Texas was hot. This season was shot over the summer and it was the hottest summer on record in Texas in several years, so that was interesting timing, but it was also amazing. We were in three different cities in Texas and we had a lot of fun in all of them. We found a lot of local culture and we were able to play to that on the show. It just has a look and feel that is totally different than anything we have ever done before which lends itself to a lot of new creative pieces we were able to put into the show.
This is our ninth season, which we’re really proud of. After eight seasons in a format, I think we all felt that we wanted to up the stakes. We wanted to make it bigger and better because that’s what we strive for every year. We do that in a number of different ways this season, and you’ll see that as the season moves along, but specifically we thought it would be great to bring the viewer into the casting process and make that a really big piece of the show. It could be a little bit confusing because we’re trying something totally new but I think it really pays off in a great way. You get a different cast than you would have if it had been 100 percent just chosen by the producers.
It certainly was a little bit hard to keep track of everyone’s names. The first time I saw any of the chefs, I sat down and started tasting their food, but it’s always like that the first episode of the season. You know, all of a sudden there are 18 chefs or however many in front of you, and you have very little time to get to know them that first day. But that’s what makes it fair. My job is not to get to know them. My job is to eat their food and tell them which one was the best. This way, I wasn’t judging on any personalities or any past interviews I had seen. I judged on one dish in one hour. That’s what I love about this show. I only know what I was there for. I get updates on who went home or the major points, but there’s so much I never know about the plot — who hurt themselves, who caused problems, what people said in their interviews or back at the house. We’re not privy to any of that until we watch it ourselves, so it’s great for us too, because we learn so much about the chefs after the fact, which is also how it’s designed so that we don’t have pre-conceived notions when we judge them.
This episode was easier for me than it was for Tom and Padma, because Emeril and I each judged ten dishes, as opposed to all 30. So for me it was a little bit easier than past premiere episodes.
I was excited to see the rabbit. Whenever we do a challenge where there is one ingredient that is a commonality, it is a great way to judge evenly across the board. I was really excited at how varied all 10 dishes were. Rabbit is a very versatile meat. It is lean and it is mild, so it takes really well to strong flavors and all different spices and sauces. The parts are great for braising, for sauteing or searing. I think the butchering can be difficult, because it’s a small animal, and if you cut the wrong way you can miss very important parts. Although, the butchering was really a problem with the pork in this episode and not with the rabbit. I think that most of the time, the trickiest piece with cooking rabbit is similar to cooking chicken breast in that if you don’t cook it properly and if you aren’t paying attention, it can overcook in a split second. So, you have to be very vigilant as a chef and know exactly what you’re doing with the specific cut that you’re using.
Of all the rabbit dishes, there were three that stood out to me. There were many that were very good. But there are three that several months later I look back on and I remember very vividly. One of them was certainly Chris’, because he really did have that vigilance and that mastery of the meat itself. It was really, really well executed. His was the duo of rabbit, so he had a confit of the leg, which was the dark meat, that had been braised and poached in its own fat so it was richer. Then he also had the tenderloin, which was the lighter meat, the more delicate sort of meat that you need to watch very carefully and cook very quickly, and he had a carrot polenta with it, which was just lovely and bright and gave a great counter point in texture.
Another dish that really stood out to me in terms of a flavor that I had never tasted before was Ty-lor’s. He did a sort of South East Asian rendition using lots of fresh herbs and fish sauce that I thought was really out of left field and very interesting. He pickled cucumbers and tomatoes. He did a confit of the rabbit and then he basted it in fish sauce. Fish sauce is one of my favorite ingredients, but when it’s not used with a delicate hand, it can be very overpowering and very salty and very pungent. But when it’s used sparingly and properly, it really just enhances the flavor of food. He was taking a risk with the fish sauce and that’s exactly why I liked it. It could have gone either way but he did it well and it impressed me.
The third one was Chuy’s. Cute little Chuy. Again, he used rabbit in a way that I hadn’t really tasted before, and I thought he was really smart about it. Sticking to his expertise, which is kind of regional Mexican food, he did this cashew pipian, a sauce traditionally made from pumpkin seeds. It had a balanced, really interesting nutty smoky flavor and the rabbit on top was cooked really well.