Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009 | 3:11 p.m.
Welcome, dear chefs, to Charlie Palmer U, a place where the master chef holds court on all things pork and welcomes students with polished palettes and creative concepts. Student body: A tad older than the average frat house. School uniform: Whites. Major: Culinary excellence. Minor: Perfect pairings. Professor: Sir Charlie Palmer himself.
I won’t say that Charlie Palmer schooled the chef’testants during last night’s episode of “Top Chef: Las Vegas.” That would be a tad harsh. He did, however, judge with a keen eye and keener tongue and along the way imparted a few lessons that were perhaps better learned not on national television.
Palmer is the mustached James Beard Award-winner behind three Las Vegas restaurants – Aureole, Charlie Palmer Steak and The Stirling Club – and an American food movement that has made eating native anything but boring. Beyond the Valley, he’s got an empire of bacon and steak to oversee. And a few of “Top Chef: Las Vegas’” chef’testants have plied their trade by his side.
Both Voltaggio brothers are Palmer-anians (not to be confused with these). Bryan, who spent time as sous chef at Aureole Manhattan and executive chef at Charlie Palmer Steak Washington DC, even credits the guest judge as his mentor in the bio section of his own restaurant, Volt: "Charlie Palmer provided me with the professional and practical experiences that fast tracked my career.”
Michael worked as Palmer’s sous for a year, and is pretty sure the man doesn’t like him. The guest judge started his time on the show by addressing his former employees and vowed not to do them any favors during the day’s competition.
As I mentioned in our “Top Chef” countdown so long ago, the show is big on sponsors and product placement. If I paid them enough, I might even be the theme for a Quickfire challenge. “Create a dish using two of Sarah Feldberg’s staples (peanut butter Puffins, Fat Tire beer, Jarlsberg, hummus, eggs, rice noodles, Sriracha and dark chocolate). Your time begins now.”
Thankfully for the chef’testants and for Palmer’s taste buds, they only had to pair a dish with (big smile, now!) Alexia Crunch Snacks (Mmmm mmm good).
Score one for Eli.
The meat of this episode, however, was simply swine-ful.
The chef’testants were asked to prepare tasting portions to serve at Charlie Palmer’s annual event, Pigs and Pinot. Caveat 1: You must use the part of the pig taped onto the knife you draw. Caveat 2: Your dish must pair well with the Pinot Noir you select to serve it with.
With a win under his belt, Eli seemed to get a wee bit cocky, saying that some of the other chefs had “amateur palettes” and were “not picking the big dogs in the fight” in regards to their Pinot selections.
For someone who’s only had middling success on the show, the young ‘un seems to talk a lot of smack. It’s entertaining smack, at least.
Beyond Palmer, pork and Pinot, this episode was about two other P’s: people problems. Eli and Robin fought at home. Bryan and Michael butted heads in the kitchen. Everyone grumbled about Robin everywhere.
When the plates were served, each chef had taken a very different approach to showcasing their piggy product and pairing it to their Pinot.
Michael Isabella went a Middle Eastern route with a stuffed pork shoulder on top of yogurt. Bryan made a braised spare rib with mostarda. Kevin served pate and Eli roasted pork belly. And there was wine. Lots of wine.
For a chef at any fine dining and even casual restaurant, pairing food with wine is of the utmost importance. These days beer, bourbon and tequila pairings have crept into the mix, but the variety of flavor and depth in wine still make it the best thing to drink with many a meal. Understanding how to prepare a dish that brings out the best in a wine and allows the wine to do the same isn’t easy. It takes a well-tuned palette and a keen sense of flavor. And it requires a gymnast’s balance on the plate.
While some chefs stumbled on the basic execution of their dishes – Laurine actually got a judges’ table cooking lesson from Palmer on how to prepare a rillette (why, oh why, would you try that for the first time on TV?) – others just didn’t pair well.
Ash, once again, self-destructed. The sweet New York chef again turned to another competitor to help steer his plate and in ditching his own idea – a tenderloin with polenta and a cherry demi-glace – also skewered his chances at the $100,000. Strike three. You’re out.
Among the top four, we again found a few familiar faces: The V bros, Jennifer and official pig-lover Kevin. It’s not hard to see where this season is going; everyone else seems superfluous at this point.
Toby unleashed one of his first great lines on this episode, saying that compared to the American Pinots, the European wine Jennifer had chosen was like the “difference between a shaved armpit and a hairy armpit.” That wasn’t even a bad thing in his book. She made the hairy armpit work with her food, which Palmer called the “lightest pork belly dish maybe I’ve ever eaten.”
But the winner was the man who bore the mark of the pig: bearded, soft-spoken, wonder boy Kevin, whose pate hit all the right flavor notes and paired flawlessly with his Pinot. Plus the guy has a pig tattooed on his arm. How can you not give him the win?
As we head into next week’s restaurant wars, evidently held at Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood, the chefs will be put through the emotional wringer. Watching them shatter is part of the fun, but watching those who succeed put to work the lessons learned at Palmer U. and during the past weeks of “Top Chef” will be a pleasure.