Tom Colicchio

Top Chef's head judge talks about the experience of competing in New York.

on Nov 12, 2008

I believe that all of our competing chefs this season were simultaneously excited and intimidated about coming to New York. If you're working in Miami or Boulder, you always wonder, "Can I compete in New York?" I find it interesting, for example, that Fabio had never come to New York; he went straight from Italy to California ... perhaps in anticipation of coming here eventually. The question we all face and must decide for ourselves is "Am I happy to be a big fish in a small pond somewhere else ... or do I want to take a shot at the top?" New York draws the best from everywhere, all coming here trying to make it. And even those who don't make it to the top and who are toiling somewhere in the middle here in NYC are still operating at a level of professionalism and creativity above that at the top of the heap in many other places. Using acting as a metaphor, New York is not like Hollywood, where you might luck into a break. Here, you must either do something so unique and different as to be noteworthy, like David Chang did with Momofuku, or you must rise to the top through sheer excellence, like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for example. There are several routes by which one might make it in New York, but one way or another, this city brings out the absolute best - and the worst - in everybody who comes and tries. The best, for obvious reasons. The worst, because there's something about coming here and being so driven that you tend to put blinders on and forget everything else the city has to offer, and you don't go out and experience it all. I speak from personal experience: I am so hyper-focused on Manhattan, for example, that it was a long time before I discovered the joys and wonders of Brighton Beach, of Ozone Park. Some of the best Chinese food in the world, for example, is in Queens. Did you know that there is a neighborhood in Queens that is the single most diverse neighborhood in the entire world? In its grade school at one point in recent years there were students speaking fifty-seven different languages and dialects. Fifty-seven. I didn't make that up - it's true. And the neighborhood is a thriving and harmonious community. Full of great food, I might add. That community highlights what's amazing about New York. You are allowed to be your fullest self here, to bring everything with you, your food, your culture. You are encouraged not to assimilate. Mayor John Lindsay once said of the city he governed that "not only is New York the nation's melting pot, it is also the casserole, the chafing dish and the charcoal grill". He would have liked our first Elimination Challenge, which proved him right.

I loved this challenge, which was to go to a randomly assigned neighborhood such as Little Italy, Chinatown, Astoria or Brighton Beach, shop there, and then return to the Top Chef kitchen to create a meal inspired by what that neighborhood had to offer. I thought it was the perfect challenge to kick off this season. It gave us a chance to see the real New York, not just the rarified high-end restaurants that get all of the press. And it gave us an opportunity to meet our Season Five chefs and get to know their personalities and particular styles. As you saw on the show tonight, some of the chefs were jazzed and motivated by the challenge; others were intimidated.