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Padma Lakshmi blogs 'Top Chef All Stars': Episode 3

Padma-Lakshmi

Padma-LakshmiGail was off for last night’s Top Chef but will be back next week. For Gail-less weeks of the Bravo series, turn to EW.com to find out which judge will be blogging. This week, host/judge Padma Lakshmi shares her thoughts on last night’s challenges. (As told to Archana Ram.)

Last night we had an incredibly hard Quickfire. I really felt for the cheftestants because what they had to do was very difficult in the time they had. Frenching all those lamb chops is really difficult and it has to be done really perfectly. Turning the artichokes – those are things you have to do with precision and anytime there’s speed involved, the precision suffers. It was really striking a balance between the precision and the clock, which is always an issue on our show. The clock is their worst enemy. They knew the faster they got done, the more the time they’d have to cook and that’s what they’d be judged on, but if they took too long, they were never going to get to cook, and so on.

There were times when David Chang would get close to the chefs to check out their work, and I purposefully hung back because I didn’t want to be in their way. Normally, when we go around for the Quickfire, I’m right there like the guest judge, but I just wanted to give them space because they were so frenzied, and they had knives in their hands.

With the two lamb Carpaccio, it was a question of knife skills. The white team’s was sliced better. Raw lamb is a really ballsy thing to serve and on the other hand, there’s no cooking involved so you gain time there. So if you’re going to serve a lamb Carpaccio, it better be the most delicious out-of-this-world Carpaccio. Also, the white team didn’t have cheese on theirs and the red team did. Pairing cheese with raw meat doesn’t do you any favors.

The reason the blue team won was because, first and foremost, the lamb chop was cooked really well. Lamb can take a lot of flavor. That’s why you always crust it with black pepper or cumin or mint sauce. It was a matter of execution and coming together on the flavors.

The Elimination challenge was great, and I was really proud and impressed by our producers. It was a wonderful chef-y challenge, not to mention it was very difficult to film going to these four restaurants, moving the crew from one location to the next all in a day’s work. It was really New York and really culinary-based. There were no bells and whistles. It was just amazing food, amazing captains of industry and the amazing café society and restaurant life of New York.

But I was really disappointed to see Dale L. go. I think he’s the sweetest guy. I love having him in the kitchen. I think his food has been really delicious and in his season, he went really far. It had been a pleasure to watch him because you could see him getting better and better each week, very similar to Carla in her season. So I was very sad to see him go, but I think he could’ve done way better. I think he was very excited to have the opportunity to do a David Burke-like dish because he felt his own food was so whimsical. And it was, but I think he went too far. He forgot about the restraint. He forgot about one central thought. Get rid of the popcorn. Get rid of the peanuts. That was just like junk on top of stuff. He had this cool butter and he was like, “I don’t know what to do with the butter. I’ll make popcorn!” But the popcorn and peanuts had no place. And it was just too sweet. I’ve had North African pies with honey roasted nuts, powered sugar and dried fruit on top, and they haven’t been as sweet as Dale L.’s veal loin with French toast.

Dale L. loves sweet and savory. You can still do that with veal. Veal doesn’t have that much flavor so you can give it any personality you want. Why not do a maple-glazed veal sausage paired with an egg soufflé? You can still do a breakfast dish. You can still make it sweet, but you have to edit. It has to have one story. The dish that inspired them, the lobster arrabiata, which means an angry lobster, is also very witty because a lobster is red and it snaps, so you get that double meaning. But it’s basically a lobster in spicy tomato sauce. The presentation is part of it, but it’s very focused. It’s not an angry lobster with, say, steak on the bottom.

Stephen’s salmon fondito was the most revolting thing. It tasted like soap. You didn’t hear what the rest of us said because we obviously never have time for all of the comments. I thought it was god-awful. The presentation was quite beautiful and I will give him credit for that because that’s important, too, especially when you’re at one of the best restaurants in New York City. But it was so perfume-y and had a bitter after-taste. It tasted like potpourri, almost with an herbal shampoo quality. You know when you open your mouth in the shower and you get just a little water with shampoo? It was like that. Plus there was nothing Mediterranean about it. I loved Tom’s comment, “I have a really thorough knowledge of Led Zepplin, but it doesn’t make me Jimmy Page.” It was really pointed but really on the nose.

I didn’t think either Dale L. or Stephen in hindsight, tasting their food on that day, would say it was a successful dish. Nine out of 10 chefs, food writers or average people on the street would’ve said these two dishes are inedible.

Fabio was saved because Stephen and Dale L.’s dishes during that meal were worse than his. Simple as that. Fabio really knows Italian food very well and he does one kind of food. He has ideas about what he likes and doesn’t like, and I don’t think he’s gastronomically curious. I don’t think he’s interested in exposing himself to Asian flavors. I’m not French, but I can make you a cassoulet. It’s probably not as good as Jacques Pepin’s or Daniel Boulud’s, but I can make one because I’m interested in food. I feel like Fabio thinks, “This is the food I do and this is the food I want to do.” For me, I hate organ meat and I hate liver, but if I taste a good version of it, I can appreciate it. Anything can be good if it’s done well. Fabio just never delved into that cuisine.

I always tell young chefs that sometimes it’s better to under-promise and over-deliver and both Casey and Antonia did a great job, but Antonia’s technique and finished product was a little better. Plus, the idea of serving peas and carrots as your main dish is also a bit whimsical. I do think Antonia’s dish was a bit salty, but she didn’t go overboard.

We all really loved Dale T.’s dish. We thought it was smart and very soulful at the same time. He knew that Wylie loves egg, but he’s Dale. He says it right it in the episode that he’s not going to try and do Wylie Dufresne. He’s going to be inspired by him. That’s what great chefs do. They take an idea or a flavor or technique that they’ve been exposed to, and make it their own.

So he stayed true to his Asian roots and made a dumpling with an egg that was still soft in the yolk and a milky broth, which hearkened to breakfast. That kind of storytelling on a plate sings to Wylie’s heart as a chef. Wylie, while he’s very technically skilled, has a great sense of humor. He’s a poet with food, and people forget that because he’s scientifically advanced in his food. But that’s never at the price of telling that story.

What did you guys think of the episode? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Read more:
Annie Barrett recaps ‘Top Chef All-Stars’: episode 3
Gail Simmons blogs ‘Top Chef All-Stars’: episode 2

Originally posted December 16 2010 — 2:00 AM EST

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