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Mystery Box Mayhem

Eli Kirshtein sings Wylie Dufresne's praises and weighs in on Angelo's performance.

By Eli Kirshtein

This is for sure a culinary competition classic, "The Mystery Basket." With notable appearances in cooking challenges ranging from the American Culinary Federation’s Certified Master Chef test to the common, everyday culinary school practical, it’s relevant at every cooking level. This was also a particularly difficult example of the challenge due to the additional mystery baskets coming out, which added yet another layer of difficulty given the precarious nature of some of the ingredients involved. I was in no way shocked by the pseudo freaking out that happened in the kitchen. I mean how can you really think through your dish without even knowing your required components?

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This is also a tricky challenge for the judges to go through. While the dishes are all different, they do have similar flavors due to the nature of the challenge. The real challenge is not getting palate fatigue during the tasting process!

I wasn’t really surprised that a few of the chefs went the route of soups or stews. It’s kind of a way to just keep adding things as they come up without altering the soul of the dish. I was also really impressed to see some of the chefs so capably adapting and creating thoughtful and articulate dishes while still being able to move with the new ingredients.

It seems that Alex and Amanda were in the bottom because of the sort of erratic nature of their dishes. They kept adding components without actually integrating them into the flavor profiles. I see the success for Kevin coming from a tasty dish that had some solid technique behind it, and Tiffany getting the win for developing a solid, soul-satisfying dish with a ton of flavor packed into it.

Wylie Dufresne is a really fun judge to have. First and foremost he is practically a culinary icon theses days, a tremendous chef with boatloads of foodstuffs knowledge and technical prowess to back it up. Additionally he knows the lay of the land in the Top Chef world. He has been a judge several times, as well as being a contestant on both seasons of Top Chef Masters, so you know he is familiar with the whole process. He is also good to have because of his culinary position. While being a super forward thinking chef, he is also extremely devoted to culinary classics and even Gastronomic Americana. You know he will be very objective and open minded to all styles and aspects of the different chefs' food.

Now the idea of disguising a dish is a thinking chef’s game. On one side you want to make it practically indistinguishable from the original incarnation, but on the other you don’t want to totally lose site of the concept. As the old saying goes, “We eat with our eyes first,” after all. I think the heart of the matter was to basically keep the same fundamental flavors while really manipulating the textures and obviously the appearance. I think the three top dishes really focused on that; Ed obviously excelled by having really strong cooking technique, and Kelly had great flavor. Tiffany really went over the top by having the whole package. She presented a restaurant ready dish with a high level of elegance, good approachability, and in this case the fundamental qualities of a gyro.

The bottom dishes really just all seemed to fall apart and really did a poor job on both the disguising as well as the execution level. All three really failed to have any kind of wow factor. At this point in the competition chefs are starting to get tired and beat down. They start to lose focus and ideas in your head start to get muddled. I think this was really evident with Angelo in particular this week. But in the end, Alex’s fatal flaw seemed to be an overall technical disaster that was just too egregious to over look. Hopefully this will quell the focus on his slipping through the cracks, and we can all look at the last few standing before the finals.

Follow me on Twitter @elikirshtein

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