There was a scene in the second season of The Sopranos where one of Tony's henchmen, after being served a formal meal in Italy, asks "Can I just get some macaroni and gravy?". The native Italians were not amused. I imagine it's how Fabio must of felt for this episode of Top Chef All Stars. Had Fabio remembered Jen's advice way back in episode two, he might have won the challenge. Cook for the judges, but really cook for Tom. Just as the fishing episode was Tom's baby, so was this episode. So I knew that once the episode was complete I had to see what explanation Tom had for why Mike got a hall pass for barely cooked pasta. To Tom's blog I went.
While this episode's theme might have been Inspiration, was it really was about was not eating. The Quickfire was only for looking, not eating. The Elimination challenge involved a restaurant 99.9% of the viewing audience will never eat at, Rao's. Ten tables, one seating a night and standing reservations that are passed down from generation to generation. Southern Italian cuisine but and that's an important but, made by Italian Americans. Here's how Tom describes his family's Sunday dinners: "We started with a salad of some sort, an antipasto. We'd next have gravy and macaroni (we never called it sauce and pasta), and we'd then have the meat that had been cooked in the gravy as our third course. We wouldn't deviate from that, be it spring, summer, fall or winter." OK, sounds like Tom's family was definitely set in their ways and those ways I think were felt in the judging. Tom's blog again: "The chefs were not asked to make Italian food , but, rather, to be inspired by what generations of Raos and Pellegrinos have done at Rao's, which is homey Italian-American food. When my father's family came over to the States from Italy, absolutely no one was importing Italian ingredients. His family had to incorporate into their cooking traditions the foods available to them here. As a result, the dishes have changed over time. People are invariably surprised when they go to Southern Italy and first sample the food, saying, "Oh, the foods very different!" Of course it is." So, if I understand what Tom is saying that while Antonia's mussels were more French than Italian the dish was still Italian-inspired enough to wow everyone at the table over Fabio's cacciatore and giving her the win. However it's the losing group that interests me more.
Mike, Dale and Tre and their pasta dishes make up the bottom three. Mike's pasta was severely undercooked, Dale's pasta did not come together and Tre's risotto was stiff. Tom says Tre's flavors were way way off and that may be but frankly Tom seems to coming down hard on Tre because of a restaurant trend that Tom doesn't particularly like. "Unfortunately for Tre, he wound up creating something that many people think risotto is supposed to be. About 15 years ago, for whatever reason, people tried to mold risotto into a ring stand. This is simply wrong. Risotto should be soupy. If you go to Italy, you'll be served it that way; ditto, a good Italian restaurant here. Tre's risotto wasn't even creamy. The starch should go into the stock and the risotto should run on a flat plate and not hold its form at all." Bourdain goes further in his explanation of a good risotto: " A good bowl of risotto is never overcomplicated with too many ingredients or garnishes. It is never buried in seafood or vegetables or mushrooms or even truffles. It is always -- and forever -- first -- about the rice. One of the most famous seafood risottos, from an island off Venice, has no seafood in it at all--just its extracted essence, delicately, delicately coaxed into broth. Attention must be paid constantly during the cooking process, first toasting the individual grains (in most cases) on the bottom of the pan, then slowly, gradually, feeding in small amounts of broth, stirring constantly to incorporate it. When finished it should be soft -- and almost porridgy, but with each distinct grain still possessing a bit of bite. It should lay flat on the plate. Never sit up in a mound. To cook Italian food well, one needs to have eaten good Italian food. And I can only guess that Tre has never eaten a good risotto. There is no shame in this -- as most risottos in most American restaurants -- even some well regarded ones -- are criminally screwed up. One of the most common transgressions is by the "genius" chef who sees risotto as a medium or delivery system for some clever and expensive garnishes -- and I suspect Tre has been subjected to more than a few of these both as a diner and during his training. His mentors did him a disservice here." So on the one hand, Tom and Tony applaud Antonia for serving a good tasting dish that was inspired by Italian cooking but auffs Tre for not adhering strictly to the Rules of Risotto? Here's my problem. I think someone who supposedly cooks pasta all the time, tells the audience about his Italian American upbringing in NJ, screws up his pasta for the Italian challenge should be going home instead of the guy from Dallas whose rice mounds instead of spreads and knows no better. I can eat stiff risotto, in fact I have eaten stiff risotto...
...Tre's risotto to be exact, back in September of 2007 when Ms. Xaxa (of the long lost and lamented blog, Amuse Biatch) and I took a little jaunt down to Dallas. As you can see, not much spreading happening and the rice is not the star, the lobster is. Was this dish popular at his restaurant? I have a feeling it was. Is it classic Italian risotto? No. But it's certainly better than what Bourdain described Mike's dish being: "It was hard, too tough and it didn't cook enough (I'm not convinced it ever could) -- as a result it never took in the sauce, and went down like a mouthful of bullets." I've tasted undercooked pasta and sent it back. It's spoils the whole dish and should be tolerated even less than stiff risotto. But what bugs me the most is Tom's insistence that Tre's culinary crime was more egregious than Mike's when Tom commits the same sort of culinary contortions. On that same trip to Dallas, Xaxa and I wanted to give Tom's Craft restaurant in Dallas a try but only had time left for Sunday brunch. Being a good southern girl, I ordered the grits to go along with my crab Benedict. What I hadn't ordered was a large glop of mozzarella cheese with the grits, having melted into a long stringy mass that sat on top like a wad of dried Elmer's glue. I realize grits hardly merit the Culinary Cross of Distinction that risotto has earned but I can think of no better way to mess with a Southerner than to mess with their grits. So perhaps Tom should get off his high Italian horse and realize most people would rather have dined on Tre's stiff risotto than Mike's bad pasta.
UPDATE: It appears that Tom heard the cries of his Southern customers and changed the Dallas Brunch menu to reflect something more appetizing. Check it.
Dang, if a stubborn old dude like Tom can change, maybe I can too. Now if Tom wants to come to Kansas City and teach me the right way to make a kick ass risotto, I'm game. It's not like there's nowhere to cook, I'm sure Lydia Bastianich wouldn't mind letting us in her restaurant for a little private lesson? Heck I bet we could even auction off some other spots for Tom's favorite charity? What say you Tom?