Playing By The Rules

Playing By The Rules

Tom Colicchio on the 500 calorie challenge. Oh, and that cheeto amuse bouche.

There is an inherent contradiction in the world of great food that is also playing itself out in this competition, and it has to do with rules. On the one hand, rules exist for good reasons like providing order to our society, or keeping things fair. Some rules aren't written but exist through habit and common practice. For example, the "rules" of restaurant dining are commonly understood -- one behaves a certain way at the table, the waiter does his or her thing, a tip rewards good service, etc. But once you enter the culinary sphere, it gets tricky. A chef who sticks too closely to the rules can close herself off to experimentation and discovery. It seems quaint now, but I opened Craft in 2001 to a firestorm of criticism because we changed the rules on how to serve haute cuisine -- family-style service was fine for a steakhouse or Chinese restaurant, but in a three-star restaurant? One of the reasons that this week's Quickfire Challenge was interesting was because it forced our chefs to think creatively with a (very) limited palette of ingredients. Of course, no self-respecting chef would choose to create an amuse-bouche, or any dish, from items in a vending machine. But by making that the "rule" of the challenge, suddenly our chefs were placed on new creative ground. It was interesting to see who used the vending machine rule as a springboard for creativity, and who among them froze up under those circumstances.

Suzanne Goin, of L.A.'s acclaimed Lucques and A.O.C., knows a thing or two about rules (her extensive training includes stints at Ma Maison, Chez Panisse and Paris' Arpege, among others), but also about breaking them. She aims to use almost exclusively local and organic ingredients and uses them in innovative, detailed ways that meld rustic and refined. She's also a straight-shooter who says what she's thinking at all times. In other words, the perfect guest judge. I noticed that the smartest chefs went for items as close to their natural state as possible -- eggs, carrots, bananas, salad. Some of the chefs just dove in, stoic but determined. A few actually found it fun. Mike -- not our most creative thinker to begin with -- basically threw his hands in the air and gave up before he even started. Most of the chefs came up with clever and delicious amuses -- particularly Frank's ham and cheese quiche and Cliff's vegetarian loaf. (Mia's dessert was nice, but wasn't an amuse-bouche.) Alone among them, Michael's lackluster Cheeto stuck into a candy bar was a joke. I was glad to see Suzanne take him to task for his attitude. Mike acted contrite, saying he had hit a blank when faced with the vending machine, but we had videotape of him acknowledging beforehand that he didn't really give a damn (bad move, Mike). Increasingly, Michael is showing that he is in over his head.

The Elimination Challenge was based on dietary rules. The chefs were asked to create a meal -- entree, side dish and dessert -- under 500 calories, to serve to young people at a weight loss camp. Here is an example of where rules are more than just creative guidelines -- some of the kids had medical reasons for their low-calorie diet, and the camp was trusting us to abide by the limit for the well-being of their charges. The chefs were divided into four teams and assigned nutritionists to help them develop recipes that met these constraints. Interestingly, Marcel and Betty ended up together on the Black Team. I was happy to see that they put their differences aside and behaved professionally when the time came to do the work.
Betty showed her usual knack for understanding her clientele by proposing a low-calorie pizza. Kids love pizza, and it's one of the first foods a dieter must forego. Frank got in there, determined to make the low-cal sausage and cheese pizza as flavorful as possible, while Betty worked on crispy meringue cookies. On the Red Team, Marisa was as determined as ever to show her skills with pastry. I was concerned that her chocolate fudge cake would eat up too many of the team's allotted calories, but the rest of the team got behind her, and set to work on their barbecue chicken skewers and cole slaw. The White Team chose to make a chicken parmesan dish, a side of veggie lasagna, and a cheesecake dessert. They breaded the chicken with oat bran instead of bread crumbs in an effort to boost the nutritional value and lower calories. The Orange Team settled on turkey -- a very low-fat option -- but ground it into meatballs, which probably wasn't the best idea. Meatballs need some fat or they become hard and unpalatable. (I make mine with a mixture of pork shoulder, veal, and beef -- no shortage of fat there.)

Betty was having problems with her meringues. Unlike savory cooking, where one can use a freer hand with ingredients and proportions, baking is an exact science requiring careful, precise measurement. Betty made the mistake of using Splenda, a sugar substitute, in her meringues without factoring in the role that sugar's chemical structure plays in holding egg whites together. Her meringues never became the crispy cookies she envisioned. The second day of cooking the chefs were expected to recreate the recipes they had developed the day before, and that's where things started to fall apart. Although the rules explicitly stated that the recipes were to be unchanged, Betty somehow missed this and altered her meringue cookies by reducing the number of egg whites and substituting real sugar for the Splenda. Since the rest of their meal was well under the caloric limit, she figured the extra calories the sugar introduced into the meal wouldn't push them over the edge. Unfortunately, there was no way to determine this officially, as the nutritionists weren't there to check. It came as no surprise when the kids at Camp Glucose chose the pizza in higher numbers than the other entrees. The chicken skewers were under seasoned, and the turkey meatballs were leaden orbs of ground meat on a stick.

The White Team's chicken parmesan was good, but kids being kids, the pizza won the day. As the person responsible for the pizza, Suzanne chose Frank as the Elimination Challenge's winner. His prize was a chance to collaborate with her on one of her famous Sunday night dinners at Lucques. I thought Frank was going to levitate with happiness. Both the Red Team and the Orange Team were called in front of the judges. It was here that Sam brought up the idea that his competitors had violated the honor system on day two, and worked outside of the 500-calorie rule. He and others witnessed squirt bottles of olive oil being used liberally (a surefire way to boost both flavor and calories) even though they hadn't been part of the original recipe. Mia mentioned that Betty had changed her cookie recipe on day two (surprising, given that others insisted they had seen Mia add sugar to her cole slaw). Josie and a few of the others were pissed -- the pizza may have pleased the most kids, but who's to say that Betty's reworking of the cookies wouldn't have disqualified them, paving the way for another team's win?
The judges were now in a quandary. We had no proof that extra olive oil or sugar had been introduced into people's dishes. Betty's cookies were clearly different than they had been the day before, but we had no way to prove that there had been actual malfeasance on the part of the winning team, or anyone else. I approached the chef and put the question to them. No one owned up to the extra olive oil but Betty acknowledged that she had tweaked her cookie recipe on day two. She seemed surprised to learn this was taboo, insisting that she had understood the rules to be about the 500 calorie limit (although I find this suspect, since she knew we had no nutritionists on day two to OK the changes.) But without video to prove cheating -- and given that the White Team had won the challenge -- the judges weren't prepared to send anyone from that team home. That said, under the circumstances, there was no way we could send home one of the "losers" who had actually played by the rules. For this reason, we decided not to send anyone home at all. Given what we knew and could decisively prove, this seemed to be the fairest way to go. Still, the whole thing left me annoyed. I dislike the passive-aggressive tendency on the part of some chefs to keep mum about possible violations -- "stolen" lychees, extra squeezes of olive oil -- until they themselves are under fire at the judges' table. What's stopping them from speaking up at the time, so that the producers and judge's can rule on it then and there? I believe in addressing things head on -- both for your own sake and for the overall health of the working environment.
Competition does funny things to people. It's the reason why a talented athlete reaches for steroids, or a stockbroker solicits insider information. Everyone feels they need an edge, and they're willing to bend the rules to get it for themselves. But consider this -- what if one of the kids had a serious medical condition requiring strict adherence to the calorie limit? The camp trusted us to deliver exactly what we promised -- a 500 calorie meal. There is a concept known as "truth-in-menu" and it is an unwritten bond between chef and consumer that what they order is what they'll get (it also applies higher up on the supply chain -- when I pay a premium for fresh produce I trust the farmer or fisherman is really giving me the goods). Years ago, a waiter at Gramercy Tavern was asked by a guest if a soup on our menu was strictly vegetarian. The waiter, no doubt feeling lazy, never checked. "Sure," he said. The guest, it turns out, was seriously allergic to the chicken stock in the soup's base, and ended up in the emergency room. The waiter, once I learned this, ended up out on his a**.

Guests at my restaurants trust me, and I, in turn, trust my staff to help me keep this bond intact. That's a rule I'm just not willing to break. Tom p.s. In answer to the many folks on our boards who wrote in asking why Emily was sent home in last week's challenge, instead of Mike -- the answer is fairly simple. As judges, we're not always privy to the attitude or unseen work habits of the chefs until we watch the completed episodes, just like our viewers. For that reason, we make our decisions based on the food. And while Mike's steak sandwich was clearly a mess, it was at least edible. Emily's dish was so heavily salted that it wasn't. For that reason, despite Mike's sloppiness and poor attitude, Emily was the one to go.

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