The first elimination challenge is over and I live to cook another day! Comfort food is one of my favorite cuisines but it’s one that is highly subjective to every individual and culture. What I find comforting may not be comforting to you or another. Comfort foods typically come from our past, offer a sense of nostalgia and remind us of happy times with family and friends . . . for me, they’re foods I tend to crave when I’m hungover. All in all I really enjoyed this challenge. Our team finally got to meet our mentor, the gregarious Brian Malarkey, and we learned a little about his history and culinary style. He gave us some feedback on our audition dishes and took some time to get to know our individual styles. Chef Malarkey also gave us some great intel on the Ludo’s palate, Nigella’s culinary desires and Tony’s predilections to hopefully help us when crafting our dishes.
Our first guest mentor/judge was Gabrielle Hamilton, chef at her ever popular New York Restaurant Prune and author of Blood, Bones and Butter, which Bourdain has referred to as, “simply the best chef memoir ever.” Last I checked that spot was held by Bourdain himself so that’s a pretty serious endorsement. I’m only a few pages in but I already agree with Tony—I can’t wait to get back into it. Chef Hamilton gave us a great story of what comfort food was to her and then we got to taste it! It was a simple Italian-inspired soup with a light yet intense Parmesan scented broth adorned with spinach and egg, and although I had never had anything like it, I found it quite comforting indeed. We put our empty soup cups down and she announced the secret, must-use ingredients: bacon, eggs and cheese. Then the huge red digits appeared on the overhead display: 1:00:00 . . . 59:59 . . . 59:58 . . .
Bacon, eggs and cheese—there were many varieties of each—are some of my favorite things to cook, and more importantly, eat. They are also extremely versatile ingredients which is great, right? Wrong! Not for me. There are an almost infinite number of dishes that could be prepared with such ubiquitous and adaptable ingredients, and they all started flooding my head. Do I focus on one? Do I use them all? Bacon? Pancetta? There’s like 8 fuckin’ cheeses on the table! 58:45 … Think!
Comfort … comfort … comfort. Got it: eggs Benedict. I could probably eat a good eggs Benedict anytime, anywhere. As my brother and I were growing up, eggs Benny were a tradition on many a holiday morning or better yet, at the always well-received “breakfast for dinner.” When it came to this dish, it was mostly Dad’s gig, except for Mom’s mock yet delicious blender hollandaise. At a very young age I made an effort to decipher and understand this enigma of a dish that for some reason we only got to eat a handful of times a year. The hell with that, I want to eat it whenever I please! Thus, I banked one of my first recipes ever.
For this version of eggs Benny, obviously the final dish is being plated in a single spoon, so things immediately change. There are no English muffins in the pantry anyway. Let’s start with what we do have and get back to that bread situation. The quail eggs were a no-brainer while living in “spoon world” so I grab those. Of all the delicious pork products to choose from I see something that I’d only seen only once before, ever! Black Forest . . . wait for it . . . Bacon. Everything you love about Black Forest ham rolled into bacon. Intensely smoked and slightly sweeter than your run of the mill bacon, I thought it would be the perfect play for a sexied-up spoon-sized Benny. From there I didn’t want to stray too far away from the essence of the dish which, at the end of the day, is very simple. When you go simple though, every component needs to be perfect: the bacon crisp yet tender and tacky from just a touch of honey. The eggs poached just enough so their golden centers can ooze out to combine with the velvety-smooth, brightly acidic hollandaise. All this in oral concert with perfectly toasted micro-croutons delivering that bready crispness with just the slightest hint of butter that only thought about being brown. I was pleased with every component and the finished spoon it produced. Although Malarkey seemed to enjoy it, he never had Dick Pechal make it for him on New Year’s Day! As a side note, Jeff’s “Mac ‘n’ cheese” was pretty damn delicious as well.
With the individual challenge I went with fried chicken ‘cause who doesn’t like fried chicken? And even if it sits a little, cold fried chicken is still fantastic. I chose to go with a slaw to help brighten and balance the dish and provide a plethora of flavors and textures. What you didn’t see (which is ironic as I literally worked on it throughout the hour) was my deliciously crispy chicken skin. I’m sad to say things really came down to the wire and the skin didn’t make it onto the spoon. I felt good about my execution and flavors but had wished I had done more. Although I rode the middle I was pleasantly rewarded with Ludo’s applause—he’s LA’s king of fried chicken—and saying that he “liked the crust.” More rewarding was hearing the chefs razz Greg for using crispy chicken skin! I guess my skipping the skin was meant to be.
Next episode is “Daring Pairings” where everyone gets a little saucy and I think we may see a few fireworks. Team Malarkey may have lost one of its own but we’re bringin’ him back for redemption at this week’s Dinner and a Show! Come eat and drink with us!
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