This week, Chef Anthony Bourdain continues his guest-blogging stint, filling in for Chef Colicchio:
What is a "chef"? A chef is a cook who leads. A chef is someone who knows how to cook and who can also run a kitchen. Leadership skills are required. Management skills. The ability to execute a vision with consistency. Doing these things means that you are constantly making decisions large and small. The ability to make a brilliant, creatively-dazzling and delicious plate of food is near worthless if you can't do it again and again--exactly the same way--at high speed, under the gun, hung over, after a night of fierce Negroni drinking...while listening to Mexican thrash metal. And you can't do it alone.
So this week's challenges were illustrative of not just the real strengths--and serious weaknesses--of the contestants, but of the general principles of good decision making--the ability to make mistakes, learn from them, and make corrections.
Lia, last week's winner and a very strong cook from a great restaurant, showed us the terrible potential cost of a bad decision. The challenge was to cook for the cast of the Latino soap, "Dame Chocolate". Latinos, many of whom, presumably, have been working far from home for some time. The implied challenge was to cook food that would bring them right BACK home. Authentic flavors and ingredients, or at least flavors and ingredients that would evoke home, connect them in a powerful way with their culture and their culinary history. This was not a challenge. This was an OPPORTUNITY. There are few weapons more powerful in the chef's armory than the ability to make people homesick in wonderful ways. NOTHING brings people back to their childhood, to their family, to earlier, happier, simpler times than the senses of smell and taste (other than music).
One need only see the "Anton Ego-Ratatouille Epiphany" in Ratatouille to understand (as all good chefs do) how happy you can make people with a few simple, familiar flavors. An animated rat got this. Lia, temporarily, forgot. This was no time to start getting too creative, adding one's own spin, or dicking around with trout and polenta.
When looking for examples of GOOD decision making, one need look no further than at the resurgent tag team of Howie and Joey. In a shocking reversal of fortune, the much-maligned (by me) Joey stepped up and got it just right. Like a boxer, waking from too many punch-drunk early rounds, he finally saw his opportunity, identified his target, and executed flawlessly. I suspect I have underestimated the man. And may I say that he was much more likable in this episode. There is--I think--plenty of good reason for Joey and Howie to get along--this act has legs. They're freakin' adorable together--an even more dysfunctional Martin and Lewis. They play their cards right, there's a long television career in keeping this double act together.
Who, of all people, AGAIN demonstrated the finest in chiefly qualities? What unlikely journeyman once again stepped up and out of his weight class to show the more gifted (but less mature) how it's done? What's REALLY important? Tenacious Bulldog Howie!
You GOT to love this guy. He repeatedly has time issues. He's clearly no bundle of fun. He's as serious as a bad chest X-ray. He looks like a fireplug. But I gotta tell you, when he cracked a big, much-deserved grin in the winner's circle, I smiled along with him and might have even pumped a fist in the air and shouted "YES!"
Alone among the contestants, Howie shows extraordinary analytical prowess. He has the ability see things as they are and to accept the reality of the situation. He owns his mistakes. He learns from them. In this Elimination Challenge, he analyzed the situation and his audience, and made some basic decisions. When his prep time was cut drastically, he made a VERY hard choice (to stick with his original decision), stayed the course--while making minor adjustments--and executed. More impressive, he recognized what was great about Joey's dish. He may not like his frequent adversary. He may be in competition with him. But these factors did not prevent him from seeing things as they were--that Joey's was the better dish--and saying so.
A realistic assessment of the situation is exactly what Howie's good at--and what talented but increasingly delusional Hung seems utterly incapable of. When a pastry chef of MANY more years experience practicing their trade than you've got out of diapers tells you your chocolate mousse is crap? It's crap. When you've got to resort to the transparently desperate measure of lining your saggy-ass wedge of chocolate tart with strawberry slices (to keep it from leaking all over the table like baby puke)? It doesn't MATTER if you think "the flavors are there". "Flavor" counts for very little in a competition for "Top Chef" if your dish looks like something you'd find circling the bowl after a whiskey binge. Hung's look of utter incredulity and contempt when being advised of his deficiencies, his seeming total inability to receive or accept or understand criticism is dismaying. It seems almost...pathological.
His racing around the kitchen like a methedrine-jacked lab rat (for Arroz Con Pollo, no less!), knife out, is the sort of thing a first-year culinary student does. His dishes are often inspired, his skills unquestionably there in abundance, but he seems incapable of the economy of movement that all professionals learn EARLY, and which even Martha Stewart has in spades. And when the majority of your Latino guests, all the judges, and Tom Colicchio in particular agree that your RICE blows? That's not anybody's "personal opinion". It's a fact.
As a final tip, I'd advise Hung in particular to be cautious next week. Do NOT underestimate guest judge Rocco DiSpirito. It's easy to be dismissive of Rocco's limelight-loving ways, or to have been appalled (as I was) by the horrifying circus of bathos that was his reality series. And he DOES have that curious Nicole Kidman "shock and awe" expression on his face these days; but Rocco--when he wanted to-- could COOK. Brilliantly. Even his detractors (like me) know that. He's a truly gifted cook with a great palate. In a head-to-head competition with Hung? (Similar cooking styles.) He could cook him under the table with one hand tied--on roller skates. If HE tells you your Arroz Con Pollo sucks? It's time to take a long look into that cold, cruel merciless mirror.