Nothing I had ever experienced, including Safari in Africa, hiking through the Australian Outback and even summer in Central America, could have prepared me for July in downtown LA. During that first week of Top Chef taping the city was suffering from a heat wave so brutal that filming was like wading through mud at times. To top it off, we were not able to turn on the air conditioner while in the Kenmore Kitchen, since its noise interfered with our microphones.
We were all permanently sticky, a little cranky and more than eager to get the show on the road. We were very excited to get out of the Kitchen when Project by Project (itself a thoroughly worthy cause) graciously allowed us to take part in their annual benefit at The California Science Center, a beautiful backdrop for such a special evening. Despite the good food, we all faced a test of scruples the likes of which I hope to never repeat. It was clear as soon as I arrived and was brought up to speed on the day's lychee lunacy that this was going to be a very long, hot challenge indeed. We didn't even make it back to the Kitchen for Judges' Table until well after 10pm, as the event ran longer than anticipated.
By the time Otto disclosed his decision to bow out of the competition, it was close to 3 in the morning. Thankfully, our guest judge Ming Tsai was a great sport! From the start, Team Vietnam had an advantage: they all got along. They were able to plan and execute their menu with relative ease and had no problem choosing Josie to be their leader, since she had experience cooking Vietnamese cuisine. Their division of labor and individual work was focused and methodical, and although there were naturally moments of stress before service, their egos did not get in the way of their final product.
The Pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup usually prepared with vermicelli noodles, sliced beef and lots of herbs in a rich broth, was slightly over-cooked and not as hot as it should have been, but was given a clever twist by using pork and julienne carrots instead of noodles. The summer roll was fresh and crisp with some cool, thirst-quenching pickled watermelon (I am a sucker for anything pickled), and Betty's Cucumber Aloe Refresher hit the spot. But more than any of this, their charm and good humor made us all want to return for more.
Before Team Korea even started cooking they seemed disorganized, with no leader and no clear direction. It is no wonder those lychees were overlooked at the store! No one seemed to have a shopping list and no one was keeping track of the budget. Their braised pork was, without question, tasty and well prepared, as was the quick kimchi, but the rice that went with it was certainly mushy. That aside, it was Marisa's dessert that forced us to choose them as the losing team. While I generally do not care for tapioca or gelee, I did appreciate the thoughtfulness of the dish. It looked pretty, was not too sweet and made use of seasonal Asian ingredients. But when I say that panna cotta was solid as a rock, I am not exaggerating! If Otto had not faltered with those lychees, Marisa would have gone home that night. And I think she knew it. Perhaps that explains why she was so hard on him. How everything unraveled that night still shocks me. I cannot help replaying it in my mind. Would I have done the same if I were Marisa? Would I have stood up for Otto like Ilan, or would I have forced him to take the blame as Marcel did? On a show like this, which is more important -- to be a team player or to look out for yourself? After much thought, I still am conflicted myself.
While in the challenge, contestants definitely have to work as a cohesive unit in order to get the job done well. However, when they arrive at the Judges' Table, it is, and should be, survival of the fittest. This is, after all, not a "real" kitchen but a competition...one in which there will be only ever be one winner! Top Chef is not a team sport. Otto chose to overlook that the lychees were not paid for and may have even attempted to use them, if Marisa had not mentioned anything. If that put my chances of winning at stake, I too would have probably called him on it!
I agree with the outcome of the challenge and think it could not have unfolded any other way. If Marisa had been told to "pack her knives" and Otto had stayed on, no one would trust him and it would create a fissure in the value of the competition. He said his piece and left with dignity. I know it pained him to do it, but he left Top Chef knowing he had come clean and had done so on his own terms. There was not a dry eye among our chefs that night. They all showed incredible concern for the consequences of Otto's resignation and how this would ultimately affect his career. Even Marisa understood that what had transpired between them was shameful and disruptive. However, if there was any way to go, I truly believe Otto did it right. I applaud him and hope whatever does next, he does with pride.