Top Chef 3.6 – Out of the Freezer and Into the Fire

Tre and CJ

Although this week’s guest judge was notorious reality TV veteran Rocco DiSpirito, little drama appeared as a result of his participation. Rocco exhibited his exemplary food knowledge, appeared minus 30 lbs. looking impressively fit and trim, and dropped a tremendous compliment to one of the competing teams. However, the Top Chef editors did leave in a comment from Joey referring to Rocco as an a**hole. The primary focus this week turned out to be the preparation of high quality frozen food, and I think many of us learned a lot.

Before the frozen food challenge, this week’s QuickFire challenge was a simple and entertaining one. All of the chefs participated in a culinary bee – identifying various foods and ingredients by site or taste. Many contestants went down quickly mis-identifying things like yucca and mirin. Before we knew it, Casey, Brian, Hung, and Howie were the final 4. Casey finally ended up on top with a correct identification of roasted red bell peppers. In one of those little twists of real world experience, they were an ingredient in an arrabiata sauce I cooked earlier in the evening.

With Casey set up as immune from elimination, the chefs headed into the big challenge of the night. They were paired up to create a Mediterranean frozen food entree a la Bertolli. The endless commercials for Rocco DiSpirito’s Bertolli hookup managed to drill into our heads the synergistic relationship between Rocco and development of frozen food. As Gail Simmons’ points out in her blog, this ain’t your mom’s TV dinner.

Many of the chefs seemed to figure out, in examination of the products, that a key to Bertolli’s success in creating frozen dinners that taste good, is IQF (individually quick frozen) for the ingredients. However, only one team, Tre and CJ, actually followed up on what they learned. I definitely now understand why, if I freeze a whole slice of lasagna, or an entire entree, what I end up with when it is thawed is usually a texture-less version of the original. However, if I pull elements like pesto, meat patties, and blanched, frozen vegetables out of the freezer and combine them, I can come up with something quite tasty indeed. I think my own mom, in working with an abundance of garden-grown produce during my childhood, understood the value of IQF even if she never thought of it in those terms.

During the cooking process, Howie and Sara M. failed to manage any form of meaningful communication resulting in a small wave of disparaging comments about Sara M. from Howie’s mouth. Hung indicated he understood the concept of IQF to Chef Tom, but he failed to communicate well enough with his partner Joey to put it into action. Casey and Dale were a wonder to behold in their sense of excitement in working together and creating a truly delicious dish. The groups were given one hour to pack up their 15 frozen meals after the initial freezing process, and the Top Chef cameras caught the spectacle of Tre and CJ being the only team needing the hour to chop up their individual ingredients and bag them together. The rest of the chefs sat around and chatted until the time elapsed.

All chef teams set up stands in the Fresh Market to reheat their frozen entrees. There certainly was some irony in this arrangement. As expected. most of the teams had to contend with attempting to heat up a large frozen block in a short period of time while Tre and CJ found their dish heating in approximately 5 minutes (instead of the allotted 10) and ending up nearly perfectly cooked. The teams of Howie and Sara M. as well as Hung and Joey ended up with mushy, unpleasant disasters.

In the final judging Tre and CJ ended up with the slight edge over Casey and Dale due to guest judge Rocco finding a meatball with a frozen center although he lauded Casey and Dale for having created one of the most balanced pestos he had ever tasted. Tre and CJ will be off on all-expense-paid trips for 2 to Italy as a result of winning this challenge. As expected, Howie and Sara M. as well as Hung and Joey ended up at the bottom. Joey was eliminated, according to the judges, due to his inability to understand what needed to be done in this challenge and thereby preventing his team from completing a successful project. His exit was very emotional and filled with tears. It left us with the final splitting of the fiery, but entertaining, relationship between Howie and Joey. Now there are 9 cheftestants remaining!

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