For many of us we dreaded those times back in our school days when we were assigned to or forced to choose a team to put together a project on which we would all be evaluated. Last night it looked like the Top Chef contestants felt the same way. Who hasn’t wondered whether the team judgment was seriously faulty when compared with our own individual thought process, and who hasn’t participated in a simultaneous cringe when a charismatic leader took the group down the wrong path? The 4th episode of this season’s Top Chef was a good primer on all that can go bad in a group project.
Before the elimination challenge group project took place this week, the contestants were faced with one of the most interesting QuickFire challenges of the season so far. Bombay Sapphire gin mixmaster Jamie Walker presented a cornucopia of mixed drinks featuring the gin as a primary element. Each of the contestants drew a knife to select their specific drink. They were then given 30 minutes to come up with an appetizer to pair with the drink.
Dale expressed confidence that he could win the challenge since his last consulting job involved working with mixed drinks. His work was deemed successful, but ultimately it was Casey and some inspiring creativity that took the prize. She paired a Strawberry Balsamic Rickey with French Toast topped with Foie Gras. For Casey’s benefit, and everyone else less schooled in mixology, a Rickey is a drink usually containing gin, a fruit element, and soda water. One of the surprises of this QuickFire is that Hung ended up in the bottom 3 with negative comments about his flavors. In typically style, Hung insisted that the guest judge had been misled and did not understand his efforts.
On we go to the big elimination challenge with Casey holding immunity. The 12 chefs found out they were to be divided into 4 groups of 3. Each group was to provide a tasting menu of 3 items using the same basic ingredient and all of the groups should work together somewhat to create a full meal. The contestants were in charge of selecting the groups of 3. The first reaction was to have each person draw sheets of paper to determine the group. However, after the selection took place, a great deal of shuffling determined the final arrangement.
Group 1 of Hung, Brian, and Lisa aimed to create the first course with a tasting menu of scallops. Group 2 of Howie, Joey, and Casey headed to the store expecting to create a course of duck. Group 3 of CJ, Tre, and Sara N. chose beef as their shared element. Finally, the 4th group of Dale, Sara M., and Camille decided to be daring and, even though none of them were pastry experts, present a dessert course with pineapple as the shared ingredient. With only $150 to spend on 14 diners, some expected shuffling took place while grocery shopping and Group 1 ended up with shrimp instead of scallops and Group 2 headed forward with tuna.
Group 2 was a train wreck from the beginning with the feuding pair of Howie and Joey forced to work with Casey who suddenly seemed a bit less than concerned after winning elimination. On the positive side, Howie and Joey bonded when faced with this difficult situation, but Casey seemed to misunderstand how a lackadaisical performance could affect her teammates. Group 4 faced a different problem. Dale had boldly led the trio into dessert territory only to discover that desserts can be particularly difficult when you have little experience in the area. Sara M. was flummoxed by having to use powdered gelatin instead of gelatin sheets while Camilled found cake baking difficult without a recipe.
There was not a lot to say about the other 2 groups because all tended to move along smoothly and when it came time for judging, these 2 fairly sailed through the proceedings. The only drama occurred in deciding which individual had prepared the winning dish. Ultimately, Lia, of Team Shrimp, took home the honor for the dish illustrated at above right – Poached Shrimp with Lime Syrup was judged to taste particularly strong and clean. For those who have not been paying attention, Lia is an executive sous chef at the esteemed Jean-Georges located in the Trump Tower at Central Park West in Manhattan. The restaurant has received James Beard accolades for Best Chef and Best New Restaurant.
On the downside, both Team Tuna and Team Pineapple were summoned to the judges table to discuss what went wrong. Apparently, Casey’s tuna tartare was so vile that it brought down her entire team putting both Howie and Joey on the brink of elimination. For the dessert-focused team, Dale was given blame for luring them down the merry path of pastry disasters. While Sara M.’s attempt to turn a failed panna cotta into a semifreddo was a mess, Camille’s attempt at making a pineapple upside down cake was even more miserable. At the judges table, Chef Tom lamented that Camille did not understand she needed to make a genoise (for those at home, a buttery sponge cake) instead of something heavier like her ultimate creation. In the end Camille was sent packing and Dale carrying guilt for her demise. As judge Ted Allen opined, choosing pineapple as the shared ingredient amounted to Dale jumping “on a big sword.”
A final element of last night’s Top Chef that must be mentioned were the guest diners for the tasting menus presented by the contestants. They served local members of Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international gastronomic society. More than a few heads were turned by the sashes worn to dinner by members. They are pictured here at Blogging Top Chef.