Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Breakfast Of Champions

Tom Colicchio's thoughts on why Frank blew the breakfast challenge.

I get a kick out of the notion that our producers manipulate the action on Top Chef in order to create drama. The truth is they don't need to. For one thing, by now our remaining chefs may look fine, but appearances are deceiving. The weeks of very long hours and too little sleep are taking their toll. I know what you're thinking: Big deal, I work long hours, too, and I'm no drama king/queen. But a number of other factors are starting to push the group towards the edge. For one, they have been removed from their usual support networks of spouses and loved ones and are thrust into very close living quarters with virtual strangers. In addition to the stress of having their work judged, they are also subject to the unending scrutiny of cameras and crew (except for bathroom jaunts) which creates its own form of performance anxiety.
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The chefs have few pressure outlets; they're allowed limited internet access in order to research food, but they aren't allowed to disappear for a long walk, or hole themselves away with headphones, etc. since the show depends upon their engaging with one another. They can't even listen to music, since this would interfere with recording dialogue! One of the only ways the chefs can blow off steam is by drinking -- which only contributes to the exhaustion. To top it all off, they have been, by necessity, divested of their money to discourage independent forays out into the world and are kept isolated from other people (except the judges, crew, and the people they feed) which gives their world a surreal, hermetic quality.

Is it any wonder that they flip out when someone touches their toothbrush? But the most obvious effect of all the stress and exhaustion is that it seems to compromise the chefs' chief asset -- their imagination. That amorphous place from whence springs ideas, inspiration, solutions, sense memory, and innovation. True imagination can be nurtured, but not taught. It can manifest through an intuitive understanding of how to juxtapose taste and texture, or through wild flights of fancy. Some chefs' imaginations give them a unique understanding of the emotional value of food -- the way in which it can provoke or comfort. For others, imagination leads them into arch, whimsical interpretations of culinary classics. Regardless, when people get stressed out and tired, imagination is often the first thing to go.


The result of this is a tendency towards inflexibility, an inability to adapt or handle curveballs. This was definitely the case when we brought the chefs to the beach in Malibu. After too little sleep, and without a chance to psychologically gear up for the challenge of cooking over a fire pit, some of the chefs' imaginations simply shut down. Frank was perhaps the best example of this -- he had planned to bake a quiche, which was impossible over an open flame, and he lacked the ability to recover in style. Sam, with his (burnt) toad-in-the-hole eggs and bagel combination seemed more rattled by the lack of sleep than the fire-pit, but the result was the same. Cliff was thrown by the environment enough that he got sloppy -- of all the food prepared, his was the only dish that featured sand as an ingredient. So many of my previous blogs have rambled on about a chef's need to adapt that I'm not going to go there today. But I will bring up a quick anecdote to illustrate how a chef can use imagination to override a difficult situation:


About eight years ago, I donated a private, home-cooked dinner party to a charity auction. A very social New Jersey woman cast the winning bid, and we made arrangements for me and a couple of my cooks to come to her house and prepare an elegant tasting menu for twenty or so of her close friends. The day of the event we carefully prepped the ingredients and packed them, in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, into my truck. En route to the party the turnpike flooded, causing a number of cars to spin out of control and skid off the road. Entire swaths of highway were shut down and rerouted, and the result was total gridlock. Although we had left extra early, it made no difference -- we were stuck, so I called our hostess to explain. At first she was calm about it, but soon she was calling me every few minutes, increasingly hysterical, as her guests started to arrive and we still weren't there. When we finally pulled up at the woman's house my cooks and I immediately kicked into high gear. We skipped the hors-d'oeuvres and plowed right into dinner, churning out the first two courses, while the hostess grew steadily calmer. Soon the guests were happily enjoying the food and all was forgiven. We prepared to launch into our third course -- a spectacular lobster with green onion chutney -- when suddenly we realized we had a problem: No lobster. Somehow we'd left it behind in the restaurant.


I exchanged a look with Johnny Schaeffer, my long-time right-hand at Gramercy Tavern, and without a beat, we got to work. We reached into our unused prep for hors-d'oeuvres and pulled out a lobe of foie-gras. We quickly roasted it off in tasting portions and plated it with the original green onion chutney which we turned into a sauce that nicely cut the unctuousness of the liver. We tasted and seasoned as we went, and reworked the presentation so that it made sense with the new dish. The course was a hit, and our hostess came back into the kitchen to compliment us before rejoining her guests and getting good and drunk. I mention this not to toot my own horn (though Johnny deserves some credit for unflappability) but to illustrate just how important it is not to be locked into one single idea when cooking. When I teach cooking classes, I always ask my students to put down their pencils and papers (they hate this) because if I've done my job well they will be able to replicate the dish I'm about to teach with just about any ingredient they like. I am teaching techniques, not recipes, and I want them to substitute the elements that they most enjoy when the time comes to cook on their own. Not a salmon lover? Use sea bass instead -- the important thing is not the fish, but to know how to test for doneness. In other words, I refuse to let them shut down their own imaginations and take safe harbor in a single, fixed recipe.


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Of all the cooks, Mia seemed most comfortable with the setting (as she reminded us, she used to cook for cowboys,) and Elia and Betty also did a good job making their dishes work on the fire pit. All three made sure that their presentations were clean and attractive, which made the dishes even easier to appreciate. Mia's Crab Cake Benedict seemed to be the surfer's favorite, Elia pulled off an unusual combination of sweet and salty flavors with her waffle and eggs, and Betty surprised us all by managing to cook the eggs in her egg/ham/leek bundle like the delicate ingredients that they are; unlike some of the others, she didn't resort to a mindless scramble, but kept the egg yolks intact, and then cooked them gently and perfectly. tomsblog_betty3_320x240.jpg
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Elia's dish was Guest Judge Raphael Lunetta's choice for winner. Interestingly, this was one of the few occasions this season when Elia didn't take issue with the judge's opinion. With the exception of Mike and Marcel, the remaining chefs made mistakes with their eggs -- overcooking them, or presenting them in visually unappealing ways. The eggs in Ilan's Spanish tortilla dish were a bit brown for my taste, but he was saved by the rest of his dish, which tasted great. As I mentioned earlier, Sam and Cliff weren't so lucky.
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But it was Frank who really blew it. If he could have let go of his quiche idea, he would have realized he had all the ingredients for a great frittata, easily pulled off in a pan over the open fire. Instead he opted for a zucchini salmon scramble, but his distraction got in the way of good technique and his eggs were way overcooked. The little side of cannoli cream with strawberries tasted good, but wasn't connected in any way to the larger dish -- I would have rather seen him put al his focus into getting the eggs right. Of all the misses, his was the worst, and on that basis the judges chose to let him go.

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Frank was a good guy, and I know most of the other chefs were sad to see him go. Frank's got plenty of ambition, experience and heart, and I wish him well. I'm sure he'll be a success in whatever culinary venture he undertakes ... just so long as no one messes with his toothbrush.

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Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Gail dishes on Doug Adams' flawless return to the competition and why Melissa King's dish failed to hit the right artistic note.

Bravotv.com: This week we had the Last Chance Kitchen finale between George and Doug, and Doug ended up returning to the competition.

Gail Simmons: It looked like a really close battle -- Tom was really happy with both of their dishes. I will say if I had to put money on it, I would have guessed it would be between George and Doug at the end. They really are two of our stronger competitors. Obviously George was just coming off of his elimination, and it didn't surprise me that Doug stayed at the top of Last Chance Kitchen since being eliminated. I was thrilled to see him in Mexico with us.

Bravotv.com: Great! So he comes back, he wins and then onto the Quickfire Challenge. Any thoughts on this part of the competition?

GS: I'll just say that I’m a big, big fan of Chef Olvera, and I’m so glad we were able to get him on the show. His main restaurant, Pujol, is in Mexico City, but he has Moxi at the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel, where we were  lucky enough to eat the night that I landed, and a new restaurant here in New York that I am really excited about called Cosme. His food is very much rooted in Mexican ingredients and Mexican cooking, but his food is so modern. He really is one of the most talented chefs in the world at this moment, and I’m glad he judged the prickly pear Quickfire. They filmed it right in the center square of San Miguel; it is an amazingly gorgeous place. It was a really great setting for our first challenge in Mexico.

Bravotv.com: Then we have the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by an artist's piece of work, and Doug won with his brisket.

GS:  This challenge is interesting, because San Miguel is such a mecca for artists; it’s an artist colony that has produced incredible work for years. The city itself is so visually inspiring, as are the artists that work there. Their work is so varied, so vast. What was unique in this challenge was that it forced the chefs to take inspiration from an unusual source and think about their dish in a different way. All of the artists are very different, from a graffiti artist to someone who does more abstract landscapes. It was truly exciting to see what the artists did with the canvases they were given and what they shared with the chefs.

I tasted Doug’s dish first and understood it in an instant; it needed no explanation. But when he did talk about it, I realized it had so much depth not only in flavor, but in its purpose. He had an immediate connection with the artist he was paired with -- they were both from Texas and she reminded him a lot of his mother. There was a deep sense of home and comfort between them, which I think allowed him to cook so purely, so simply. The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not "chef it up" too much, he kept it pure. He modeled the presentation of the dish exactly off of the painting itself with those colors from the Mexican landscape -- the deep reds of the earth, those dark greens and browns -- which made perfect sense. His brisket obviously tasted like Texas, but it definitely had an air of Mexico. It had the tomatillo, the masa, and even the red brisket itself was reminiscent of Mexican flavors, since Mexican cuisine has had such an influence on Texas to begin with. The dish was about his roots on a lot of levels. I devoured all of it, it was so hardy and comforting, but it had an elegance and finesse to it in the plating -- the ingredients he chose to put side by side as opposed to stewing them together -- made it special.

The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not 'chef it up' too much, he kept it pure.

Gail Simmons

Bravotv.com: And then we had Gregory's grilled strip loin with ancho chile, beets, cilantro puree, and valencia orange sauce.

GS: Gregory’s dish was excellent too. He did a perfectly grilled strip loin. He was worried about it before we tasted it, but it came out perfectly. He made three incredible sauces to go with it, which drew a lot of inspiration from his artist's painting. The first was this ancho chile sauce and then this beautiful green cilantro puree. The ancho chiles were reminiscent of the peasant farming, the green cilantro tying into the earth. Then there was the orange sauce, which completely changed the dish. When you first tasted it, the dish was earthy, it was deep and complex, it had the Mexican chiles that really shone through with the beef. Then you got a splash of that orange sauce, and it balanced everything out in a way that surprised us. It was so inspired, you could tell that it echoed the sunshine in the painting. It conveyed the artist’s vision of this peasant toiling in the soil through this glorious sunshine, and that’s exactly how the dish tasted.

It was a really close battle between Gregory and Doug in this challenge; both of them did such a great job. Ultimately we chose Doug, because we thought there was an unmistakable depth to his food and it was completely flawless.

Bravotv.com: Let's move on to Mei, who had the snapper and bass crudo with chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles.

GS: In true Mei fashion, her dish was completed beautifully and precise. It was very tightly conceptualized -- every drizzle, every piece of fish, every garnish was perfectly placed, and it was a gorgeous plate of food. I loved her relationship with the artist she worked with, Bea. They had a lovely conversation, which was great to see, and the dish clearly reflected Bea’s work. The chicken skin, the fish, the splashes of color were all inspirations from the painting. Every bite of Mei's dish had a little surprise; there was a little spice, a tiny bit of salt, and a beautiful splash of sweetness, which made it so fun and so playful.

My only criticism of Mei’s food comes from a presentation standpoint. Because Bea’s art was so outrageous and so loud and loose and free in a way, we had hoped that Mei’s food would’ve reflected that. We thought it would have allowed her to loosen up her presentation a little bit. Of course, I respect that she stayed true to who she is and how she presents her food. It was a dish that took a lot of technical skill and was really enjoyable when we ate it, we had just hoped to see more playfulness.

Bravotv.com: And then we had Melissa's smoked eggplant ravioli with shrimp, chorizo, and cotija.

GS: Melissa’s dish was absolutely decadent, delicious, delightful. We all agreed that her smoked eggplant ravioli was perfectly made -- it was smoky, very rich, and the pasta was well cooked. That alone was as good as anything else we had eaten that day. Where we thought she fell short, relative to the other dishes, was that there definitely was less cohesion between the artist's work and her dish. Shrimp, chorizo, cotija cheese, and eggplant can go together, but in the way she plated them, they weren’t really talking -- the shrimp was over here, the sauce was somewhere else, then there was the eggplant ravioli. There didn’t seem to be a line that connected them all. And when she described it in relation to the artwork, we really weren’t sure it conveyed that dramatic splash from the graffiti art. We needed more from her. There was such a direct conversation between Doug and his artist, and it really felt like they were working on the same piece of artwork together. Melissa’s dish, although tasty and very pretty, did not have that same depth. I’m not just talking about flavor; it’s really about the inspiration and the connection, not only between the ingredients on the plate, but between the chef and the artist. His work was really beautiful (and watching the show I regret not buying a piece from him at the time). But it can be hard to translate art, because it’s something so personal. In the end between the four of us we decided that on that day it was Melissa’s dish that did not measure up in terms of the inspiration and connection like the other dishes did. So she was eliminated.

Bravotv.com: It seemed like one of the tougher eliminations this season.

GS: Yes, it was. It always is at this stage of the season. But it was a really great challenge too. I think regardless of winning or losing, Melissa really loved the process and that was so great to see. It was an intellectual challenge that was hard to interpret, and I think they all did an incredible job. I’m really going to miss Melissa. I honestly think she is a huge talent, and I know she is going to do well wherever she goes next.
 

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