“Wooooo, Aspen, baby!” That is Joe Flamm, yelping as the car he’s in speeds to Aspen. “I’m losing my damn mind!” And it’s true: Everyone is heading to Aspen, home of the Food & Wine Classic (in Aspen). “Everyone in the fucking world is here!” Joe Flamm announces. In the back seat, Joe Sasto rests his head upon a bear claw.
There is not even time to bask in the splendor of a luxury hotel because Padma is wearing her best Ralph Lauren ranch attire, and waiting for the final three chefs on the bank of a lovely little pond, along with our old pal, chef and part-time forest ranger Chris Cosentino. “Look around you,” instructs Padma, as a lone figure fly-fishes in the background. “Any guesses as to what your next challenge will be?” The challenge is: make a dish with trout in 40 minutes. But there’s — wait for it — a catch! As in: You also have to catch the trout. “Trust me,” chef-ranger Cosentino says, “it’s not easy at all.”
“All I really know about fly-fishing is what I’ve seen in the movie A River Runs Through It,” announces Joe Flamm, who catches a fish immediately. Two minutes later, Joe Sasto also catches a trout because he is “a bear in its natural element.” Adrienne, however, casts about frantically while contemplating the nature of male privilege. “This is slow torture,” she moans, accurately describing the sport of fishing.
But just when it seems like Adrienne will have to make do with canned trout, she gets a bite, and finally we can all breathe again. Twenty-two minutes left!
So here’s the plan: Joe Flamm will pan-sear his fish. Joe Sasto whips up grilled trout rillettes. And Adrienne will make a raw preparation, both because the fish is very fresh and because she does not have time to cook it. But hold up, Adrienne! Ranger Chris is here to explain: “There’s an old saying, does a bear shit in the woods?” he says, gravely. “They do. They do uphill, and it taints the water, so fish of this caliber needs to be cooked all the way through.” Good to know!
Other than how some of it was tainted, though, Chris Cosentino thought it was all great! Adrienne’s ponzu sauce was “really incredible,” even if her fish was inedible, and Joe Sasto “really hit it on the mark” with his rillettes. But the winner is Joe Flamm, for making trout “feel as special as it really was.” And isn’t that all any of us really want, to feel as special as we really are? In my experience, the secret is face serums.
We’re so late in the season that Padma has run out of segues, so she just hustles everyone into the middle of an empty field. “Tada!” she chirps, gesturing at a trio of cowboy cauldrons. For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will each make a dish for … the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. I know. I didn’t see it coming, either. But there’s a twist! The dish must be prepared without a protein. And the only heat source is the dangling fire pits! And the chefs only get three hours! If only someone were here to help them!
Right on cue, Carrie, Chris, and Bruce emerge from the middle distance. Since Joe Flamm won the Quickfire, he gets to choose his sous-chef first. He picks Carrie. As an added bonus, he also gets to assign his competitors their sous-chefs. He pairs Bruce with Adrienne, and Chris with Joe Sasto, and then everyone hugs with what appears to be genuine affection. Good grief, doesn’t anybody here understand how reality television works?
To celebrate summer, Joe Flamm will marinate some baby squashes and then top them with a rustic charred vegetable pesto.
“I don’t want to play it safe,” announces Adrienne, who plots a corn pudding with coconut milk and Champagne. “Elevated southern cuisine, it’s my food.”
Not to be outdone, Joe Sasto is making … something! “I still don’t have a clear vision of what I want this to be,” he wails, piling beets into his arms. “At this point, I’ve got to stay focused and make sure I’m cooking something I’m going to be really proud of.” That is also what I say, every night when it’s my turn to cook dinner.
In the morning, everyone heads to the fields to fire up the ol’ cauldrons and get cracking. Joe Sasto feels newly invigorated about his beets, which he’ll turn into a smoky carpaccio, but the trouble is, they’re just not charred enough. As a solution, he will add a log, to really infuse it with the essence of burning. Meanwhile, Adrienne struggles to adapt her insanely ambitious corn-pudding extravaganza into something marginally more manageable. “I do not want to go home,” she groans. “I can’t blow this chance.”
Also Joe Flamm’s grilled zucchini is going great.
With that, the floodgates open and the guests rush in, a mix of famous people and anonymous Coloradans wearing floral shirts. Everyone agrees that Joe Sasto’s beet carpaccio with beet yogurt, green-bean-tomato vinaigrette, and sourdough toast was “tasty,” but the dry-toast part was a problem. “Zee bread needed nourishment,” offers French chef Daniel Boulud, Frenchily. In Joe’s defense, ashen beets are very on-trend.
Speaking of charring, Gail cannot help but feel Adrienne’s charred corn pudding wrapped in Swiss chard with shishito peppers and Champagne-coconut broth wasn’t quite charred enough.
“But the flavor, eh?” marvels Daniel Boulud. Everyone nods profoundly. Back at Adrienne’s station, everyone is busy assuming that Bruce is the executive chef because he is a man. “For some reason, when people see a male chef and a female chef, they assume the male chef is the exec chef,” Adrienne observes, as male chef Jonathan Waxman ignores her.
But let’s get back to charring! “This is the first time I’m really getting smoke,” notes Padma, biting into Joe Flamm’s grilled baby zucchini with hazelnut-zucchini pesto and goat cheese. “He had me at hello with the beautifully cooked hazelnuts,” raves Jonathan Waxman; Danny Meyer loves it, and he doesn’t even like hazelnuts. If there is a quibble, it is that Tom feels that Joe should have used grown-up zucchini, instead of baby ones.
A fun game to play: What would you serve Tom if he came over for dinner, and what would his primary complaint be?
To prepare for Judges Table, the chefs sit in a circle and meditate on failure. “Flavor was great. Seasoning was on point. Overall, amazing,” announces Daniel Boulud. Tom is less convinced. Joe Sasto’s beet-y yogurt was “inspired,” but his bread was oppressively plain, and where was the smoke? The fire? The char? Joe Flamm’s zucchini à la zucchini was “smart” and “rich,” but where was the sense of play? Adrienne’s high-concept pudding rolls were creative, with “interesting flavors,” but where was the woody tang of the cauldron?
“Joe Flamm,” Padma calls, grimly. Just kidding, he’s the winner and moving on to the finale! Joe Flamm heaves with the ecstasy of relief. Unfortunately for Joe Sasto, that trick only works once, so when Padma summons him forth, we all know what it means: Joe Sasto is out. “It sucks to have come this far and not see it through to the end,” Joe Sasto reflects, sadly. However, now that he is wizened by defeat, he offers these parting words: “You know anyone out there that’s afraid to do something? Don’t be. What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe you’ll end up getting third place?”