As told to Archana Ram.
All of the fondues from last night’s Quickfire actually sounded pretty good. I thought that they were all creative. Obviously, in the time they had, some are always going to be better than others. I always think it’s smart when you can take flavors that people are comfortable with or nostalgic about and introduce them in a new way. The truth is, in food there are generally very few things that haven’t been done before. What Richard did was what he’s always trying to do is, which is to take flavors, a dish or a style we know, and reinvent it in a way we haven’t seen before. He’s not going to invent a new flavor, but he can certainly present it in a way that surprises you and that’s really cool.
Jimmy Fallon is a fan of the show, and so is his family. For a while now, he’s expressed his appreciation of the show, and we always said we should get Jimmy on. Working with him on the Elimination was natural. We wanted this season to be about special New York experiences, and 30 Rock is such an iconic place. The history of late night talk shows out of 30 Rock — Johnny Carson, Conan — it just felt right to have the next generation with our All-Stars. We had a blast with them. It really was his birthday that week so the producers devised a challenge that would get the chefs into his studios, live in front of the audience and then have them cook things for his family. He got all of his family to pick their favorite dishes, and they loaded them onto the screen.
The Cell Phone Shoot Out was taped during the audience warm-up, so you’ll never see that on the show. But I was just on his show to promote the episode. It was my third time on the show, and it’s always such a trip. He does such a good job. He’s so easy going, welcoming, generous and funny. Plus, The Roots are awesome. I have a crush on the sousaphone player, and he knows it. I told him.
Being at that table really did feel like we all came over to the Fallon house for Sunday night dinner. His parents and in-laws were funny because they were nervous; it’s not something they do every day, but they were great sports. Jimmy’s announcer Steve Higgins is such a clown in the best way possible. He was hysterical, and I had the pleasure of sitting next to him. I literally giggled the entire way through the dinner. There was this one moment where Jimmy asked me how Food & Wine magazine is, and I was struggling with all my might to be serious for two seconds because the producers were exasperated by us. They kept telling us, “Focus, people!” His parents and sister Gloria were so fun — and of course his wife Nancy, who, by the way, is one of the top five coolest women of all time. We filmed that episode the week after the Emmys. We had just won and Jimmy had just hosted the most successful Emmys in any year I can remember. When we wrapped filming for the episode, I had brought champagne to the set, and it seemed so right to celebrate when Jimmy was there. We gathered around — the crew, us and Jimmy — and toasted. It was so great because Jimmy was such a big part of our Emmy experience.
There was a lot of comfort food on the table, but as with any Top Chef meal, I took a few bites. There were definitely certain things I ate more of — I finished Antonia’s beef tongue and most of Carla’s pot pie. But I didn’t eat much of Fabio’s hamburger. It really wasn’t that good. You start off strong, then you peter out near the end, but you make sure to taste everything. You may have noticed Padma introduced me as “lovely and luscious” at the table. She has this running joke since the beginning of her first season. She has to introduce us every single time, and it gets really dry. So each time, she tries to think of some ludicrous way to introduce us to keep it fresh and keeps us laughing. “Lovely and luscious” was a funny one. I don’t know where the “luscious” came from. She has called me all sorts of things. When I was the host of Just Desserts, I started feeling exactly like her. Four episodes in, I was thinking, “How many ways can I introduce Johnny Iuzzini?” So I started doing it to Johnny: “the dazzling and handsome” or “the chiseled and buff” because you’ve got to switch it up a little bit.
As for the food, Jimmy was excited about everything. It was so adorable because he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. I’m not saying you need to be mean, but it’s hard to give criticism, especially in front of people and when there are cameras around, it’s hard to be critical. It takes practice. It certainly took practice for us to learn how to say things comfortably and not sound personal. But Jimmy is such a personal guy, and he loves the show and chefs, so it was funny to see him squirming in his seat. Even if he didn’t like something, he’d say, “Oh, but Fabio is so nice! I love that guy!” We know you love him, Jimmy, but that’s not the point. Did you like this hamburger? “It was…OK!” He didn’t want to give himself away.
He certainly went crazy for the chicken pot pie and liked the sausage and peppers. He wasn’t a fan of Richard’s ramen, but I was. That’s a tricky thing when you have preconceived notions of how a chef should cook. When they do something different, do you penalize them? Well, that’s not really fair. On the other hand, if Richard used nitrous oxide and dry ice every single challenge, we’d penalize him for that. But I thought his ramen was really simple, clean and beautiful. It showed his skill. The egg was cooked to perfection; the broth was tasty and clean.
I think the beef tongue was chosen by Jimmy’s father-in-law. Jimmy said, “I can’t believe my father-in-law chose beef tongue! We all chose these classic things, and he chose beef tongue!” But that was kind of awesome. It made the chefs think and pushed them. Beef tongue is actually something I grew up with in my house, so it’s not unfamiliar. But the first hurdle of beef tongue is that it’s beef tongue. It’s a mental hurdle. Antonia presented it in a way where the flavors were familiar, so it wasn’t intimidating. That’s important when you use a food that you know people aren’t used to eating or might not want to try. She presented it with pumpernickel rye bread and caramelized onions, and it tasted like roast or corned beef. Structurally and texturally, it can be very tough, so you need to cook it for a long time. Antonia used a pressure cooker, which was smart, and she also cut it really thin, which helped ensure it wasn’t tough or chewy. The flavors really worked — the sweetness from the caramelized onions, the fattiness of the meat, the dill slaw’s acidity and herbs. It was a really good combination. People underestimate Antonia the same way they underestimate Carla, because they’re both quiet and unsuspecting in their styles — and then they punch you in the face.
Tiffany’s food was good. — it just wasn’t chicken and dumplings. It was more a chicken soup with tiny noodles in them. But it wasn’t on the bottom because it didn’t taste good; the flavors were nice — maybe a little too spicy for some people. It was on the bottom because she took too much license. We’re not saying you have to do exactly what’s expected, but the challenge was to recreate these favorite foods, and hers didn’t resemble the dish in flavor, texture or presentation. If we asked her for a tortilla soup without the tortilla, it would’ve been great. Carla’s was an excellent version of a pot pie. The beautiful pearl onions were sweet and soft, the chicken was really moist and tasty, and the vegetables were great. It had a great viscosity and texture. Then she did a few thoughtful things. It wasn’t puff pastry — she had made her own dough, and the crust on top was flaky and perfect. Then there was the additional touch of the dehydrated pea salt. Traditionally, there are peas in potpie. I love them, and they’re one thing I love about potpies. She took a common ingredient and showed it to us in a really creative way, which was dehydrating the peas, grinding them to a powder, mixing them with salt and using it as a garnish. It added that extra crunch and that pea flavor.
When people get into a dish and pour their heart into it, you feel it in their food. A few episodes ago, she had a dish on the bottom, and the guest judge said he didn’t feel the love. You can rip apart her technique, but when you tell Carla there isn’t love, that to her is the worst criticism. That’s the best part of Carla, right? She really believes that love makes thing taste better, and she’s right. She has won more challenges than most of the other chefs. Now she’s going on Jimmy Fallon tomorrow night. It’s funny because even now, people still think of her as the underdog even though she’s proven herself time and time again. It’s because she’s so unassuming and because she isn’t wrapped up in all the fancifulness of cooking. She just puts her head down, does her work and laughs. That’s her secret weapon.
Fabio made a hamburger poorly. It was more meatloaf-y, dense and not juicy. The cheese was on the side, but either give us cheese or don’t give us cheese. For a hamburger, you want the cheese to be melted, hot and spreadable. He used cheddar, which separates and coagulates when it cools. There’s a reason those nacho cheese sauces at the baseball game don’t coagulate; there are so many preservatives in them. His cheese was grainy and separated when you spread it. The irony was he went home for a burger. But he’s lived in this country for a long time, and this isn’t Top Italian Chef — he knows that. You’ve got to be diverse and show us a broad range of skills. You got to make a great burger to be on the show! But we love Fabio. He’s the guy you want at your dinner table, preferably cooking the meal and then sitting down to eat it with you. I’ve seen him dozens of times since that episode taped, and he’s doing just fine. It was time. I think it was the right choice.
I’m really excited for next week’s Quickfire. It’s one for the ages — probably one of the best Quickfires in Top Chef history.
What did you guys think of last night’s episode? Were you surprised to see Fabio go home?