Don't move your head around a lot. You have a tendency to talk fast so be mindful. Over annunciate.
These were a few softly spoken tips Padma Lakshmi had for me, moments before our chefs entered.
On the other side of the doors, I'm sure our chefs were reminding themselves of things too. Like remember to season, don't make dessert or resist the temptations to just sear scallops. And God forbid don't attempt risotto!
Producers and camera operators are chatting. Lights are slightly repositioned. Mics are checked. And I realized, in way I wouldn't have before, that this was opening day. The moments before the first pitch. You don't quite see it that way as a competitor. You are thinking about that moment, your at-bat, if you will, but not looking at it as the beginning of a season. A long one. A marathon.
And I realize in this exact moment what my role is this season. I was a player. . .Now I'm a broadcaster. I have been there before, actually right there where Melissa was standing, and I have a unique perspective. Like knowing that how you walk into the Top Chef kitchen, and how you line up, might actually determine what team you are on, or who you compete against. I know that if you’re smart (or maybe a smidge past paranoid), as soon as you enter the kitchen you should be looking for clues. You should be smelling for things, listening to things, not all of which is just Padma's instruction. I know what it feels like to win. . .and lose in Top Chef, and I know why both happened. I know what it feels like to miss your family, worry about your business and to endure living with 15 strangers, half of which will live like animals, compared to you. I understand their tension, and also yours because I’m a fan too.
This season, I hope to bring an angle to the table that couldn't have existed before, that of a former competitior. To the chefs, I hope I can advise them on how to forge ahead in the competition and how to stay alive. To the viewers, I hope you'll be OK with my face and sometimes ill-timed twitches, because I'm on Twitter too guys.
Boston is a matter-of-fact, straight-up city, and introducing a Sudden Death Quickfire right out of the gate is perfect for Boston. And opening with the mise en place relay is vintage Top Chef. The challenge was set and the ingredients were prime. I actually worked with each of the components earlier that morning to set the pace, so to speak, so I knew what challenges lay ahead for the chefs.
No surprise that lobster and the mackerel were where most chefs wanted to volunteer. Mackerel is an easy fish to cut, a straight zipper of a slash on each side. These were so fresh and slimy though, that you had to really make sure you dried them, used your towel well, but still pretty simple. Although I'd bet some of our chefs had never seen mackerel until that day.
The lobster as it were, was actually the challenging ingredient. I would have been like Adam, ready to throw down on the lobster, but because of the season, the lobsters were super sticky. They did not want to slide away from their shells. As Admiral Ackbar once noted, this indeed was a trap.
Oysters were another no brainer. They are only difficult if you haven't worked with them before. And as for the clams -- possibly my all time favorite ingredient, and perhaps the quintessential New England ingredient -- they can be a bear to shuck. It takes experience, good technique, even a some physical strength to rock out on shucking clams.
Can we talk about Katsuji and those clams? Do you remember an old TV commercial where a gorilla tries to open a suitcase. . .Yeah, the gorilla had better technique. It was painful to watch and hear. When Katsuji's WiFi goes down at his house, do you think he just thumps his computer a few times? The clams were brutalized. A true crime.
In the end, I got to blow a whistle a lot and the red team finished last with George having the slowest time.
But a lifeline emerges. George gets to pick another chef to battle to save himself and he picks Gregory. I thought about why he made that choice a lot that night, I bet he did as well, but it makes sense. At that point, they don't know each other. They haven't broke bread or talked at all before they walked into the kitchen. George's only interaction is with Gregory as they wrestled verbally for who was going to cut the mackerel. Might as well pick him. Any other pick would be blind. The devil I know. . .
When we tasted both dishes I knew automatically what had really happened here. These were two of the better cooks in the competition, two heavyweights. Both dishes were solid, really Boston strong. With a larger sample size, there's no way George would be going home. His dish was excellent. But Gregory's was a little better. Gregory's food that day reminded me of one of the best ever to compete on Top Chef, Angelo Sosa. Bright, clean, acidic, fresh, spicy. Delicious. I rambled on about a first kiss, and what I was saying was the flavor was unforgettable.
How bout dem apples, or, errr, clams. A competitor is packing their knives before unpacking their suitcase. Hard. Core.
Moving on to the Elimination brought back memories for me. Certainly Top Chef isn't war, but the pressure cookers steaming and shambles that used to be a kitchen gave me flashbacks. It's hard. There is no space and you aren't trained to cook like this. You are packing and unpacking your prep, shopping at Whole Foods, all of your prep starts from scratch, every challenge. It takes a challenge, or six, to get used to the environment. So yeah, it was pretty disgusting in that kitchen.
Completely new for me is the walk through with Tom. It's pretty easy to read the writing on the wall during a walk through, especially when it's written in squid ink and saffron. And Tom, smiling like the cat who ate the canary, has a special window into the upcoming Judges Table.
The Top Chef Food Festival had amazing energy. The competitors were genuinely in awe surrounded by the talent. So was I. I ran into Jamie Bissonette in the bathroom, and that was a weird place to have a fanboy moment, you know, at a urinal and all.
I enjoyed how relatable and easy-going Padma is to hang with. I'd say we had a good working chemistry even, so I'm pretty happy about that! She has an incredible palate, and is really focused on tasting every plate. It appears so easy to be a judge, but next time you eat, ramble on a bit about the food, you'll notice pretty quickly that it's a little tougher than it seems. This was me finally going to the adult table at Thanksgiving and I was allowed to talk and enter my opinions and not shushed or fed dessert to be quiet. Awesome!
The bottom dish, as it played out, was a sweet soup with a weird fishy surprise in it, which is one of the worst types of surprises, perhaps. It was a dish that represented everything wrong with the idea of modern cuisine. Hot sauce caviar that tasted of nothing. The use of salmon roe for, apparently, only shock or visual effect. It was truly bad, but what was worse was the kid’s reaction in his exit interview.
Tom’s palette doesn't get it, and he doesn't care what you think Tom Colicchio?
This seems like the perfect time to pitch this, I have an idea for a Top Chef spin-off. It pits, not the biggest personalities and talents of our Top Chef universe, but the worst. The first chefs to get eliminated and the most horrible of personalities.
It's called Top Chef Tools...
It’s going to be a great season, see you next week!