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Inspiration Hotel

Tom Colicchio explains how chefs find inspiration wherever they go.

Vegas used to be synonymous with casinos, but just as the coffee bar has replaced the bar most everywhere, so has the theme hotel supplanted the casino as Vegas’s main attraction.  You still think of gambling, but you probably think first now of the intentionally over-the-top, billion-dollar hotels that have shaped the cityscape there since the late 80s. It’s conceivable now to go to Vegas and never even make it to the casino floors, instead staying in a world-class hotel, enjoying the themes, going to shows, indulging at the spas … and having a great time.

Vegas’s theme hotels are considered some of the finest hotels in the world. I thought it would be interesting to see what in them inspired our chefs. As a chef it’s hard not to draw inspiration from everything, so to tell a chef to go draw inspiration from a building was not at all an esoteric or “out there” challenge. Usually there is something visual that creates a spark of interest and then a chef will just riff on that. Look at Michael, for example: for compelling reasons, he saw the fireboat by the Statue of Liberty at New York, New York … thought of firefighters … thought they like pub food such as chicken wings (though those are more closely associated with Buffalo, NY than NYC). Mandalay Bay took the time to put together an exhibit that stressed environmental sustainability. Bryan saw the substance beneath the perceived smoke and mirrors and was inspired by it.

While there were three dishes in the top and bottom, in both cases it really came down to two.  Jen’s dish was more boring than it could’ve been, and the meat was a bit tough, but apart from that there were no glaring mistakes — certainly nothing to rival those of Robin and Eli. She didn’t really know about medieval cooking. I believe that had she known more about how rancid meats were the motivating factor behind the spice trade, or about the use of honey, those facts would have triggered ideas for her and her dish would have packed a larger punch. But when her meal was placed alongside those of Eli and Robin, there was no chance of her being sent home.

Between you and me, I kind of liked Eli’s dish. It was not successful by a long shot, and I understand why my fellow judges truly did not, but I enjoyed it. I think the raspberry dome should have topped the other elements (circuses happen under the big top, right?) — it would have been fun in a way befitting the circus theme to break through that to find what surprises awaited beneath. Even so, the theme was better realized than in Robin’s dish, where she just never translated the Dale Chihuly glass sculpture from the lobby of the Bellagio to her dish.  The colors of the flowers in that handblown glass sculpture are so vivid, the texture so striking, and yet we were handed a piece of white panna cotta in a pale purple sauce with a piece of amber sugar on top (which, incidentally, made the photo taken for the episode, but didn’t make it to our plates). Right now every pastry chef who watched the program is thinking, “Ohmigod, there are SO many ways to pull this off!” If you know how to work with sugars, you cold make little translucent flowers in a host of colors, using dyes. Even if you’re not proficient enough to work in sugars, there are myriad ways to work with the colors and the idea of flowers. Panna cotta is basic, simple fare, but Robin’s wasn’t well done; the texture was wrong. And the sauce was terrible. What can I say? At the end of the day, every element of her dish failed. Eli’s dish was less bad. And so it was Robin’s turn to go.

As for the top dishes: Kevin’s dish was solidly good. I’m not sure how his salmon and vegetables told the story of the Mirage, but the dish was good. Kevin was smart in assessing that the hardest part of the challenge would be the simultaneous arrival of the 175 guests. And so he planned well, with both a cold and a hot component. The salmon was perfectly cured, and it was a smart decision to use the compressor on the cucumbers. The compressor puts them under pressure, they become translucent, and all the liquid is forced out of them. The tomato water he used was well made, everything was well seasoned and the dish was very unified … and Kevin was able to expedite it for 175 people. Well done.

Bryan showed similar foresight in planning his halibut escabeche with bouillabaisse and garlic chips. He could handle it for a crush of people because it was not a hot dish. I not only liked that he took the theme of ocean sustainability from his hotel, as I mentioned above, but I further appreciated how he expressed his inspiration in the dish itself.

Michael did what he does well. He completely reworked the notion of spicy chicken wings and created a dish that was utterly reconceived, fresh and new, yet true to the essence of the original.  Yet his win was about more than just his inspiration or his conception of the dish. His execution of this multi-component dish was excellent on all counts. He made good use of the antigriddle (which is just as it sounds:  an device that freezes something on contact). Michael used the antigriddle with the bleu cheese mousse. He applied it thinly, almost in a disc, scraped it off and voila! The chicken was perfectly cooked. And as for the hot sauce, Michael juiced peppers, reduced it down, added the chiles, the tomato…and ended up with a sauce that perfectly mimicked the bottled stuff his firefighters (and the rest of us) love. Funny as it may be to knock oneself out to create that particular product, I have to applaud Michael for going that route!

And so, while Kevin made a fine dish, the two truly special ones in this challenge were Bryan’s and Michael’s, and Michael edged out his brother by taking more risks and doing something more interesting. What he gave us weren’t really chicken wings; they were braised yet, as I mentioned above, had all the flavors of the traditional dish. His was surprising, fun, clever, well executed and well presented. Win-worthy.

Five chefs left standing … two more challenges in Vegas … Have a good week, all.

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