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Nodding to New Orleans' traditional Monday meal, Louis Armstrong famously signed his letters "red beans and ricely yours." I can't think of New Orleans without an instant sense-memory flood of the flavors that are uniquely its own. But you don't need me to tell you all of the gigantic contributions, from culinary to cultural (especially musical), that have sprung from this little city. Let's just say that I was as excited as our Final Four to be there. And I was very pleased to have Emeril Lagasse with us as our guest judge. When it comes to Cajun flavors and New Orleans cooking, there was no better chef we could have had. We so appreciated, too, that he invited the chefs to come in and have dinner the night before, to give them a direct experience of New Orleans flavors.
As you saw, we did something new this season, inviting three of our strongest past contestants to vie for the chance to get back into the game. We felt that the requirement that the winner of this Quickfire Challenge win the Elimination Challenge in order to go on to the finale was a way to keep it fair to the other finalists, who, after all, had never been eliminated and didn't deserve to suddenly find themselves on fully equal footing with someone who had. But we liked upping the stakes for them all by lengthening their odds. It put a bit of extra heat under them to work that much harder to excel. Jamie, Leah, and Jeff all did a good job, but Jamie's dish looked better than it tasted, while Jeff's dish had a layering of flavors that put it far above either Jamie's or Leah's dishes. So Jeff was back.
That night, however, Jeff was never in the running for a reason that didn't make it into the final edit. He did a very fine job, however he used a sterno chafing dish to keep his oysters warm that, for whatever reason, imparted a taste of burning sterno to the oysters. We all smelled it and remarked on it while the chefs were setting up their stations, and then we tasted that horrible taste when we sampled his selections. So, unfortunately for Jeff, who otherwise was cooking very well, he could never have taken the top spot of the evening.
Hosea's gumbo was the best of the three gumbo-type dishes. But I wasn't crazy about the catfish, personally. I know that he was originally going to use another fish, but it wasn't fresh enough and he swapped it out for the catfish. The pecan crust could have been ground finer and didn't adhere well to the fish. Still, it was nice to see him cook fish to order, and, ultimately, he cooked two dishes that were strong enough to get him into the finale.I was really surprised at how consistently well Carla had been doing in the competition for a while. And, as you saw, her performance in this week's challenge continued that trend. Her oyster stew, which she made with a base of potato, cream, bacon, and oyster that she then strained, and which she garnished with an individually poached oyster, was truly well done, especially given that she poached the oysters to order. Furthermore, her savory beignet, also fried to order, was incredibly tasty. It's very impressive that she made both of her dishes to order and pulled off such terrific dishes. It's even more impressive that she did so with a huge smile on her face all night long. She was having a great time, and her food was really, really good (yeah, that's the technical term we chefs use for it: "really, really good." What can I say? It was.)
So it came down to the elimination of Stefan or Fabio: Stefan's beignet was very good — playful, light, and well-executed. His gumbo over grits was predominantly a grits dish. It was good, but not exciting. As for Fabio, by making a cacciuco, in which the sofrito acts much the way the holy trinity does in Cajun cooking, Fabio found the common ground between Italian and Cajun food. It's not exactly like a roux, but the way that dish is flavored and layered, with onions, carrots, celery, leek, and olive oil cooked for a long time, it's very close. But Fabio's lacked a little flavor. His muffuletta, his pasta, his macque choux, all were just OK. Plus, his food wasn't hot when he served it to us, despite his having made a big deal of needing us to wait while he made it especially for us. Fabio's winning personality just couldn't win him a spot in the finale; Stefan's overall performance was stronger, despite his seeming insouciance. Fabio was very gracious in defeat, though, and I will share with you that the following morning, I had a chance to spend a little time with Fabio, and I learned that he has a lot of exciting developments happening professionally. This is a man who by the age of thirty had run and sold several successful restaurants in Italy, come to the U.S. and created great opportunity for himself. Without spilling the beans prematurely, I'll say only that we all have not heard the last from Fabio …
Nor, despite the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, have we heard the last from New Orleans. I am proud to say that chefs played a leading role in getting the city back on its feet, not only by helping our colleagues get their restaurants back up and running to help bring tourism back, but through countless charitable events and other volunteer efforts on behalf of the city. And it is coming back, thank goodness, albeit slowly. Anyone reading this who is interested in continuing the critical efforts to rebuild the ravaged Lower Ninth Ward can make contributions to Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation: www.makeitrightnola.org