Sorry to be a bit late with my blog this week. I am just back from the 28th Annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where, I am pleased to report, Top Chef had a stunning presence. Of course, Season 6 winner Michael Voltaggio was with us to redeem part of his prize—the chance to show his skills in a cooking competition against Top Chef Masters Season 1 winner Rick Bayless. Their Classic Quickfire was a 25-minute challenge in front of almost 1,000 people—and they both did an incredible job. Chef Rick took the title this time around, but Michael, assisted by celebrity sous-chef Allison Janney, still did us proud. In addition, Tom and I performed two cooking demonstrations titled “In the Top Chef Kitchen,” and many former contestants celebrated the culinary weekend with us, including Harold Dierterle, Sam Talbot, Eli Kirshstein, Jennifer Carroll, and Mike Isabella, not to mention Bryan Voltaggio too! It was great to catch up with all our friends in such a festive environment.
Now to the episode at hand. Before we get into the details of the Elimination, I have to give some credit to our producers for coming up with one of the most brilliant and entertaining Quickfire Challenges in the history of the show! It was such a smart way to demonstrate how difficult cooperation, in food prep as in politics, can be. Although I was not there to witness this Quickfire firsthand, I clearly remember Padma and our crew trying to explain to me afterward exactly what they had witnessed. When I was finally able to view the episode, I quickly understood just how hysterical and clever it was. I loved the “bipartisan” spin on making a sandwich—one of the most common and seemingly simple meals of all. I loved that the chefs were paired in the most random way and forced to share an apron, making it impossible to have any kind of personal space. But most of all, I loved seeing how they tackled splitting the work, from slicing bread to grilling chicken. Although I laughed out loud, it also brought to light how difficult compromise for the greater good can be.
Which brings me directly to the point of our second Elimination Challenge.
The quality and cost of school lunches in this country has been a heated topic of debate for many years, but never has it been more vital a cause than at this very moment. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years, which ultimately can lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer and more. In children! Simultaneously, one in almost every four children in this country has felt the pang of true hunger and is food-insecure in some way—again, that’s over 17 million children! Hunger means not being able to focus and learn, poor immune systems, behavioral and emotional issues, and a lifetime of health consequences going into adulthood. Lack of access to nutritious food, and education about food choices, is a big part of the problem. This is why funding for healthy, balanced and fresh school lunch and breakfast programs is so important—and why the First Lady started her Let’s Move initiative, with a goal of ending the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation. As a nation, we simply cannot afford to sit quietly by on the subject. As a food professional myself, I certainly cannot watch on the sidelines while the future goes to waste. Getting our kids fed well and keeping them fit is nothing less than imperative.
At the outset, I think our chefs were genuinely excited and impassioned by their challenge: to cook a school lunch for 50 children using the same allotted amount that the average public school is given each day, a whopping $2.60 per child. Watching them struggle at Restaurant Depot and in the Top Chef Kitchen with how to actually translate that amount into a healthy, well-prepared and kid-friendly meal was another story. They all quickly realized just how hard this challenge is and just how acute the problem.