All hail King Hosea, who hath defeated Stefan the Knave in spatula’d combat! I liked Hosea from the get-go, and was rooting for him until it was obvious that his best was just not quite good enough for some reason. I think if Stefan would have made a decent dessert, like any of his other desserts, he would have won. Do I think Hosea “wussed out” by not doing a dessert? No. In a 5 course menu, maybe. Even if it was 4 courses. But with 3 it’s a pretty short arc even if you don’t limit yourself to 2 savory dishes.
Carla. Carla Carla Carla. The thing that makes this so tragic is she knows she blew it. She knows she let $100 grand slip out the window because, in the end, she didn’t trust herself. It was truly painful to watch, and took some of the shine of the fact that Stefan lost. I won’t belabour the point by wondering why “well I’ve never done it before…” would ever cross your lips during the final. But I will share a story. A story of the BEST DINNER PARTY EVER IN THE GALAXY.
It was Squidlegs (mumble mumble)ieth birthday, and he for some damn reason wanted to throw a dinner party. For 30 people. Fun!! Oh and my birthday was around the same time, so would I sous chef for him, and make one dish? Sure! Well that “one dish” quickly became an amuse, an app, the original dish, and a dessert. The only saving grace was that he was making all that stuff, plus 2 gumbos, a salad and the main course. So let’s go through the thinking process of choosing these dishes, since it’s the same process that Carla should have gone through.
- The dishes had to be as fool-proof as possible. Now obviously the Top Chef people have a larger repertoire of dishes in this category than I do. But the dishes had to be something I felt very comfortable doing, since even then I could screw it up.
- The dishes should have components that can be made ahead of time, if possible. This not only takes some of the time crunch away from the actual event, but it would allow me to taste things before-hand, and remake it if need be.
- This one is a bit counter-intuitive but I needed dishes with non-seasonal ingredients. Normally you would think just the opposite, and in the Top Chef’s case, they have the skills to see what’s good and then decide what to make. I didn’t have that luxury and the last thing I wanted was to come up with an awesome fig dish and then not be able to find figs.
My “signature” dish is green onion risotto. I’ve made it many times and when it works it is really really really good. So I’ve already got a timing issue here, since I have to make this right before service. I also have a scaling issue. I’ve made a double batch of this recipe a few times, but it changes the chemistry of the situation enough for me to realize I didn’t want to more than double it. Was this going to be enough to feed 30 people? Luckily this was a 12 course meal, so I went with the tasting menu philosophy.
Mrs. Squidlegs offered to make home-made broth, did I want to use it for the risotto? Well I would be crazy not to, wouldn’t I? It must be superior to the stuff in the box I usually use, right? “I’ve never used real broth but…” WRONG WRONG WRONG. Thank you very much, but no I’ll go with the boxed stuff because I KNOW WHAT IT TASTES LIKE. And I wasn’t even cooking for $100 grand.
So, an amuse. This was the closest thing I did to a Citizen Chef original. I had made Black Sea Bass with Sweet Parsnips, Arrowleaf Spinach, and Saffron-Vanilla Sauce from the French Laundry cookbook one New Year’s Eve for my family, with varying degrees of results. The butter sauce broke, the spinach was meh, but the parsnip puree was awesome. And I could make it ahead of time! I decided to put a quenelle of that on… something. I tried a bunch of stuff, and a bosc pear worked the best. You got a hit of the parsnip and vanilla, then the bosc pear, then they merged into something else. Did I mention I could make it ahead of time?
Appetizer. I agonized over this one quite a while, but ended up going with soft scrambled eggs with fresh ricotta and chives. This was pretty pedestrian but it is also phenomenally good. Something else I would have to make as we served, but oh well.
Dessert. The flashiest dessert I had was a chocolate mint napoleon. I tried a few others, including a really good brownie, but in the end I went with the napoleon because it looks cool as hell. And I could make all the components ahead of time.
So, 4 dishes, only 2 of which I couldn’t make the night before, none of which require any hard to find ingredients. How did it go? Well I made twice as much scrambled eggs as I needed, 10 more people than we counted on showed up, so the risotto portion was 3 spoon fulls, and I also had trouble finding parsnips and vanilla bean. But it turned out fabulous. Everything was ridiculously good. I mean every single item. All the stuff squidlegs cooked was great as well, and he had more work to do than I did. If we did that same menu 100 times, it would not have turned out that good on 90 of them. Because even if you plan everything out, things still go to hell when you least expect it. I never got “in the weeds”, but I came close.
Squid and I talk a few times a week, and every month or so, we reminisce about that night. And we congratulate ourselves profusely and with great enthusiasm. And we realize it was a complete fluke and we must NEVER have another dinner party again because the next one will suck.
So what’s my point? My point is if a chuckle-head foodie like me has learned these lessons after cooking in public ONCE, any professional cook who hasn’t doesn’t deserve to win Top Chef.