Top Chef Colorado Recap
By Jason Lee
March 6, 2018
It’s Aspen, baby. Survive this last Quickfire and Elimination Challenge and you’re in the finale.
Perhaps in an effort to try and calm the inevitable nerves, or at least to forestall them, the three remaining cheftestants have a whimsical and lighthearted challenge. They’re to go fly fishing and catch a live trout, which they’ll use to make the best damn trout dish they can. For both tasks, they have 40 minutes. Total.
Not a problem for the Joe’s, who catch their trout in quick succession, giving them over 30 minutes to make their dish. Poor, lonely Adrienne is left alone on the banks of the lake, begging a fish to take a nibble on her line. When one finally does, she has just over 20 minutes left. No problem, she thinks, I’ll make a semi-raw preparation. It’s a gorgeous trout that, just minutes ago, was swimming along happily in the water. What could be better?
Cooking it, apparently. Guest Judge Chris Cosentino, past winner of Top Chef Masters, informs Adrienne that because bears . . . . umm, defecate upstream, the trout have to be cooked in order to eat them. Thus, of her pan-seared trout with spring onion and jalapeno ponzu vinagrette, the judges can only nibble around the edges, praising her crispy skin and garnishes, but not able to try the fish.
Moustache Joe has a gorgeous looking smoked trout rillette with spring onion corn cakes and a summer berry glaze. Chris loves the throwback to pioneer eating, with the corncake and blueberry.
Finaly, Joe Flamm has a pan-seared trout with black garlic beurre blanc with fennel, mushrooms, and bread crumbs. The dish is well conceived and well executed, though his skin doesn’t compare to Adrienne’s, which wins him the challenge.
Which is not a small deal, given the stakes. Not only does he go into the Elimination Challenge with some momentum, he gets an advantage. The chefs will be cooking at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic (a BFD in the culinary world, in case you hadn’t already guessed) and will have to serve 200 folks, including amazing chefs and restauranteurs. In point of fact, the guest judge for the elimination challenge will be the legendary chef, Daniel Boulud.
Given the demands of the challenge, each chef will have a little help in the form of one of the eliminated cheftetants. As the winner of the Quickfire, Joe Flamm picks Carrie—a smart choice given what a genius she is at combining flavors and her ever-sunny disposition. He also gets to assign the other two sous chefs—he sends Bruce to work with Adrienne and Chris to work with Moustache Joe, reasoning wisely that it’s best to avoid pairing the two chefs with Italian backgrounds (Moustache Joe and Bruce).
The make matters even harder, the dishes served in the challenge must be vegetarian, and the chefs will be cooking outdoors with cowboy caldrons (huge metal pots filled with wood and charcoal, topped by a grill) that will serve as their only source of heat.
Without a protein around which to build a dish, the three remaining chefs are left to scramble for a bit. How on earth do you reflect the rustic cooking environment and the semi-wood/charcoal stove, while at the same time making something high-end and innovative enough for the amazing group of folks who’ll be eating their food? This is a big career opportunity, and each of our chefs recognize that fact.
As is typically the case on Top Chef, especially when the chefs are left to cook outdoors, there’s no shortage of problems. Luckily, the chefs seem to navigate them quite well. Moustache Joe doesn’t feel like his beets are taking on enough smokey, charred flavor, so he takes one of the logs from the fire and dumps it into his pot of stewed red beets. Then he wraps his yellow beats whole and buries them underneath the coals.
Meanwhile, things are a disaster with Adrienne, who has bitten off way more than she can chew. She wanted to do tempura-fried shishito peppers but the batter is too thin, so she has to grill them. She wanted to make lime juice pearls but the agar is not working, and so she’s going to make a gelée. Her corn pudding is too soft, so she covers it up with coconut flakes.
And off in his own little world, Joe Flamm is not having any major difficulties at all. He’s worried that his dish might be too simple, but no snafus so far.
The diners arrive and boy are they intimidating. Top Chef winner Brooke Williamson is there with Gregory from Top Chef New Orleans. There’s also the Voltaggio brothers, restauranteur Danny Meyer, and our guest judge, Daniel Boulud. Plus our standard panel of Padma, Gail, and Tom.
They head over to try Moustache Joe’s dish first, which is inspired by beef carpaccio. Instead of beef, there’s a beet carpaccio with beet yogurt, gooseberries, and a tomato vinaigrette, all atop a circle of toasted sourdough bread. The dish is meaty without having meat and the flavors are great, though the dish isn’t as cohesive as the judges would like.
Next up is Adrienne, who has ironed out the kinks in her dish of charred corn pudding wrapped in a swiss chard leaf with charred shishito peppers and a champagne broth. Though the sauce is a bit thin for the judges’ liking, Adrienne has incorporated a variety of different textures and flavors that hit every part of the judges’ respective palettes.
Finally, Joe Flamm has a dish inspired by his childhood experience of eating charred zucchini made by his grandfather, right off of the grill. He offers a grilled baby zucchini topped with a hazelnut zucchini pesto, mushroom vinaigrette, goat cheese, and a raw asparagus salad. The goat cheese is a hit, bringing some nice creaminess to the dish, but his accoutrements outshine the asparagus, possibly because baby asparagus does not generally have a ton of flavor.
For the third or fourth episode in a row, all of the dishes in the elimination challenge were good, solid dishes. Tom’s only lament is that none of the dishes was all the successful in incorporating the flavor of the grill. That said, the food was vibrant, full of flavor, and well seasoned. Adrienne’s dish was innovative and had a lot of creative, unexpected flavor pairings, but despite all her efforts, none of the judges tasted any char in her food. Moustache Joe was clever in getting more charred flavor into his beets, although Tom felt like the dish was comprised of two separate sets of components that didn’t knit together as well as they could have. Joe Flamm presented a well-composed dish with fantastic pesto, but the main component, his baby zucchini, was overshadowed.
You can cut the tension with the proverbial knife, but one thing is for sure—Joe Flamm, with his solid, well-executed dish, is safe. He’s into the finale.
As for who’ll be joining him, Padma spends an agonizing amount of time looking between Adrienne and Moustache Joe . . . but in the end, the moustache is headed home. As Tom tells him, his dish just didn’t come together. Moustache Joe, like Carrie before him, takes the result in stride, noting that he’s come a long way in figuring out his style of cooking and how to tamp down his overly ambitious instincts. It sucks coming in third, but if that’s the worst thing that happens as a result of him putting himself out there, he’ll take it.