Since Wednesday, April 20, was also "Metro Transit to Work Day," I decided to be green and take the Music City Connection to the Farmers Market. Actually, I had to take two buses since I work up by Howard School, but they were both free and on time. The Blue Line to the Market left from Riverfront Park, and I was the only rider. Despite the fact that I was flying solo and had told the driver I was going all the way to Bicentennial Mall, he cheerfully and helpfully called out landmarks along the way.
"Brooooadway and First-Riverfront Park!" — I know. I got on here.
"Brooooadway and Third Avenue — Hatch Show Print!" — Thanks. Headed to the Market, please.
"Brooooadway and Fifth Avenue — Bridgestone Arena!" — Where I won't be at the hockey game tonight.
"Fiiiifth Avenue and Commerce — Dude selling the Contributor."-Check.
"Fiiiifth Avenue and Church Street — Another dude selling the Contributor."-Double check.
This went on every block until we stopped a half block short of the Farmers Market to wait for a time check since he had only picked up a few other riders and was running ahead of schedule. We commuters stared at each other while we wondered whether to get up and walk the extra 50 feet or wait like the good little lambs we were. Just as I made a break for the front of the bus, it lurched forward under the railroad trestle and deposited us at the roundabout.
After receiving my free eco-friendly shopping bag for participating in Transit Week, I walked through the market to where the Top Chef crew had taken over the parking lot. After checking in with the media representatives, I wandered around the Bravo tents which had been set up to promote various products and shows.
Noticing the familiar A La Souvarov of Scene photographer extraordinaire Eric England, I walked over to the aroma testing booth where he and the Scene's resident baking genius/graphic designer Elizabeth Jones were taking the challenge.
I had unfortunately heard the answer to the final item, but I'm convinced I could have identified truffles. I'm part porcine that way. Of the other two tests, I batted .500. After initially describing the sample as "unappealing?" I recognized it as actually being mustard. I think I deserve at least partial credit for guessing cumin instead of curry, though.
Then it was into the tent to start the show. The Top Chef staffers seated the folks who had preregistered on the Bravo website with quick precision and then filled up the remaining chairs with lucky procrastinators like me. The person who apparently was supposed to be the emcee spoke about three words and handed over the microphone to Nashville's own Top Chef, Arnold Myint.
Arnold then introduced the two cheftestants, Casey Thompson from Top Chef Season 3 in Miami and more recently Top Chef All Stars and Rich Sweeney from Season 5 in New York City. Casey was every bit as good-looking in person as she was on camera and much less uptight than I expected. I had remembered Rich as being pretty forgettable (is that even possible?), but after listening to him for an hour I realized that it was only because there were so many other stronger personalities during his season. Remember Stefan, Fabio, Leah, Carla and Jamie? Remember Rich? The guy who screwed up Dave Grohl's s'mores? That's OK; he's still a nice guy.
Each chef was allowed to use one personal ingredient that they brought with them. Apparently knowing her audience well, Casey chose bourbon. Rich made his choice on the plane flight down when he was served a glass of Mr. Pibb. Unaware he was flying into Dr. Pepper country, the poor chef had to work out of a fountain drink cup for the first two demonstrations until he went ahead and switched to the good Doctor for the final two Quickfires of the day.
Both chefs showed a real comfort level with talking while they cooked while keeping an almost unconscious sense of how much time was left on the clock. I'm sure that's a talent born of much practice. While they prepared their dishes, they regaled the audience with stories of how they got eliminated — "Dave Grohl can suck my s'more ..." and life in the contestant house-"gross and crazy." The crowd was amazed to hear that sometimes they spent as much as eight hours in the "stew room" while the judges deliberated. Maybe they were taking that word "deliberate" a little too deliberately.
Well, apparently I'm supposed to know a lot since I found myself at the Country Music Hall of Fame a few hours later preparing to sit in judgment with four of Nashville's favorite chefs and a new young gun freshly deposited into our culinary ecosystem. My fellow judges included two past Golden Fork winners, Deb Paquette of Miel and Jeremy Barlow of Tayst as well as Meg Giuffrida, the chef at Iron Fork's charity of choice, the Martha O'Bryan Center, and the master of the kitchen at the 222 Grill of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Jeremy Foy.
Once the panel had been rounded up and handcuffed to our stools, the contestants were introduced: Charles Phillips of 1808 Grille in the Hutton Hotel, the aforementioned Ashley Quick of Flyte, crowd favorite John Stephenson from Fido (an aside — it must have been damned hard to get a cup of coffee on Wednesday night at Fido because all of the employees were hooting and hollering by Chef John's work station), head chef at the de facto Nashville Scene commissary, The Turnip Truck Urban Fare, Laura Wilson, and the new young gun in town Matt Bolus of Watermark. In fact, Chef Bolus admitted he had only been in town 68 hours when the competition started, so maybe it was good that he got to be the final chef to cook and present to the judges.
He reputedly also used that time wisely to do a little Googling of the secret ingredient after it was announced, which was smart since it was fairly obscure — green almonds. These little morsels come from Kern County in California and are only ripe for three weeks of the year, so they are most certainly not a part of the normal vernacular of most Middle Tennessee chefs. Eaten alone, green almonds had a very subtle fruity taste with a slightly bitter finish. Chef Barlow compared them to a rhubarb, and conventional wisdom suggested treating them like an underripe olive. We knew it was going to be quite a feat to create dishes that could feature these delicate flavors without having to serve bland accompaniments. This crew was certainly up to the task.
Chef Paquette said she was hoping to taste some salt in the meals, but no one expected that the saltiness would come from the sweat off the brows and the tears of our cheftestants. Along with their sous chefs and assistants from local culinary academies, the five competitors absolutely busted their butts for 60 minutes to present clever, creative plates for our judging pleasure. Unlike previous years, since we had so many personalities to share the emcee microphone along with Bites' own Jim Ridley, Carrington Fox and Nicki Wood, we judges were not required to stick around the judges' table for our comments during the competition.
After being instructed to return 10 minutes before the first plate came up, affixing a GPS tracker to our wandering judge, we were set loose to watch the proceedings from up close. I visited with several of my food blogger friends who seemed very excited about the competition taking place before their eyes. The crowds began to whoop and holler for their favorites when the Vita-Mix was fired up or a secret ingredient appeared to be added to the fray. Since I hadn't eaten more than two bites from the Top Chef meal earlier the entire day, I did run upstairs to the Nashville Originals pavilion to sneak a quick meatball with polenta and arrabiata sauce from my friend Chef Dan Maggipinto of Caffe Nonna. A man's gotta eat, y'know. Otherwise I might have gnawed off my arm before judging began, and how would that look? Plus I needed both hands to use the fork and write at the same time.
The arugula was topped with a tangy lemon/sultana sauce that Chef Stephenson referred to as their "LSD sauce," but with addition of almonds. The LSD was indeed hallucinatorily good, but the mouth feel of the tuna slices was a little mealy and the crunch of a heavy handful of finishing salt did not add to the experience. I know that Chef John didn't bring the tuna himself, but I had to mark down a point for choosing to use it. Or perhaps the citrus of the LSD broke down the texture a little bit, but I was still very pleased with the flavor profile.
The tart was a little unwieldy to get my mouth around, but it was one of my favorite bites of the evening. I did manage to slip a taste to a friend of mine who is a huge Fido fan and she concurred.
Finally came the chef who everyone was keeping at least one eye on all night, Chef Matt Bolus of Watermark. Brand-new in town after a period working as the lead butcher and fishmonger at Mike Lata's FIG Restaurant in Charleston, S.C., Chef Bolus has the pedigree that everyone was wary of. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu, Chef Bolus has also worked with Sean Brock of McCrady’s, Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern and John Fleer of Blackberry Farms in East Tennessee. The fact that he served as a sous chef on an episode of Iron Chef last year meant that he was already experienced in the heat of the competitive kitchen. Plus I just think that diners and fellow chefs alike were all just curious to see what the new kid in school was like.
So extra points for the truffles, for sure. But in actuality, they didn't really add too much to the overall composition of the plate. The chicken was delicately fried and perfectly moist. The bite of the pickled almonds contrasted nicely with the sweet raisins. If I had any complaints about the flavors of the dish, it would just be a slight deficit of salt. I do wish the green almonds had been featured a little more discretely instead of being chopped so small. Chef Bolus also missed out on the opportunity to use almonds in his chicken breading, but I'm sure that was a thoughtful decision on his part. On the whole, he received high marks from me and I look forward to seeing what he does at Watermark.
In the end Chef Wilson triumphed by a single point after tallying the five judges' ballots three times. That means that she really must have blown the other judges out of the water since I could only judge half a plate. I'm happy that they got the full meal and I'm happy that Laura won. Now I don't have to hide my face the next time I go into the Turnip Truck. Like tomorrow.