I had an amazing opportunity this past weekend to work with two celebrity chefs as part of Top Chef: The Tour: Antonia and Radhika, both former contestants of the Bravo show.
Let me set this up for you in Top Chef terms:
Here is the challenge: you and another volunteer sous chef will assist two former contestants as they prepare food for eight demonstrations over two days in the confined space of a trailer. Each demonstration will require 65 servings of food. And, to make this even more challenging, you will need to overcome a water supply issue.
The result: Lots of fun in tight quarters!
Top Chef set up their over-sized trailer (at least I think that’s what it’s called) at the south end of Lincoln Park this past weekend. Behind the trailer was a large tent with seating for 60 people along with a stage equipped with a cooktop, cooler and oven. Outside the main tent were smaller stations offering sponsor swag, entertainment and of course an area to buy merchandise.
When I arrived early Saturday morning I was a bit puzzled by the kitchen I’d be cooking in. It wasn’t the size that threw me; to be honest I’ve worked in smaller spaces and at least here I wasn’t worried about constantly hitting my head.
It was more about finding supplies in the containers hidden in random empty spaces throughout, not to mention the three-compartment sink, each of which resembled the sink in an airplane bathroom.
And of course I didn’t know what to expect from the chefs. After all, these were celebrity chefs from seasons 4 and 5 of the show and I admit to being a bit intimidated. Luckily, they were as nice as could be, especially Antonia who I was assigned to help.
Antonia was responsible for two dishes, one of her own and one using Quaker oats (they’re a sponsor of the tour). The Quaker dish was blinis made with oats and topped with seasoned creme fraiche, smoked salmon, salmon caviar and dill; very traditional except for the blini.
Her other dish was rack of lamb with saffron-cauliflower puree, Brussels sprouts and gremolata. I learned a new trick when plating the lamb: dredge the just-sliced pieces in hot brown butter to add both flavor and heat.
The other chef was Radhika who was assisted by Colin. She only had one dish: halibut with a 10-spice rub served over creamed corn and lentils with bacon. At one point I asked her what 10 spices made up the 10-spice rub but of course I didn’t write them down. Here are the five I remember: black cardamom, ginger, garlic, coriander and peanuts. Yes, peanuts! What a cool idea.
Colin and I were each responsible for helping our respective chefs prep their dishes and assemble their mise en place for their demonstrations (they alternated demos but presented together). During the demonstrations we would finish cooking the food in the trailer kitchen and plate 65 tasting portions. The challenging part of plating was trying to get the food out while they were still warm, which was difficult to do with the steady lake breeze blowing through the trailer.
The other big challenge was the water supply situation, which was a bit hairy. I won’t go into details, but know that it resulted in my washing dishes in a hotel pan heated on the stove. Very interesting indeed.
Oh, and here’s one of my favorite photos. It’s the wall that all the Top Chef contestants signed during the tour.