Mains went out before the duck had time to rest, juice bleeding all over the celery root puree. Damn! I'd never let that happen at home! No time. Next plate. "Four Mains, up!"
"These all the mushrooms?" Dennis said, showing me a half-full pan. Shit. We were going to run out. "Runner! Need more chanterelles, fast!" No more chanterelles. Anywhere. Christ. Move, plate, spin. What to replace them with? Shiitake? Buttons? Oysters? "Get oysters!" I called. Dennis took over, cooking them in duck fat with Meyer lemon, just as we'd done with the chanterelles. Saved.
Holly A. Heyser
I started to get my legs under me. I was moving well, slicing fast and plating just a few seconds slower than Chef Tuohy. I was feeling the rush that is the Crush of Line. I was actually doing it.
"Next up?" I started to call out to get a jump on the next order. Slice roulades, dot truffle oil on them and salt, then plate. This saved me a second per plate. Seconds matter.
And then, when I called out "Next up?" I heard Chef Tuohy say, "You're done. Get out there and be a celeb." What? I looked around, not wanting to leave Dennis or Chef or James or Tom or anyone else still on the line. "Go," Chef said. "We'll be fine."
I stepped into a back hall to compose myself, took a deep breath, and checked my watch: It was 9:27 p.m. We'd been buried for four hours.
As I spoke with diners and friends, I learned of my last disaster: I'd forgotten to salt my consommé! I almost threw up when I realized that. Do you know how many times I've heard Tom Colicchio on Top Chef say some cheftestant had underseasoned his food? How many times I shouted at the TV (oh yes, people, I was one of those armchair chefs, too!) that the cook was stupid for not tasting his food? Well folks, it happened to me. That dish was beautiful, perfect, a triumph. Destroyed because I forgot to toss some salt in it. I was devastated. Still am, really.
I knew I'd lost, and I was okay with that. Chef Tuohy stretched himself, too, composing an Asian-inspired menu that made him think hard and cook harder. Afterwards, he thanked me for pushing him to make better food. I honestly can't ask for anything more than a compliment like that.
In the end, I did not put out the meal of my life. Not even close. Every single dish had flaws—texture of the tartare, salt in the consommé, overcooked duck leg, imperfect roulades—yet every dish had high points I am proud of: I love the flavor of the tartare, the consommé dish (if salted) is perfect, and the salad under the legs was precisely as I wanted. And the roulades came close to being perfect.
And in that lay the source of my elation. Sacramento Bee food columnist Rick Kushman gave me the nod in both the roulade course and the consommé course, and gave a slight edge overall to Chef Tuohy. In the Diner's Choice voting, I lost every course except for the roulades, where I annihilated Tuohy 81 percent to 19 percent.
I have to think: What if I had the skills to pull off the whole menu as I'd envisioned? I might—might—have actually won. Win or lose, I definitely would have put out a meal I would have been proud to serve all of you. But I'm not there yet.
So you'll just have to come back again next year.