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A Taste Of Things To Come

Chef and guest judge Rocco Dispirito breaks down the season premiere of Top Chef:Chicago dish by dish.

By Rocco DiSpirito

Tasting your way through 16 über-creative pizzas isn't as easy as Padma makes it look. Eventually, there is an epic taste bud overload that only a gallon of water and several Bud Lights can fix.

How to Watch

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

Truthfully, though, almost all of them were good. There was Richard's peach/Taleggio; Stephanie's melon/tomato/prosciutto; Zoi's broccoli/pesto/lamb; Dale's sausage/kohlrabi/Sriracha; Ryan's escarole/ricotta salata/butternut; Nikki's comte/pecorino/mushroom; Andrew's smoked marinara/prosciutto/onion; Jennifer's grape/bacon/fontina; Erik's mushroom/pepper/sausage; Spike's feta/olive/sausage; Nimma's hunter-style/onion/Stracchino; Mark's chicken/zucchini/Marmite (yes, that yeasty, salty British breakfast spread), and more. Only a few gave me pause. Stephanie's was funky and Nimma's was under-salted. (And as you know, it was the salt that spelled doom for Nimma.) Even so, by the end of this challenge, I knew we had some seriously talented chefs in our midst. Dale pickled his own kohlrabi and Richard managed to make peaches, Taleggio, and a sweet-tea syrup on a crust of bread work surprisingly well. Pizza is, after all, a crust of bread -- a plate of bread, actually, that is the ultimate blank slate. Given that starting point, there was ample opportunity for the new batch of hopefuls to show us what they're made of.

Modern pizza is credited to the Italians, but people have been using bread as a vehicle for other ingredients for millennia. There are some who believe that, like pasta, Marco Polo brought the idea of pizza to Italy from his extensive travels to China. Doesn't really matter to me. I know two things: I love pizza more than anything in the world -- and that my distant relatives in Naples, Italy, made pizza what it is today. In the late 19th century, the classic Margherita was invented for the visit of Queen Margherita to Naples. The tomato, basil, and mozzarella -- red, white, and green -- represent the color of the Italan flag. Makes sense to me, and it's a great story.

My favorite pizzas by the slice is from Joe's on Waverly Place in the West Village, and from Umberto's in New Hyde Park, Long Island. Incidentally, New Hyde Park is where I went to high school and lived as a teenager after my family moved out of Queens. I have traveled extensively and tasted a lot of pizza since then, and I assure you, it's still one of my faves because it's truly special -- and not because it's my hometown pizzeria.

For thin-crust, Napolitano-style whole pie, there are several recommendations: Pizzeria Brandi in Naples (worth the trip); and if you can't do that try, Apizz, Gonzo, or Grimaldi's -- all in NYC. And for something completely different, tuck into a tarte flambe, an Alsatian dish puff pastry, bacon, onions, and Quark (an unripened, almost sour-cream like cow's milk cheese) at the bar of The Modern restaurant in The Museum of Modern Art in NYC. It's definitely not a traditional Napolitano pizza, but it's thin, crispy, and has bacon on it. Need I say more?


The other reason for pizza being near and dear to my heart is because it was in a little pizzeria in Queens that my career in cooking began.


It was the summer of 1977. I had just been released from Catholic school for summer break, and Kiss had just released their classic album, Love Gun. I was a major Kiss fan and was not going to miss out. I had about 3 bucks in my pocket (my weekly allowance was $3, and the album cost $9.99). I was motivated -- first, to ask my mom for the $6.99 I was short. In classic Mama fashion, she told me to get a job. While that may sound cruel, it was the best thing she ever did for me. After walking the streets of Queens for a day I got an offer: Sal, the owner of Sutphin Pizzeria, hired me to clean up, grate cheese, open cans of tomato sauce and serve fountain soda at the rate of .50/hour. I worked 60 hours a week: 30 big ones a week!!! I was ecstatic. I not only had enough money to buy Love Gun, but also Some Girls by the Rolling Stones, a few singles -- and I could take my mom out to lunch. This was living! rocco_401_07_320x240.jpg

Most importantly, though, I fell in love with the restaurant business. The interaction with people and the idea that I got an opportunity to make them happy was what really motivated me then (Love Gun aside), and what I love to this day. I worked in two more pizzerias before I began working in full-service restaurants -- and I've never looked back.This Quickfire Challenge was all about what they could do with Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza. I was impressed with what they managed to conjure up. Now, no offense directed at the lovely people of Chicago, but their pizza leaves a lot to be desired. It's neither thin crust nor thick crust (what we call Sicilian here in NYC), it's usually comprised of some random combo of ingredients, and it's heavy as lead. The beautiful, defining characteristic of pizza is that it's light, crispy, and a foil for wonderful toppings like cheese, sausage, basil, and anchovies. Deep-dish pizza leaves no room on the palate for much else but crust. You'd need to top it with a wild boar stew to create a balance of flavors and textures that would work with such a dense dough. If I'm wrong and just haven't tasted the "right" Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza, then I'm ready to do it. Just tell me where to go. (Literally and figuratively.)

After separating the 16 contestants into my least favorite and most favorite group, Padma welcomed them to their new home -- a fat brownstone in a very cool Chicago neighborhood. They settled in, and the next day we announced the final challenge, affectionately known among the producers (mainly Shauna) as, "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better." They drew knives to pick the chef they'd cook with/against.

The idea was to assign a classic dish to each team of two contestants in a heads-up style tasting. After some choice words from Andrew (is there a lot of gratuitous cursing already this season, or am I getting soft?), who's already alienating himself from the group by taking everything way too seriously -- they got started. Most of the dishes were no-brainers. Crab cakes should be moist and light. Duck a l'orange is about using the acidity of the oranges to balance the richness of the duck. Lasagna should be hot and NOT overfilled. Shrimp scampi is all about garlic, lemon, and herbs. Eggs Benedict requires a great Hollandaise sauce. Steak au poivre requires a judicious use of crushed black pepper. All you need to know about chicken piccata is this: No breadcrumbs.


And of course, poor Zoi and Erik got souffle. What a lousy dish to get. It should have been judged on a curve. It's true, as Tom pointed out, that every chef should be able to make a souffle, but few have the formula for souffle memorized. The success of a souffle relies on a precise chemical and physical reaction, and if you don't have your recipe handy or in your head, good luck. (If you ever spontaneously find yourself in a souffle challenge against another cook, remember these words: light, fluffy, and of course, delicious. Use a lot of egg whites! Mashed potatoes shouldn't be the first thing that comes to mind, and if it does, just forfeit the win immediately.)
Stephanie and Mark were the first to present their dishes. Mark got all silly and decided to deconstruct duck a l'orange, a perfectly designed dish. rate_401_mark_elim.jpg All he had to do was cook the thing correctly and make a nice orange sauce, but Picasso got up in his head, lost focus, and got all Cubist on us. The choices you make as a chef should be informed by what makes the customer happiest. Having to put a dish back together again, Humpty Dumpty-style, does not create happiness -- only frustration. Stephanie made a great dish. The Asian-inspired duck spring roll using the rest of the duck meat was gravy (pun intended). I liked Mark. He made a great pizza. (He managed to make Marmite taste good!) But now he was eligible to get eliminated. Andrew, Richard, and their crab cakes were next. Andrew talks too much and delivers too little. His crab cake wasn't good; it was heavy and very average. He didn't "show strong" at all. He isn't going to last long. Richard managed to reinvent the crab cake with a bit of alchemy. He took a risk with the smoke, but it all worked and tasted good.

Jennifer and Nikki got lasagna. This is the dish you want to end up with in a competition. It's straightforward, easy, and very difficult to mess up if you don't overfill it. Too many lasagnas end up morphing into pasta soup. I always recommend using no-boil noodles (they absorb lots of liquid) and make great lasagna. Both were very good. Jennifer undercooked a few vegetables. Nikki's was just better. She made her own pasta and just tweaked traditional lasagna enough to give it flair without losing the spirit of the lasagna we all know and love. She was the winner at this point.


Antonia and Nimma walked up with their shrimp scampi and all Nimma wanted was for us to be "nice." What does "nice" have to do with how good a dish is? Should we have ignored the fact that her dish tasted like a salt lick to be "nice"? Does being "nice" mean we aren't shocked at just how overwhelming her oversalting was? And does it also mean we overlook Antonia's exquisite pasta dish so that Nimma's feeling aren't hurt? I think not. Antonia's pappardelle was flawlessly cooked and seasoned and got four straight "mmmm's" from the judges -- the culinary equivalent of 10.0. Nimma's dish was terrible. It was worse thaN Erik's souffle! Need I say more?Spike and Lisa picked eggs Benedict. I should come clean here and tell you that I absolutely adore anything with hollandaise on it. For those of you who don't know, hollandaise is one of the five French "mother" sauces, along with bechamel (white), veloute (blond), espagnole (brown), and tomato sauce (red). Hollandaise is made with egg yolks and butter -- the more butter, the better. When I was a young brunch cook, my fellow cooks and I would have competitions over who could put the most butter into a hollandaise sauce. Anyway, my point is this: It's hard to mess up a dish that gets coated in hollandaise sauce -- much less one with a crispy, crackly English muffins, smoky ham, and a glorious poached egg. The question is: How do you make it stand out?


Well, first of all, the hollandaise has to be flawless. It's a tricky sauce that separates easily. Then, the base has to be crispy, the ham must be warm, and, of course, the egg must be perfectly poached -- not too runny and not too hard. Spike added mushrooms and lemongrass to his dish, and made a sabayon instead of a hollandaise. I won't get into it, but it's slightly different (more egg yolks, less or no butter). Lisa used the culinary ace in the hole: lobster. They were both superb. This wasn't an easy one to decide. It came down technique. Lisa's egg was perfect, and she won. Good for her. Couldn't have happened to a nicer person.

Dale and Manuel were next, with steak au poivre. Dale deconstructed his dish and -- unlike Mark -- delivered on the promise. It was a little goofy, but didn't sacrifice flavor for creativity. He made a point of showing us that his skills surpassed the basics and that he knew what some of the great creative geniuses of the culinary world were doing. Generally, it's best to leave well enough alone, like Stephanie did with her duck spring rolls. Manuel added a little flair that spoke to his Mexican roots and cooked a great dish. Dale took a larger creative leap, but he has enough experience, skill, and most importantly, a strong point of view as an artist. That's a tough combination to beat.

Ryan and Valerie's chicken piccata was up next. It took us a long time to judge this one -- not because the dishes were close, but because it was nearly impossible to get through to Ryan. He clearly didn't know that chicken piccata is thin scallop of chicken that's dipped in flour, then in egg, then sauteed and served with a lemon-butter sauce that sometimes has capers in it. He breaded his chicken, didn't pound it thin, and didn't serve it with a lemon-butter sauce -- but did serve it with awful gnocchi. (So other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?) We tried and tried to explain it to him. He was very defensive. Instead of trying to learn something from Tom, Anthony, and me, he made excuses and generally frustrated us. "Classically mashed potatoes and rice." Wha?? I always told my cooks that it's not the mistake that matters but what you do after you've made one to ensure it never happens again. There is nothing worse than a cook who is unwilling or unable to learn from his mistakes, and his gnocchi were a very dense mistake. So I said what I said. Sorry! I know it was a bit mean, but had you seen the entire exchange with Ryan you would have understood. Valerie's wasn't much better. But Ryan's was worse.

Next up were the souffle twins. Poor guys. They really had my sympathy. Erik and Zoi did their best. Remember you're NOT allowed to have written recipes. Erik's souffle was comical: cheese, mashed potatoes, avocados, crème fraîche, black bean puree, and salsa. He was willing to listen and generally acknowledged his blunder. Souffle literally means to "blow or puff up" in French. The idea is light and airy. This was something more akin to spackle. Zoi made a rice pudding souffle. I was actually being sarcastic when I said rice was a good idea, in case you're wondering. Ideally, a souffle is a base made from egg whites flavored with a light puree of something like blueberries -- or in the best case, chocolate.

Picking the winner wasn't easy. There were four very strong dishes -- any of them could have won. My personal favorite was Nikki's lasagna, but the consensus was that Stephanie's dish was best. And it was a great dish. rate_401_nimma_elim.jpg

For the final judging, all we had to do was decide whose dish was worse. For me, it was a toss-up between Nimma's caustic scampi and Erik's molten-lava souffle. As a souffle, Erik's dish didn't stand up -- but it did taste good. Nimma's scampi was unforgivable, and she was indignant. Erik was humble, coachable, and had a sense of humor about it. That always makes things a bit easier.

This season will be nothing short of mesmerizing. The personalities are quite clear. Ryan is this season's Howie, and Dale is this season's Hung. These chefs are great, and it just gets better every season. It will be a photo finish for sure.

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