Padma graciously asked me to guest blog for her. So I said, "sure, why not?" I had such a wonderful time being a guest judge on Top Chef that I want to, foremost, thank the folks at Bravo, Magical Elves, Tom, Padma, Gail and Ted. I want to congratulate them on their well-deserved Emmy nomination.
I have been a fan of Tom's work since I trailed at his three star NYC restaurant Mondrian about 15 years ago. As far as I am concerned, any work with Tom is work to be proud of. I met Padma 7 years ago at a photo shoot; lovely then, lovely now. Ted and I are friends from the Bravo/NBC world and Gail is a new friend. I wasn't sure what to expect when I agreed to appear on Top Chef. It's a thinking person's reality show about cooking that transcends both reality television and cooking. Very clever.
The first thing that struck me was that these were serious cooks. With the exception of one or two people there were no scrubs in this kitchen. The second thing I noticed was that this is a tough competition. You may disagree, but the truth is that the "culinary bee" quick-fire challenge was no joke. Admittedly Howie got an easy one to start with, tomato paste, and when Joey mistook yucca for taro root I felt his pain.
It wasn't until l I worked with my friends at their Terra Chips factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn long ago that I could tell the difference between the two by eye without hesitation. Yucca is always covered with wax; taro never is and has a hairy outer skin.
Sara gulped down the raspberry vinegar like it was cold beer on a hot day. Poor thing, she should have smelled it first. Dale actually got the real taro root, and called it water chestnuts. So what. He's got style and makes a mean pesto. CJ thought daikon radish sprouts was pepper cress, and truth be told, they are nearly identical in taste, poor guy. Hung quickly identified oats like he works at Quaker and Tre, didn't taste the rice wine vinegar in the mirin, which is what makes it mirin and not simple syrup.
I like Tre a lot; he can do little wrong in my book. He is the kind of chef chefs love to work with. He is talented, mature and powerful. When Casey took that big mouthful of fish paste I could feel the bile rising up in my own throat. Hung too quick for his own good, foolishly thought celery seed was anise seed because he didn't taste it, even though Padma kept telling him to. It turns out he came very close to needing the immunity. Luckily for Hung, Joey rightfully threw himself under the bus. I know Hung's attitude wasn't the greatest,and I believe he probably would have done a better job without Joey, but this isn't what this particular challenge was about.
Bing, bam, boom, Brian gets miso right. Casey gets chayote right. very impressive. I haven't used chayote since the CIA. Brian loses on Thai Eggplant. He's a good guy. By the end of this challenge I was just glad I wasn't standing up there swallowing fish paste, gulping vinegar and losing a chance at immunity on celery seed.
When Padma explained what the elimination challenge was, I saw smirks, eyes rolling and heard snickering as if to say this was a silly challenge. I tried to impress upon them that this wasn't going to be an easy thing to accomplish and to pay careful attention to how the product is frozen, as in IQF (individually quick frozen) and packaged. Once they started cooking it seemed few took this seriously and the outcome showed this.
Well, I took the job of judging very seriously. I knew that the process of eliminating a chef wasn't going to be fun no matter who it was or how badly they performed. Even Joey's (who thinks I am an "asshole, douche-bag sellout and the reason he was eliminated") departure was sad because I know he can cook. It's naÃƒÂ¯ve to think that I have that much influence over Tom, Gail and Padma, but it just isn't so.
When it came time to taste the dishes at the fresh market I made sure I looked at each team's food separately. I listened to their presentations. I smelled and tasted each team's dishes in exactly the same manner- not to inadvertently give one team an advantage over another. But as you know, the cream rises to the top. It wasn't long before I saw that Casey & Dale and Tre & Brian were the teams with the best dishes. Howie & Sara M. and Joey & Hung's dishes were so bad they got an automatic D.Q. in my mind.
The team in purgatory was Brian and Sarah N. Their dish should get special mention for including a delicious flavor packet in the bag. It was very good dish, but just not as good as the two top teams.
It would be difficult to write a list of skills a cook should possess to become Top Chef. The challenges are so varied and the parameters so random in many ways it reminds me of what its like to run a restaurant. You never know what's going to happen. Clearly, one has to know one's strengths and play out each challenge with that in mind. This challenge seemed easy enough; open a bag of Bertolli frozen dinner, look at it and duplicate it. The only team that did that won the trip to Italy. Kudos to them. I know Tre and CJ will benefit tremendously from the Italian sun and fun once this is all over.
The teams of Tre & CJ and Casey & Dale both found synergy in their respective partnerships and that's the name of the game when you're teamed up. This clearly wasn't only a challenge about frozen food, it was also about how well you can collaborate on the dime. Cooking is so difficult, so full of challenges you need to stack the deck in your favor every chance you get. So alienating your partner is a bad idea. I know this first hand.
Both teams chose ingredients that freeze well, like kale, and chicken, meatballs, orecchiette and pesto, all great choices. The meatballs were so happy to be frozen it seemed like they refused to defrost (I tried to tell them because I really liked their dish.). In addition to individually freezing the elements of their dish, Tre and CJ did what cooks have been doing for years. They reduced flavored liquids into concentrated bases and froze them in little blocks. Glace de veau, case in point. This ultimately was the key to their success. As for the other dishes, who wants to eat over cooked unscrewed-corkscrew pasta in 3 drab colors with bad tomato sauce? Apparently nobody. Not even for free. Or how about burned fusilli with a fennel vinaigrette? Its pasta, why a vinaigrette?
Despite how masterfully insulting Anthony's Blog is, I was oddly compelled to read it. He is a funny, funny man even if it is at my expense. Some final comments, corrections and realizations.
Contrary to popular belief, I have not had botox, ribs removed, nor rhinoplasty. I have, after much work, lost 30 pounds, no more, no less.
Apparently, I have a long road ahead of me before I am forgiven for my behavior on "The Restaurant." Mea Culpa already.
Some in the Top Chef blogoshpere consider strategic partnerships and brand alliances "shilling". I don't agree. I'll address all this with more detail later; got to save something for my next blog.
Oh, and as for my cooking Anthony, consider yourself invited for dinner anytime. I promise to do my best not to serve anything "cheesy." I'll open my finest wines and I might even take up smoking.