James Oseland

James Oseland shares his own experiences with eating bugs.

on Apr 20, 20110

Pity the competing chefs on Episode 3. It wasn’t as if they could just flip open their copy of Larousse Gastronomique for instructions on how to skin a green worm! While I wasn’t present for the, um, buggy Quickfire Challenge, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have minded it a bit. (And in an interview I did a few weeks ago with the always wonderful Ruth Reichl—oh, how I missed her this week—she confessed a similar sentiment.) I’ve eaten bugs in lots of different parts of the world, from Mexico and other regions of Central America to Southeast Asia. Weird? Yes, sure, especially for someone like me, who was raised largely on pot roast (and, of course, the occasional duck à l’orange). But gross? No way.

You see, it’s all about context. When you’re in the Isan region of Thailand—a place in the northeast part of that country that I’ve been a few times—and a local cook offers you a salad of lemongrass, lime juice, chiles, and stir-fried queen ants gathered that morning from the grove of trees behind her home, there’s nothing remotely yucky about it. The experience is no less appealing than, say, being served a plate of pan-fried shrimp at a seaside osteria in Italy—shrimp are, after all, little more than the roaches of the ocean.

Happily, the chefs stood up admirably to this week’s next challenge: working as a team to make a 10-course meal under some seriously harsh circumstances. No running water? Their prep time being cut by 30 minutes? The last-minute revelation that they would be sans waitstaff? Any one of these curveballs would have devastated the average chef. (I would have thrown in the towel after curveball No. 2.) But they weren’t devastated, and they didn’t throw in the towel. And in fact, most of them excelled spectacularly.

As the meal progressed, Danielle, Curtis, Alan, and I were (largely) blissfully unaware of all the backstage handicapping. The meal we ate was truly satisfying. We weren’t left waiting or wanting, as we had been during challenges past; the dishes came out in a seamless, steady flow. What a testament to the cheftestants’ genuine professionalism!

Plus, something else: I think these guys are at last getting accustomed to the strange and unnatural parameters of being contestants on Top Chef Masters. Not only do they now clearly understand the on-hand ingredients better (no more oversalted scallops!), but I sense they’re also beginning to comprehend which dishes function best in the competition. Even under conditions as adverse as the ones they were given tonight, they’re figuring out how to execute makeable foods with a high level of complexity—practical dishes that show off their skill sets. Take Naomi’s celery velouté with Meyer lemon oil. I’ve only ever known velouté as a sauce, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

20 comments
hnlfoodiemom
hnlfoodiemom

Loved your blog post ..... but seriously, did you have to refer to shrimp as "roaches" of the sea??? Blehck! I will have to change my dinner plans for tonight! :)

Housewives Junkie
Housewives Junkie

I totally agree with OliveAnne. The judges actually liked the risotto--they just felt that John was still in his comfort zone. The fact is, he still did a good job, unlike Celina with the pudding. The judges and the guests did not like the pudding, and that definitely was not a challenging dish. I hate when they have them cook with ridiculous things like bugs. They're chefs for heaven's sake, let them cook with food! :)

Hemang
Hemang

James,

I believe you're spot on with many of your critiques of the dishes that were served to you during the 10-course challenge. From iffy ceviches to a puddin' that couldn't hold up to the fact that they had to use the ingredients in the pantry, everything was as you said it was. My only critique, however, is on your interpretation of Suvir's chaat salad being ultimately "safe." Did you believe it was safe simply because of the fact that an Indian-born chef made an Indian comfort food dish? Chaat is one of the ultimate, North Indian comfort food dishes. As an Indian, I have never tried a spinach chaat dish before...be it at home with my mother or on the streets of Delhi. That's why I felt like his dish was underscored by the "title" and the ingredients were therefore overlooked.

If you were to jump into a Delhi street and grab a banana-leaf bowl of some chaat, it would look very different. Still delicious, but very different contextually and flavor-wise. I'm rooting for Suvir not only because we're both Indian, but because he's sticking to his culinary "guns" as you'd call them throughout the competition. Hopefully if he creates another Indian dish in the next challenges, there will be an open eye on the methodology behind his dishes rather than just the type of dish he brought to the table.

If it weren't for the fact that he lives in NY and I'm in LA, I'd be running to his restaurant right now to try out that 2nd place dish right now! He's 1st place in my eyes as well because to me, I believe that most of the diners have never even eaten chaat and would've gladly ponied up the dough for a unique, "exotic" dish over a celery veloute. But I'm only suggesting this as a viewer behind the TV screen, not as one of the diners in the restaurant that evening. Thanks for your blogs!

OliveAnne
OliveAnne

I was so surprised that John went home rather than Celina. I have seen some chefs go home for risotto on TC - it is not easy. Didn't Tre go home on TC All-Stars for risotto? I can make good chocolate pudding from scratch, yet I have not been sucessful with risotto. You and the judges had a lot to say about the pudding problems. One being taste. Plus just saying pudding - now that speaks of simple. Anyone who has go to public school, knows what pudding is. You cannot say the same for risotto. When my daughter was very young I picked her up from a neighbor's house - my neighbor had watched her for me. As soon as she got into the car she said, "Guess what, you can make pudding on the stove" - Up until that point I had been buying 6 pack pudding cups. I got on the phone and got the recipe for "real" pudding - not box. It is a yummy dish. Would I enter it in a 100 dollar cooking contest - no way. Why in the world did Celina make pudding? She should have had plenty of time to think of an answer after she PHK. Hope next week no bugs. Thank you for your blog. OliveAnne FloridaFan

poor judging
poor judging

Bad decision. Lame. A good risotto is obviously better than poorly prepared pudding or bland ceviche. None of the comments during judging illuminated the decision. And James, your comment to John was basically mean, not constructive or even descriptive. Please be better next time.

Bravomaniac
Bravomaniac

Velouté? Come on, Naomi is undoubtedly a brilliant chef, but who ever heard of a velouté being anything but a sauce? I wish she'd been secure enough to just call a soup a soup, there's nothing to be ashamed of in it. Even in French, soup is still just "soupe."

Sharon R.
Sharon R.

The theme running through everyone's comments seems to be consistent. Exactly what did we miss during the judging that would help us understand why John's risotto was axed? Poorly prepared grainy pudding and tasteless ceviche was better than a nicely prepared, albeit simple dish?

PaulainVa
PaulainVa

I'm not going to reiterate the many comments on grainy puddin' vs. good, but too simple risotto, but, the critics really need to better articulate their issues with less than satisfactory dishes to truly draw the viewers into their dining experience. So far, I think Curtis is doing the best job in this effort. I hope I never have to watch a bug challenge again, but I do enjoy seeing how differently the various chefs look at the concept of leadership, and how best to make order out of a kitchen. I see some people I would love to work for, and others I could not tolerate. The season is off to a slow start, but I am optimistic that things will begin to pick up, although I'm so sad to see John Currence leave.

I<3Cooking/Eating
I<3Cooking/Eating

I also agree with Mr. Zurkon. The judging result on this one was very difficult to understand. Making a donut and pudding is also unspectacular plus they weren't made well. The risotto, by all accounts, was at least made well. On prior shows making a risotto for a large group and its timing has proved rather tricky. Blande ceviche and unspectacular risotto-stay. Chalky pudding-goodbye.

JosephSh
JosephSh

He is a critic, he is paid to be on the show to comment on the food put in front of him. That's like discounting Roger Ebert's reviews because he has never directed a film.

Georgi
Georgi

Do the producers tell you how to vote? Along with all the other viewers who commented, I cannot see why John was sent home for a well prepared but boring dish, when the ceviche and the pudding were so bad. What was edited out during the judging that justified this? I am just about done with you and this show.

Denise Claire
Denise Claire

I can't believe Celina is still there. John deserves his place.

John Koenig
John Koenig

I agree with the previous comments. Viewers are right to be upset about a terrible judgment and a stupid elimination, based not only on what was apparent from the episode itself, but on Mr. Oseland's disappointing commentary. Another blog post is in order, in which he explains the rationale for giving a pass to what were judged to be two failed dishes. It was obvious that the "Puddin'" (cringe) was little better than a store-bought mix, given the grainy texture. That would be comparable to making a sticky, gloppy risotto, which Chef John did NOT do. Anyone who watches Top Chef will know how many risottos fail, so it's not as if preparing one is a slam dunk, even for chefs on a competitive level. Come on judges, shape up and be real.

Sunana
Sunana

Dear James,

I have a great deal of respect for you and am always relieved when you are a judge. I do have one thing that I'd like to say regarding last nights episode and that is, that I believe Suvir was robbed! His chaat, was, as you said, great. It was so unexpected, refreshing and something new in that ten course meal last night. Everything else that every other chef did has been done before...how many chocolate torte's have been recycled on Top Chef?

I am so happy to see Suvir is such a thoughtful chef that does not drown his food in garish garnishes or insipid spices, but rather lets the ingredients shine on their own. This is something that took a long time for me to learn as a cook.

Plus, his food includes equal parts wicked wit and the saltiness of preposterous possibility, the bitters of human vices, the spiciness of quirky curiosity and a sharp sweetness that awakens a ray of sunshine slumbering way down deep in our memories of how food should taste.

Admittedly, when it comes to cooking shows, I tend to have a wandering eye, flipping through them for something that sparkles and catches my eye. This is not likely to happen with Top Chef Masters, as long as Suvir is on it. So many chefs these days are rather lackluster or boringly always doing the latest trend (raw beef, raw fish, capers…) The artfulness of chefs seems to me, regretfully, to be waning. But while many chefs seem content mostly recycling recipes from the latest on the food channel, Suvir does not does not dance the latest culinary cha cha cha. I am sure the latest gastronomical craze would never sully the always unpredictable world of Suvir's cooking.

Hope to see him continue to be an artful chef on this show, and hopefully, continuing to impress you.

Soon-to-be Former Viewer
Soon-to-be Former Viewer

I totally agree. I read this blog expecting some insight into last night's decision to send John home but didn't get any. From the sounds of it, John's risotto tasted fine; it was merely unspectacular. Since when is making pudding--a bad one at that--avant garde? And a ceviche in which you can't taste the fish? Epic fail.

SouthJerseyGirl
SouthJerseyGirl

Bad judging (or editing) is par for the course. And of course, anyone who can't prononuce the word pudding properly should be ousted immediately. I expect to see her make punkin pie next week.

Subhadeep
Subhadeep

I know this is Top Chef Masters BUT as a sister series of Top Chef this decision really does not go down with me.

Just a few weeks back we saw Trey got booted for making TOO COMPLICATED rissotto. It was made clear by the entire judging panel that risotto should be left alone to shine, simple, clean and not be masked by extraneous garnishes.

Curtis also commented on Naomi's soup that does she realize that they are eating 10 dishes and not being overzealous in making their dishes too rich and filling.

Thats why I disagree vehemently with John's elimnation. He gave you risotto and cooked it perfectly, albeit simple. On a sister episode you eliminate someone for not giving you clean simple dish and eliminate someone for doing it in the aforementioned way is just ridiculous.

In my mind pudding should have gone since no one really liked its consistency and texture at all. AND it was just a SIMPLE dish too. So a defective SIMPLE dish should go home rather than a dish that was done correctly and was requested till date to be kept simple in all Top Chef seasons!

bugged off
bugged off

James, watching your disparaging and snooty comments really bugged me! I would like to see YOU go in and cook, while trying to serve a dining room full of people. Plus, I agree that the risotto was creamy and yummy to most of the other people in the dining room. Maybe you need to descend from your throne and mingle with the commoners occasionally.

Mr. Zurkon
Mr. Zurkon

There is one thing that Top Chef, in all its evolutions, that has remained constant: you don't go home for making good food unless all of the other dishes were better. Sending Chef Currence home for making a risotto (a fine risotto by all accounts) is unconscionable. If all of the dishes had been error free, than being MERELY a risotto would be a valid critique, but that was NOT the case here. The other two dishes had inherent problems according to the judges (a bland ceviche and a chalky pudding). I am really disappointed in the judging of this episode.