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Playing "Couch Judge"
Judge Gail Simmons offers her expert opinion on the season premiere ... from the comfort of her own home.
Although I cannot reveal too many details about the fourth season of Top Chef, I will tell you this: Chicago knows how to eat! Whether it's hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, or the cutting-edge cuisine of its top toques, The Windy City sure has good chow. I had not spent much time there before we began shooting Season 4, so before I left New York I made a long list of food to try and places to visit. Unfortunately, our grueling schedule did not allow me time to hit them all, but I made a decent dent. Fortunately, the food that came out of the Top Chef Chicago kitchen was, overall, pretty darned tasty too. This is why I was a little disappointed watching the first episode and knowing that I had not been part of it, especially since deep-dish pizza was involved! I would have loved to have tried Richard's southern-inspired peach Taleggio pie or Mark's pizza of chicken, zucchini and marmite-molasses. I thought this first Quickfire Challenge was the perfect way to introduce our contestants to the culinary traditions of their new home-away-from-home while introducing us all to their individual personalities and cooking styles.
The Elimination Challenge also allowed us a fascinating glimpse into their backgrounds and capabilities. Cooking interpretations of classic dishes like lasagna and steak au poivre gave our new crop of chefs a definite run for that $100,000. As important as such dishes may be to a chef's culinary foundation, many of them are just not featured in fine-dining restaurants anymore. That said, each dish requires specific technical proficiency to execute correctly: how to dredge, make Bolognese sauce and fresh pasta, poach eggs, render duck fat, whisk whites to firm peaks, or properly thicken a sauce, to name only a few.
I always find it exciting and stressful to see how the chefs manage for the first time in their new space, when the clock is ticking and they still do not know the lay of the land. It is interesting to watch how they navigate around each other as well, how and if they share equipment and ingredients, or are secure enough to accept advice. For example, it came as quite a surprise to learn that Andrew, by no means a kitchen novice, chose to make crab cakes but had never before made mayonnaise from scratch, a classic culinary technique in itself! The fact that Richard had thought to purchase mayonnaise signified that he was thinking on his feet under pressure. That he then took the time to teach Andrew how to make it anyway, and in the end offered to share his store-bought version, showed his skills as a leader and confidence in his own abilities. That Andrew took his advice showed that, although he talked a big game, he was also open to improvement along the way.
Stuck with the souffle, Erik and Zoi were at a definite disadvantage, not because making a good souffle is impossible, but, owing to its very delicate nature, it is certainly the most difficult of the choices to fake if you are out of practice. My jaw practically hit the floor when I saw that on top of Erik's Pepper Jack cheese version he had placed a heavy tangle of corn tortillas and chunky salsa. Talk about missing the mark! At least when prompted he had the insight to realize his mistake.
Nimma, on the other hand, was not as fortunate. The flaws in her Shrimp Scampi were not caused by insufficient knowledge of ingredients or lack of practice. How to properly season food is at the very base of any dish. It is a skill often taken for granted in a professional kitchen, but one that can never be overlooked. It is also not the first time on the show that we have had to let someone go due to oversalting. However, it is the first time in four seasons that I was not able to meet all the chefs before one was eliminated. I regret that I did not have the chance to work with Nimma. From the little we saw of her, she appeared to be dedicated and serious about her craft. I hope she continues to cook from her heart. As devastating as these moments can be, so many more triumphant ones surely lie ahead. I will be back at the Judges' Table next week and promise to bring you as many juicy details and all the behind-the-scenes gossip I possibly can! Until then, enjoy your FOOD & WINE!