Norbert Wabnig, cheese expert and owner of the Cheese Store in Beverly Hills, made an appearance on Top Chef Masters last night, serving as the cheese challenge Quickfire judge. (Insert “big cheese” joke here.)
The contestants were asked to make a cheese dish, which seemed simple enough, but they only had 12 minutes to do it. Despite the lack of time, though, two chefs stood out as magic makers. Naomi Pomeroy managed to make a skirt steak in that time, which she paired with chaumes cheese toast, and L.A. local Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill made empanadas with cojita and gouda with tomatillo salsa, encased in tortillas made from scratch.
Miliken's speedy work impressed her fellow contestants (“That's like 25 steps!” Pomeroy said) but when it came time for judging, Wabnig wasn't as enthusiastic.
You might think he'd play favorites, since Milliken apparently frequents Wabnig's shop, but her empanada floated somewhere in the middle. Wabnig's simple observation: “The choices of the cheese was correct.”
It was a fair compliment, though, considering Wabnig stated he was looking for balance in these dishes; for the cheese to play a strong roll but not overpower the dish. As he told us today on the phone, “You want to taste cheese, but you want to elaborate on it.”
In the end, there were two dishes that failed in Wabnig's eyes. He didn't like George Mendes' Grana Padano gratin, calling it too onion-y. He also wasn't a fan of Floyd Cardoz's elote, or corn on the cob with creme fraiche and cojita cheese, which was apparently overpowered by too much cayenne pepper.
Pomeroy's cheese toast and skirt steak turned out to be a contender, but lost the top spot to Traci Des Jardins and her columbier and prosciutto carpaccio with arugula and croutons. “Traci's dish had that balance,” Wabnig told us.