For those of you who have been tuning in to this season’s Top Chef All-Stars, it’s been an exciting season full of drama and high energy competition. The star-studded cast from all of the past seasons have been neck and neck through the quickfire challenges and gruesome elimination rounds, proving each step of the way that even a small oversight or a momentary careless falter can cost the big one. Last week saw the unfortunate fall of my competition favorite and top contender, the notorious Marcel Vigneron, who got a strong kick start on the opening episode and seemed to be gliding through to the top. But alas, ‘Restaurant Wars’, as usual, was the killer. As I tearfully watched him pack his knives on TV, I thought back to the amazing dinner that he had a few months ago at the recently closed Test Kitchen in Los Angeles where he demonstrated his unique sense of creativity, artistry and chefsmanship.
I went on the final night of a 3 night stint at the Test Kitchen, completely packed, as expected, with enthusiastic fans who came to see what this now freelance chef was showcasing. While it seemed that Marcel suppressed his wacky eclectic tendencies to favor a more simple approach to this dinner, there was still an abundance of creativity and originality in many of the beautiful dishes, all autographed with little sprinklings of Marcel’s signature style. Sautéed shishito peppers dressed with kabayaki sauce and bonito flakes were especially spicy this time of the year, and almost every pepper was a strong hit.
A welcome encore from the chef’s days as sous chef at The Bazaar, the wonderfully salty and velvety papas canarias with chlorophyll mayo was familiar and comforting.
For a chef who is famous for incorporating the discipline of molecular gastronomy in his cuisine, the kombu cured hamachi dish was as molecular as he got in this dinner. Like a relaxing summer picnic on a blanket, deliciously fatty slices of hamachi laid out on a bright yellow pineapple sheet, cooling off from the heat of serrano chiles with a light foam of dashi and dots of avocado purée. Crispy kernels of puffed wild rice added a delightful texture to the dish that incorporated hints of Asian flavors through garnishes of seaweed, shiso leaves and ponzu gel.
An off-the-menu hamachi collar with kabayaki sauce and bonito flakes that Marcel kindly sent out to us, was one of my favorite dishes of the evening. Perfectly cooked, full of flavor, juicy, fatty and simply delicious.
Somewhere between the melting clocks of Salvador Dalí’s ‘The Persistence of Memory‘ and the mythological figures of ‘The Endless Enigma‘ was Marcel’s scallop dish, its combination of tall erect shapes and soft liquescent outlines representing a bizarre dream vaporizing into a haunting memory. Dayboat scallops sousvided in smoked paprika oil were mounted alongside an artichoke marinated in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and served with a caramelized cipollini onion, crispy capers, marinated anchovy, crostini, dots of parsley purée and cherry tomato confit on a bed of garlic purée. The medley of Mediterranean flavors illustrated his ode to the Italian puttanesca, with splashes of kalamata olive dust that screamed Marcel.
A 65 degree poached egg, coated with panko and fried, was perched on a pillow of bean purée to complement the tender slices of sous vide Wagyu beef tongue, which were delicately strewn in a colorful garden of pickled radish, arugula, red beets and yellow beet fluid gel.
One of many highlights of the evening came in a superbly grilled piece of Vadouvan rubbed lamb chop, the cauliflower couscous with golden raisins, almonds and pomegranate seeds another flashback to his days at The Bazaar. The foam loving chef won’t let a main entrée go without a touch of foam, and indeed a lovely feta cheese foam with just the right amount of saltiness elevated the savoriness of the dish. In addition to foams and Mediterranean flavors, puffed grains are his thing, and little pearly beads of puffed amaranth were sprinkled for texture, but the real moment came courtesy of a drizzle of sweet honey that really made this dish superb.
A dainty half-slice of green momochan decorated a preserved lemon and vanilla bean panna cotta, served with a ricotta fritter and some agave syrup.
The final delicious surprise of the Test Kitchen experience was a tall cylinder of macadamia sponge cake, soft, airy, spongy and amazing, thanks to the powerful electromagnetic properties of a conventional microwave. The strawberry foam and carbonated berry spherification didn’t quite do it for me, but the pairing of black pepper and celery leaves in this dessert dish was quite an ingenious revelation.
As always, the surrealist artistry, vibrant color displays and savory flavors of Marcel Vigneron’s cuisine were an absolute joy to experience. After a long stint at The Bazaar, followed by a shorter one as Executive Chef at Bar 210, he is now on his own to explore his direction in the culinary industry. Although he was booted off of Top Chef last week, no other chef in the competition can boast what he’s got going for him- his own TV show, called Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen, coming this spring on the SyFy Network. It’s guaranteed to be fun, entertaining, whimsical and magical, just like the chef himself.
Random trivia: Did you know that the pineapple is not a single fruit, but a cluster of 100-200 tiny fruitlets?