Tom Colicchio

Tom explains the judging criteria and what he hoped for during the ranch challenge.

on Sep 16, 2009

I want to take a moment to thank you all for watching Top Chef and reading my blog. I also really appreciate that so many of you feel compelled enough by what you read to write a response. Though I don’t have time to reply to them all, when I see enough comments in a particular vein, I try to address them here. Since people are asking about judging criteria, I thought I’d give you some insight into how the show and the judging go down:

We shoot a season in 20 days, two days per episode. During that time, we judges are not allowed to interact with the contestants at all. So the whole “reality” aspect of the program? We don’t see it until you do. The “villains,” so to speak, the “nice guys,” the crowd favorites and least favorites … we don’t know the personalities. For example, we didn’t know that Mattin was lying at the Judges' Table about negging the asparagus in the volute in Episode Four. I learned about it the same way you did, by watching the edited episode. We have never made decisions about whom to send home based on who or what might be more interesting or “make better TV.”  We couldn’t if we wanted to … which we don’t, anyway. We judge the food, plain and simple, and it’s the food that determines who will be packing his/her knives.

So let’s talk about that for a moment.  Some people, assuming that we’re hungrier when we first sit down to judge than we are by the end, have wondered whether we are kinder to the first dish than the last. The answer is no. When we judge the dishes, we’re just tasting them, as opposed to hunkering down and eating. In fact, we’re still hungry after the last dish and often go out for dinner directly after judging! So the earlier dishes have no advantage over the later ones. Other people have wondered whether the dishes should be judged “blind” in order to ensure fairness in judging. Again, no, and here’s why. First of all, as I wrote above, we don’t know the contestants as people and so are not influenced by their personalities. Second, we quickly learn chefs’ particular styles of cooking from both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges and thus, even were we to taste the food “blind,” we’d still be able to tell, with about 90% accuracy, who made which dish. So judging “blind” doesn’t eliminate propensities for bias.

Here’s what does: judging the food on particular criteria. And here are the criteria we use: First and foremost, when tasting the food we look to see if, technically, it was prepared correctly or whether it was overcooked or undercooked. After that, we check to see whether it was correctly seasoned, by which I’m talking about whether it was salted correctly, because salt has the ability to bring out the other three types of taste you experience on your tongue, i.e., sweetness, bitterness and sourness. Then we look at how items are cut. Are they cut evenly?  If so, they will cook evenly. We look at food combinations to see if the proportions are harmonious. And lastly, we look at presentation, but usually only when it is particularly ugly. If veggies are cooked correctly, they’ll stay green; if not, they’ll turn brown. How something is cut will affect presentation. We also just take note of whether, as with all great chefs, a personal style is emerging in a consistent way, or whether they’re just all over the place. Often we’ve seen a chef come in with a particular style and then, part-way through the competition, begin mimicking everyone else. These chefs tend to flame out; they don’t make it to the final four, and, frankly, they’re not yet secure and mature enough as chefs to be there. We do look at originality, as with Bryan’s winning take on chips and guacamole in Episode Two, or Kevin’s bacon jam, which was utterly original, different, and very, very good. I knew exactly where Bryan’s dish for Joel Robuchon came from – he adapted a dish from Thomas Keller – but he did make it his own. And, even hearkening back to prior seasons, most of our viewers were not familiar with molecular gastronomy and thought that Marcel was innovating, whereas, in fact, his techniques had been around for at least a decade and he wasn’t being particular novel in his application of it but was solidly adept at what he was doing.