This is where things get dirty.
I have said countless times that since the show’s inception, my favorite challenges have been those in which we take the chefs out of their element (read: a kitchen) and force them to cook in an unusual environment. Season 1’s street-food challenge in San Fran’s Mission District, Season 2’s surfer challenge on the beach in Malibu, or even last season’s Foo Fighters’ challenge, in which our che’testants cooked with limited equipment in a makeshift kitchen at a concert arena, are all ideal examples. It’s not that I enjoy seeing our poor chefs suffer or that I take any pleasure in making their lives as hellish as possible – well, maybe just a little… On the contrary, I firmly believe some of the best food we eat is produced under duress. Any chef can be a great technician if they practice enough, but it takes real talent to make something innovative and delicious with such limited resources. In addition, the way chefs act and what they choose to cook in these challenges indicates how well rounded they are as professionals, and how prepared they are to face future obstacles, whether on the show or otherwise moving forward.
Of all the wild ideas we have thrown at our contestants over the years, this one – to sleep in tepees in the middle of the desert, and then cook lunch for a few dozen ranchers on open-flame grills – ranks as possibly the most insane of all. Nevada in May (when we shot this episode) was over 110 degrees in the shade. Also, the chefs had not slept much the night before, as you can only imagine, and water was scarce, to say the least. Oh, and there was sand, lots and lots of sand.
We could not have chosen a better guest judge than Chef Tim Love to be with us for this entire episode. A true Texan, Tim owns one of the best restaurants in Dallas/Fort Worth and has made a huge career out of cooking wild game and larger cuts of meat, often outdoors and over an open fire. (Side note: He also happens to be a gifted recreational gambler and fun to be around when you have time to kill in Sin City. Take his Black Jack advice and let him do the ordering at dinner. You will not leave town poor or hungry!)
On the whole, our chefs came through this day of utter misery better than we had anticipated. The stressful challenge proved once again the vast possibilities of creating tasty, pleasing food in the most dire circumstances. Bryan’s Roasted Pork Loin, Corn Polenta, Dandelion Green & Glazed Rutabaga was definitely the highlight of our meal. It exemplified what I wish many others had done: used ingredients appropriate to the environment and cooked in a manner natural to the equipment at hand. Bryan composed the plate to showcase the pork, which was well roasted, but still juicy. The vegetables and polenta each added their own taste and texture – sweet, creamy, and just a little bitter. It was exactly what I wanted to be eating at that moment, or at any cowboy barbecue, for that matter. Our ranchers agreed.
Laurine’s Sautéed Artic Char with Tomatillo Salsa, Corn Salsa & Grilled Potato followed this same winning formula and succeeded as well. Sure, fish may not be what you crave on the range, but cooked and seasoned well, with a little charred skin, was very satisfying. Michael Voltaggio was the risk-taker of the night, and I must applaud him for it. He is one of the first chefs in my memory who was able to articulate, in both his words and his dish, what we judges think so often when eating the contestants’ food: Do not completely alter your food philosophy to please us, just adapt it to the challenge and cook the best food you possibly can. Mike made Dashi with Miso & Marin Cured Black Cod with Watermelon. Not something any of us would expect to be served on a cattle ranch in the sweltering heat, but no one could deny that it was utterly delicious. The fish was savory and light, the broth had strong citrus undertones from the ponzu, and the watermelon gave it all a lovely, sweet finish. That he cooked it over the grill was impressive too.
The worst dishes of the day were immediately apparent. The reasons for their failure were also quite obvious. Robin could not get her head together and was entirely overwhelmed. Although the initial idea for her Grilled Romaine Salad with Drunken Prawns & Spicy Chicken Sausage may have been a good one, she could not manage to translate it to our plates. The shrimp she served was of poor quality and had turned rancid in the extreme heat. If she has been less frazzled, she could have tasted it beforehand and chosen not to serve it. She should have known better. The fact that we were then served two different plates of ceviche was to me a major cop-out. I realize both Mattin and Ron thought they were cleverly guarding against the unknown by choosing food they could prepare without cooking at all, but I can think of few foods less appropriate. Above all else, the fact that they had no access to ice, let alone proper refrigeration, became a serious problem. Ceviche needs to be kept cool. Hot, raw seafood baking in the sun is not an appetizing prospect, believe me. Ron’s Coconut, Lime, Mango & Tuna Ceviche was passable. His Hawaiian Coconut Mojito was disastrous. Ron does not drink, so why think he could make a great cocktail? Note to future chefs: Do not present us with food that you would not consume.
Mattin’s version of ceviche was the real problem. It was so sour and fishy, so rotten that Tom threw it out and Tim claimed it made him sick. Yuck. If those were not reasons enough to send Mattin packing, the cutting job was sloppy. For ceviche to marinate in acid evenly, the pieces need to be sliced in a uniform and careful manner, not the case here at all. I have boasted that after six seasons of the show none of us have ever become seriously ill from the food. It is unfortunate, and somewhat ironic, that in the desolate wilderness outside Las Vegas we lost that gamble. It is something none of us could overlook – and a mistake for which Mattin paid the ultimate price.