Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio weighs in the new crop of contestants.

on Oct 18, 2006

For those reasons we decided to keep my role as judge distinct and clearly defined. I'm sure I'll get my share of heat (pardon the pun) for not being more helpful, but I genuinely think its better for the chefs and for the show. So there we were on day one, in our set/kitchen, facing fifteen hopeful, ambitious, calculating, talented individuals. First off, with three more chefs than last year, the sheer number of personalities seemed overwhelming. And after observing the chefs for a few days, I detected a slight "coolness," a certain reserve among them (almost as if they all want to channel Harold's personality from Season 1) as part of their overall competitive strategy. Speaking of Harold, his fans will be pleased to hear that he is in the process of opening his new restaurant, Perilla. It's fun to walk the streets of New York with the guy and see folks calling out to him (New Yorkers aren't shy). Harold Dieterle has become a star in his own right, and I can understand why our new group of chefs want to get to where he stands today. But on to the challenge: The Mystery Box presented each of the chefs with a bunch of straightforward ingredients and one "wild card" item. For half the chefs, the wild card was processed American cheese -- a food (I use the term loosely) that bears little resemblance to cheese as I know it. In the second box, the wild card was peanut butter. (For the record, the peanuts in the first box didn't qualify as a wild card -- most chefs would embrace peanuts, but balk at peanut butter.)

Each box also had one ingredient that would have posed a challenge to an inexperienced cook -- escargot in #1, frogs legs in #2 -- but should definitely be in the repertoire of any professional chef. The challenge was to use all the ingredients in two hours to create a dish that displayed technique and imagination. Most importantly, it needed to convey a sense of their identity as a cook. Two hours, in restaurant terms, should have been plenty of time to conceptualize a dish and then execute it. But the time constraint plunged some of the chefs into a state of jittery distraction, causing them to dart about: To the pantry! Back to the stove! Back to the pantry! Others took their time to think, and then got busy. Can you guess which group had a better result? Mia did a great job with her dish -- she knows Southern cooking, and immediately applied that vernacular to the frogs' legs by battering and frying them up as she would chicken. Her dish made sense because it incorporated all the elements in her box around a coherent central theme. The chefs who got the American cheese were grumbling, but I think the key to getting around this less-than-ideal ingredient was to do what Ilan did -- he used just enough in his potato puree to stick with the rules, but focused the dish elsewhere. His dish of escargot layered in the shell with potato puree and artichokes showed good technique, and a cogent vision. Most importantly, it tasted great.