As told to Nuzhat Naoreen.
I love Pee-Wee Herman. I watched Pee-Wee’s Playhouse every Saturday morning growing up. My brother and I used to do impressions and joke about him all day long, so I was really excited to have him on the show. I have to say, he is a really great actor. The most amazing part about meeting Pee-Wee Herman was also meeting Paul Reubens. We get so used to this persona, this stage personality that he’s created, that we forget that that’s not Paul Reubens at all. He turns off [the persona] and opens a beer and sits down and wants to talk about music and food. [He] told us some really amazing stories about his life over the years and [about] how the character Pee-Wee Herman came about. We had so much fun with him. We were with him for two days and it was really exciting. He was really one of my favorite guest judges ever. He just brought so much joy and nostalgia and fun to the set.
[This] was a really hard challenge and at first, even when I heard what we were asking them to do, I was worried that it would be impossible. I mean, get on a bike with a hundred dollars in your pocket and your knife kit, find food, find a restaurant to cook it [in], and deliver us lunch in two hours? It seemed kind of insane, but they all did it and that’s what so incredible when you’re at this stage in the game. When you’re down from 29 chefs to five chefs, the stakes are really high and the challenges get more and more difficult, but it’s only because we know they’re capable of achieving them.
[The contestants] really did have a lot of other unforeseen challenges, but it’s really no different than when you’re at a real restaurant. I mean, I can guarantee that every single one of those chefs, [has had an experience where] they’re in the restaurant, and they’re trying to get dinner service out, and a VIP walks in and wants something that’s not on the menu. It happens all the time. That’s what being a chef is really about. It’s [about] being able to go with the punches. There is no way to control and predict dinner service. You don’t know if five people are just going to be no-shows that night and then all of a sudden you’re down half your revenue. You just don’t know. You have to be ready and you have to be flexible and adaptable and I think at the core of this challenge, that’s what it was about.
Pee-Wee Herman said he loves chicken, he tries to be healthy and he loves an egg salad sandwich, so I think that just stuck in the [contestant’s] heads and it gave them a framework to go on. But you’ll notice that what they did with it was so completely different, and that’s what made it so great. You have to remember that they were cooking lunch. It needed to be lunch appropriate, which is not the same as [if you were making a] main course for dinner. We wanted it family style, we wanted it casual, and we wanted it to appeal to Pee-Wee Herman. So, we got different interpretations [of what he said he loved] and I thought they were actually really, really creative.
Lindsay and Paul’s [dishes] were unanimously our favorites that day. Lindsay stood out because she didn’t do chicken or egg. It was Mediterranean [and] the beef cheeks that she used had great flavor. The zucchini was original and fresh and [the dish] was easily containable [and] appropriate for lunch. Paul, too [presented a] flavorful, really elegant [dish]. It could have been prettier, but again, Paul’s signature Asian flavors were really thoughtful [and] beautifully executed. So they were both definitely favorites.
There were tiny flaws with a few of the dishes. Sarah didn’t season her eggs, which is integral at this stage. Ed had flaws in the texture of his chicken, it had a strange bubbly texture from poaching it in the beef tallow, which I have to say was a very strange move and just totally unnecessary. Tom talked about this a lot too. When you’re choosing how to cook your dish, everything needs to make sense. It’s just like when people do gimmicky, modernist things for no purpose. Chris J. was guilty of that when he would [do] something because he thought it would be smart and fun. But did it improve the dish? Did it make that dish better? And if not, why are you doing it that way? And that’s kind of the trap that Ed fell into this time. He chose to poach his chicken in beef fat but is that the tastiest way to make chicken? Especially in a lunch like this? I don’t think it is, and because of that, his dish suffered. That said, we liked his dish on the whole more than Grayson’s.
There were a number of reasons [why] we sent Grayson home that I don’t think were fully explained on the show because it was cut down so much. I don’t want people to think we just sent her home because she used tomatoes and squash and that didn’t go together. She also, specifically, made a point of taking the skin off of her chicken because she wanted it to be healthy. Well, when you cook chicken with the skin off, you have to be very careful because there’s no fat, which means it dries out more quickly, it gets tough more quickly. She did reheat it again when she got to the location, which dried it out a little bit. Her portions were huge and sort of out of proportion to the rest of her dish, and after telling us that she wanted to make it healthy by taking off the chicken skin, she stuffed her chicken with egg yolks, Gorgonzola and then put a bacon vinaigrette on top. That just seems counter-intuitive. I could have easily done without the Gorgonzola and instead had great chicken skin, which would have made the [meat] tastier and more moist. These are just all flaws in execution and flaws in thinking through how that dish should be presented. That said, it was a really good dish, it really was, and I really believe that three or four episodes ago, it would have been right smack in the middle of the pack. But at this point, that’s the way it is. Everyone else’s was just a little bit better, a little more refined, and just a little more successful on the whole.
We’re down to the top five chefs and I really do believe that these are the chefs who deserve to be there. It makes our job a lot harder because, as we said many times over the course of this episode, we’re splitting hairs. It’s not about finding whose dish was the worst, it’s about finding whose dish was the least good, the least best. We just need to rank them and then the lowest person has to go home, even if that dish would have been perfectly acceptable five challenges before when the stakes weren’t as high. [But] that’s the entire point of the competition — that it just gets better and better and our jobs get more and more difficult so that we’re really choosing who is the best chef.
The challenge coming up is a very emotional one, and it really strikes a chord with [the contestants], as we hoped it would. And actually, it really causes them to create some of the best food we’ve ever had on the show.