As told to Nuzhat Naoreen.
I haven’t been [to a progressive dinner party before]. I don’t know how often they’re done, truthfully. It seems to me like progressive dinner parties would require you to have a lot of staff because if you are in charge of [cooking] dinner, it would be hard to be eating the appetizer at someone else’s house and then going to your house for dinner. I mean it would take a lot of organization, advanced planning or, a staff of chefs like the Top Chefs to pull it off.
When you’re cooking for clients it’s not about you and your style and your personality coming through any more. When you’re in someone else’s home it becomes that much more important to listen to their needs.
They [had some tough clients] but you know what, everyone is tough to some extent. Again, this isn’t necessarily what they would eat when they’re eating out at a restaurant; this is what they want at their homes for these circumstances. So, I think that they have the right to be picky. I’m not saying it makes things easy, I just think it’s not unusual.
I think all three [teams] had different challenges. For the appetizers, Kim has a lot of entertaining experience and had very specific needs. She wasn’t very adventurous, self-proclaimed. She was really scrutinizing their food and really knew what she was looking for specifically. The main course house was difficult because the husband was a steak guy and the wife didn’t eat meat so that was a big challenge. Then, in the last house it was dessert, which none of the [contestants] are that strong at, clearly.
I think the strongest course, in retrospect, was the appetizer course. I loved Sara’s, I obviously loved Paul’s, and I loved Lindsay’s. I thought all three of them were super-strong. Whitney’s scallop was also very good. It just wasn’t very interesting. It was sort of simple and didn’t really show us an amazing amount of skill, which we know she’s capable of. But all four of them were good dishes, with especially Sara and Paul’s being fantastic.
[Paul's dish] was just smart. He said at the beginning, ‘if I can please the lady of the house, I’ll do a good job.’ And that’s what he set out to do. And it’s true. She had the most opinions, she knew the most about food and she gave them very specific directions. He listened to it and he executed it beautifully. It was a beautiful plate of food. It had texture, it had an acidity and a saltiness, it felt creative but elegant. It was easy to eat. And it felt bright and fresh. It didn’t weigh us down. He was thoughtful of the fact we had to eat so much more that night. And that’s what you look for in an appetizer.
In that group, only Chris’ [roasted chicken cigar with sweet corn collared greens and cumin ash appetizer] was really an issue.
I applaud Chris’ determination to always be innovative and take risks. That is something that is very important in a young chef. It clearly comes from the chef he works for at Moto in Chicago right now who really is one of those chefs on the forefront of modern cuisine and is very much about giving you flavors you might know but an experience you don’t, or kind of turning the dining experience into something different and unusual. I’m really happy that Chris always tries to do that because that’s his instinct and that’s how he’s been trained in and that’s a great quality.
The trap that chefs fall into with this is that they aren’t listening to what people are asking them to do. Instead they get stuck on an idea even if the idea doesn’t make sense in execution any more. It becomes a gimmick and doesn’t serve a purpose and I don’t need a gimmick. I don’t need an inventive take on something if the original is better. I always say, if it doesn’t improve how the food tastes, how the food looks or the cooking process, then why are you doing it? And the answer can’t be ‘because it’s cool’. There needs to be a purpose. Show me something that improves the flavor, improves the texture. Did it improve the design or the efficiency of the cooking?
I don’t think in this case, what Chris presented did. Yes, it was a nice inspiration and a clever idea on paper but in practice it didn’t look appetizing. I don’t want to eat a cigar, that’s not something that I think is beautiful to look at. He made this ash out of cumin and herbs and spices, which again, nice idea but it ended up looking black and brown on the plate. And I don’t want to eat ash. It wasn’t delicious and it was difficult to eat at the dinner party. It was kind of stringy. The greens that he wrapped around the cigar were hard to eat because they were fibrous. It was a big portion. It wasn’t slender and easy so it felt sort of clumsy and then it was also sort of dry with that ash, on it. It needed a sauce or something. It wasn’t inedible, it just wasn’t better than what the inspiration was. So all of those things add up to him getting into his own head and not into the head of his client. Which is what we asked them to do.
I was expecting more from the main courses. Overall, with the exception of Beverly’s, they were sort of large and clunky. It was like none of them took into account at all they we had to eat five entrees. They were all oversized and out of proportion.
[The weakest course] between desserts and main courses is sort of a toss up. I would say desserts. As I learned from hosting Top Chef: Just Desserts, desserts are harder to make inedible. The severity of a mistake with desserts is by virtue of the ingredients not as terrible to have to eat. A dessert can be too sweet or not sweet enough, or have poor texture but I would rather take a poor dessert over tough inedible meat or curdled cheese or something that’s raw protein. We know they aren’t pastry chefs. So we weren’t expecting them to make these unbelievable desserts that were going to blow our minds, although it would have been nice.
[Chris' cupcake] was not good. I think that our host enjoyed it because he likes dense cupcakes. On its own, a cupcake is not a very exciting thing and that said, I have had 50 cupcakes that were better than Chris’. The flavor wasn’t terrible but it was dry. It wasn’t innovative and elegant. It was clumsy. It wasn’t so much the cupcake that was the biggest problem, it was how he chose to serve it to us. He served it with 5 other things. None of which had anything to do with the cupcake itself.
We looked at all the problems we had with people in the bottom and we really found that Chuy’s was the most inexcusable. If you look at Chris, who made the dessert, yes he kind of piled everything on, but you could eat it. Each piece individually was totally edible and palatable. He didn’t have to make any compromises or sacrifice to the food in order to plate it. [As for] Chris with his cigar, the flavors still made sense. There was a thought process there we could understand. He had a strong inspiration. Ty-lor’s food was out of proportion but it was cooked to a decent temperature. We just felt that his final execution made a lot more sense.
Unfortunately, for Chuy he got stuck in his own head. He had this idea of making a goat cheese and salmon dish. Smoked salmon is one thing when it’s cured and raw but hot smoked salmon and goat cheese really isn’t appetizing to me. I’m open to trying it if you say that it’s good but he admitted it was totally overcooked. The salmon was dry and tough, exactly how you don’t want salmon to be, and the goat cheese was mealy. Goat cheese has sort of a dryness when you eat it. By the nature of the milk that is used, it’s not a gooey cheese. So the two things didn’t work to begin with.
We talked to Chuy, and he said in order to make the goat cheese warm enough he had to serve the salmon on the medium to well-done side. Well, that in itself should be a red flag because salmon should never be cooked that way. So, if you’re compromising your main ingredient to get a certain result, you need to reexamine why you’re making it that way in the first place. No one said he needed to use salmon, no one said he had to use goat cheese.
If you know you’re going to be serving something that isn’t the way we are going to want it to begin with, rethink the idea. I think he got stuck in the idea and it just came out poorly, unfortunately. Chuy is a fantastic young chef and I’m certain he’ll have a massive career because he has so much skill and energy but this was not his night.