Inviting our three previous Top Chef winners to join us at the dinner table for the last challenge before the finale seemed like the perfect way to end our stay in Chicago. I was thrilled to see them and hear their thoughts on the food. Although I was a little surprised at how critical they could be, I appreciated that at the root of their remarks was the desire to see our new chefs succeed, as well as a very real memory of what it felt like to be working in the Top Chef kitchen instead of relaxing at the dining table. But more than the good company, I was excited to be part of an episode about butchering and cooking beef, for several reasons.
First, Chicago has a long and enthralling history in the beef and livestock industry. After all, Chicago was the home of Union Stock Yards, the center of the American meatpacking universe for decades before its slow decline and eventual close in the 1970s. These stockyards, made infamous by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 novel The Jungle, were the largest and most centralized meat-distribution hub in the country. Their creation revolutionized food processing completely and directly affected how most of us eat today. Although no longer in existence, the Union Stock Yards and the industry that surrounded them laid the foundation for the many exceptional meat suppliers in the Midwest -- Allen Brothers among them.
Another reason I was so pleased about his challenge is that since I started working in the food world, many years ago, I have developed a fascination with the art of butchering. I have spent many hours watching and learning from the talented butchers in the restaurants where I have worked. How quickly and efficiently they work, as well as how respectfully, never ceases to amaze. I too have been lucky enough to tour the Allen Brothers facility and speak with some of the butchers there.
On a recent visit, I was amazed to learn how long so many of them have worked for the company and how dedicated they are to their craft. Of course, as we all know, once meat is butchered, much still needs to be done to get it to the plate in an appetizing way. How to cook the perfect steak has been the cause of much debate in kitchens around the world for generations. What tastes better, grass- or corn-fed? Is steak best grilled or pan-seared? Do you cook it entirely on the stove top or roast it in the oven to finish? Do you use oil, butter, or a combination of the two? How thick is the perfect cut? The list goes on ...
With all this in mind, I came to Tramonto's Steak & Seafood ready for a great steakhouse meal. Sadly, I was immediately underwhelmed by Lisa's Grilled & Chilled Shrimp dish. It was cold, flavorless, and not very inspiring for an appetizer in the final challenge before the finale. Spike's dish of Pan-Seared Scallops on a Bed of Roasted Hearts of Palm and Oyster Mushrooms was not much better. Not only were his scallops waterlogged and mushy (as we all knew they would be, including Spike himself), the entire texture of the dish was much the same.
Thankfully, Richard's "Vitello Tramonto" knocked it out of the ballpark. The contrast in flavors and textures between the fresh hamachi and crispy sweetbreads was outstanding, the brightness of the yuzu dressing made an impact on us all. The second sweetbread dish of the night, cooked by Stephanie, was also excellent. She flavored hers with a sweet and sour sauce of golden raisins and pine nuts which stayed in my memory for days.
But it was the steaks we were all most curious to taste, and I can honestly say that each was as different in style and flavor as the contestants who cooked them. It is at this point in the competition where we are always most able to pinpoint each chef's personality and what sets them all apart.
Richard's filet was perfectly cooked with potato puree, turnips, and picked brussels sprouts. It was as imaginative and precise as Richard always is, but it was also deconstructed to such an extent that we all felt it lost focus, becoming more about style than substance.
Lisa's steak actually won me over, despite its far-fetched and unusual flavor combinations. This was a dish I would not have ordered if given the choice -- New York Strip served with Spicy Apple and Caramel Sauce and Peanut Butter Mashed Potatoes sounded so cloying that it made my teeth ache at the thought, but upon tasting I realized that the potatoes actually worked and her signature Asian-flavored assertiveness delighted us all. I just wish her meat could have been cooked more consistently, a flaw we have seen before in her cooking.
Antonia's Bone-In Rib Eye was absolutely delicious and proved once again that her skills lie in creating bold, rustic food. The potato gratin she served on the side was as good as any I have ever tasted.
The two most telling menus that evening were served by Stephanie and Spike, our winner and loser, respectfully, in the challenge. Just as she has done so many times before, Stephanie quietly and methodically cooked a strong and unified dish. Her Beef Tenderloin with Salsify Puree, Wild Mushrooms, and Apple Sauce was the exact sort of food we all hope to eat in our favorite steak house. It was earthy, rich, and well-rounded, with enough ingredients to keep it interesting but not so many as to detract from the focus: a beautifully cooked piece of beef.
On the other hand, after winning the Quickfire in what appeared to be a positive start to the episode, Spike created a second dish that fell as flat as his first. Although his tomahawk steak was not cooked poorly, the other elements on his plate tasted entirely out of synch with it. I felt his sweet potato puree was far too sweet to eat, drowning out the flavor of everything around it. The scarce evidence of brussels sprouts was barely worth noticing, let alone including them on the dish's description. Without even knowing what went on in the kitchen, it was painfully obvious that, just as in the Police Academy Challenge, Spike's advantage in the Quickfire became detrimental in the Elimination. What came out of his station in the kitchen gave the impression that he was too wrapped up in the choices he made at the start of the challenge and simply could not adapt them to his final vision.
In many ways, I am sad to see Spike go, as I think he gave a lot to the competition and clearly has talent. And if somewhere down the line work as a chef does not pan out, we now know he could have a great career as a butcher. And what a fine career it would be.