From where I sat as an armchair judge, this appeared to be one of the most promising Elimination Challenges our chefs have faced thus far. I assure you, I do not fly first class all that often, but in my opinion our chefs had nowhere to go but up. It is safe to say that airplane food is one culinary genre that could use a serious upgrade across the board. The majority of my mile-high gastro-explorations have left something to be desired. The best dish I ever ate on a plane was my own creation at the first-class make-your-own-sundae bar on a late-night flight from New York to California about two years ago. Does that even count? I mean, no "cooking" actually went into its preparation unless you count the warming of hot fudge sauce.
Well, at long last, many airlines are starting to do something about this. With programs in place such as Continental's Congress of Chefs, as well as my friend Michelle Bernstein consulting for Delta Airlines and wine expert Joshua Wesson picking wines for JetBlue, there is hope that one day soon we may enjoy satisfying food and drink at cruising altitude. In the meantime, on Top Chef our contestants were also given a chance to prove to the world that it may be possible to serve a decent meal on-board an aircraft.
Watching the show unfold, I could not help being reminded of a similar challenge we gave the contestants on Top Chef Season One, when we asked them to make individually portioned meals, reheat them in the microwave and serve them to a hungry group of ladies who lunch. Many of the same rules apply now as they did then and, amazingly, it seems as though many of the same mistakes were made, most notably serving overcooked meat and vegetables.
The dishes that worked best on the plane were those that were more thought through. Hung knew his Chilean Sea Bass with Basque Sauce would hold up to extra heating time due to its high natural oil content. Casey used a very classic flavor combination with meat she knew she could under-cook slightly to retain its juiciness, and created picture-perfect Veal Medallions with a Cremini Mushroom, Apple and Brandy Sauce. On the other hand, those that failed clearly showed lack of connective reasoning. It could not have been a coincidence that the bottom three choices in this week's episode all included poorly executed side dishes that appeared to the diners as complete afterthoughts. While Brian's Prime New York Strip Steak may have been overwhelming in size, it was his Butter Poached Peruvian Lobster and Purple Potato Hash that brought him to the Judges' Table. Same goes for Sarah's Fig Couscous and, of course, CJ's dreaded Broccolini.
I think Tom hit the nail on the head when he saw what the chefs were preparing early on and stated that if good food went into each dish, good food would come out. From the description alone, CJ's entire dish of Pan Seared Halibut on a bed of Toasted Farro with Mint Creme Sauce, Roasted Broccolini with Breadcrumbs and Mint Vinaigrette stopped me in my tracks. Regardless of how well or poorly he prepared it, I have two totally subjective issues with his dish. First off, each time I read its description I thought I was reading a preparation for lamb. Seriously, read it again and tell me it would not have been significantly more appealing if he has used lamb chops or lamb loin?
Second, the thought of fish on a plane with mint creme is just about the last thing I personally would want to eat. Deciding to make fish is, in and of itself, a bold move. Steamy, overcooked fish is a smell I have experienced all too often on planes and it does not go over well. Hung is lucky to have gotten away with it, but I am afraid poor CJ suffered a different fate. I know he was greatly admired by many of his fellow contestants and I wish I had the chance to have said good-bye to him in person. I know he has worked incredibly hard to get to this place and has overcome obstacles few of us can imagine. I have a sneaking suspicion he will resurface again soon and do something not only worthwhile and fun, but also quite delicious. Until then, let's just hope he remains firmly planted on the ground.