Holy Matrimony, Batman

Tom Colicchio on what marriage has tought him and where Stephen failed.

I am happily married to one of my favorite people on earth. Here's two things marriage has taught me:

How to communicate.

When to shut up.

Here's something else I've learned: Get enough sleep.

I didn't learn that from marriage. I've learned that from experience. Our contestants really screwed this week's challenge up. Why? No sleep. This week's Quickfire and Elimination Challenge were part and parcel of the same task -- design and execute a wedding reception for 100 guests in a short span of time.

Now 100 guests sounds like a large crowd to a home cook, but to a professional, it's a manageable number. And sixteen hours in which to do it, in my opinion, should have been plenty of time.

Lee Anne won the Quickfire with her imaginative and visual presentation - the Scotts were charmed and excited and, given their choice of an Asian-themed meal, they seemed reassured by Lee Anne's Asian background.

But Lee Anne quickly turned nervous as she realized that her triumph could easily morph into a liability. Sure enough, the other chefs blasted Lee Anne for her ambitious menu. Hello? How about Stephen's convoluted mushimono, yakimono, mimono dish? Or Tiffani's 100 mini-cakes of love and luck? Let's be honest...the real issue was the curveball the chefs were thrown...the wedding was the next day.

So they freaked out. Bad idea.

The first thing a Top Chef needs to do is keep a cool head, to enable careful planning and organized action. Right off the bat, our chefs allowed themselves to get into a panicked headspace and it interfered with their effectiveness from that moment onward. Their solution? To work all night. Second bad idea. Frankly, with five talented, capable people on board, and a smart, focused leader like Lee Anne, they should have divvied up the shopping and then returned to the kitchen that night to remove food from their packages, prep vegetables, clean fish and meat, etc. In other words get everything set up and ready to go.

Then they should have broken out the cake mix and made the cake, wrapping the individual layers tightly to maintain freshness. And then they should have gone home and slept for 5 hours. The next morning, they could have started early prepared and rested. This would have enabled them to cook things a la minute, rather than way ahead of time, which makes for flavorless, tepid food. They could have assembled and frosted the cake, then decorated it imaginatively moments before wheeling it out. They would have been tired, but not depleted, and thus capable of making trigger-quick decisions, and paying careful attention to detail. They would have been able to focus on technique and execution, and even add the subtle flourishes that raise a dish from rote to remarkable.

They did none of this.

Harold was rightly pissed off that flavorful, wild salmon was only available frozen (freezing depletes flavor and texture). The only fresh salmon was the farmed stuff - bland and uninspiring - but he bought it, opting for fresh over frozen. But why didn't he and Lee Anne cruise the fishmonger and choose something both fresh and flavorful, and then rewrite the dish? I am sure that the Scotts would have been OK with a change in the menu, if it made for a superior dish. In the end, Harold's farmed salmon - already bland to begin with - was pre-cooked (due to time panic) and didn't integrate with his green papaya salad. A solution as simple as poaching the fish in a nage of green-papaya vinaigrette would have taken the same amount of time, would have imbued the fish with some additional flavor, and allowed it to stay moist.

Stephen was painstakingly slow in making the dumplings, thus becoming useless to the rest of the team. This illustrates an important point - It's getting it done perfectly, consistently, in the allotted time that takes talent. Frankly, I think Stephen lacks the experience to be both excellent and fast, and tells himself his attention to detail is evidence of higher standards. Worst of all, Stephen designated himself the Service Director for the evening, and wasn't even around to put out his own dish.

As for the cake mix... Initially I was surprised to see boxes of the stuff, but frankly, it didn't trouble me. None of the chefs are bakers and white cake is white cake. A mix allowed them to turn out a decent product in a short amount of time. I wouldn't advocate this in other areas - say, substituting prepared food from a deli case for freshly made - but in this case I thought it made sense, since they still had to create fondant, buttercream, etc. to flavor and decorate the cake - and this is where the real skill lies.

Tiffani and Harold knuckled down on their dishes. Dave did the same, but he also jumped around the kitchen lending a hand wherever it was needed. This has been Dave's M.O. since day one - and is one of the reasons he is well loved by his teammates, if not necessarily respected as a cook. And when the team discovered the cocktail hour would go roughly twice as long as anticipated (thus requiring double the number of canapes) Dave was able to jump in and improvise to create more. For me the moment of truth came when I asked Scott (or was it Scott?) which part of the meal he loved and he couldn't answer. In other words, the meal was just a string of mediocre dishes. Interviews with guests led to the same conclusion - everyone was under whelmed. I felt personally let down - even embarrassed - because I had traversed the room promising a great meal, and the chefs didn't deliver. I held every one of them responsible. So when it was time to judge, I wanted to hear from the chefs themselves what had gone wrong. And to a one, they pointed to Stephen. Yet again, his grandstanding in the dining room cost the team a needed set of hands. Stephen saw himself as the crucial liaison between the kitchen and the guests, but a more experienced banquet director at the very least would have anticipated the wedding toasts and held off on firing the next course.

Marcy Blum, our guest Judge, was impressed by the waiters 'sweeping the room' (serving in unison) but truthfully - the waiters only 'swept' the head table, which looked good on camera but did little to enhance everyone's experience. And by jumping in to orchestrate service, Stephen left the hotel's Banquet Captain with nothing to do - a poor use of resources, and evidence that he lacks the confidence to delegate. Stephen truly believes that he will single-handedly "raise the bar" for the rest of us. And indeed he may - to heights of culinary and oenophilic rapture that mere people can't hope to appreciate. And when that happens, there may be diners somewhere who will happily pay to be hectored, lectured, and reminded of their inferior knowledge. But if those guests are out there, in twenty-five years on the job, I haven't met them.

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