Top Chef: Episode 4.3 What the Professional Chef Thinks
We touched base again today with Dana Cree, pastry chef at Veil restaurant in Seattle, to get a professional's opinion on last week's episode of Top Chef 4.

Once again, the chefs were asked to both work in teams and cater an event. While the team element is often the part the chefs grumble most about, Dana noted that the catering piece can be extremely challenging for chefs who have mainly worked on the line in professional restaurant kitchen. This is mainly because the two types of cooking require a very different approach to the food preparation timeline.

In a restaurant kitchen, most food is prepared at the last possible minute, and served, ideally, immediately to the diner. Although it happens on occasion on Top Chef, I think that Hell's Kitchen has actually had more demonstrations of this, with Gordon Ramsay often sending back dishes that sat too long waiting for another component.

Cooking in the restaurant kitchen, therefore, takes an incredible amount of precision timing and coordination, all with the aim to get the different elements of a dish to that window in peak condition to be whisked away by the server to the happy patron.

Catering, though, can be a whole different ball game. In a situation like this episode's Block Party challenge, there might be limited or no resources onsite for cooking or finishing a dish. For a dish to be successful, Dana noted that it can all come down to how well you conceptualize the dish and prepare for the conditions.

Two chefs, at least, definitely seemed to fall short in that area: Erik and Nikki. What was so confusing about their choices was that both chefs seemed to be aware that the dishes they selected could have some serious issues maintaining the appropriate level of quality through transport and being held prior to eating.

Dana has commented in the past that a strong ability to conceptualize on the fly could mean the different between a winning dish and a losing one, and this would appear to be the case for these two chefs. Regardless of the fact – as both of these chefs noted in interviews – of how well-received these dishes had been in the past, if the timeline for catering didn't suit them, they shouldn't have been selected. A good concept doesn't just mean picking a tasty dish that fits the aim of the challenge, it also means taking into account the limitations within which you are working.

Dana was also surprised at how resistant Zoi was to the idea of making pasta salad, and thinks this resistance contributed to the failure of the dish. Although Zoi was somewhat scornful of the idea of pasta salad, Dana thought that for the venue, pasta salad is a choice that many chefs would turn to. The fact that it is a basic and crowd-pleasing format can actually give a chef room to creatively improvise within the standard elements of pasta, vegetables and dressing.

So I put Dana on the spot and asked her to quickly conceptualize a pasta salad she would serve at a block party! She said she would probably go with a macaroni for the pasta, and add some quick-pickled vegetables and a homemade Dijon mayonnaise (don't forget you can see our first column with Dana for her recipe for homemade mayo).

Almost any crunchy vegetable can be easily quick-pickled, Dana says, using vinegar, water, sugar and salt, and allowing those to marinate the veggies for about an hour or so. She noted if you get a delicious and fresh cucumber from a farmers market, you'll probably want to enjoy that as is, but quick-pickling can be a great way to add flavor to any less-than-stellar produce you might pick up at the average grocery store before adding them to something like a pasta salad.

She also noted that while Nikki's execution of the macaroni and cheese was not that great, it doesn't mean you can't offer up this dish at a party or other event that might require the food to be held for a while. She said just create a cheese sauce and keep it separate from the noodles until ready to serve.

And, in general, to Tom Colicchio's point to Ryan about his Waldorf Salad: don't hold the mayo! The high fat content in mayonnaise serves to seal in the moisture in the ingredients in dishes like a Waldorf Salad.

We'll be talking with Dana again soon about her impressions of Top Chef and her tips on translating the dishes you see to your own kitchen (and how to avoid the pitfalls!) in coming weeks, but you can find her any time on her blog

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

(Image courtesy of NBC)