Tom Colicchio

The head judge weighs in on the very first Top Chef challenge.

on Dec 15, 2008

I've been working in restaurants since I was fifteen years old and since I've been a chef I've had to wear many hats --cook, manager, press person, designer, spokesperson, author - everything but TV personality. When Bravo invited me to co-host Top Chef, I figured why not? I'm always up for a new challenge, and mostly I thought my twelve year-old son, Dante, would think it was cool.

I was in for my own dose of reality during the taping of our first episode.

For one thing, the twelve contestant-chefs represented a real cross-section of cooking today; Dave, after a career-change, opened his own restaurant in Southern California, Andrea was a natural-foods cooking instructor. Lee-Ann was the Executive Chef at the French Culinary Institute, in charge of special events. Other contestants ranged from movie stars personal chefs, to culinary students, and everything in between. And then, of course, there was our classically trained Irishman, Ken, with his Irish temper. My earliest sense that Ken would be a handful was the night of our first quick-fire challenge at Hubert Keller's four-star San Francisco eatery, Fleur-de-Lys. Ken reacted to his dismissal with a combination of outrage and disdain - challenging Chef Keller's professional judgment. At first I wondered if he was just playing to the cameras, but later I learned Ken's on-screen outbursts were mild compared to his off-screen antics and wacky outbursts back at the house. Even if his roasted halibut with figs had been passable, and even if he hadn't stuck his unwashed finger in a pot of sauce to taste, I felt we were well rid of him for his unprofessional demeanor. Being a chef means cultivating respect for and from your colleagues, even if you don't always agree with them.

As a casual watcher of reality television, I was skeptical as to how real the action really was. I had always taken for granted the show's need to build drama into an episode. When we presented our chefs with their first real challenge - to shop for and cook their signature dish - we had them pull knives at random from a block, dividing them into two teams of six. Quite by accident, our first group of six was a major disappointment - each dish less impressive than the last. Katie, Gail and I were nervous - could it be that our contestants were duds? Would we have to choose a bad dish in order to create a winner? (For the record, I would have refused.) Happily, the next six were much stronger - their dishes were much more polished, both in ideas and execution. The tension we were feeling was real, the drama of choosing and winning was felt by all. We were immensely relieved - especially since it meant we wouldn't have to eat bad food for the next ten weeks!