I don’t know about you, but watching Episode Nine of Top Chef Masters (“Masters of Disaster”) put me on edge. Maybe it was those left-hook, increasingly baroque Elimination Challenges that were thrown at the chefs (e.g., “Now, guys, you have to lose one of your sous-chefs!”). Maybe it was all the cranky exchanges between the former Top Chef contestants and Anita, Rick, Michael, and Hubert (I promise to divulge more about my feelings on that topic in next week’s blog). Or maybe it was merely the fact that, with only one more episode to go, we’re all nearly at the end of our journey together.
As I was contemplating what to blog about this week—hmmm, should I write about what chef X could have done differently or how chef Y stumbled?—I kept wanting to slow down and take a breath.
So I did. And some feelings bubbled up to the surface, feelings I’d like to share with all 24 contestants who have appeared on the entire run of the series, from Michael Schlow to Rick Bayless. Here goes:
I don’t blame you if you think I’m a jerk. I mean, I sit there all pursed-lipped in my suit and tie, quibbling about foods that you’ve slaved over and poured your hearts into for hours while meeting seemingly insurmountable obstacles—including, for starters, working in an unfamiliar kitchen without your usual staff. I complain about the too-briny shrimp. I criticize the plating of the dish that you had to get to the table at a speed that would make a hummingbird collapse. I make frowny faces at your food.
But here’s the thing: though I have tasted some foods during the past episodes that were less than life-changing, all in all every single dish I encountered exhibited in some big or small way why each and every one of you was brought on this show in the first place: you really are master chefs.
As critics on the show, Gael, Jay, and I were so often caught up in chronicling the itty-bitty, mosquito-in-the-room mistakes that we rarely had the opportunity to acknowledge the vastness of the challenges you rose to, episode after episode. There was also too little time to celebrate how each of you channeled your unique approach to food into your dishes. What you do, and what you accomplished for us on Top Chef Masters, is nothing short of astonishing. Your knowledge of ingredients, your innate skill with those ingredients, your generosity under pressure: all of those things are testaments to how gifted you are as chefs—or, perhaps more important, as cooks. To Douglas Rodriguez: I’d like you know that I think you’re a brilliant composer of dishes, a real maestro when it comes to bold flavor pairings. (And I loved the Gilligan’s Island wackiness of your flaming coconuts.) To Michael Chiarello: Few cooks I know understand the byways of Mediterranean herbs more intimately. To John Besh: I’d love to cook with you; your creative energy gave rise to some of the dishes I’ll remember the most fondly.
Wait a minute; I’d better stop. I wanted to keep this blog post short!
In parting, I’ll just say this: I once read that to understand someone, you must first sit down and have a meal with the person. With all of you, I would love nothing more than to do just that. And next time, I’m cooking.