A few days into production now, and the Top Chef Army is still a little raw and unseasoned. (You have no idea how hard it is to stay away from food metaphors in this job.) We are all congratulating ourselves on making it through the first episode without any major casualties as we plunge headlong into episode two.
At 6:00am at the fish market, it's not only Mia who's feeling a little unsteady -- most of the crew have had even less sleep than the chefs, so the sight of piles of fish is a little unnerving on a half a cup of coffee. Padma arrives very chipper, looking like she's slept for a week, while I look like I've just been dug up. Despite the unceremonious wake-up visit from Tom, the chefs are in a good mood. And apart from Mia losing her breakfast behind the fish truck, everything goes off without a hitch and we all head back to the kitchen.
Chef Shima is the man! Seeing the looks on the chefs' faces when he is introduced as the guest judge is a great moment. I don't think there are many experiences more intimidating than making sushi for a master like him. I felt for the chefs -- seeing Chef Shima definitely took the edge off their early morning joyride-to-the-fishmarket fun. That Mia is real fighter -- feeling ill and with no sushi experience at all, she still went for it. Unfortunately Shima took one look at her rolls and decided to use Padma as his stunt-taster! Oh well.
The elimination challenge -- or "Lycheegate" as it's now referred to in Top Chef towers -- was an emotional rollercoaster all round. It started out so well ... it was great how excited all the chefs were. They were genuinely pleased to be doing something at a charity event. No one more than Otto, who is himself heavily involved in efforts to confront world hunger. We had superstar chef and foodie sex symbol, Ming Tsai, lined up as the judge.... The food was interesting and challenging.... Everything was looking good! So how did we end up with one of our contestants taking themselves out of the competition over a box of fresh lychees?
Surviving this competition is as much about how you deal with pressure as with your culinary skill. There is the pressure of competition, of deadlines, of living in close quarters with your competitors, of having your life controlled by the production team, of tackling a relentless series of ultra-demanding challenges, of dealing with difficult personalities. For some, the biggest pressure is the pressure they put on themselves to succeed. Otto had applied to be a contestant on Season 1 and very narrowly missed making it on the show. He applied again for Season 2 and this time was successful. I guess what I'm saying is, he seemed to have a lot riding on this and perhaps that is what caused him to make an error in judgment in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, the judges are not going to take that kind of mistake lightly, given the high stakes of this competition. Playing by the rules is just not negotiable.
You might imagine that, as a producer, I would be delighted when something like this happens. But it's not that simple. Of course it provides an unexpected storyline for the show, sure. On the other hand, we set out to make a show about culinary skill and creativity, not shoplifting. I'm not saying that a show about shoplifting might not be absolutely riveting, but it's not what we're about on Top Chef. So to lose a contestant over something that is not directly related to their culinary contribution is disturbing and a little depressing. That said, I'm glad to know that Otto is out there spending his time and energy trying to bring people together to fight world hunger -- which, let's face it, is a much more important mission than winning a reality show, even this one.