I have to confess, while I am sure you assume I usually write my blog from the confines of my office, I am writing this week's entry from a lounge chair at our hotel in Hawaii. I have a day off between shoots for the Top Chef finale and could not be more content to spend it relaxing by the pool with a Mai Tai in my hand and episode 4 on my laptop.
It has been such an incredible trip so far -- the island is even more beautiful than I imagined and I cannot wait until it all airs ... but more on all of that in a later blog! We were all delighted to learn that Chef Suzanne Goin was our guest judge on this episode.
Tom and I had made a point of eating together at her exceptional restaurants in the few weeks we had been on location in LA -- at AOC with Harold the night after we shot the season premiere, and at Lucques with his wife Lori, my boyfriend Jeremy, and a few friends for one of her renowned Sunday Suppers. Both were memorable meals and I noted at each how seamlessly she was able to make simple, unadulterated ingredients taste so good. She has the rare gift of knowing just how much of hand is needed in the cooking process and never does more than necessary to ensure her food is delicious and the integrity of her ingredients always shine through. She was the perfect guest for this particular episode that tested our contestants' ability to cook with restraint.
Cooking for a very restricted diet is one of the hardest things a restaurant chef ever has to do. It is far easier to coax flavor out of food using butter, sugar, fragrant oils and protein marbled with fat without thought to nutritional value. Most restaurant cooks never have to worry about the amount of oil they add to a pan or the exact portion size of their ingredients, to the gram. Our chefs had to create a meal including a main course, side dish and dessert with a maximum of 500 calories per person.
This challenge also reminded the chefs about the important role of science in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the majority of the food we ate at Camp Glucose that day was lacking not only flavor, but also technique. At least one item from each team's menu was extremely weak: The Orange Team's (Carlos, Sam and Cliff) turkey meatballs, although seasoned well, were hard and heavy due to their choice to use turkey, a lean and easily over cooked meat. Their Summer Fruit Smoothie was sour, resulting from the combo of grapes and melon within it. The Red Team's (Mike, Mia and Marisa) chicken-on-a-stick was moist but bland, as was that insipid coleslaw. Thankfully, Marisa's chocolate fudge cake was a hit with the kids. The White Team's (Josie, Ilan, Elia) menu was heavy and under seasoned but passable. The chicken was cooked well, but the lasagna had very little taste. Thank goodness for Elia's Berryrific cheesecake, which was creamy and light with lots of berry flavor.
The Black Team's scandalous crispy cookies were soggy and still lacked character despite the extra sugar Betty added without our knowledge. The sparkling berry lemonade was a little sour too. While their food was by no means perfect, they thought to make pizza -- a slam-dunk with kids of any age -- and, thanks to Frank, made it well. It was great to see how happy all the kids were and how much they appreciated the food they were served. Eating healthfully is important for all of us, at any age and a few of these dishes proved is possible to do and still ensure your food tastes great. Regardless of these hits and misses, by the end of the day, our low-fat, low-calorie challenge was no longer about the quality of the food, but instead about the fundamentals of right and wrong in the competition. In the history of our show, and Bravo television for that matter, nothing like this has ever happened before.
As demonstrated by Otto just two weeks ago and by ill-fated Keith on Project Runway this past season, when ethics are called into question they are swiftly addressed by judges and producers and the person responsible must leave the show. Tonight's issue was far less straightforward. Multiple chefs made allegations about other competitors cheating on recipes. As dexterous as our wonderful cameramen and women may be, they could not possibly shoot every person at every second of the challenge and we were unable to determine if any of it was true. Without proof how could we make a fair decision?
Betty admitted she added a little more sugar to her cookies after the nutritionist had approved them, therefore altering the recipe and its calorie count. But I believe her misunderstanding of the rules was sincere and her intentions honest. We never figured out if anyone had applied more oil to their recipes than they were supposed to, and that late in the game I am not sure if it even mattered. What did matter was that after hours of deliberation (and I do mean hours -- we left the kitchen well after 4am) we were a hung jury. Because of it, no one could be sent home.
Now, of course, we will be watching them all more closely, interrogating them more thoroughly and paying better attention to every move they make. In a sense, this episode was a wake up call for all of us. But have no fear; the show only gets more interesting from here on in.