Not sure exactly what I expected from the reunion show. For starters, I was very excited to finally have the chance to get to know everyone and ask our chefs all kinds of things I did not have the opportunity to while we were taping.
I am well aware of the side of the "table" I am on as a judge in this competition. The producers have kept me, more so even than Tom or Katie (the other TomKat), as removed from the contestants as possible. As I see it, my job is to be the voice of the diner in the restaurant experience. Like a customer who sits down to eat, whatever goes on in the kitchen does not really concern me, as long as my food comes to the table hot, fresh, and as I ordered it. I have kept in the back of my mind at every Judges Table a few important questions on which I have based my judgments, namingly: Which of these dishes would I be happy to pay for? Which dish would entice me to return and eat it again? Which of the competitors is most fit to lead a kitchen and be successful at it?
Finally, I was going to get to speak with them off-the-cuff and without the Judges Table to separate us...
Truth is, in the end, there was very little opportunity for any of that due to all the screaming and yelling, the disagreement, and embarrassment I could tell so many of the chefs felt revisiting the show's most provocative moments. Of course, I had heard rumors about the antics, alliances and antagonism that have taken place behind the scenes, but until we all reunited to film this episode, I was witness to very little of it first hand.
Now, I have spent plenty of time in restaurant kitchens myself over the years and remember with exceptional clarity how stressful and emotional it can be. Working in a very tight space on a very tight deadline with all the weapons and heat that a kitchen requires can be downright brutal, to say the least. Throw in a few over-the-top egos and you have yourself one tasty soup!
So did I learn anything more about these characters after spending ten hours on the Reunion set with them? Sure - I learned that many of them now have agents; new websites, cookbooks and ambitious restaurants in the works, way more makeup on their faces and tons more work from their private clients. The show has changed them all somehow. It will be very interesting to watch their careers unfold.
I also took away with me a few impressions of some of the Top Chefs (in no particular order) that surprised and delighted me. I learned that Stephen can be a charming, low-key and gracious gentleman if you let him. Cynthia is as feisty as the day is long (and oh how long it was). She is also a warm, gregarious spirit. Truly one-of-a-kind. Then there was Mom-of-the-house Lisa who I believe is one of those people you want with you if you are stuck on a desert island. She is so resourceful and resilient. I hope her kids know how good they have it!
More importantly, I learned we should all beware of tears. They are NO indication of weakness. On the contrary, they often disguise a fierce and passionate competitor. Just ask Dave. And don't be fooled by Harold's quiet demeanor either. He is far from the simple workhorse he'll have you believe. He is full of good ideas, good intentions and a well-thought-out plan for success. As for Tiffani, I think she actually plays the game exactly as it was designed. She is clever, quick and very talented. But what her tough exterior hides is a great deal of charm and inner strength. I just wish she would let it show through more often. Ok - I am done with the sappy stuff. Next stop: Vegas!