I’ve been recapping Top Chef episodes for years now, doling out mildly derisive nicknames and Monday morning quarterbacking culinary choices as if I know what I’m talking about (risotto? have you even seen this show before?!). Whereas I watch shows like Project Runway at least partly out of exoticism, wanting to see people complete challenges the most foreign to my experience — I have no clue how you make a party dress out of road flares and recycled sneakers, I’ve only made sleeveless t-shirts out of regular t-shirts, with middling success — with cooking shows, even when my tone of expertise is mostly a joke, there’s still at least a wisp of wondering how I might do it better.
I consider myself a decent cook and regularly get wins in our Uproxx Cooking Challenges, though those involve cooking in our own kitchens with no time limits or live judges. Naturally, I’ve always wondered how I might fare under actual TV cooking conditions — no pre-seasoning, strict time limit, in a foreign kitchen with a familiar television personality roasting you for the results. This past week I got just such a chance.
I’d been invited to cover a Top Chef Junior dinner attended by the show’s host, Vanessa Lachey, and head judge, Curtis Stone. The invitation described it as “a quickfire challenge and dinner.” Watch some kids cook and eat free food? Sounds great. People always talk about journalists being on the take, but the sad truth is that all it takes to buy a little influence is the occasional free meal.
When I arrived to Curtis Stone’s test kitchen on Sunset, half asleep and fresh off a drive through the teeth of LA traffic, the publicist manning the list handed me a purple wristband. Hey, what’s this for? As it turned out, we weren’t there to watch a quickfire, we were there to participate in one.
I mentally prepared for the contest while aproned waiters with copious wrist beads plied us with glasses of champagne and trays of canapés — kanpachi poké cut into exceedingly tiny cubes atop a purple cracker, along with a vegan version made with hearts of palm, both very good — in the foyer of Stone’s restaurant, Gwen, one of two LA restaurants named for his grandmothers.
Once the RSVP’d journalists had all arrived, Stone made his first appearance (tall for TV, obnoxiously blue eyes), and they herded us upstairs to the test kitchen. There, we gathered around the main stove while Stone and his co-star, Lachey, resplendent in a floral dress, hoop earrings, and flawless make-up, prepared to give us a cooking lesson. Nick Lachey, he of 98 Degrees and ex-Mr. Jessica Simpson fame, gave encouragement from just off to the side, directly across the stove from me. I couldn’t help notice his unnaturally white, almost bluish teeth. Do not smile near this man, you will appear a gremlin.
Stone began his demonstration, which turned out to be a simple lesson on how to properly cook a steak on the stove top, while assigning Lachey (Vanessa) the task of making a pesto with a pestle. It took her a second to figure out which of the many herbs bursting from adorable mason jars all over the table was basil.
Stone, working on an induction burner (presumably for an added degree of difficulty), explained that the secret to a good steak was cooking “quickly, but slowly.” Which is to say, sear it hot and fast to achieve that Maillard reaction (he didn’t use those words), and then rest it, to allow for “carryover cooking” (he did use these words), the cooking that continues even when the meat is off the heat, to fully empinkify the center without overcooking. He seasoned his New York strip with salt, then seared it in a piping hot pan. You’ll want to have the windows open and hopefully a good hood fan on your stove before you try this one at home, whenever I do it, I smoke up the apartment and my dog hides under the bed.
Stone started by rendering off the fat cap, holding the fatty part at the edge of the steak to the hot pan with tongs. Then he seared the steak for about a minute on each side. He set it aside to rest while showing us the ol’ finger test for steak doneness. That’s where if you touch the fleshy part of your hand just below your thumb on one hand with the finger of your other hand, you can feel what a properly cooked steak is supposed to feel like. Touch the index finger to that thumb and feel the flesh below it, that should approximate the feel of a rare steak. Middle finger, medium rare. Ring finger, medium well. Pinky, well done. I’ve seen it before and if you cook, you kind of just know what a rare or medium steak feels like without comparing it to your thumb meat, but it is a neat trick.
Stone seared the steak, rested it for four or five minutes, then seared and rested again. Double-resting was new to me. You can… do that? On the second sear, he added a hunk of butter to the pan along with a couple garlic cloves and some herbs (thyme and rosemary) to baste the steak, forming a pretty dark crust on the outside of the meat. That was something I’d wondered too — whether it was okay to put butter into a screaming hot pan like that or if it’d just burn and end up tasting bitter. Turns out it’s just fine! Helpful tips, these. After a rest, Stone sprinkled with some more salt to finish, and cut his steak diagonally, against the grain, in half-inch increments, fanning them out in a half circle across the plate, which he topped with a quinelle of Lachey’s pesto. Voila!