Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge review: Creativity on a budget


Are you ready to feast? Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge is back on Food Network and these talented chefs are giving home cooks a big bang for their buck.

Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge celebrates the biggest culinary event of the year, Thanksgiving. While that turkey is the star of the table, the huge celebratory meal is more than just the big bird. Through this Food Network competition, the chefs showcase their culinary creativity in every part of the feast.

Each week, the chefs will face two challenges. First, the small challenge will earn one chef an advantage in the main round. Then, one chef will be eliminated after the main challenge. In a way, the chefs need to think wisely and execute well in both challenges to be safe for next week.

In the first challenge of the season, the chefs have to transform an inexpensive pantry staple to be used in an appetizer. The ingredients are items typically found at Thanksgiving. Home cooks better be taking notes.

Looking at the different appetizers, the chefs who choose to push flavors or go a non-traditional route received more praise from the judges. Again, anyone can make a simple dish, but these judges really wanted to see how the chefs approached the challenge.

This season’s panel of judges include Alex Guarnaschelli, Carla Hall and Christian Petroni. If a chef gets praise from Alex, everyone knows that the dish is the bomb. She is one tough critic.

Host Giada DeLaurentiis introduces the first challenge, Budget-friendly Thanksgiving ingredients into innovative appetizers, as seen on Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge, Season 2. photo provided by Food Network

It is interesting that a couple of dishes were slightly sweet. The pumpkin marshmallow waffles with turkey and the sweet potato casserole needed some savory flavor for balance.

In a way, the most successful dishes featured flavors that were non-traditional and had different flavors from the upcoming main meal. From a crab cake using boxed stuffing to French fried onion shrimp, these dishes offered something bold and exciting before the big meal.

Winning the first challenge was Christian. Although the judges thought that his cranberry sweet chili sauce was a little processed flavored, the judges appreciated how he transformed the French fried onions as the batter for the shrimp.

For winning the first challenge, his advantage was choosing his ingredient first for the second challenge. In some ways, this advantage should ensure that Christian moves onto the second week.

Since this week’s Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge episode is all about being budget friendly, the chefs had to use cost effective turkey products in their meal. In addition to the traditional turkey, these other turkey ingredients had to be included, as well as two sides.

Given all these requirements and the limited time frame, the chefs needed to be smart in their food choices. For example, dark meat on the bone might not have enough time to cook fully. Raw turkey is never acceptable and these cooks will be berated for serving raw turkey.

Additionally, this Food Network competition is more than just giving the judges a traditional turkey meal on a plate. They want creativity, bold flavors and a connection to their style of cooking.

Three chefs succeeded in this challenge. Christian, again, went with non-traditional flavors. The Thai inspired Thanksgiving was a nice choice. Although very much removed from traditional, the choice really made his meal stand out to the judges. While the meal wasn’t perfect it was quite successful.

Jen’s smothered turkey was a wonderful use of the turkey sausage, her secret ingredient. Her idea of a smothered turkey is a great tip for the home cook. Why not use that extra sausage in a variety of ways. It adds a ton of flavor to any dish.

Additionally, she was smart with her side dishes. The simple peas offered both a visual and a flavor contrast. But, Alex did criticize her use of a lot of butter and cream. While butter adds a lot of flavor, it can’t be the only flavor on the plate.

Lastly, the judges like Eric’s plate. Although the risotto was a little under, the flavors of the dish were nice. Plus, he used the turkey jerky well. Even though he scrambled to get cooked turkey on the table, he recovered well.

Overall, the top plates were praised because these chefs executed well and used the secret ingredient best. Sometimes, it isn’t the perfect plate that gets the highest praise. Often, it is the best overall plate that reaps the rewards.

Looking at the bottom three chefs, each one had execution issues. Mary’s use of can turkey was good and bad. While her squash blossom was successful, the roulade had dry turkey. Everyone knows that dry turkey is a don’t on Thanksgiving.

Also, Mary’s grits were under-done. While she was scrambling to get a second side, her choice to cook grits in such limited time wasn’t smart. She should have picked something else.

Robin suffered with the hardest ingredient to incorporate into his meal, sliced deli turkey. The preseasons, artificial flavored turkey is difficult to work around. While he used it as a topping to his gratin, the judges thought that he should have done more.

Still, his juicy, well-seasoned turkey received high praise. In some ways, his meal was both a hit and a miss with the judges.

Lastly, Kelly received praise for her turkey wing, but other aspects of her meal were a miss. The sauerkraut wasn’t  as well received as she had hoped. Although it could have brought a punch of acid, it just seemed to miss the mark. Still, the judges appreciated her mac and cheese as well as that turkey wing (thanks to the last minute deep fry).

Unfortunately, the chef eliminated from Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge was Mary. The judges couldn’t overlook the undercooked grits and dry turkey. Combining those items with her lack of cooking in the first round, she was sent home.

Since this week’s Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge was all about budget friendly ideas, some home cooks should be able to borrow a few ideas from this episode. From using sausage as a flavor enhancer to a dish to using non-traditional flavors in the turkey feast, there are many ideas to borrow from this episode.

What will happen in next week’s Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge episode? You will have to watch and see.

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Which chef do you think has the best chance of wining the Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge?