Tom Colicchio

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

on Nov 12, 2008

A word about that, if I may: I think this issue of inspiration vs. intimidation spoke not only to the chefs' individual personalities, but to their levels of experience as chefs, as well. I would love nothing better than to find a culinary student with such outsized talent that it preempts the need for experience, but I believe that a chef needs both. Remember, I wrote above that I spent nine years working with food before I came to New York. Not only working, but traveling, eating, experiencing food. A chef with more experience of the world and its food would not be intimidated by the thought of cooking with foods from another region, whether she or he had ever done so before. Rather, she or he would say "I understand this - it's still just cooking." The point of our challenge was for the chefs to be inspired by new ingredients and then decide how to make them their own. In fact, that's what American cooking is about. Hosea's dish is a good example of what I'm talking about. Hosea was clearly working with his Russian theme, serving smoked fish, caviar and potato pancakes, or latkes. (Each latke, by the way, was flavored to correspond with the sauce with which it was paired.) And yet Hosea managed to give us a clear sense of his own plating style; though it contained traditional Russian elements, the plate looked very modern. He didn't make the top three, but the dish was beautifully executed.

Let's contrast this with Patrick, still a culinary student, who simply lacks experience. Some things can't be learned in school - one must travel. This is why, for example, it's so important to do a stage if you're studying French food. There, you learn why; here, you just learn how. Food in Alsace is different than in Brittany or the Loire Valley. Similarly, as Jean-Georges pointed out, you can't just put bok choy on a plate and call it "Chinese Food." And what, if anything, did Patrick do to make that piece of salmon reflect Chinatown? He could have marinated it in plum wine, sesame oil, ginger...anything. There was nothing about the salmon that "spoke Chinese." This is why I believe a student just isn't ready to contend in this competition. Experience traveling, gaining familiarity with food and coming to understand it would have enabled Patrick to look at the unique items in Chinatown, put them together and make them his own.

One way Patrick might have been more successful would have been to think of one Chinese dish he loved - orange-flavored beef, for example, think about what was in that dish - beef cut thin, dipped in corn starch and fried; sauce with sezhuan peppers and burnt orange peel, and then play with how to take those flavors and turn them into a dish he could call his own. Hmmm ... perhaps take a short rib, braise it in orange and the chilis and some of the spices. What else could be brought in? What else would work with this? Chinese long beans, great in garlic and soy. OK. Maybe take the short-rib, mince it, and turn it into a wonton? Etc. I encourage chefs to take the idea of a full dish and rework it, making it your own, as Hosea did so successfully.