Top Chef: Episode 4.5 What the Professional Chef Thinks
We caught up again with Dana Cree, pastry chef from Seattle's Veil restaurant, and who was just featured in Seattle Magazine as one of the “Pastry Chefs on the Rise” here in BuddyTV's home town. She took some time out to once again give us the perspective of a professional chef on the most recent episode of Top Chef 4.

Once again, she noted, the chefs are being asked to work within the unique limitations of a catering-style situation, which can require a different menu planning sensibility than the “a la minute” style of most restaurant cooking. Dana noted this was reflected in the overall performance of the group.

In the Dinner and a Movie challenge from the previous week on Top Chef 4, the chefs were cooking for a large group, but something more like what they might see in a restaurant nightly, and the judges seemed to be pleased with almost every team's offerings from a taste and execution perspective. With The Elements challenge, the chefs were back to the large-scale, simultaneous serving at an event, and, like the Block Party episode, the judges seemed pretty uniformly underwhelmed.

While he might have rubbed a lot of viewers the wrong way with his style, Dana thought that Spike Mendelsohn from Team Earth had the right idea for a soup. She noted that soup is an excellent dish to serve under those conditions. It reheats well without a significant loss of taste, and there won't be the variation in execution from plate to plate: each bowl of soup should be of equal quality.

Spike had the right idea in conceptualizing the logistics, but Dana wondered about the creativity of some of the other ideas offered up. As she pointed out, Team Air served duck. Sure, it's a bird, but, as Dana noted, “It's waterfowl!” Very true; ducks can certainly fly, but there are definitely other birds that might have been more evocative of air than something that's usually spotted floating on bodies of water!

Dana was also surprised that the judges weren't harder on Team Air for their execution. She explained a little more about the issues with duck preparation that the judges mentioned, namely that they hadn't scored the skin to allow the thick layer of fat to render out. Dana said if this isn't done when cooking duck breast, the fat can remain there as a gummy layer of fat, much like the texture of the fat in undercooked bacon.

She also wondered by Team Water didn't use any kind of liquid in the dish as it was served. After all, Dana pointed out, of all the elements in the challenge, water is the only one you can actually eat. Poaching was a good idea, but she thought if they could have incorporated a broth or some kind of liquid, it might have been an even better concept.

Dana is familiar with the flavor profile that Lisa Fernandes used for her miso-glazed bacon and confirms that it's utterly delicious. The recipe Lisa created is available on Bravo's website, but Dana notes it might be hard for a home chef to justify going to all that trouble to create just one element of a multi-component dish. She came up with a way to translate Lisa's flavor profile of sweet miso and pork product into an entrée that might be a more realistic preparation for someone cooking at home for the family or for a dinner party.

She pointed me to this Miso-Butterscotch Spare Ribs recipe inspired by Sam Mason of Tailor restaurant in New York, where Dana originally had the preparation. Dana said if you wanted to go with pork belly instead of spare ribs, that can be relatively simple to prepare as well using that same sauce.

She said first get yourself 2 pounds of bone-out, skin-off pork belly.  Score the fat cap in a criss-cross pattern, salt both sides with kosher salt, and brown both sides in a hot skillet.  If the large piece of pork belly doesn't fit in your largest skillet, cut it into 2 or 3 equally sized pieces.  Transfer the browned pork belly to an oven proof dish with tall sides that has been lined with ½-inch thick slices of onion.  Add two to three cups of chicken stock, filling the pan with two inches of liquid.  Add a few slices of ginger, and a small handfull of peppercorns, and a tablespoon of kosher salt.   Cover that with foil, and bake at 300 degrees for about 4 hours.  Cool on the counter for an hour, then transfer the entire pan to the refrigerator and allow it to rest over night.  The flavors will continue to marry and the pork belly will firm up making it much more managable to cut into portions.

Prepare the Miso-Butterscotch sauce from the above link, and cut the rested pork into 2-inch cubes.  To serve, place the pork belly in an oven proof pan and pour the hot miso buterscotch over to coat.  Heat through in a 400 degree oven, basting with the sauce every five minutes or so, for about 20 minutes overall.

She said this dish is delicious with a bitter green like kale or chard. She also serves it with smoked mashed potatoes (you can just use some quality liquid smoke if you don't want to actually smoke the potatoes) and a poached egg in a play on the traditional breakfast of eggs, bacon and potatoes.

Dana will be back to give us insight into Top Chef 4 and tips on making your own Top Chef dishes at home, and in the meantime, you can read her blog anytime.

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

(Image courtesy of Bravo)