What the hell were Dale and his team thinking?
I'm talking, of course, about last night's episode of Top Chef ("Cooking By Numbers"), in which the chefs were split into teams of three members and tasked with creating a tasting menu in which each course would feature a trio of preparations of the same main ingredient.
This was a highly ambitious challenge, not just because the tasting menu--by dint of its definition--would need some sort of progression, but because the chefs would have to work together as a team in order to pull this off. In order to succeed, there needs to be some relationship between the individual items in each course, not just on the way they're plated together, but on what sort of harmony of taste the chefs are able to create. A tough order for a group of hotheaded chefs who would be happier to stab one another in the back than work as a single unit right now. But I do have to say that, for the most part, the teams operated really efficiently together, producing some interesting and creative (not to mention well-balanced) courses. Except for the disastrous dessert course, but we'll get to that in a second.
The Quickfire Challenge this week was one that I found really interesting. The chefs were challenged with creating an appetizer to be paired with a random Bombay Sapphire Gin-based cocktail. Several of the drinks were sweeter than others, leading to some difficulty for several of the contestants. Not an easy one this, especially when chefs are more used to wine pairings than finding complimentary dishes to cocktails.
The standouts were definitely Casey's French toast baguette with pecan-crushed foie gras and raspberry sauce, Tre's sumac and black pepper-seared halibut with smoked sea salt and watermelon (love the garnish on that), and Dale's dish of seared foie gras (again!) with candied parsnips and orange, served with a rice wine vinegar gastrique. Surprisingly, Casey was the winner of the Quickfire, lending her immunity in the coming Elimination Challenge. I had thought that Dale had this one in the bag since guest judge Jamie Walker, Global Master Mixologist for Bombay Sapphire, seemed to react so pleasantly to his dish and he perfectly balanced the sweetness of the cocktail with the richness of foie gras as well. Plus, candied parsnips, to boot!
Next up was the Elimination Challenge. Teams quickly split off to devise their courses and their individual items. Team 1--Lia, Hung, and Brian--decided to offer up a trio of scallops preparation but wisely switched to Florida pink shrimp when they saw that the market only had frozen scallops on offer. They delivered a stunning start to the menu and a perfectly balanced trio that was linked in flavor and delicateness with one another, starting with Brian's raw pink shrimp in 10-second ceviche marinade with radish and caviar, then moving to Lia's gorgeous olive oil-poached shrimp with avocado, cucumber, lime and grilled pepper salad, and finally to Hung's sauteed shrimp with corn pudding, bacon, and shrimp foam. All three were beautifully plated though I wasn't crazy about Hung's shrimp foam, which seemed a little too loose and liquid on the plate. (Then, again, I'm anti-foam since Marcel.)
Next up was the team that I felt was a virtual timebomb waiting to happen: Howie, Joey, and Casey, who was immune. Having Howie and Joey on the same team is just flirting with disaster as the two can never remain civil around each other for too long but throwing Casey into the mix--with her immunity--wasn't probably the best idea. Still, I was pretty amazed by the fact that their team didn't dissolve into strangulation but, that said, there was no cohesion in their dishes, a trio of tuna. Casey was up first with a messy, messy, messy (and way underseasoned) tuna tartare bird's nest with cucumber and jalapeno. (I like my tuna tartare cut with precision and this seemed mushy.) Next up was Howie's coriander-crusted tuna with blood orange marmalade, cilantro salad, and shiitake mushrooms; I had a feeling that the blood orange would completely overwhelm the delicacy of the tuna here. Finally, Joey presented a confit of tuna with fire roasted cherry tomatoes, crispy shallots, and bacon. Where was the progression here? These dishes seemed to have no interconnectivity, except for the fact that they all used tuna; even the plating was messy and unfocused and looked like they threw their own dishes on without a discussion about presentation.
Course 3: Filet mignon, served by CJ, Sara N, and Tre. Beautiful plating that was well thought out and balanced; I loved the use of the diagonal placement on the square plate which was elegant while fun. CJ's beef carpaccio with sherry vinaigrette, cigar tuile, and parsley oil was a perfect way to start this course, but I was let down by Sara's preparation, a butter-braised beef tenderloin with baby asparagus, carrots, and white truffle sauce. It looked beautiful on the plate but, as Tom Colicchio pointed out, it was essentially roast beef. Hmmm. Finally, Tre's dish--black pepper and rosemary seared beef tenderloin with a bluefoot chanterelle mushroom risotto cake and sherry reduction.
Then there was dessert. I'm still not entirely sure why Dale felt that they had to include a dessert course as part of a tasting menu, but that's what they opted to do. One would imagine that they would have stepped up with this calculated risk if they all had master pastry skills, but not a single one of the final team--Dale, Sara M., or Camille--had any real experience with pastry. Add to that the fact that they opted not to do something that would go over incredibly well--say, chocolate, for example--and instead focused on pineapple. Really, pineapple??? I'm not sure what they were thinking with that, but I knew it was a disaster waiting to happen. The three desserts were messy, fairly inedible, and incredibly bland-looking. Not the right way to end a tasting menu at all and these chefs would have been better served by devising an interesting cheese course, even.
Sara M.'s "semifreddo" with pistachio, ginger, and blueberry sauce was a disaster; it was really a botched panna cotta which refused to set thanks to powdered gelatin (which, yes, is a bitch to work with) but throwing it in the freezer does not make it a semifreddo, sorry. Dale's dish--a macadamia nut pastry with marinated raspberry, vanilla-coconut cream, and roasted pineapple--looked a pretty sad affair, like something found at an elementary school bake sale. But it was Camille's disgusting pineapple upside-down "cake"--made with cornmeal, no less--with ginger sabayon that was the true low point of the evening, a leaden, flavorless ball that would have been right at home on the boule court.
Had Casey not had immunity, I really do think she would have gotten sent home, but in the end the judges crucified Camille for her lack of pastry experience and categorized her as basically being bereft of any sense for using cornmeal and trying to create a muffin-like consistency for her cake. Given her other dishes in the competition--like the beef tacos from last time--haven't blown away the judges yet, I did think the would be eliminated sooner rather than later.
Next week on Top Chef ("Latin Lunch"), the chefs must serve their dishes to the cast and crew of Telemundo's "Dame Chocolate," Padma tells the chef this round is all about timing, and Hung runs around the kitchen with a very large cleaver. Seriously.
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Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionaryblog.com.