I’m sitting on a train heading in the wrong direction – away from home – and I’m going to try my best not to sound testy. As you’ve also just watched the episode though, I’m sure you won’t fault me if I do. In this week’s challenges, the chefs were asked to perform two tasks that home cooks around the country do deftly on a regular basis, i.e., bake a pie and grill something. Watching the episode, I was amazed to hear mutterings of “I’m not a pastry chef” and “I’m not a grill chef.” The line of the week goes to guest judge Johnny Iuzzini for replying to Amanda, “I think it’s kind of a cop-out to say you’re not a pastry chef. My grandmother’s not a pastry chef either, and she can make a pie.”
Exactly. The French term for your basic pie crust is “pate brisee.” It requires flour, water, butter, and salt; that’s it. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make – all you need to know is the ratio and the temperatures (cold butter, ice water). The dough is incredibly versatile, lending itself both to savory and sweet pies, tarts, quiches, and the like. It does not require exact measurements – there are plenty of pastry chefs who make this dough without measuring out the ingredients. I am amazed, frankly, that any chef would arrive to compete in a season of Top Chef without knowing how to whip up a quick pate brisee, as it is not unlikely the chefs would be called upon to use one some way or other. So I was disappointed to hear “I’m not a pastry chef” and see so many of our chefs freeze up and flame out.
And then came the picnic. Where many of our chefs – including our winning chef – showed themselves “not to be grill chefs." I fear that many good chefs aren’t necessarily good cooks. They may do well with administering their own kitchens and may even generate good food from within that comfort zone, but take them out of their kitchens and away from their recipes and they’re lost. We shall see, as this season plays out....
In Think Like a Chef, I tell of a watershed event in my life: To briefly recount that story, I was at my family’s swim club one summer day when I was approximately 10 years old, and after a day of swimming I found myself good and hungry. My father had brought along several club steaks, and had heated the grill but not yet cooked the steaks. I couldn’t wait. I popped one on the grill and, when it seemed adequately cooked, I popped it back off and ate a bite. It was the first time I’d eaten something that hadn’t yet been seasoned and cooked for me, and I was surprised that it wasn’t up to steak’s usual delicious standards. I realized that something was missing … it needed salt. I added some and tasted another bite – and that same steak was suddenly really good. I added a drop more, and wow! It was great! I cooked another and then another, experimenting with the level of seasoning, discovering the fine line between bland and tasty, between flavorful and overly salty. I came out of my reverie to face an angry family: I’d singlehandedly cooked and eaten all the steaks. So I discovered salt that day; I guess I discovered grilling, too. I was 10, and it never occurred to me to shy away from the task because “I wasn’t a grill chef.” I figured out at 10 that just because you’re tossing something on a grill doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be seasoned correctly. While discussing Tracy’s dish at the picnic, we judges all downplayed how improperly seasoned and how generally poor it was lest we make it completely obvious that she’d be going home, but we all knew instantly that her dish was the weakest by far. The amount of fennel in the sausage was staggering, she served the patties on a plain bland roll, and she cooked the peppers to death, until they were mush. And that’s her version of “Italian food”? This Italian was completely taken aback by that. Overcooked rice and undercooked beans from Kevin? I was glad to see the chefs find inspiration for their “Great American Cookout” meals in flavors and dishes from so many cultures that have lent to our larger one, but the dishes they created still needed to be done well. Arnold’s lamb kofta was done well. Other Honorable Mentions? Jonathan really responded to Amanda’s grilled asparagus with the meyer lemons. And I remember in particular Ed’s spicy grilled tuna with the lentil hummus.
I wonder what I’ll decide to grill this weekend, when I get back home. Wherever you are this Fourth of July weekend, and whatever your particular culinary traditions for the holiday, have a great holiday.