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Lions and Vultures and Bears, Oh My

Tom Colicchio wonders why the chefs would make something for the Elimination Challenge that they've never made before.

By Tom Colicchio

I'm never part of judging the Quickfires, so I don't usually have a lot to say about them, but I particularly liked this week's challenge -- to create an entree from only five ingredients (excluding salt, pepper, sugar and oil), because I think it illustrates an important point about cooking that I learned from teaching cooking classes -- sometimes too many choices can distract and overwhelm, rather than inspire. When I limited my students to only three ingredients, it kept them from going all over the map, and seemed to free them up creatively. It's very tempting for cooks (especially here, in a competition setting) to want to dazzle us by loading the plate with numerous ingredients and a complicated presentation, but that can be a sign of immaturity. It takes self-confidence to select just a few great ingredients and cook them in a way that allows their very essence to emerge. I just returned from a great week in Venice with my son, where we had a few truly memorable meals. Some of the best dishes were composed with just a few beautiful ingredients, prepared very simply - roasted fish, risotto, pasta with a simple ragout of clams, tomatoes, and prosciutto, etc. What made the dishes great wasn't the number of ingredients on the plate but their freshness and skillful, confident preparation. It's pretty telling that Mark -- who left one of his five ingredients back at the Green City Market -- ended up winning the Quickfire challenge with his remaining four.

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I was happy to see Wylie Dufresne join us at the Judges' table. Wylie is innovative, talented, and humble -- a great combination. (Congratulations, by the way, Wylie on getting 3 stars at wd~50 in The New York Times). We divided the chefs up into five teams -- Bears, Lions, Gorillas, Vultures, and Penguins, and sent them off to shop and cook hors d'oeuvres for 200 guests, using the key components of their respective animal's diet. While the animal angle might seem like the tricky part of this, honestly, it was the catering element that presented the greatest challenge. Most chefs are asked to cater something off-site at one point or another in their careers. The skill lies in designing a menu that can be prepared ahead of time, then assembled and finished at the event itself. (It's rare to have a full kitchen at an event site, occasionally there is a kitchen 'tent' with a few burners, but a single gas burner or hot plate is the norm.) A trained chef understands that some foods just don't store and travel well, and plans accordingly. Some dishes will travel fine, but you need to modify the normal steps you would take to accommodate serving them later. For example, you wouldn't add salt to a crab salad hours ahead of time in your home, so why do it here? The salt is going to draw the moisture out of the dish and make it watery, so seasoning should be saved for the moment before serving. Another case in point is Valerie's blini. Valerie should have had the items in her dish ready for assembly and then made the blini a la minute (which means "last minute") in a pan over their burner as the night unfolded. Her teammates were there to do the assembly. Of course, even that wouldn't have saved the rest of the dish, since the rutabagas were partly raw, giving the dish an unintentionally unpleasant crunch. But that brings me to another point.

A catered event is not the place to teach yourself new skills. By this I'm not suggesting our cooks should have played it safe during the challenge, rather that they should have drawn from their (hopefully expansive) body of tried-and-true dishes that they already knew worked. Every chef has these, which can then be a great stepping off point for on-the-fly, seasonal creativity. It's important to remember that a catered event is often a big moment in someone's life (think wedding, anniversary party, etc.) and in my opinion, that is not the place to start the process of trial and error that is (in another setting) so crucial for a developing chef. I am surprised how often I've heard a contestant admit, "I never made this before," as they went about preparing the dish that lost them the competition. I don't think there would have been any shame in Valerie admitting to her teammates, "I've never made blini, and I'm not feeling confident about that. I'd rather make my famous XYZ (insert slam dunk dish here) instead." Andrew understood this. He pulled out a neat trick with his balsamic tapioca "caviar" over Team Penguin's squid ceviche. Clearly this was something he'd made before. He knew it would work, he knew it had visual appeal and would make sense with the overall "black and white," seafood-inspired penguin menu. It was a good call. Another important point about catering: Unlike a restaurant meal, which can achieve balance over an entire dish, a canape has to work in one bite -- the balance of flavors and textures must be immediate, and in order for the item to be memorable, should pack a real wallop of flavor. Well-spiced, highly flavorful items work best as canapes, which is why Team Vulture's Moroccan-spiced meatballs and anchovies with quinoa worked so well.

At first Team Bear made the right call not to serve their mushrooms stuffed with berries when they saw they didn't work, but then Nikki turned around and served them to the judges. Huh? She said the problem was that they were cold, and everyone on the team felt they looked like bear --ahem -- poop, but personally I think we would have let the appearance slide somewhat if they had tasted really good. Dale's idea to garnish the mushrooms with Pecorino didn't help - in fact, it made them worse. At first bite it was clear that none of the Bears had tasted the dish. If they had, they wouldn't have served them to anyone, least of all those of us deciding their fate.

Ultimately the Bears and the Gorillas were called to the carpet, with the Bears edging out their competitors because they were accountable for only one of our three least favorite dishes. The Gorillas, responsible for the other two, lost big. Ultimately we decided Stephanie -- who, despite her watery crab salad, had redeemed herself with the delicious banana bread with salted caramel sauce -- could stay. Valerie, the blini-maker, was out. We gave the win to Team Penguin. In addition to creating three delicious dishes, the Penguins nailed the challenge from a few angles; the food was intelligent and tasted good, and they carried the black and white visual "penguin" theme throughout the presentation, which was a nice touch. Andrew was named the winner because of his interesting contribution to the ceviche and his surprising and fun yuzu "glacier." It took some guts to play with thickening agents and tapioca while cooking for Wylie -- it's not easy to impress people on their own turf -- but this time around, Andrew pulled it off.


P.S. My apologies to Paul Kahan, whose wonderful restaurant Blackbird I accidentally called "Bluebird" in last week's blog. Blame it on the jet lag. I had an amazing lunch there on Monday (sea scallops with truffle and banana puree, and an entree of duck pastrami for those of you who are curious). It was a memorable meal -- one of many I've enjoyed there over the years.

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