Culinary Gods and Unicorns

Culinary Gods and Unicorns

Lee Anne can die a happy girl now.

This episode is one of those episodes I was talking about; the ones where I felt that Top Chef had reached a pinnacle in culinary television and I could leave feeling completely satisfied. Beyond that, what a thrill for me to meet the man, the myth, the legend, Mr. Joel Robuchon. Our Quickfire took place at one of my favorite judges’ places, Daniel Boulud. Chef Daniel is the consummate gentleman with such a tremendous understanding of food, the business, everything. He’s one of those guys I worship.

I worked with the chefs of his restaurant at the Wynn. They set up a nice pantry for our contestants. I brought in equipment and 100 lbs. of live snails, as well as a case of precooked escargot meat. The kitchen at Daniel Boulud is unbelievably gorgeous, complete with copper pots and a wood-burning oven. Many of our contestants had never worked with snails before, but the dishes that were successful really hit the mark in new and creative ways. Mike Isabella’s Escargot Greek style on top of garlicky skordalia, a classic garlic potato puree with lots of olive oil, was big and bold. I loved its strong but simple Mediterranean flavors. Jen Carroll’s escargot with roasted ramps and yuzu was also simple but good. There were some classic style red wine braises, and then some other dishes that were terrible and really missed the mark. In the end, Kevin takes it down with everyone’s favorite ingredient (certainly mine): bacon, in a unique new form as bacon jam. Sounds Southern to me, and that’s not a bad thing!

I chose the proteins and sauces for this challenge. I wanted to pick classic French sauces that could be used on variety of proteins. There was also salmon and bordelaise as choices on our knives, both which weren’t chosen. I purchased all of the proteins for the contestants, as Whole Foods does not sell rabbit, frog legs, and live lobster. So to be fair, I needed to source proteins for all contestants, not just half the teams. They only had to interpret the rest of their dish and go shopping at Whole Foods for their other ingredients.

They had two hours to prep and an hour on location in Robuchon’s kitchen. When we travel to other kitchens outside of the house I usually have to drag half the kitchen with me, Vitamixes, food processors, hand blenders, pots, pans, re-circulators, all small hand tools, garbage bags, etc. I usually bring the equipment early in the morning, first to show up on site to get the kitchen ready for our chefs; while Angie and a PA show up slightly later (they only get an extra half hour of sleep) to the TC kitchen to help the contestants load all of their food and coolers into the back of the culinary cube, which then drives to location, where we meet them to unload it all into the on location kitchen.

Talk about a roundtable for the cooks to serve! Hubert Keller, who I loooove, Daniel Boulud, Jean Joho, Laurent Tourondel, and of course, Joel Robuchon! Kevin must’ve been peeing his pants. Let’s get to the food. The frog legs meuniere were not good. The breading, besides being too doughy, Ron didn’t fry them in hot enough oil, so they poached and became greasy and thick. Classic meuniere is done a la minute, not by bringing a slow two lbs of butter to a melt, the way Robin did. While they did have lemon confit, the butter was not browned enough and it lacked acidity and salt. The delicate mache had wilted under the weight of too much vinaigrette. I was most surprised that Mattin, being French, did not know what a veloute was: a classic French sauce based on a blond roux and chicken, white veal, or fish stock. The bacon overpowered the sauce and he used cream instead of a roux as a thickener. What could’ve been an exceptional dish was marred by amateur mistakes; the chicken was overcooked, the ravioli pasta was too thick, the bacon cream was not a veloute at all. The lobster americaine I found to be very good, though the sauce was muddy. I think they overreduced the stock for their sauce or maybe added a touch too much tomato. Other than the lobster being overcooked, it was a nice dish, though I wished for more texture; lobster on an uber-soft puree swimming in a bisque-like sauce, with paper thin raw cauliflower on top.

Let’s talk front-runners: Michael and Jen made an exceptionally beautiful dish. Classic rabbit chasseur is served with pasta. Chasseur means hunter’s sauce, traditionally made with shallots, red wine, brandy, veal stock, mushrooms, tomato concasse, and tarragon. Jen deconstructed the sauce, blanching and poaching cherry tomatoes, using dried shiitake mushrooms and the stock to make the veal demi, and then making fresh linguini and garnishing with shiitakes, and tarragon leaves. Michael’s presentation of the rabbit was a lesson in beautiful butchering and execution.

It’s clear to me that Bryan runs a kitchen. I like the way he approaches challenges, full of ideas he’s ready to execute, not suggestions he thinks he may be able to pull off. While Mike Isabella did a great job with the deconstructed bearnaise, half of the sauce was from Bryan (the eggless bearnaise from an iSi siphon) and Bryan’s meatglued, cured, and slow poached trout was cooked to perfection. It was a classic entree, reinvented into a simple, three-bite dish.
Unfortunately for Hector and Ash, the chateaubriand with green peppercorn sauce was not so successful. I preheat the ovens, grills, and deep fryers for the contestants, every challenge, every kitchen. Hector certainly had enough time to cook the beef. Both Ash and Hector were responsible for the faults of the dish. Classic green peppercorn sauce is a combination of shallots, green peppercorns, herbs, brandy, veal demi, cream, and butter. Their sauce lacked cream, beyond quantity on the plate. The beef however, was unforgivable, as it had not been rested so it bled all over each plate, it was hacked up in pieces, and it was overcooked in certain parts, as Hector had turned up the oven to speed up cooking, which never ends up in a good result. I saw Hector this past week at Starchefs, as well as several other contestants (we’re a growing family). You have to understand, that with any reward, there is risk involved. Hector runs a VERY successful restaurant in Atlanta, and his presence in the kitchen cannot be ignored. Some of our contestants have a hard time processing being eliminated. Either they feel like they didn’t get a good edit (and to this I say, "You are always being filmed. You get what you give."); or they feel like what was seen on television is not a proper representation of them as a person or as a chef. And to this I say, OF COURSE! Hector is the guy on Season 6 who went home waaaay too early, but that’s the game, and that’s all it is, a game, a stepping stone, a way to learn more about yourself and improve your cooking game. So to Hector, I’d say, "Good luck," but he doesn’t need any. Great guy, great food, he’ll be just fine.
That day I wore a t-shirt a friend gave me. It has a beautiful illustration of a pig’s face on it, which is surrounded by smaller illustrations of different pork cuts. When I was introduced to Joel Robuchon, I shook his hand, and spoke the very few words of French that I know in greeting. He smiled, shook my hand, looked down, poked the pig face on my t-shirt with his finger, and actually giggled, "Cochon." Again, I can die a happy girl now.

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