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“If you can mock a leek, you can eat a leek”
–William Shakespeare, Henry V

Tom Colicchio wishes he had as much great produce as the chefs had to work with.

You saw the gorgeous proteins that our cheftestants were falling all over themselves to nab when they first arrived at my restaurant for the Elimination Challenge. At Craftsteak we have every kind of beef imaginable (not to mention, of course, the cuts of lamb, pork, veal…) and I don’t doubt that at least some of the chefs are familiar with our menu and were thinking of what they could do, given free reign with those ingredients in that kitchen … until we switched it up on them, that is.

But no meat should not have meant no inspiration. I don’t know if you noticed, but the walk-in at Craftsteak was filled with the most amazing produce. We ran a truck in from the Santa Monica Green Market the night before filled with just the most incredible stuff. I was itching to get at some of it myself. I personally love walking through the Green Market in Union Square and seeing what the farmers are offering that day — it’s the produce that so often is the inspiration for my dishes, not the meat. Further, while Craft and Craftsteak serve plenty of meat dishes, we have a huge roster of vegetables and, in fact, many people come just to eat those offerings, knowing that they’ll have a great culinary experience. With this challenge we were giving the chefs the opportunity to be inspired as I so often am, by having brought the green market right to them. I just wish the chefs had allowed themselves to get really excited by what they found in the walk-in, despite having to do a 180-degree turn at 90 MPH.

I wish I could remember the comedian who said, “Sure, hunting’s a sport … it’s just that one side doesn’t know it’s playing.” (The first person who comes up with the name gets an autographed copy of my book Think Like a Chef. Other people have ripped him off since). We can debate the merits of eating meat versus eating vegetables. There are certain acids in our stomach that are present solely to break down meat, that wouldn’t be there were we not supposed to eat the stuff. But along with those acids, we also have freedom of choice, and while I personally like being at the top of the food chain, I fully respect the choice to abstain from eating meat, whether for reasons of health or conviction. I thought this was a great challenge.

For the most part, the chefs did well.

I know that Mike V. was furious that Kevin won this challenge — as we all saw in the episode, he felt that Kevin’s techniques were more rudimentary than his and didn’t merit the win. He said something to the effect that he could have made Kevin’s dish in culinary school, that he cooks that way when whipping things up at home on his weekends off. In general, please do not be snowed by the techniques employed by the Voltaggio brothers. Yes, they’re employing advanced techniques versus Kevin’s more basic methods, but at the end of the day unless you can pull off those elevated elements and actually make the food taste great, I don’t care how many blowtorches it took to create the dish — Kevin’s food not only is consistently well executed but also tastes really incredibly good. Young chefs are often keen to use technological wizardry and forget how to just roast something and make it really delicious, and perhaps Michael would do well to use the “weekend technique” he’s disparaging in order to make his food soulful and flavorful. In general, when Kevin has won challenges, the Voltaggio brothers’ methods might have been more advanced and out there but were weaker on seasoning. So I usually agree with the results when Kevin wins.

That said in response to Michael’s comments, I will also say that as regards this challenge, I was a huge fan of Michael’s dish and was talked out of my position by my fellow judges. That combination of banana and asparagus was so out of left field, and yet it worked. It gave us an interesting combination of the grassy asparagus with the rich banana. And yet there wasn’t the overwhelming banana flavor you’re probably imagining: if you were blindfolded and given a bite, it would take you a moment to realize you were tasting banana. It was an interesting background flavor — subtle, not caramelized and sweet — and it made sense in the dish. Mike showed great foresight and took an enormous risk: the dish could have been utterly disgusting and could have gotten him sent home. And yet it was great.

As for the bottom three dishes, while Jennifer gave us what amounted to a side dish or an appetizer, it was very well crafted and an overall competent dish. In light of what her colleagues in the bottom three gave us, Jennifer wasn’t going to be sent home for that dish.
Robin’s dish was a poor dish. It was what we might get from an accomplished home cook who says, “Oh, I like this … and I like that … and this would look pretty with them, too….” The elements were not in harmony, there was no cohesive vision, and it missed the mark. It wasn’t very good, but Michael Isabella’s was terrible.

Before we even discuss the leeks, let me confirm for those of you who weren’t there to taste the dish that while the leeks may have been the primary problem, they were not the only problem. Natalie was right to say that the rest of the dish underwhelmed. As for the leeks themselves, they were butchered; they were horribly cooked. Certain ingredients can withstand imperfect preparation; please never serve me a badly cooked leek. Mike had time to correct what was happening and didn’t. But even had he done so, I still can’t quite grasp what Mike was striving for, conceptually. Why did he think it was in any way inventive to make leeks look like scallops? That’s just silly — there’s no reason for it. A leek is not a scallop — it’s not even a protein — and there’s no reason to make it look like one. This was a challenge about vegetables and was an opportunity to honor them, rather than turn them into faux-finishes of proteins. Furthermore, even were I to accept the premise that making a leek look like a scallop was a cooking innovation, I’d think it would have made more sense then for Mike to have roasted it as one would roast a scallop, which would have yielded a far more satisfying taste and texture than the one he was striving for and failed to attain. I don’t get it.

Mike I. knew his dish was bad — he even acknowledged as much to while we were shooting the reunion episode — but seemed to count on Robin’s dish being worse, so he never seemed to actually consider that he might be packing his knives. I really think he believed that as long as Robin was still there, he was safe, that there was no chance she’d outlast him. Jennifer, on the other hand, was wholly focused on her own performance, without giving a thought to those of her competitors. She understood that a mistake could get any one of them sent home.

As it can. We’re down to six chefs. Stay tuned.

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