Welcome to Chicago! It's hard to believe we're in Season 4, and I still get slightly giddy when I see the posters start to appear in the subway and on buses. This season has our most talented group of chefs by far, and as the season progresses you'll see how difficult it becomes for our judges to send each of them home. Most of the time it's not a question of whose dish failed or was the worst, but rather whose dish was not as great as the others (while still being good). Some of you may be aware of this thing on the internet known as "The Top Chef Drinking Game." I decided to play for this first episode. The results? Hilarious, but definitely not pretty. Follow along ...
I got to meet this eclectic bunch of chefs during final casting. This season the producers threw the old rules out the window and cast chefs who actually knew each other (hence Zoi and Jennifer). It adds a strategic element to the show that maybe didn't exist in previous seasons. To be honest, the culinary circle at this level is smaller than one would think and it gets harder and harder to cast chefs who don't know each other. Either way, the initial shock for the other contestants in finding out there was a couple competing was soon forgotten as soon as they stepped into the Top Chef kitchen. (Drinking one for Spike's comment). It's always a crazy push to build the kitchen. From construction to putting the final polish on all of the stainless steel, our crew usually gets it done in less than 10 days. I actually only get roughly two days to build the pantry. I have to wait for the paint to dry on the walls before I can assemble the metro racks and then sort, organize, and arrange all of the equipment, small tools, and pantry ingredients. Thankfully, my partner in crime Shannon was with me and a fellow chef and local Chicagoan, Lisa, joined our culinary team. The reason why I want to tell you about the 48 hours of pure sweat my team pours into meticulously building the pantry? Picture the widening of my eyes while watching the chefs demolish the pantry during the first Quickfire. Gets me every time. (Drinking one for Nikki who had never made a deep dish pizza before.)
Being a New Yorker, I am an extreme fanatic about New York style pizza. Two months in Chicago didn't change a thing. However, I learned how to make fantastic deep-dish pizza from the staff at the original Pizzeria Uno. From creating the dough and rising time, how much sauce, toppings, and cheese to use, to seasoning the pan and baking time, there is an art to making the perfect deep-dish slice.
Rocco was the perfect judge for our pizza challenge. I sampled all of the pizzas and agreed on all points with his and Padma's commentary. The pizzas I was most fond of were Jennifer's (probably because there were grapes AND bacon, my all-time favorite ingredient), Dale's, whose pickled kohlrabi added an unusual and enticing vegetal crunch, and Mark's, purely because the marmite worked. If you don't love vegemite or marmite, and I do (on buttered rye toast it's sublime), Mark's pizza changed even Rocco's mind. It was delicious.
Funny story about Mark, I had actually met him while filming in Miami. He was doing a demo at FIU with his Executive Chef at Public, Brad Farmerie, who I know very well from New York. We met up for drinks on Lincoln Road after they had dinner at Table 8. Mark had MANY MANY drinks at dinner. Shannon and I bought him and Brad a few more. In slurred speech, he remarked how maybe he should try out for Top Chef. Let's just say I was completely amused when I saw him at final casting. What was even funnier is that he didn't remember seeing me in Miami.
Back to the show: The living situation keeps getting better and better for our chefs. In my mind a pool table may be even better than a hot tub. Moving on to the Elimination Challenge (appropriately titled "Anything you can cook I can cook better"), I worked with the producers to come up with a list of dishes that any chef should be able to recreate, though Shauna was particularly gleeful when it came to the souffle. I was slightly hesitant to put it on the list but I gave the benefit of the doubt to our experienced contestants. (Drinking several for Dale's superiority complex, drinking another because Ryan has absolutely no idea what goes into Chicken Piccatta).
Let's start with Mark who took on Stephanie with Duck a l'Orange. His deconstructed dish did him in, while Stephanie's dish was inspired, combining the classic flavor profile with Asian ingredients. The crunch of the spring roll and the sweet and spicy orange glaze are what really sold it. I think I took a few shots here for Bourdain being a judge and his scathing commentary to come.
Next is Richard, with all of his bells, whistles, and smoke shop gadgetry, versus the very hyperactive spazztastic Andrew. I had gotten a call over the walkie during the challenge from one of the field producers asking where the mayo was in the pantry. I provide a very detailed pantry list to all of the contestants of all ingredients in the pantry. This is to aid them when they are shopping. Andrew didn't read his list. Both crab cakes were delicious. Andrew's was denser than Richard's, but it was well seasoned and had plenty of fresh crab and maybe slightly too much breadcrumbs. Richard's was more loosely packed, incredibly moist, and though one would think the smoke would overpower the crab, it added a delicate and delicious dimension to the dish along with pickled mustard seeds he used as garnish. I found both lasagnas to be delicious. I really admired Jennifer's innovation with the root vegetables and meat/mint sauce. Nikki's was classic and creamy good. Antonia's shrimp scampi was well balanced and the pappardelle was a nice touch. Nimma's dish however, was not only unattractive but also ill-conceived from the start. The shrimp were overcooked and salty and the "cauliflower scramble" was hideous in both texture and flavor.
Both Spike and Lisa's dishes were good -- for me it was a toss up. I love that Tony Bourdain actually pays compliments to our contestants at this point. The fact that he quantifies some of the dishes put me in such shock that I had to have another sip of Maker's Mark. Dale took on Manuel with Steak au Poivre. I thought both dishes were tasty; Dale's plating was far more creative but I found the pepper on Manuel's steak gave that perfect spicy bite that is so essential to au poivre. And now for Chicken Piccata, otherwise known as "Chicken-However-the-Hell-You-Want-to-Make-it." Though both dishes lacked acid, at least they remembered the capers. I love that Valerie looked particularly smug even though her dish tanked. (Taking two sips for Ryan's shattered ego). And now for the souffle debacle ... Zoi's was dense and overly sweet for me. Erik's was equally hilarious. I think he baked mashed potatoes in a ramekin. I wanted to give them both a hug for getting stuck with the souffle.
The first stew room always sucks for the contestants -- it's a waiting game and the judges debate for the better part of several hours. The last time I saw so much positivity flow from Bourdain's lips was when he wanted to adopt Mike Midgley, and even then it wasn't so positive. Stephanie wins and you can watch me recreate her winning dish on the Wong Way to Cook. Erik, Nimma, Ryan, and Mark head to loser's table. Nimma is first to go, joining the ranks of Krazy Ken, Suyai, and Clay. I'm sure she's got a bright future ahead of her if she stays focused and gets a thicker skin (there's no crying in baseball). In any case, hope you enjoyed meeting our Season 4 recruits. There's plenty of fun and high stakes drama on the way, so print out your version of "The Top Chef Drinking Game" (I will not be doing this ever again) and be careful which rules you adhere to.