casella is the newest member of our family, as the Chef/Owner of Maremma in NYC and our Dean of Italian Studies, the newest program at the school. Then there's Nils Noren, our VP of Culinary, who actually used to be my chef at Aquavit. He's the man who taught me much of what I know, and I am thrilled that he now is heading up all of our Culinary Programs. Dorothy is our fearless leader and owner of the school. She is a visionary, with a true love of all things food. Having been part of celebrating of our 20 year anniversary back in '04, I hold a true sense of pride with our school and what we are doing. Cooking has become immensely popular as a career, and young chefs need the proper training and techniques to succeed in this vicious business.
All of this leads up to one of my very favorite chefs of all time ... my hero ... a mentor ... Andre Soltner. For those of you who have never heard of him, Chef Andre successfully ran Restaurant Lutece in NYC for over 30 years and brought classical French cuisine to the forefront in America. This man is like the grandfather I never had. I absolutely love cooking side by side with him, and he cooks like no other. Whether it's Salmon en Croute or Alsatian Potato Pie, there is a rustic yet sophisticated and heartwarming way about his food, and every time I work with him I am his apt pupil. Not only is he over 70 years old, he actually still does all of his own work when cooking for a demo or event. What is so great about him too is sometimes I'll be cooking next to him and making something else for an event and he'll ask me what I'm doing and we'll discuss various techniques -- bottom line being that he is one of the greatest chefs of our generation, but he is still inquisitive. It serves as inspiration for me, as I too hope to be still cooking as actively when I am his age. Best part of my day is when he asks me to cook lunch for him. He loves Chinese food and I once taught him how to make fried rice, which he now makes all of the time.
So enough gushing, let's talk about the challenge. We took the contestants to the Union Square Greenmarket, one of my favorite places. They had an hour to shop and managed to get some great ingredients. Hung had an extra 30 minutes of cook time, which he took full advantage of. His dish was near perfect, outside of the heavy pommes dauphin. Sara, for some strange reason, went with another couscous dish. Her chicken was very pink (at least the camera plate was), and though the dish was pretty to look at it was definitely under-seasoned. Dale's dish, while tasty, suffered from too much going on, and he forgot his sauce. Ambition gets the best of us at times, but Dale narrowly missed getting the ax. Brian's dish was extremely unattractive, but very tasty. My main beef with it was that all you could taste was the pheasant sausage. The chicken was completely lost amongst the strong flavors of the sausage. Casey's dish was also good, and I won't hold the technicality of the name "Coq au Vin" against her. Andre knows all there is to know about French Cuisine so I am sure that is why he made the point about the chicken and the rooster. If you get the chance to try real coq au vin with the old bird, definitely do. It's got a much gamier and flavorful quality about it and is absolutely delectable in a red wine braise.
I'm glad Hung won this challenge. Hung is one of the stronger contenders for the title of Top Chef and the sheer simplicity of his dish really won over our deans, who've probably had chicken a thousand different ways by now. Sara had unfortunately reached the end of her rope, and there's really no way the judges could ignore the raw chicken. Last I heard, Sara wanted to move to NY and I hope to see her soon. I'm in Chicago about to start filming Season 4, so seeing this episode was a nice reminder of home and all of the wonderful people I work with. Hope you all enjoyed the episode as much as I did. Until next time!