Questions? Answers!

Tom responds to some very harsh critics.

Before I post my next blog entry, I promised to answer a bunch of questions from the message boards. It seems that most of the comments you wrote in this week are some variation of the following, which I'll paraphrase:

Dear Chef Tom (you hypocritical smug bastard): You like to rant on about taking risks but when Sam took a risk with his watermelon/blue cheese dish you let him have it. Also, you let Marcel skate by with uncooked chicken, which, hello, could have killed somebody. And last, honest, likeable Michael's only sin was not buying olive dishes with his leftover wine glass money, and yet he was let go! You always tell us it's about the food, but clearly it's not. Love the show, despite your obvious anti-Michael, pro-Cliff, anti/pro-Elia (choose one) bias. Keep up the good work, Top Chef is our favorite show, although in protest, we plan to never watch again."

As you may have figured out by now, most of the judges' reactions and comments end up on the edit room floor due to the time considerations of cutting together a cogent episode. Understandably, this leaves viewers with numerous questions about our decisions, some of which must seem inconsistent or nonsensical.

I feel you are all owed explanations, so I'm going to break this one down: "At least Sam was willing to take a risk with his watermelon & cheese dish..." Without question, watermelon and cheese can work brilliantly together (I ate a delicious hors d'oeuvres of watermelon and feta at my friend Brad Farmerie's restaurant, Public, in downtown Manhattan) but for the dish to work, I feel the watermelon should be cold, so that the refreshing quality of the fruit works against the sharpness of the cheese. For some reason Sam felt the dish would benefit from being heated. In my thinking "hot" and "watermelon" just don't work together except possibly in the following sentence, "It was so hot outside, we each inhaled three slices of cool, refreshing watermelon." While Sam's warmed-up watermelon just didn't work, we did appreciate that he showed leadership, took a risk and used his imagination. For this reason he wasn't sent home.

"Marcel served raw chicken which is a health hazard ... he should have been sent home." Marcel's chicken wasn't great, but he had actually made a stab at chicken confit -- a preparation often used with duck leg, in which the meat is cured in spices and slowly cooked in its own fat. If the chicken confit had worked, it would have been unusual and delicious. Most likely Marcel cooked the wings at a temperature high enough to make them safe, but the faulty execution gave the dish a soft, undercooked texture and appearance. And though the judge's confit discussion did not make it into the episode, we discussed it and agreed that, like Sam's unsuccessful watermelon dish, Marcel's chicken showed a stab at doing something interesting.

Also, Marcel was responsible for the vegetable tempura, which all agreed was delicious. For these reasons, he too was spared.

"Mikey may not be the best chef, but he's a great guy and you let him go for reasons that had nothing to do with the food. Is Top Chef all about the food, or isn't it?" Frankly, when the Elimination Challenge is about creating a successful dish, then yes, it's all about the food. Last week's Challenge was about creating a successful restaurant, so we looked at the overall picture including front-of-the-house, purchasing decisions, hospitality, etc. Once upon a time, chefs were hired by restaurateurs. Today, they are restaurateurs, responsible for a lot more than just the food. The judges analyzed which chef seemed to add the least to his or her team in terms of imagination, skills and overall added value, and settled on Michael.

An example of how Michael dropped the ball: When we questioned him about the money he had left over after buying the items on his list -- a full 20 percent of his budget -- Michael told us he used it to buy extra paring knives as gifts for his teammates. A nice enough gesture, but we felt a more ambitious competitor would have asked himself how the money could have been spent to win the challenge -- was anything missing from the mis-en-place (like dishes for olive pits) or was there something that could have enhanced the overall experience -- bread plates, flower vases? How about challenging Sam and Marcel's ill-considered idea not to serve wine? Instead, Michael lapsed into a passive, list-following mode and then even failed as a mere line-cook, needing Sam to show him how to do some very basic tasks. I liked Michael. He was good-hearted, funny, and great to have around. He added levity to the mix, without mean-spiritedness.

But, as many of you have pointed out, this contest isn't designed to reward personality, it's designed to choose the best chef. And at the end of the day, chefs have to do many things like lead, imagine, purchase, prep, design, welcome, and yes, cook.

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