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Everyone's on Fire

Lee Anne Wong reveals behind-the-scenes dish from the most explosive episode of the season.

By Lee Anne Wong

... It's not the Fat Ass Snackmaster Smackdown, but the taste test is a fun challenge that most chefs are intrigued by, or at least our egos are. I think I recall my 4 out of 20, though our culinary producer at the time gave us some pretty difficult and obscure ingredients to identify. It's extremely humbling once you realize how much we use our eyes to identify certain ingredients and even the most discerning palates can make a mistake. guest_405_02_320x240.jpg

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

I developed the list for the challenge. Of the 15 ingredients tasted, I had 25 ingredients on hand for comparison tasting. The producers and I narrowed the list down for time/production purposes because we had to film each contestant with their set of tastings, which took up roughly three hours to get through all 12 contestants. The biggest difficulty in finding items that would satisfy the criteria is whether or not price was equal to quality, in which case, not always, so I'll leave the prices out of it below. I actually had go through the list with Ming Tsai to assure him that there was a noticeable difference between the lower quality and higher quality ingredients on my list. Here's a breakdown of what you saw:
Imitation Breakfast Syrup vs. Real Maple Syrup
Generic Sliced Bacon vs. Double Applewood Smoked Berkshire Slab Bacon
Farmed Salmon vs. Wild Atlantic Salmon
Imitation Crab Pieces vs. Jumbo Lump Crab Meat
Hershey Bar vs. Valrhona Chocolate
Generic Supermarket Unsalted Butter vs. Plugra
Deli Cheddar vs. English Cheddar
Generic Soy Sauce vs. Small Batch Artisan Soy Sauce
Boxed Sake vs. Junmai Daiginjo Sake
Lumpfish Roe vs. American Sturgeon Caviar
Generic Commercial Pork Chop vs. Organic Kurabuta Pork Chop
Generic Commercial Chicken Breast vs. Organic, Free Range Chicken Breast
Cheap Parmesan Cheese vs. Parmigiano Reggiano
Supermarket Pate vs. Country Pate with Black Truffles
Generic Olive Oil vs. Small Batch Artisan Olive Oil Shauna was convinced my list was too easy until I made her take the test blindfolded. We tested out some of the challenges ahead of time, and usually I'm the guinea pig. Like when I had to filet a fish blindfolded. That one never came to fruition due to legal putting the kibosh on the whole idea. Anyways, the ones that were missed most often were what I considered to be the most obvious ones: the caviar I found for $4.99 at room temperature in the condiment aisle vs. American sturgeon. The imitation crab vs. jumbo lump crabmeat. My scientist friend Dave says there's some kind of chemical in the imitation crabmeat that is both convincing as crab flavor but also addictive, kind of like MSG, or umami flavor. For me, not so much.

Most of them fared well. Antonia won immunity, however, which becomes a key point in the elimination. We worked with the Macy's Culinary Council (of which Ming Tsai is a part) on participating in their gala Meals on Wheels benefit, held at the Macy's in downtown Chicago. The event included a walk around tasting with over 20 local and national chefs and restaurateurs, followed by a multi-course dinner for 300 people in the Oak Room. I ended up having to do a bit of math regarding the seating arrangements, as each team was asked to create 80 portions of their first course, every table had a different number of guests, and the tables were divided by elements. I also met with the captains of the wait staff and each team to review how service would run. The primary challenge for each team, besides creating an outstanding plate of food, is to create a dish that will stand up to having 80 portions plated at once. This was one of Team Water's problems, though not it's biggest in my opinion.

There is an interesting division with teams, and it was apparent even to me that right away certain individuals would not fare well together. The idea of using the elements for inspiration was great and it forced some of our chefs to try to figure out the obvious, and the not-so-obvious. Just because your salmon is poached in a water bath does not automatically qualify it as a winning dish. Yes, the Blais charm is wearing off. And besides, hadn't we seen salmon and faux caviar in the last challenge? For the love of god, leave the tapioca alone. Shannon and I tasted a plate. It was akin to eating a fishy creamsicle. When you poach a fatty fish such as salmon sous vide at a low temperature, you end up with what could be interpreted as "meltingly tender" or " just mush". For those of you curious what he's using, that's an immersion recirculator, a piece of scientific lab equipment that keeps water in constant motion and at a constant temperature. It's a tool that has found its way into many professional kitchens as of late, and Richard brought his with him, though this was not the best application for the tool.

Team Fire can't make up their minds, and Lisa's not feeling good about this, that, and the other but she can't articulate exactly what is bothering her so she just complains for the sake of complaining (I don't think I've ever heard someone bitch constantly the way she does. Lucky for her she's a good cook.) Come to me with suggestions and solutions, otherwise shut up. Despite their differences, Dale, Lisa, and Stephanie manage to pull together a pretty tasty dish. It held up well also because the dish, while good hot, was just as good at room temperature: the pickled chilies, spicy glazed shrimp, and well, I could eat a bacon popsicle if I had to. Point being it was a good dish, and bacon will always save the day.

The "Ducks Fly" dish made me cringe purely for its logistics. The duck was cold and over rested, and the skin was undercooked, leaving the fat unrendered. To serve it as it should have been served, duck needs to be timed perfectly in terms of cooking, resting, slicing, portioning, and plating. Plus all of the other components you have to put on the plate. The salad was "ehh" and the shot glass on the plate for 80 people was just ill-conceived. We had several accidents on the way to the table with shot glasses tipping over and breaking, or spilling the "pomerini" all over the plate.

And lastly, poor Team Earth. I thought at first glance their team's carpaccio dish looked delicious. Then we sampled a plate. Shannon and I basically uttered at the same time, "Needs salt." Underseasoning is a very amateur mistake and at this level there should be no reason why something isn't seasoned correctly. The worst part was the fact that the beef itself was not dressed or seasoned, just dry, sliced beef that stuck to the plate (not even a brush of olive oil!). I'm not sure I would've sent Zoi home, as they were all equally at fault for the failings of the dish. However, I'm not entirely sure I would've let Antonia have much of a say, considering she had immunity. Spike was right (for once) about her refusal to make soup. Butternut Squash soup may have sounded a little pedestrian, but the concept of serving a soup would've made their dish and their service a lot more manageable.

Richard also speaks of compromising quality when having to serve as many plates as they did, but it was 80 out of 300 potential plates and the fact that Team Fire pulled it off should leave no room for excuses. Rather than fall victim to the pitfalls of plating a large party, create a dish that is going to work for this kind of situation. It should be easy to plate, it should not have a million little garnishes all over the plate, there should definitely not be a shot glass on the plate (especially when the wait staff has to walk 1000 feet to the dining room), think about the temperature of your ingredients and the integrity and structure of your dish (will it hold up on the way to the table?)We got to witness the first batch of serious animosity between the contestants. I usually don't stick around for stew room and Judges' Table because most of the time the culinary team has an early call time the next day to set up the next episode's Quickfire. However, our field and story producers have a dry erase board in the production office to which they leave story notes at the end of each night, detailing what happens during the challenge, stew room, Judges' Table, and interview. The notes pinpoint the highlights and drama that occur, and much to my amusement the next morning I walked in and read "Antonia and Spike get into screaming match. Dale yells at Lisa for being a bitch. Zoi gets sent home. Jen pissed and throwing furniture." Or something like that. If you have any doubts, I'm telling you now, the producers don't make the story lines, the contestants do. We don't fake these situations and we certainly don't put words in their mouths. In the heat of competition the drama evolves naturally, as I've always said. Juicy content, all for your viewing pleasure.

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