Toby Young

Toby Young explains why the story behind this week's dishes was just as important as the dish itself.

on Nov 11, 2009

This was a fun episode for me to shoot because Nigella Lawson is an old friend of mine. She started out as a restaurant critic at The Spectator, the magazine I currently write a weekly
column
for, and went on to conquer the world. For humble food writers such as myself, she’s an inspiration.

The challenge was quite difficult: How do you create a dish inspired by a casino? With a task like this, you’re not just testing a chef’s technical abilities, you’re finding out how well he or she can spin a yarn. For contemporary chefs with ambitions to open their own restaurants, this is an essential skill. These days, you can’t expect your cooking to sell itself. You need to weave a narrative around your cuisine. A good example of a restaurateur who’s done this successfully
is Russell Norman, who recently opened an Italian tapas bar in London called Polpo. I reviewed it a couple of weeks ago for The Independent on Sunday.

Some of the contestants were clearly better at this than others. For instance, Jennifer’s attempt to replicate the myth of the Sword and the Stone in miniature was too literal an interpretation of
the challenge. This wasn’t a dish inspired by Excalibur so much as an attempt to recreate the famous Arthurian legend on a plate. Bryan, by contrast, wisely chose to take his cue from a notice on the wall at Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef about the need to sustain the world’s fish
stocks. Viewers may recall that Rick Moonen puts the same emphasis on sustainability at RM Seafood, his Mandalay Bay fish restaurant.

The reason we declared Michael the winner is not just because his dish was well executed; it’s also because we liked his story linking it to New York New York. Chicken wings are a good,
honest, blue collar, New York dish — the kind of thing firefighters like to eat, as Michael pointed out. His little disc of blue cheese sitting on top of the chicken was particularly inspired. He’d taken what was essentially junk food and produced a fancy, upscale plate — which fits very well with the notion of a dish inspired by a Vegas casino.

Robin, by contrast, failed on both counts. First, like Jennifer, she tried to literally recreate an aspect of a casino — in her case, Dale Chihuly’s glass sculpture at Bellagio. Unfortunately,
not only did she take this unimaginative approach, she wasn’t able to pull it off. Her plate didn’t include the spun sugar she’d hoped to impress us with and the only thing we had to judge her on was her panna cotta which was dense and tasteless. I like Robin and I was sad to see her go, but we felt she’d got as far as she was entitled to get in this competition. I think she can hold her head up high. The field of contestants has been very strong this season — the strongest Top Chef has ever seen, according to Tom. So making it into the final six is something she should be proud of.