By Archana Ram
Updated January 06, 2011 at 07:30 AM EST
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Image Credit: Kelsey McNeal/BravoAs told to Archana Ram.

I’ve had the privilege of Tom cooking for me pretty often. I’d like to say he’s my private chef, but he’s not! I’ve been to his restaurant, his house. I’ve learned a lot from him and he’s been a great mentor for me for the better part of a decade. But he was nervous to do this quick-fire challenge because it left him vulnerable to some extent. If he sliced his finger off or cooked for a long amount of time, he would’ve been embarrassed. But he nailed it, of course.

Angelo thought he could put a twist on it and make it not just a crudo. He thought if he added some special techniques that would elevate it. I think he was just getting cocky.

The elimination challenge, though, was way worse than they even showed. The whole process took several hours and there were very long periods when no one was getting food. It was a serious issue. We had a dining room of several hundred angry dim sum diners in an uproar, and because we didn’t speak the same language, it was even more complicated. We had some translators to help us but not enough. They didn’t know why we were getting food — because we’re the judges — and they weren’t.

It was not comfortable being in a dining room surrounded by people who were hungry, annoyed, and wanted to leave. People actually did start to get up and leave, which was a problem, because if we had no diners, we had no challenge. Meanwhile, we judges were just sitting around, waiting and waiting and waiting. It got so awkward that Tom had to see what was going on back there. Not that him going back helped that much, but at least they got the sense of urgency.

The cheftestants had no idea how to cook in that kind of kitchen. They were plating every little dish with the sauce on the side and perfectly laid watercress. It was painful. When you go to a dim sum restaurant, they steam hundreds of dumplings at a time, put them on plates and send them out. There’s no delicate plating, no fine sauce spooning. It needs to be fast and efficient. They didn’t know how to do that. The size and the scope of that kitchen — which was a floor below the dining room — and its completely different equipment required adjustment. There was a complex system of dollies, trolleys, levers, and dumb-waiters that they had to work with as well. This was nothing like any other challenge. We expected issues, but we didn’t expect this many.

But that’s not to say that there weren’t some great dishes. Angelo’s shrimp and pork spring roll was excellent. They didn’t show Richard’s spring roll, but that was good, too. Antonia’s shrimp toast was perfectly done. Dale’s sticky rice was really delicious, and he also did the cheung fun, a classic dim sum dish. I get that when I go out for dim sum all the time. Tiffany’s char siu bao was also delicious and quite classic in its flavor. I’ve been eating char siu bao all my life. In fact, growing up, my nickname was Char Siu Bao. It was one of my mother’s favorite foods when she was a kid, and it became a term of endearment. She calls me Char Siu all the time. I was destined for this job, I guess!

Fabio really came through, too. We weren’t sure whether Fabio was able to do anything that wasn’t Italian or gnocchi. But he did. His ribs were sticky, tender, and really good. No matter what country you’re in, that cut of meat is cooked and handled the same way, more or less. So he knew what he was doing in terms of technique. It was just being able to add flavors outside his domain, and he did it well.

If Antonia had just made the shrimp toast, we could’ve probably made an argument to put her in the top four, and certainly never would’ve brought her out on the bottom. That long bean dish was so bad. At the time we call out the bottoms, we don’t know who made what. For people who shared a dish, like Jamie and Antonia, we had to bring out both people responsible so we could discover who was in charge of making it as bad as it was. Once we learned that Antonia had just done the prep and Jamie had actually done the cooking, we realized the mistake wasn’t in the prep.

I think Jamie finally wanted to conquer scallops and show people that “I’m really back.” She probably did it somewhat to prove herself, because there’s certainly been a lot of talk about Jamie not performing during the last two challenges. I would’ve been happy for her to do scallops in this dish. Maybe scallops seared or with a great sauce, but she didn’t do that. She buried them in this thick dumpling wrapper. It was arbitrary that there were scallops at all because you couldn’t even taste them. It was a poor challenge for that kind of scallop dish because texturally, you have to make the scallop so present in order to taste them in a dumpling. Everyone thought Jamie was going home, but Jamie’s food was edible. As much as it didn’t taste great, we could at least eat it to see what it was like. We literally could not get a decent bite of Casey’s.

Carla and Casey were both on the floor, and it hurt them both. But Carla’s, although it was uninteresting and uninspiring, at least it was edible. The problem we had with Casey’s dish was, as I said, we actually could not eat it. Chicken feet need to be cooked in a very specific way so you can actually eat the meat and fat off it. Otherwise, you can imagine what they’re like. They’re kind of disgusting. They’re hard, stiff, and bony and there’s not much there to begin with, so you need to cook them in a way so the meat releases from those bones and puffs up a bit, so that you can — for lack of a better expression — hold onto something. She wasn’t able to do that.

I think Casey’s fatal mistake was she took on too much. She wanted to be really ambitious with her food. I thought the idea was fantastic. The chicken and waffles — super smart. She took little bit of Texas and brought it to Chinatown. It was genius, had it been done right. Her pancake was a little meek and limp, but it tasted all right. But we could not eat the chicken feet. The sauce was relatively tasty, but no one could get a bite of it because there was nothing on the bone.

It’s one thing to be ambitious with your dish, but then to abandon it because you took on a second job? You can’t blame anyone but yourself when it doesn’t go right. I know people will be upset and want to blame Antonia for not following through, but the fact is Casey chose to do that dish. That dish was very complicated and specific and you can’t do both. She took one for the team by volunteering to go outside, but by doing that she was leaving someone else in charge of her dish and that’s a risk you take. If she had chosen a simpler dish, she probably wouldn’t have been eliminated.

There was probably somebody else who could’ve done the floor — certainly one of the people who did dumplings, Tiffani, who did the chicken salad, or Tiffany, who did pork buns. But it didn’t matter that they could have. They purposefully didn’t because they were looking out for themselves. That, too, is part of the strategy and game. It doesn’t pay to be the martyr because at the end of the day, the martyr gets sacrificed on the pyre.

Oh, Casey. I was so sad to see her go. She’s super smart. She’s a strong cook. She makes me proud. Her elimination was unexpected for all of us, but we know on any given day you can wake up on one side of the bed or the other. This just wasn’t her day. But I know I’ll see her soon. I have an inkling that she’s not going anywhere.

What did you guys think of last night episode? Are you sad to see Casey go?

More Top Chef: All-Stars from EW:

Photo: Kelsey McNeal

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Top Chef

Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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