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A Classic Disaster

Padma Lakshmi speaks candidly about the chef's lack of imagination.

By Padma Lakshmi


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The Quickfire Challenge with guest judge Alfred Portale, chef and owner of Gotham Bar and Grill, was a simple challenge using scallops, crayfish, and conch. The contestants had to catch and scoop out shellfish in 30 seconds. I loved the dynamism that this challenge brought out in all the chefs. It was fun to see them try to scoop out as much shellfish as possible, and I'm glad to report that the women hefted out just as much loot from the tank as their male counterparts...and even more in Tre's case.

Shelling the fish, however, was an issue for Micah, who seemed to have no idea how to release the fish from their tough outer shells. Her conch salad was a failure because it lacked fish due to the fact that she probably could not shell enough in time, and the flavors just weren't there.

CJ's pan-roasted fruits de mer with shaved cauliflower with saffron paprika vinaigrette and olives was a complex dish, yet somehow the flavors all worked well together. Tre's shellfish poached in fish stock, butter, and olive oil with summer corn and grilled leek compote was lacking. There was not enough shellfish on the plate and too much corn; however, the corn was fantastic and had he incorporated both into one dish the corn would have helped the lack of shellfish and thus would have made the plate look more abundant. It is a shame because the flavors were there.

Brian's three rivers of wine, butter, garlic, and chives with clams, scallops, mussels, and crawfish was a perfect way to use all the shellfish and blend the flavors together harmoniously by keeping things simple. For having never worked with conch, the toast was delicious. Brian's plate also looked well put together and very pretty. It seemed to be the most complete dish. Camille's downfall was using tea as a flavoring agent. Tea is very strong and can hold up well next to duck for instance, but something as delicate as shellfish should not be overpowered by tea, which can be very herbal and overly aromatic.

Howie's delicious ceviche of conch, scallops, crayfish, and mussels with crispy plantain and greens was a creative idea with bold, tart flavors that highlighted the seafood being used. Brian won over Howie because of his thoughtfulness in using the elements given and the well-balanced yet simple flavors in all of his dishes. The reason Alfred thought Hung's croutons should have been smaller is because they themselves were very highly flavored and rich in butter. They were actually big wedges of garlic bread. The bread may have been for soaking up the coconut gravy in his seafood dish, but greasy garlic bread dipped in rich coconut sauce made for an overpoweringly flavored and fat saturated mouthful. Had his crouton not been so densely flavored, the proportion of bread to gravy would have worked.

The Elimination Challenge seemed straightforward enough but proved to create quite the dilemma for many of the chefs. Taking classic American comfort foods and making updated, modern healthy versions like meatloaf and tuna casserole may seem pedestrian, but can actually be inspiring cuisine to work from. Unfortunately, I as well as my colleagues were disappointed with some of the choices the chefs made in their decisions to recreate these classics, with the exception of Dale and Howie. Everyone else made some pretty poor renditions of these original favorites. I was surprised at how little they came up with. I thought it would really be a fun challenge. It seemed to stymie them all.

Sara M.'s dish did not even resemble Chicken a la King at all. Hung's skinless chicken marinated in yogurt was just OK. Casey's Ribeye Sloppy Joes were delicious but why wouldn't they be? After all, they were made of ribeye, which has the highest fat content. Lia could have made a beautiful Italian sausage with white Cannellini beans instead of the hard lentils she ended up with. Although CJ's dish lacked flavor, the tuile with flaxseeds may have been the best creation of the entire challenge.

Not enough imagination was put into the ideas or there was a great lack of focus, which put the nail in the coffin for Micah, who I was sad to see go, but also was a little relieved, since she had seemed to be struggling so much and had her daughter waiting at home. Howie and Dale were the only ones to play off of the classic dishes by putting a modern spin on them while keeping within the guidelines of the challenge -- to be healthy and low in cholesterol without tasting like boring health-food. In the end, while I thought Howie's dish was superb and I loved the slaw, I thought the effort and skill involved in preparing Dale's dish was at a much higher level.

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