First things first. I certainly do not claim to be a die-hard football fan. In fact, in the spirit of full disclosure, this was my very first football game, ever. I am from Canada and although I spent many years of my youth cheering from the bleachers at various hockey arenas, I never had the chance to participate in the full American experience that is the pre-game tailgate party. Regardless of my lack of football knowledge, I was still totally psyched to meet William "The Refrigerator" Perry (yes, we did have TV in Canada), and had no problem separating the good game food from the bad. Let me assure you, in this week's episode there were plenty of both!
The challenge was fairly straightforward: Cook a great tailgating dish for up to 80 Chicago Bears fans before the game. Now, I know what you are all going to say: that being a messy chef, like our friend Mark was this week, is a far worse offense than anything Ryan may have prepared. True, Mark's station was a bit of a mess and he seemed especially disorganized at the game site, but his food was appropriate and he worked within the confines of what the challenge required. After Tom's last word on the subject, I can only assume that Mark will be forced to clean up his act. His Corn Chowder was not the best I ever tasted, but it was not the worst thing we ate that day. After all, while we held our cup of chowder in one hand, we could still eat a chicken skewer with the other.
Ryan's Bread Salad with Marinated Chicken, Poached Pear & Brandy Cocoa was a little absurd for the scenario. A plate of bread salad with a chicken thigh on top, when all we had was a plastic fork to cut it, made for some tricky maneuvering. On top of that, the poached pear in its own separate bowl was too large to be eaten in one bite and also could not be cut easily. Then there was the fact that none of it actually tasted good. The chicken was flavorless, the bread salad was dry, and the hot cocoa was watery. It had been raining since early that morning when we arrived at Soldier Field and as we reached Ryan's station I was thrilled with the prospect of enjoying a rich cup of steaming hot chocolate spiked with brandy, hoping it would warm me up. We were all disappointed with the meek offering we received instead. The excuse he offered -- being "metrosexual" -- doesn't cut it. This challenge was not about how far you can throw or how many beers you can chug. Like so many of the challenges our chefs face, this was about knowing your audience and cooking the food they want to eat, knowing your limitations and preparing a quality product that proves you can adapt your style accordingly. Ryan was sent home this week because at the most basic level he could not adjust his "light" West Coast approach to the Midwestern sports arena.
The best food of the day was definitely worth the indulgence. Dale, Antonia, Richard, and Stephanie all prepared superb versions of no-frills game food. I was so happy that our football-fan voters chose three of them as their favorites. Each of their dishes showcased how smart and sophisticated food can be, no matter where it is served. Antonia's Jerk Chicken Sandwich with Pickled Onion, Banana & Pineapple was unlike any sandwich I had eaten before. The combination of sweet and savory ingredients in each bite was unusual and so satisfying. Richard's Pate Melt with Spicy Mayonnaise & Pickled Cucumber was a stellar burger alternative that we also really enjoyed. Stephanie's Tenderloin with Bacon, Potato & Pear Salad with Rosemary Vinaigrette was simple and delicious. It captured so clearly what Ryan's dish lacked: a hint of lightness without any sacrifice of flavor. But it was Dale's Baby Back Ribs Marinated in Tandoori, and Potato Salad with Raisins & Mango that won the game. I wish I had more of them at hand while watching the NHL playoffs this month!