Toby Young

Toby Young explains that sometimes even the judges are surprised by each challenge's outcome.

on Oct 8, 2009

This was the second time I got to see what this season’s crop of contestants could do and it gave me an opportunity to divide the sheep from the goats. Like the viewers, the judges are constantly handicapping the competition, trying to guess who’ll end up in the finale. Of course, we don’t always get it right. Last season, for instance, I thought Jeff would make it to the final four, but he was eliminated in Episode 10. By the same token, I hadn’t predicted that Carla would improve as much as she did over the course of the season. The great thing about Top Chef is how unpredictable it is.

In this episode, I was shocked that Michael Voltaggio was responsible for one of the weakest dishes. He was among the strongest contestants the previous week and, to be frank, I had earmarked him and his brother as potential finalists. Yet the pancetta-wrapped halibut with egg yolk ravioli that he and Ash came up with was not a success. The pancetta wasn’t crispy, the halibut was overcooked, and the egg yolk ravioli was glutinous and claggy. Nor could we really
blame Ash for any of this. His tribute to Michael during Judges' Table — “It’s like washing brushes for Picasso” — was a barbed compliment. After all, if all he’d been doing was washing brushes, then it was the artist we should be sending home, not his assistant.

Luckily for Michael, Ashley and Eli’s dish was even weaker. Their gnocchi was over-salted and the spot prawns were under-cooked. True, Ashley was only responsible for one of these failures — it was Eli who seasoned the dish — but her decision to serve gnocchi in the first place was questionable. On a warm, summer evening, the last thing you want to eat is a dumpling. Gnocci is a classic winter warmer and I can’t imagine the temperature in Vegas every dropping low enough to justify serving it.

Nevertheless, it was a tough call. Eli seemed genuinely surprised to find himself in the loser’s enclosure. For him to serve a dish as bad as that and not be aware of it is a bad sign. He plated most of the food so it was his responsibility to check the prawns were cooked. If he had done so, and sent them back to Ashley to spend a little more time on the grill, the two of them might not have found themselves in the bottom four. We came within a whisker of sending him
home instead of Ashley.

Before I sign off, I should point out how good Kevin and Jennifer’s BBQ kobe beef was, particularly Jennifer’s tomato and ginger broth, and Laurine and Bryan’s pan-roasted halibut on yellow corn cake. I’m not exaggerating when I say that both dishes were as good as the very best things we were served last season. This episode really brought home to me just how many great chefs we have on this season of the show.