And, of course, there was Jacques Pepin. In my career, I never really worked under anyone long enough to consider them a mentor. The closest I have to a mentor is Jacques and his great book, LA TECHNIQUE. Yes, I know I chastised Ariane early in the season when she claimed not to need to explore the cuisines of the many great culturals living in her own backyard because she had cookbooks. But first of all, nothing replaces tasting foods firsthand (and a chef should be driven to do so — I was shocked at Ariane’s lack of curiosity). And second, and more importantly, LA TECHNIQUE is not a cookbook; as it promises in the title, it’s a book about technique. The book taught me that cooking is not about recipes (as so many people mistakenly believe) but, rather, about technique. This was a watershed realization for me. And it’s why I treated my working my way through that book as an apprenticeship. Jacques is a genuine, wonderful guy, and an amazing cook. Every year, on the final Sunday of the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, chefs participate in “Ready, Set, Cook”, a mystery-basket cook-off. Jacques hasn’t lost once. Aside from being truly funny and charming, he is a remarkably good cook.
As you can imagine, it was a delight for me to spend time with and dine with these colleagues. This is a group of people I respect highly. Whenever you go to a dinner party, you hope that the guests will be interesting people, and here Top Chef had brought together various generations of chefs and food personalities, all of whom are bright and interesting.
It was equally great to be judging the food with a table of people who all spoke the same vernacular. There was an accord at the table. Even taking into account generational differences, we all agree on seasoning, flavor, technique. Despite having selected menu items that had emotional content for them, no one was judging from an emotional place. These judges were assessing whether the chefs had accomplished what they themselves set out to do, using a consistent set of criteria. For example, Carla instantly admitted that she was aiming for medium rare squab but got it medium. OK. It was still excellent, as were the peas A small aside about Carla: While early on, I didn’t think she’d make it half-way through this competition, she grew stronger and stronger as the season progressed and has made some very, very good dishes.
Fabio’s dish in this challenge was stronger. Viewers may be cynical and state that we gave him the win because he broke his finger. No. It just happened that Fabio’s dish was the best of the evening … and he happened to have a broken finger. I’m impressed that he managed to make the best dish of the evening under the circumstances. It showed his desire to win this competition. But had his been the second best dish, he wouldn’t have won, no matter how many fingers he broke.