Left Out In The Cold

Chef and restauranteur Barton G. weighs in on Top Chef.

The first thing that comes to mind about the frozen dinner episode is what a clever promotion it was for Bertolli's new Mediterranean frozen entrees. Someone negotiated a brilliant sponsorship/advertising package. That said, it was an interesting challenge--one that removed all of the chefs from their respective comfort zones for the first time since I've been a weekly watcher. Rocco DiSpirito seemed to suggest the frozen dinner category is one in which they should all be well-versed because "home meal replacement" (HMR) is such an important market segment. He's right about the growing percentage of food dollars being devoted to HMR, which is defined as those prepared meals people purchase to eat at home. And I would think most of these chefs have dealt with take-out, which is a growing revenue stream for fine dining restaurants. But, I am sure none of them are freezing anything from their menus as HMRs.

What I found fascinating is that they were given a road map for this uncharted territory and, with the exception of CJ and Tre, and, to an extent, the Casey-Dale duo, they didn't follow it accurately. OK, Hung picked up on the fact the "individually quick frozen" (IQF) method, as personified by the new Bertolli products, was the way to go, but he claims he couldn't persuade Joey. Meanwhile Joey didn't recall any lobbying on Hung's part to go the IQF route. Please! Hung is not exactly the shy and retiring type. It's very difficult for me to believe he didn't make his opinion known. It's more likely that Joey was so focused on being the only Italian guy--ergo by some divine ethnic right destined to win--that he couldn't be bothered to pay attention to what Hung was saying. Granted, Hung seems intent on earning the annoying chef title he was given by the episode's audience; I can understand Joey tuning Hung out. However, there was also more than a bit of arrogance on Joey's part and he paid dearly for it.

All of which brings me to the crucial issue of communication. The two teams that communicated well and were therefore in accord produced the top dishes, while the two most dysfunctional teams produced the worst. Seems to me there are Old Wives' Tales about how your mood when you cook resonates in the final taste. It would seem to have been borne out here; the discord between Joey and Hung and downright antipathy between Howie and Sarah M. certainly soured their dishes. As Padma pointed it out, it's pretty sad when you can't "sell" free food, and I'm sure the fact that none of the Fresh Market shoppers were willing to accept Hung and Joey's dish as an HMR helped seal Joey's fate for the judges. That and his admitted stubbornness, which I'm betting was tempered somewhat by this experience--a good thing for Joey and his future career.

In the end, what I took away from the show was the realization I've begun to appreciate--Tre's quiet, bordering on stoic confidence. In my experience, top chefs owe their toques as much to logistical prowess as to talent. Tre is emerging as someone with both. I hope he smiled throughout his trip to Italy.

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