Wednesday, November 19, 2014
We started out strong here: with guest judge Tiffani Faison (of Top Chef Season 1, Top Chef All Stars, and Top Chef Duels) taking the chefs out to a cranberry bog to harvest cranberries. I'm definitely a city slicker; I had no idea cranberries were grown/harvested that way, even though I'm sure I've been hearing the phrase "cranberry bog" all my life.... it's so easy to forget to ask where food comes from!
BUT we quickly went downhill: it's fine that the chefs harvested the cranberries, but why did it have to be a physical competition to see who could do it the fastest? Enough with these physical contests that are completely unrelated to cooking! To add insult to injury, the winners were the four who "filled" their baskets first, which to me seems a fairly subjective thing. If they really felt they had to do this, each basket should have been on a scale, and the contest should have been for which baskets reached a specified weight first. Sigh....
Back at the kitchen, Padme and Tiffani announced that the chefs would have 30 minutes to cook a dish highlighting cranberries, and hopefully not resorting to Thanksgiving standby dishes. The four fastest harvesters, who were Adam, Doug, Gregory, and Katie, would have access to better ingredients, while everyone else had to make due with an obviously inferior pantry table.
There were lots of fun dishes here that I would liked to have tasted, which I found amusing because I've never tasted cranberries -- I never eat them at Thanksgiving. Of particular interest to me were Gregory's arctic char with sweet and sour cranberry sauce, mushrooms, and pears (if anyone is going to get me to try a wider variety of seafood, it would be Gregory); Melissa's fried turkey bite with apple butter, cranberry compote, pecans, and fried sage (I'm a sucker for small bites); and Mei's sweet and sour pork with pickled mustard seeds and apple salad.
Tiffani singled out Mei's dish along with Katie's borscht and Doug's glazed pork tenderloin as the best three dishes, having noted that Doug's dish tasted "like fall in New England" and she would eat Mei's dish every day. In the end, though, Tiffani found Katie's borscht to be the boldest and most unique, and gave her the immunity. The bottom three contenders were Katsuji, who used skirt steak to make a tartare without cutting it finely enough; Adam for having a non-cohesive dish with his glazed New York strip steak (he had burned some element he'd wanted to put on it); and Stacy's curried cauliflower soup for a lack of seasoning and an overall "clunkiness." Padme had also noted that the cranberries in Stacy's dish had the least amount of sugar. I was actually surprised that the dish didn't get a "not enough cranberries" comment since it looked as though they weren't very prominent in the dish.
For the elimination, the chefs were told they would be making a traditional -- a really traditional -- Thanksgiving meal to be served family style at the Plimoth Planation to descendents of both the Mayflower and the Wampanoag tribe. They would only be allowed to use ingredients and cooking utensils/methods available at that time.
This challenge can be summed up by something that Adam said after they'd finished cooking: "Us nine absolutely nailed it as a team." And they did. No fighting, no drama, no bad dishes, and people helped each other with the final plating. It was lovely.
The chefs had been instructed to split themselves into two courses, and Doug, Katsuji, Stacy, and Melissa ended up going first. Doug served a spit-roasted rabbit with garlic, ramps, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and radish. I was a bit worried for him when one of the Wamponoag guests noted that they would have served the rabbit whole, whereas Doug had served it in chunks, knowing that the diners would not have forks available to them. Fortunately, the judges' later dicussion indicated that they really liked his dish. Katsuji served a roasted butternut squash with poached lobster, chestnuts, and an ancho chili butter, which was well received. Melissa served roasted vegetables: parsnips, green beans, and zucchini with a ramp and onion vinaigrette. Tom said there was a lot of flavor but that the zucchini could have been cooked a little more. Stacy produced ramp-smoked clams with butternut squash, lobster, and ramps. Tom seemed to like it, but Gail noted that there was a flavor she couldn't identify. Overall, Tom said it was a great course.
The second group consisted of Adam, Katie, Mei, Gregory, and Keriann. The diners seemed to love Adam's succotash with beans, corn, summer squash, wilted spinach, and spiced goat milk. They were sort of perplexed, but in a good way, by Katie's blueberry stuffing with blue cornmeal cornbread and lobster; Gail couldn't get over how "wacky" it was but admitted that she kept eating it. I have to admit that on appearance alone, it looked somewhat unappetizing to me, but there was a certain sameness in color and texture to most of the dishes that I know was because of the ingredients and techniques available.
Mei served a duckfat-roasted cabbage with trout vinaigrette that was well received. Poor Gregory, who had trouble controlling the heat levels and was worried about overcooking his goose, ended up with a dish that somewhat undercooked, which I have to imagine I would have found pretty unappetizing. Tom was gentler in his criticism that I've seen him be at other times; it's very obvious that he really respects Gregory, and I'm sure he would hate to see Gregory go down for something like this. Keriann initially intended to serve blueberry pie but saw that it wasn't going to work, and switched to venison with a blueberry compote. She assured Tom she hadn't sweetened the blueberries yet so it would be savory, but although the table complimented Keriann's dish in her presence, they later indicated that the blueberries were too sweet. Before the judges left the table, they noted that their least favorites were Melissa's (not as flavorful as other dishes); Greg's (not as powerful, and undercooked); Keriann's (blueberries too sweet), and Stacy's (that unidentified flavor, which by now had become "offputting" to Gail).
Good news comes first: the judges called forward Katsuji, Doug, and Mei as their favorites. Tom said that Katsuji produced great flavors with simple ingredients, while Gail said that Mei's cabbage was brilliant and unusual with a lovely texture. They also felt Doug's rabbit had just the right amount of smokiness. Guest judge Ken Oringer then named Katsuji as the winner.
For the least favorite dishes, the judges named Stacy, Melissa, and Gregory. Not for one minute did I think Gregory would go home (and I'm glad he didn't; it would have been a real loss to the competition), but I didn't know if they would eliminate Stacy or Melissa, the latter of whose dish they said sort of blended into the background. In the end, Padme asked Stacy to pack her knives, although Tom made a point of saying that it was a tasty dish, just the least favorite among all of the tasty dishes. Stacy said she was sad and a little relieved, and that the stress of being the "home" contestant from Boston had been keeping her from sleeping. While I can sympathize, I'm not sure if it makes much sense in the context of this challenge, because contemporary Boston chefs wouldn't be expected to know how to cook in dirt over a fire pit any better than anyone else.
Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Katie has been stepping it up lately, and she seems like such a nice person, so I really like her. Mei is consistent and determined, so that I find it hard not to root for her in some ways. Doug is a nice guy and has a lot of talent. And although Gregory had a bad week, I think he's still the most talented one there. I am finding the show more enjoyable as we get down to more manageable numbers and I feel like I know the chefs' strengths and weaknesses better.
The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Once again I was more interested in the Quickfire dishes than the elimination challenge dishes. My first choice would be Melissa's fried turkey bite. If I had to choose from the elimination challenge, I would probably go with Katie's stuffing or Mei's cabbage.
Coming Up: There's no show next week on the Eve of our actual Thanksgiving, but the show returns on December 3 with the infamous Restaurant Wars. I always cringe, because I get scared that the person who takes the front of the house is going to get screwed -- they're in a bad spot if the kitchen can't get food out, and they have to trust the other chefs to oversee their final food plating, which I think would be terrifying. Once in a while, though, a chef really manages to nail the front of the house role to perfection.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!