Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio explains what the Commander's Palace challenge was really about, and reveals a special behind-the-scenes moment.

on Oct 17, 2013

Having experienced the elimination challenges as a judge in real time, it’s always interesting to me to then watch the episodes and get the full story. As I’ve written in past blogs, we judges aren’t privy to what the chefs are doing and saying over the course of each challenge -- aside from when I do a walk-through through the kitchen, I don’t encounter the chefs until I’m eating and judging their contributions to the competition. And so, remembering the dishes I was served by our chefs at Commander's Palace, I was intrigued while watching the episode to hear directly from the chefs themselves which of them were frightened and dismayed by the challenge and which were excited and invigorated by it. I see a direct correlation between their feelings about the challenge and how well they did. 

But not because of the nature of the challenge itself.

It was surely difficult to taste a dish once and be asked to replicate it exactly… especially when the chefs who had created three of the four dishes were right there at the table. I get how that could be nerve-wracking. And chefs tend to get set in their ways. The chefs in our challenge had two options, basically. They could have tasted the dish and said, “This is how I myself would do this.” Or they could have said, “How do I think the chef who created this would have made this?” I personally think the first way is the better way to go. Just do it your own way, in terms of flavors. Presentation is another story -- that’s just a matter of mimicry.

So while watching this, I can imagine you were expecting to see chefs falter in their abilities to discern precisely which ingredients were in a dish or just how a dish was constructed. But, in fact, it came down to the two things that it usually comes down to in our competition: using good technique and seasoning the food correctly. What made the challenge, well, challenging was less the need to recreate a dish they’d only eaten once and more the fact of having to make the amount of plates in the time allotted in a crowded kitchen, and still managing to get those two things -- technique and seasoning -- right.

The chefs who were most nervous about recreating dishes might have been thrown off their game by knowing that the chefs who created the originals were seated at the table. But it just so happened that Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, and Tory McPhail were there. In fact, the competitors faced the same challenges they would have at their own restaurants -- creating well-seasoned, properly-prepared food for many people, under pressure. 

When you’re cooking, you need to worry about everything. The chefs who were successful were the ones who got everything right, not necessarily the ones who made it identical to the original. In fact, Stephanie’s biscuit was actually better than the original. Justin’s beignets were amazing -- were they made in identical fashion to Tory McPhail’s? I couldn’t tell you. This challenge weeded out the better chefs not because they could ascertain how to recreate the dishes, but because they could do so within the parameters of the competition and deliver up good food.