It's All About the Butchering

It's All About the Butchering

Gail Simmons makes the case for canned food.

Editor's Note: Gail couldn't get to a computer this week, so we had the pleasure to speak to her on the phone and get her take on this week's episode. Let's dive right in. We start with the pantry raid Quickfire and Hung comes back. The chefs didn't seem too excited about working with these ingredients, did they?
They're never going to be too psyched about cooking with canned food, although I do think that certain canned foods and staples like that are great for the home cook and to have in your pantry for certain occasions. You don't want your entire diet to come from the cupboard and some chefs turn their noses on it, which is also why I thought it was perfect that Hung was the guest judge. Of all people, if he had been a contestant on this challenge, I'm sure he would have been one of the people complaining the most. On the other hand, I thought it was great that they only got 15 minutes. It seems that with the exception of a few people, like Jamie, who seemed to not put a lot of effort with this one, people made some pretty complex things considering what they were given. I thought that was great. They were creative and they were thinking on their feet. What do you think the key was to doing well with this challenge?
Giving the food flavor. Seasoning. With canned food, especially canned vegetables like artichokes or beans, the food often takes on the flavor of the can because it's been sitting in there and it ends up tasting far from fresh. I would say the key is making something that tasted as it was supposed to taste when fresh and seasoning it really well. That would just be the first thing I would do, at the minimum. From that point on, just being creative and incorporating the food in a way that makes sense. Not stretching it too far so that it's completely absurd or using it in a way you would never use it. Then it's just not going to taste very good. Are you a fan of the Spam?

I'm not a fan of the Spam. I don't think I've ever actually eaten it before. Although I remember many years ago my father going on some sort of really low carb diet. My father is in extraordinary physical condition and he has weighed the exact same amount since he married my mother 42 years ago. He looks after his health and he's very disciplined about what he eats and he went on this low carb diet and all of a sudden he was eating six pork sausages for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He went out to the grocery store to get my mother some things and he came back with a tin of Spam because my mother would have never allowed that in our house growing up and he got curious. He thought because he was on this all protein diet that he should give it a shot, so he gave it a try and I thought my mom was going to literally throw him out of the house. Well, they're even making Turkey Spam now.
Yup. They're making way for canned food. It makes sense because you can get clams and oysters in a can. There are actually some really good products in a can, especially outside of America. In Europe, farmers can really well because they can in really high quality oil and you can get amazing canned tuna or sardines in oil or even smoked oysters. It can be really delicious and there are tons of great quality products because it is a good way to preserve food. My husband's uncle is a recreational fisherman and he smokes and cans his own oysters and wild salmon and ships it to us and it's the most delicious thing. We keep it in our pantry and it's our special treat that we break out. In the elimination challenge the teams get split up into teams by protein. What did you think of the teams?
I felt bad for Ariane. I really did. Hosea and Leah are clearly very close and I can imagine that three people can be an awkward number if you're not working well together. Stefan, Jamie, and Carla were also in that three-is-a-crowd situation. Stefan and Jamie have this strange thing going. It seems that Jamie doesn't like Stefan and Jamie absolutely loves Jamie and Stefan can be a little condescending and controlling. Then there's Carla who is just stuck in the middle. She's the odd man out there. Jeff, Radhika, and Fabio all have very different personalities but they seemed to be OK together. The chefs set up their menus and headed up to Dan Barber's Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barns. Tell us a little about this location.

I thought it was a great challenge and was simple and straightforward, as it should be. Even though they changed the venue on them I thought it was a good twist. Blue Hill, the actual restaurant, has a location in Manhattan and one up at Stone Barns and Dan Barber is certainly one of the pioneers and trailblazers in NYC that is really connecting farmers and chefs. He's a big advocate for sustainability, for locally grown and sustainable farming practices, and he's deeply connected to the farmers he works with. I've been to Blue Hill, his restaurant, several times since it's opened and I've known Dan for a long time. What he's created at Stone Barns is really a chef's dream. The farm is really self-sustainable meaning they recycle and they have very little waste. Every piece of every vegetable, animal, and mineral is used and then recycled. At the same time, he has created this unbelievable bounty around him that they have access to and they use some of it and then they also sell some of it. They also create revenue that way, I believe. He has a three-acre greenhouse, amazing gardens, sheep, and pigs, and chickens. It's also surrounded by an amazing piece of wildlife, on a huge piece of land surrounded by woods. It's just a really special place. The restaurant and the quality of ingredients are obviously magnificent. It's great because it all tastes delicious and fresh as fresh can be. It's a great road trip from New York and you can take a tour. They have a docent program where kids from the local high school are the guides. It's amazing, beautiful, and the food is fantastic. It's a great experience and I think urban chefs have very little connection to the food they're cooking. It comes on a truck and they cut it down, do a million things to it, and then serve it at night. It's great to allow young chefs to get back to the farm and have a relationship with what they're cooking and have a connection so it's not just a slab of meat. You don't really know how much work goes into raising and farming meat. I thought it was a great What did you think of the dishes that each team prepared?
With Team Chicken, the soup seemed like a strange idea because it was the middle of August and very warm. The truth is if it tastes good it doesn't really matter. If it tastes good and if it was made well, which it seems to have been, then that's that. I'd rather have a good hot soup on a warm day then a bad cold something else. There's no rules and yes, it did seem out of place especially when the idea of this was supposed to be seasonal, but it was made with seasonal ingredients. There are no rules saying you can't make a soup. The cutlet also seemed great and so did the roast chicken. Pure and simple. The chicken team just really kept it simple and of course they did panic when they thought it was too simple and it's so easy to get in that mindset when everyone around you is doing more complicated things. You have to remember that simple can be good. The judges are never going to criticize you if it is prepared well, executed well, and tastes as it should. That was the actual point and I'm so glad they didn't let themselves get carried away. Carla made the best dessert and it seemed delicious. What did you think about Team Pork?
Their problem seemed to be that the pork got lost. I have a feeling about what happened having been at enough Judges' Tables, although I might just be projecting: The pork dishes were probably just OK, neither good nor bad, but there can only be one winner and one loser. That team just went a little heavy on that pesto so it got lost. I don't know about the loin specifically. Radhika could also have made more effort. Jeff is used to cooking for health-conscious diners so he might be accustomed to trimming the fat and removing skin. Could that have been an issue for them?
That goes back to a big problem, which is butchering the meat. You don't need to do a million things to the meat. If you know enough about how to butcher properly you should know how to keep that flavor in. People get very scared of fat because to them it signifies a horrible and dangerous thing, but the truth is that the fat in moderation is going to make your food worth eating. You need it there for flavor and for moisture and that's an easy trap to fall into in this day and age. What did you think about the Team Lamb?
They fell into that fussiness trap. They got too up in their minds about it and just took it too far. Keep it simple -- you're on the farm, you don't need to butterfly it and stuff it and do a million things. Just roast it, season it, use fresh herbs, and nothing will be more delicious than that. I think that there's a time and place for what they did but they just got too fussy. People always ask me how I judge food because it's so subjective. Certain foods are not subjective. Is it butchered well? That's the first step. If you have an animal and you hack it up in the process of preparing it it's going to show. You can tell it's messy. That's the first step, so if that doesn't go well then it's downhill from there. If you use the best ingredients then you need to use them in a way that you're respecting them. She hacked it up and that was just step one. Good ingredients plus good technique equals good food and that didn't happen. Butchering is huge and butchering a piece of meat takes practice and that's an issue that a lot of chefs have. There were wrongs on both ends of the scale here. Ariane should not have had that job if she wasn't confident with it. I don't understand how she became the one for that job. On the one hand, why didn't she say she wasn't confident? On the other, why did they trust her with that responsibility? The tying was only part of the problem. Leah did help, but she didn't do it very well. I think that's also because the pieces weren't butchered properly so they weren't even. They're all sort of to blame. You all have to put your strengths in. It's easy for Hosea and Leah to say they could have done it and that they've done it a million times. They gave it to Ariane and she screwed up. Then why didn't they do it if they've done it so much? It's easy for someone else to take that fall. Do you think Ariane deserved to go home?
I think she did deserve it because ultimately she was the one who messed up. She didn't really say that she wasn't comfortable with it. She took it on and didn't do it properly and that's your fate on Top Chef. If you screw one big thing up we can't look at your history and say, "Well, you've done it well before, so you're safe." When it comes to the plate, whoever is responsible for the flaw is the person who goes home. We can't base it on what should have happened.

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