Top Chef Episode 9: Truffles and Wine

topchef_daveandtruffle.jpg Dave sniffs out the challenge

Despite the fact that my girl Lee Anne was eliminated in this round, the show redeemed itself in some respects from the debacle of the last episode. One big reason for this is that the judges for the main elimination round, a group of chefs from Napa Valley restaurants, had some good and fair comments.

The quick elimination round is exactly the kind of fun challenge that I like to pose to myself sometimes: how to make something that is available in a generally awful "junk food" version much better? Each of the contestants did pretty well in this I thought - even Dave, who came in last, brought in some good flavors. I have to say that Lee Anne's seafood sausage thing didn't sound too appetizing, but the judges liked it. (See the notes at the end of this post about seafood sausages.) It did make me think though: why the fact that Lee Anne was using all kinds of Japanese food references did not bother me as much as it did when Stephen did the same? If one is to judge by her last name, Wong, she is not Japanese. Or maybe she is partly...she certainly knows how to fold an origami crane. (I've yet to encounter a Japanese female who doesn't know how to fold a crane, or a non-Japanese non-origami fanatic who does.) This is a reflection really of the kinds of prejudices we hold, and why for instance most Japanese restaurants hire Asian waitresses over other ethnicities: the customers probably feel like they are getting a more "authentic" experience when they are served by an Asian-looking person. Or why say a soul food restaurant is not likely to be hiring Stephen as a maitre'd. Or, why French restaurants make their waiters take on fake French accents! And on and on.

Harold's popcorn cake with ceviche sounded really interesting. I would love to see this show up on a real menu. His comments about his disdain for low-class food fortunately didn't get reflected in his actual dish. The difference between Harold and uh...Stephen (we manage to bash him even after he's gone) is that Harold really seems to have a passion for food and his profession, so when he disses junk food it doesn't come off as being snooty.

On to the main challenge: truffles and product placement wine! Truffles, of course, are one of the world's great delicacies (see notes). Fundamentally they are a very pungent fungus, and of course very expensive, and that expensiveness is part of the appeal for the food dilletantes. (If brussel sprouts cost $1000 per kilo, you'd see drooling articles with artistic macro photos of them in magazines.)

I must say that I am not one of those people who just raves about truffles; they are very interesting for sure, but I would not kill for them. For this reason plus their ridiculous price tag, I've never cooked with truffles. I have had them several times in restaurants though: most of the time they are just hinted at (such as in patés with truffles). The most memorable truffle dishes I have had have been at a wonderful restaurant in Strasbourg, France called Le Buerhiesel, a long-time holder of the coveted Michelin 3 stars. (For what it's worth, Strasbourg is only about 2 1/2 hours away by train from Zürich, so we go to that lovely city as often as we can.) One of their signature dishes is a very simple appetizer of raw scallops with a scattering of finely chopped truffles. I love this, but the best truffle concoction I had here once was a simple potato galette , basically a potato cake similar to a Potatoes Anna, with big - and i mean big, chunks of truffle scattered throughout. No meat was in sight, it cost something like $50, and it was absolutely wonderful. The salty-creamy blandness of the potatoes brought out the full flavor of the truffles perfectly.

I believe this is why Dave, the definite underdog, won. Although he did cop out a bit by using beef, he didn't treat the truffles in the standard ways. You get truffles paired with fois gras (Tiffani), or in a risotto (Lee Anne) all the time. By using it in a simple mac and cheese (though, a very pretty individual-portion version) Dave was able to bring out the full flavor of the star ingredient. Harold's dish probably did something similar, but it sounded more diffused to me. Mind you, if the judges had not been as sophisticated as the group of chefs were, he might not have won: they are used to truffles, they handle them themselves. As far as truffles go, their palettes are jaded, so the mac and cheese was a nice surprise for them. If the judges had been on the level of Ms. Wedding Planner from last week, he might not have been so lucky.

On some level, all of us techie types stuck in front of our computers and fantasizing about becoming a chef or other food-related professional should be rooting for Dave - he actually did it, in his 30s! I doubt he can win the whole thing - I tend to think that Harold is the favorite now - but Dave has sure come a long way.

Lee Anne got bitten by two things: she precooked her risotto, a definite culinary faux pas, and she was again too ambitious. There were way too many ingredients in her dish, and the star ingredient was a bit lost. I was very, very sorry to see her go: she has a sparkling personality, is a very good chef, and she's a big Asian girl! I love her. But she did deserve to go in this very tight round. I really hope that she will have a great career as a chef. If she opens her own restaurant I'll be first on line to make a reservation.

topchef_leeane.jpg This screenshot sums up Lee Anne in a nutshell.

I probably won't do a summary of next week's "reunion" episode, since no cooking seems to be involved. From the preview, on a reality show level it sure looked like it's going to be fun.

Notes:

  • Sausages and sausage-like products made from seafood have been around in Japan for a long time. Chikuwa is ground-up fish that is made into a tube shape; it's often used in oden (a sort of fish-cake and soybean-product stew) or in stir-fries and such. Kamaboko is a sort of small paté-shaped, rather rubbery fish cake. Finally there is gyoniku souseiji (literally "fish meat sausage"), which is..well, ground up fish made into a wiener-like sausage. (All sorts of things are made from surimi, an all-encapsulating term for ground-up mystery fish, like the imitation crab (kanikama) that's used in lower-class California rolls.)
  • Japan is a food-obsessed country, and people often talk about what are the World's Greatest Delicacies (sekai no dai chinmi). The top three are considered to be fois gras, truffles, and caviar. For me the top three are natto, peanut butter and Marmite. Just kidding.

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Top Chef Episode 9: Truffles and Wine

Oh my god. I'm going to be in Strasbourg next month and I've made up my mind to try to have that potatoe galette... Have you been to Auberge de l'Ile? They serve a truffle (whole!) in a spiky potatoe crust. It looked like a bomb and tasted divine. It's a bit of a drive but I heard that Masako-san and her prince used to go there...

motoko | 5 May, 2006 - 16:04

Top Chef Episode 9: Truffles and Wine

hmm, truffled mac and cheese...used to be the specialty at failed NY Chelsea restaurant Commune (chef Matthew Kenney?) - it made the restaurant!

Dahlia | 5 May, 2006 - 17:10

Top Chef Episode 9: Truffles and Wine

I couldn't bear to watch that ep after I heard Lee Anne got booted, since my heart was set on her to take this whole thing.

On the whole "authenticity" thing, there was a place my friends and I went to once that served Irish food, and the waiters all had Irish accents. When someone mentioned that they weren't all genuine, I was confused, because then why should they do that?

Still haven't truffles yet, though that mac n' cheese with them sounds delicious.

I miss chikuwa and kamaboko like crazy; when I was in Tokyo, a friend invited a bunch of us over for homemade oden, and thus there was a new favorite food added to the long list.

Jess | 5 May, 2006 - 23:00

Top Chef Episode 9: Truffles and Wine

I despise truffles. The smell of them makes me wretch.

Anyhoo. very bummed about Lee Anne. But, I agree with why they sent her home. there were too many flavors in one dish and they were right, it did not feature the icky truffle.

I did not think it was a cop out that Dave used beef.

What gets me is Tiffani saying she needs quiet in a kitchen. Have you ever been a quiet professional kitchen?

Gabriella True | 8 May, 2006 - 06:30

Top Chef Episode 9: Truffles and Wine

ah! buerehiesel! i've also had a very memorable meal there! don't remember truffles, but the foie gras blew me away! i recently went to Mon Vieil Ami, as modern Bistro in the heart of Paris, another brainchild of Buerehiesel - and much more affordable ;-)

johanna | 17 May, 2006 - 00:54

Top Chef Episode 9: Truffles and Wine

How can you let some one stay who's is constantly being critisized for food that is not good. True Dave made a major mistake (don't we all) by only making 2 dishes in stead of 3 in the 5/17 episode, but in the end wouldn't we all rather share good food than be stuck with food we don't really like? I don't get it. Tiffany is a lack luster snob and in my opinion doesn't deserve to be there. What a shame LeAnne isnt still there.

Lynn | 18 May, 2006 - 18:08

Top Chef Episode 9: Truffles and Wine

Well, I'm sure you foodies know a boat load more about this fancy food stuff than I. I wouldn't know a Truffle if I tripped over it--so me and Ms. Uptown Girl are at last on even ground!!!!!!!!!!

But onwards...Lee Ann's lost was heart breaking. Dave's triumph was a hoot and a half, and Harold's comment of the lowly nature of snack food is just about par for the course.

Overall, I think someone should have taken the panel of judges out for a quick enema prior to the judging. Have you ever seen such a pouty group of kitchen terrorists in your life? Bravo had to dig deep to find this lively crew. I think the judges for this panel should have been a mixed collective of a few homeless, a few brilliant, but drunken chefs and a couple of used car salesmen. Now that might have been stimulating, rather than the mental food masturbatory critiques uttered by this lifeless crew of talking heads!

I was hopelessly bored, and completely unimpressed by the show's unseemingly need to impress me with these folks credentials. I did enjoy the wine guy who appeared to be emminently pleased to be there drinking, if nothing else. I would have rather heard him drone on for awhile about being the third generation of winemakers who has nothing to do but coast upon the legacy of those who have gone before him. That might have been interesting. Maybe he could have spent a half hour or so yarning about the ins and outs of being a trust hippie. He reminded me of the idiot son that every family has--like Freddo in the Godfather. He was cool enough, and everybody enjoyed kissing his feet, although I can't imagine why, but I guess you gotta be greateful to him who brung da' wine!

Yes, I was impressed with the wine and the fabulous ingredients and the posh kitchens of Napa and the beautiful vegetables, yada, yada, yada....reminded me of all those other cooking shows I don't watch either!

Dave was on cue at last. I think that Lee Ann had to be the one to go, because of her two very obvious faux paus, but Tiff's dishes did not seem to illicit any great raves. More of her ability to fly under the radar here. Tiff advances, because Lee Ann blew it. No endorsement here, once again Ms Tiff.

Lou | 21 May, 2006 - 20:32

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