Judges’ Table

by Ben on May 22, 2010 · 0 comments

in Dinner Party, Essay, Index

Perhaps the part of Top Chef I enjoy most is the awkward bit of melodrama that occurs in the last 5 – 10 minutes of each episode. You know, when Padma sends the Elimination Challenge winners back to the stew room to summon “some of your colleagues.” Accompanied by a doomsday gong and some uber tense music, the judges proceed to chastise and infantilize the bottom performers of the week, often eliciting unironic tears. I particularly like the character Tom Colicchio plays—He is simultaneously flabbergasted, disappointed, personally offended, and silently outraged at, for example, a contestant’s decision to pair peanut butter with tomatoes. My wife really has a difficult time watching it, in the same way that she has trouble with Curb Your Enthusiasm or the original version of The Office. But for me, this is pure psychocandy. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. But I can’t not watch. Erin and I will often joke with each other:

Did you taste it before it went out?
Did you make the sausage yourself, or is it from Whole Foods? [disappointed eye-roll]
Well. The flavors were good, anyway.

When we say these things to each other, it’s always in good fun. But there are times, particularly if I’ve spent a lot of time on a dish, that I feel like I’m standing in front of my own judges’ table. And not for the winners.

* * * * *

I love cooking for dinner parties. I love everything about it: the menu composition, the shopping, the planning, the mad dash to get each course out … I’m a bit sloppy and slow as hell, but I do feel like these are the rare times that I really try to push myself to do something extraordinary. I used to play it safe, and only choose dishes that have a LOT of latitude. Like braises. I mean, how exactly am I going to screw up cooking fatty meat really slow? But at some point, I figured that if I’m going to try something that’s a bit out there, a dinner party with close friends is one of the lower stress environments to try it. Worst case, they’re probably still going to like you. Plus, they’re generally willing to cut you some slack for being an amateur and free. But it’s still stressful to me. After all the shopping, the anticipation, the prep … it’s a little deflating to screw things up. On top of that, dinner parties are usually hard to schedule, and there’s never enough time. Now that I have a kid, I feel the added pressure of trying to execute efficiently while the limits of my wife’s patience are being repeatedly tested by my two-year-old daughter. But it usually works out. And when it does, it’s very satisfying. The stress is also part of what makes it fun.

So when Erin asked me to cook dinner for her new friends the Javiers, I was all over it. Yes! I’ll make those braised short ribs! No … I’ll make corned beef! No! I’ll do corned short ribs … Wait—I’ll sous vide that shit!!! Over the course of a week, I went from suggesting a main dish that I’d made successfully a bazillion times, to a three course meal (increased to four courses while I was at the farmer’s market on the day of service), that involved baking (which I hadn’t done since my home ec class in 7th grade), and many other things I’d never tried before. Here was the menu:

Yam greens with blood orange vinaigrette

Chilled english pea soup, made with pea shell consommé

A modern, disassembled reuben: sliced “smokeless pastrami” (corned short rib cooked for 48h @ 60C, coated with crushed tellicherry pepper and coriander seeds, and pan-seared); steamed sourdough bun with caraway seeds; sauerkraut braised in apples, juniper berries and gin; cave aged gruyere; sriracha aioli

(above paired with a Dogfish Head 90 min IPA)

Toasted marshmallow milkshake

Couldn’t stop thinking about it. I actually had too many ideas and had to edit down to the menu above. I was completely stoked to try all of these things. Right up until about 2 hours before service, when it finally hit me. I have NO IDEA what I’m doing. I was fairly certain that everything would be edible, but I quickly realized that I was a bit out of my depth in terms of gauging how well things were going. What were the dishes going to look like? What if they didn’t taste amazing? How would I react? Should I have chosen more courses with recipes? Then, the bone-chilling realization: These people don’t even know you. Which means the “friend exemption” doesn’t apply!

As it turned out, the meal was, in fact, edible. Some of the elements were downright tasty (the beer for example, was sublime). But it was not—at all—the amazing meal that I had imagined. I definitely made what were, in my mind, pretty obvious mistakes in execution. So if this were Restaurant Wars, I might be going home, even without a team to compete against.

Fortunately for me, our guests were (and are) an extremely gracious, lovely family. We had a fantastic time, and they seemed happy enough with the food. Additionally, I can now do what TC cheftestants can’t: Go back and rework every dish to my satisfaction. So over the next several posts, I’ll be telling you how I went about making things right with most of these courses. Not sure if I’ll do that salad again, since I can’t find those particular greens anymore, and my mistakes were somewhat trivial (not enough acid, not enough tasting). But if you want to make a great salad, you can start with Spinach with Marcona almonds, Beemster, gremolata & walnut vinaigrette, if you haven’t made that yet.

Coming up (today, in fact, since I made you wait so long for this one): Chilled english pea soup, made with pea shell consommé

To be continued … 


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