A Motley Crew
Jay Rayner describes the chemistry between the judges as well as the first set of chef pairings.
In a room full of dating couples we must have made a pretty curious table: the skinny, hot Korean-American gal, the intense, precise gay man, the lady in the hat who once bedded Elvis, and the Anglo-Jewish guy with so much hair you could use him to stuff a sofa. Between us we had a lot of the major demographics covered, just not necessarily each others’. Ah, but there was still a lot of love at that table for the whole crew was back together, ready for another month of eating, niggling, whining, eating, praising, eating, and wise-crackery. And eating. Welcome to Top Chef Masters 2.
Curiously the most dislocating thing about the whole experience was the familiar. The dining room set, like the kitchen set, was exactly the same as for Season 1. The actual location wasn’t. We would step off the set and find ourselves in an entirely different building in an entirely different part of Downtown L.A. There were positives to this. One of them was the proximity of the kind of sushi joint that in L.A. was met with a shrug, such is the high standard of Japanese food in that town, and which anywhere else would have been regarded as a beacon of hope. Regularly, after an extended tasting, Kelly would announce that what she really needed now was lunch and would disappear only to return with armfuls of dragon and spiny tuna rolls. I have no idea where all this food went. Certainly it never appeared on her thighs.
Another plus point: we had left behind the adult movie business, with whom we shared our previous location, the noise from which would occasionally cause a suspension in filming. (On the downside my peculiar fantasy, born of exhaustion in the latter stages, that the two productions might somehow get intermingled producing a literal gastro-porn, was now never going to be realised. Shame.)
Not that we had much time to consider any of this, for there is very little preamble on a production like Top Chef Masters. I had only been in the U.S. a little over 12 hours when I found myself in that dining room, at that table, ready to see what the teams had come up with. As the eventual result showed – a win for the pair that didn’t attempt a riff on ingredients – we were always going to score good flavours over whimsy. We saw what Govind and Jimmy were getting at with that lamb chop/ lamb carpaccio combo, it just didn’t deliver. Indeed when I first heard we were being served a lamb carpaccio my first thought was "Interesting. I wonder why I have never eaten one of those before." After eating it, my first thought was, "That’s why." It wasn’t bad. None of the food was bad. It just wasn’t great.
Both Tony Mantuano’s pasta dish and Susan Feniger’s black pepper shrimp actually were great. (Curiously they intended us to eat them the other way round, but we were certain the black pepper shrimp would have obliterated the flavour of the pasta and instinctively did it our way). All of which encouraged me in the belief that the food on a date doesn’t actually make much difference. If the chemistry is right, if you fancy each other, you will bond as quickly over bad food as you will over good.
Happily the chemistry at our table was spot-on, which was very good thing – because we were going to be spending an awful lot of time at the same table together. I hope you’ll come along for the trip.
Jay Rayner is the author of The Man Who Ate The World: In search of the perfect dinner, published by Henry Holt. Follow him on twitter @jayrayner1