Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How Does One Discern a Palate? And Wedding Bells Chime on This Week's Top Chef

Our cheftestants' palates and tolerance were put to the test this week in a smart new "name that ingredient" quickfire, and a bridal shower challenge. Padma wore a beautiful purple dress that I want for my own, and Hosea finally won the berth of my favorite so far this season (which was yet unclaimed). He's talented, humble, and smart. And he knows how to taste a sauce!

A palate-testing quickfire has been a staple of the last few seasons, and I really liked the way they did it this time around. The chefs went head to head in a sauce-tasting competition: the competitor who could name the most ingredients accurately advanced. The three sauces were shimp & lobster bisque, thai curry sauce, and mexican mole sauce - all of which have a multitude of discernible and subtle flavors. I think the most flavors named accurately was seven - including salt and pepper - but most contests went to only four or five ingredients. I was surprised at how quickly many of them folded! But it was a really interesting thing to watch, nonetheless. In the end, Hosea won.

And it made me wonder... how does one acquire a "discerning palate"? Surely some people are born with a more attuned sense of taste, but I think it's still something that needs to be developed with time and age. Maybe chefs are kind of "palate proteges" as children - appreciating complex flavors like soy and chili far sooner than their peanut-butter-and-jelly-loving peers. Either way, I would guess that it takes most people at least until their early twenties to start appreciating stronger, more advanced flavors.

I try to think back to the moment when I began to enjoy more "mature" flavors, and I think it started when I was in college. Unfortunately, growing up in small town New Hampshire, I was not exposed to a lot of exotic flavors. But in college I tried sushi and thai food for the first time, and I learned to enjoy stronger, more flavorful chocolate and cheeses. Studying abroad in Scotland, I was introduced to the wonders of Indian curries. With some degree of resistance, I taught myself to love the complex textures of espresso, red wine, and expensive vodka. And then, suddenly, it was like a switch was flipped - there were hardly any foods that I didn't like or couldn't appreciate in some way. I'm still not the biggest fan of caviar or olives, but I definitely have a much more open mind and appreciation for strong, challenging, or otherwise uncommon foods. I don't like to play it safe anymore - I crave something more in the food I eat and cook. 

As I'm sure it is with our Top Chefs, who are supposed to know how to balance advanced flavors in traditional and unexpected ways. Unfortunately, several of them fell short of that standard in this week's elimination challenge, in which Gail pimped out the chefs to cater her bridal shower - which was full of Food & Wine Magazine staff members. My favorite was when Gail said "these aren't the kind of women who get their salad dressing on the side". And she was right. 

Gail's 4o or so guests were pretty discerning about their four courses, and while two were pretty solid hits (the Indian-inspired lamb and the heirloom tomato trio) the other two were clear misses. The deconstructed sushi roll (with nothing sushi about it, really) was a disaster - Danny really shot himself in the foot there, and I was happy to see his cocky badly shaven face go. But Fabio's team and their blue corn flour encrusted sea bass was not much better - the concept sounded about right, but apparently the flavors of the dish didn't wow the diners. One woman said "I feel like I'm eating old people food". Maybe because it lacked impactful flavors? I guess today's savvy thirtysomething women are expecting more out of their food too! As they should. 

So another week of Top Chef rolls on, and it looks like next week, Martha Stewart's got something crafty planned for the cheftestants. A Christmas cocktail party perhaps? We'll just have to wait and see! 

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