Top Chef Episode 9: Truffles and Wine
Despite the fact that my girl Lee Anne was eliminated in this round, the show redeemed itself in some respects from the debacle of the last episode. One big reason for this is that the judges for the main elimination round, a group of chefs from Napa Valley restaurants, had some good and fair comments.
The quick elimination round is exactly the kind of fun challenge that I like to pose to myself sometimes: how to make something that is available in a generally awful "junk food" version much better? Each of the contestants did pretty well in this I thought - even Dave, who came in last, brought in some good flavors. I have to say that Lee Anne's seafood sausage thing didn't sound too appetizing, but the judges liked it. (See the notes at the end of this post about seafood sausages.) It did make me think though: why the fact that Lee Anne was using all kinds of Japanese food references did not bother me as much as it did when Stephen did the same? If one is to judge by her last name, Wong, she is not Japanese. Or maybe she is partly...she certainly knows how to fold an origami crane. (I've yet to encounter a Japanese female who doesn't know how to fold a crane, or a non-Japanese non-origami fanatic who does.) This is a reflection really of the kinds of prejudices we hold, and why for instance most Japanese restaurants hire Asian waitresses over other ethnicities: the customers probably feel like they are getting a more "authentic" experience when they are served by an Asian-looking person. Or why say a soul food restaurant is not likely to be hiring Stephen as a maitre'd. Or, why French restaurants make their waiters take on fake French accents! And on and on.
Harold's popcorn cake with ceviche sounded really interesting. I would love to see this show up on a real menu. His comments about his disdain for low-class food fortunately didn't get reflected in his actual dish. The difference between Harold and uh...Stephen (we manage to bash him even after he's gone) is that Harold really seems to have a passion for food and his profession, so when he disses junk food it doesn't come off as being snooty.
On to the main challenge: truffles and product placement wine! Truffles, of course, are one of the world's great delicacies (see notes). Fundamentally they are a very pungent fungus, and of course very expensive, and that expensiveness is part of the appeal for the food dilletantes. (If brussel sprouts cost $1000 per kilo, you'd see drooling articles with artistic macro photos of them in magazines.)
I must say that I am not one of those people who just raves about truffles; they are very interesting for sure, but I would not kill for them. For this reason plus their ridiculous price tag, I've never cooked with truffles. I have had them several times in restaurants though: most of the time they are just hinted at (such as in patés with truffles). The most memorable truffle dishes I have had have been at a wonderful restaurant in Strasbourg, France called Le Buerhiesel, a long-time holder of the coveted Michelin 3 stars. (For what it's worth, Strasbourg is only about 2 1/2 hours away by train from Zürich, so we go to that lovely city as often as we can.) One of their signature dishes is a very simple appetizer of raw scallops with a scattering of finely chopped truffles. I love this, but the best truffle concoction I had here once was a simple potato galette , basically a potato cake similar to a Potatoes Anna, with big - and i mean big, chunks of truffle scattered throughout. No meat was in sight, it cost something like $50, and it was absolutely wonderful. The salty-creamy blandness of the potatoes brought out the full flavor of the truffles perfectly.
I believe this is why Dave, the definite underdog, won. Although he did cop out a bit by using beef, he didn't treat the truffles in the standard ways. You get truffles paired with fois gras (Tiffani), or in a risotto (Lee Anne) all the time. By using it in a simple mac and cheese (though, a very pretty individual-portion version) Dave was able to bring out the full flavor of the star ingredient. Harold's dish probably did something similar, but it sounded more diffused to me. Mind you, if the judges had not been as sophisticated as the group of chefs were, he might not have won: they are used to truffles, they handle them themselves. As far as truffles go, their palettes are jaded, so the mac and cheese was a nice surprise for them. If the judges had been on the level of Ms. Wedding Planner from last week, he might not have been so lucky.
On some level, all of us techie types stuck in front of our computers and fantasizing about becoming a chef or other food-related professional should be rooting for Dave - he actually did it, in his 30s! I doubt he can win the whole thing - I tend to think that Harold is the favorite now - but Dave has sure come a long way.
Lee Anne got bitten by two things: she precooked her risotto, a definite culinary faux pas, and she was again too ambitious. There were way too many ingredients in her dish, and the star ingredient was a bit lost. I was very, very sorry to see her go: she has a sparkling personality, is a very good chef, and she's a big Asian girl! I love her. But she did deserve to go in this very tight round. I really hope that she will have a great career as a chef. If she opens her own restaurant I'll be first on line to make a reservation.
I probably won't do a summary of next week's "reunion" episode, since no cooking seems to be involved. From the preview, on a reality show level it sure looked like it's going to be fun.
- Sausages and sausage-like products made from seafood have been around in Japan for a long time. Chikuwa is ground-up fish that is made into a tube shape; it's often used in oden (a sort of fish-cake and soybean-product stew) or in stir-fries and such. Kamaboko is a sort of small paté-shaped, rather rubbery fish cake. Finally there is gyoniku souseiji (literally "fish meat sausage"), which is..well, ground up fish made into a wiener-like sausage. (All sorts of things are made from surimi, an all-encapsulating term for ground-up mystery fish, like the imitation crab (kanikama) that's used in lower-class California rolls.)
- Japan is a food-obsessed country, and people often talk about what are the World's Greatest Delicacies (sekai no dai chinmi). The top three are considered to be fois gras, truffles, and caviar. For me the top three are natto, peanut butter and Marmite. Just kidding.