It's All Relative

James Oseland explains that it’s up to us critics to identify the extremes of what they eat during the Elimination Challenge.

Being a critic on Top Chef Masters requires lots of things — among them, an informed palate, an occasionally dark sense of humor, and an abiding love for Curtis Stone’s dulcet voice. But as critics we’re also called on to adjust our expectations while seated at the judging table: the cheftestants each season are extraordinarily talented, but the challenges and constraints imposed on them mean that the food they produce can, at times, be below their usual level. (Of course, that’s not always the case — often the cheftestants make dishes that are absolutely magnificent regardless of any competition restrictions.) When facing a plate of pasta cooked in a dorm room shower, or a soup cooked in a kitchen without running water, it’s important that we be able to assess the dish on its own merits, judging its success within the context in which it was created.

In order to come up with the winner this week, an understanding of context was critical. The chefs had to make a multicourse meal using only a few (um, not very powerful) burners and a tiny oven, which would be a challenge for any chef. Add to that the fact that the kitchen they were working in had a tendency to take sharp turns at high speeds, and everyone was working with a serious handicap.

Of course, you’d hardly know it from the dishes served by the Black Team. The foursome of Traci, Mary Sue, Hugh, and Naomi turned out dishes that transcended their RV origins. The deep-fried avocado that topped Mary Sue’s tostada was revelatory; it was a completely commonplace food prepared in a way that was entirely new to me. Hugh’s corn soup wasn’t a favorite at the table, but I found his combination of corn and vanilla to be a sophisticated, intriguing pairing.

It was a pleasure to recognize Traci, who has won so many Quickfires, with her very first Elimination Challenge win. Steak is one of those deceptively simple dishes that’s easy enough to cook adequately, but it takes a real master to prepare something as flawless as Traci’s ribeye. Her sides were spectacular in themselves: immaculately carved pieces of daikon braised in miso and a stunning cucumber salad in an umeboshi vinaigrette that had a refined balance of faintly bitter and faintly sweet. Eating that food, you would never have known that it was cooked in what amounted to a glorified E-Z Bake oven.It’s up to us critics to identify the extremes of what we eat during the Elimination Challenge — good and bad. As the cheftestants themselves realized when they judged themselves during the Quickfire, someone has to win, and someone has to lose. Even allowing for the conditions in which the food was prepared, the Red Team had a poor showing. Each course had something working against it. Celina made the bizarre choice of pairing her spanakopita with couscous; Floyd served a salad that may as well have been pre-bagged, and a steak that was simply boring.

But it was Alex who, alas, took the fall this week: he made not one but four dishes, not a single one of which hit the mark. His decision to take responsibility for so much of the menu was a commendable act as a team player, but he spread himself so thin that his food suffered as a result: the tapioca pudding was al dente, the breading on the turkey cutlet was hard, the seitan enchilada was flavorless, and that plate of soggy pasta was just plain crummy. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Critics’ Table, it’s not about good sportsmanship, or picking up the slack; it’s about how the food tastes.

I know — and the other critics know — that Alex can do better than he did on this episode. He’s a terrific cook, with a vast repertoire of dishes and techniques up his sleeve, and a deep and varied knowledge of different types of cooking. We’ve seen his skill before on the show: his masterful fricassee on Episode 1 set a high bar for all the other chefs to meet. But this week, Alex prioritized the group over himself, and he suffered for that. If Alex had poured his all into just one or two dishes and thrown his teammates under the (tour) bus, he might have still been standing at the end of the day. I think I can safely speak for the other critics when I say that he will be deeply missed.

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