Think Outside The Pot

Think Outside The Pot

Stephanie Izard misses Eric Ripert in a Santa suit, but overall thinks this season's chefs adequately brought the holiday spirit.

It is time for the holidays. I would say that everyone on this week's episode did a good job of bringing in the Christmas spirit while filming in the summer. I was hoping that there would be a recurrence of last year's Christmas special and Eric Ripert would come dressed as Santa, but Martha was a fun addition as well. I had the opportunity to meet her a couple of times this summer while I was cooking in the Hamptons. Though her style is very different from that of most restaurant chefs including myself, I have to give her props. She is a very intelligent woman who has overcome some interesting obstacles (prison usually has a negative effect on someone's career) and remained an American icon.

The Quickfire Challenge, in true Martha style, is to create a holiday inspired meal in one pot. The chefs have many different interpretations of the challenge. Some made one or two components in the pot and then used the grill for part of the meal, while others cooked a portion of the dish then removed it and reused the pot or pan for another component. Fabio recreated his grandmother's polenta and topped it with pan roasted duck breast. I wish I could have tasted this myself as I am a huge fan of polenta and would think that someone with that accent could make it pretty well. Martha was not a fan though which I think in turn made Fabio less than a fan of her. Eugene decided in the end that he needed a thickening agent for his stew. Choosing corn starch was his downfall with the queen of home cooking. I am sure there are a number of home cooks who use corn starch as a quick thickener and it is often used to thicken sauces in Asian cuisine. Martha is just not a fan. Another disappointment for her was the potato "risotto." I have often seen vegetables cooked in the style of risotto, such as cauliflower and salsify, with a delicious end result. he problem with potato is that it has so much natural starch that when slowly cooked in risotto style it may become overly heavy which often happens to a poorly made risotto. I think it was a creative approach but just did not seem to work. On a more positive note, Martha was a big fan of Jamie's grilled scallop served over a kale and potato stew. This was a nice and hearty approach to a scallop dish and Martha seems to be almost as big of a scallop fan as Jamie. Ariane goes simple with a velvety cauliflower puree topped with filet mignon. I am a big fan of cauliflower puree but it just did not seem to have as much creativity as some of the other dishes. I felt that Hosea captured the win on this Quickfire. He made a dish that is in fact a one pot dish, and according to Martha and Padma he had great flavor as well. I guess Martha was just more drawn to her fellow Jersey girl's dish than the classic Spanish paella.

To get everyone further into the Christmas spirit, in comes the Harlem Gospel Choir singing the Twelve Days of Christmas. I think I was most entertained watching Padma get down to the gospel version of this holiday favorite while the chefs seemed to grasp where the theme to their dishes would be coming from this week. Though I have heard this song way too many times to count throughout the years I could not quite remember how many ladies were dancing and how many pipers were piping. There are some chefs who had to use a bit more creativity to create a dish that would fit the theme. Nine ladies dancing? Ten Lords a-leaping? Might need some creative storytelling to make some of these work.

The great part about this challenge is that they are creating food for a fundraiser to benefit amfAR which is the American Foundation for AIDS Research which is a great cause. Natasha Richardson, who is a supporter of the foundation will be the guest judge along with Michelle Bernstein who I had the pleasure of meeting at a Common Threads benefit here in Chicago. Very cool woman and talented chef.

The chefs all hit the market and try to figure out how to make tasty hors d'oeuvres that fit into the day of Christmas they chose. They also have only three hours of prep and will be serving 250 tasting portions by themselves at the event. Most of the chefs have experience doing charity events and passing out a large number of portions in a short amount of time, but I am sure they are used to having a helper at two so they can keep the food flowing as well as have time to chat with the guests. The first night of prep seems to go well for everyone. Many have chosen relatively simple dishes and have only a few components to their dish. At the end of prep time they all squeeze their prep into the coolers and head home. The excitement comes the next morning when a few of the chefs realize their cooler has gone down overnight. I am pretty sure that shoving a bunch of hot prepared food that has not been cooled down properly into the overly corwded cooler was the problem here, and the chefs should have known better than to expect the refridgeration to stand up to this. This is why in restaurants we cool our prep in ice baths before putting them in the reach in or walk-in to make sure the proper temperature is maintained.

Luckily the two chefs who were most affected were able to come back from this with the help of their fellow cheftestants. Rad still had her duck legs which she had time to braise and Hosea was given some pork loin to work with. Part of being a chef is being able to bounce back from a mishap such as this. You have to hold yourself together, figure out a new plan and move on. Some times you luck out and the new dish works out better than the original.

Since the song has been stuck in my head for the past few days, I thought about going through the dishes day by Christmas Day. Though I am finally at home and just got to see the ending of the episode with Tom's visit to the stew room, it made his reaction to even the winning dishes make more sense. Braised duck on toast, pork tenderloin with cabbage and apples, chicken pot pie, and a salad were the top dishes of the night. Though they were executed well and had good flavor, they seemed to be lacking in the creativity department. On the downside, Jamie served raw scallops with a chilled soup which did not go over well with Michelle and the other judges. Had she seared the scallops the outcome may have been much different. Melissa put together some flavors that classically work well but just let the gorgonzola take over the dish. Then there was the overly sweet ceviche with the golden rings of pineapple. Eugene tried to stand behind his dish but it seemed that Michelle Bernstein was no match for him on this one. No one wants to hear criticism about their food, but everyone makes mistakes from time to time and a good chef can take the criticism and learn from it. Having Tom come into the stew room is something that never happens so I am sure the chefs were a bit freaked out to see him walk in an sit down. It seems to me that Tom has been a bit disappointed thus far with the food this season and that this week just pushed him over the edge. Tom knows good food, and he enjoys cooking and eating good food and, I think it has been noticeable through the past few weeks that he has not been enjoying the food put in front of him as he would hope. The chefs were chosen from thousands of chefs from around the country who would love the opportunity to compete on the show and to meet great chefs like Tom and all of the other guest judges. They need to start cooking with more heart and prove to Tom that they deserve the opportunity they were given. I am looking forward to next week when the chefs are given the chance to really show what they can do. I am sure they have it in them and a little kick in the ass from Tom was the reality check they needed.

I just have to quickly say that that drunken outburst from Leah was just priceless. Having spent many a hours in that back room I know that many beers are had and a lot of drunken incidents occur. Pretty sure Dale would not have picked a fight for no reason after we won a challenge nor would Jen have kicked a chair against the wall if we were not passing the time with some brews. However, might not want to let the booze speak to Tom that way. Or please do so again because it was pretty entertaining.

Looking forward to some great food next week! And of course some tasty scallops from Jamie.

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