As an occasional guest judge, I should remind readers up front that when judging, we don't get to see the backstage drama. We don't know the back-stories and personal histories and are unaware of any personality conflicts -- until we see them on the finished, edited show. The day of competition, the contestants could be giving each other long, lingering back rubs, huddling together devoutly in joint prayer -- or they could be back there menacing each other with jailhouse shanks -- and I wouldn't know it until I saw it on TV, like everybody else.
So I thought it wisest and best, given the privilege of filling in for my honorable colleague Tom Colicchio, that I give you my take on the latest episode of "Top Chef," not as a judge...but as a regular viewer, as a fan, and as someone who was a chef and employer of cooks for nearly three decades; from the point of view of someone who has had to run a working kitchen, maintain standards and consistency, keep customers happy -- as well as keep a crew of usually marginal personalities from becoming a danger to themselves or others -- and as someone who sat down on their couch Wednesday night, cracked open a beer and watched the show like everybody else; this is what this week's episode looked like to me:
First off: Kudos to the Shrimp Team, Brian, Lia and Hung. Shrimp: Great choice of ingredient. It's local. It's indigenous to the South Florida area -- most importantly? It's not freaking FILET MIGNON for Chrissakes! Few pieces of meat are easier to cook, have less flavor or textural features or are less interesting to chefs than filet mignon. It's a lazy, safe and not very creative choice. If you're hoping only to dodge the bullet (or fly beneath the radar) it's a smart move but you ain't dazzling Colicchio (of a little operation called Craft STEAK) by managing to properly sear filet. Tom could train a chimp to do that -- and likely has. Many times.
And TUNA. Is there a menu anywhere in America that DOESN'T feature "tuna tartare"? The words "Seared" and "Tuna" -- if googled -- likely pop up as frequently as "Paris" and Hilton." Another lazy and pedestrian choice. In retrospect, the team should have stuck with Howie's suggestion of duck -- a relatively inexpensive, amazingly versatile ingredient made for a three-way challenge. Tuna, on the other hand, almost invariably inspires "M.E.G.O. Syndrome" (My Eyes Glaze Over). Now, I would have understood if Casey (having immunity from the Quickfire) deliberately went in the tank with a truly appalling looking tartare as a strategic move; expecting (not unreasonably) that at least one of her teammates, the Brothers Blockhead, would crash, burn or shove the other into a Frialator, but apparently not. I do admire that she stood up in front of the judges and offered to take the hit.
Speaking of the Brothers Blockhead: I have a grudging respect for Howie. I truly enjoyed how -- when I was a judge -- he threw my own words back at me, taking responsibility for his own actions, but standing on principle. He's a tough, obstinate little bastard. He takes his beatings like a man, without passing the buck or making excuses, but seems not to play well with others. Not that ANYONE could play with Joey. Joey comes off like a walking laundry list of "Things Chefs Don't Want In An Employee." Whiner. Crybaby. Blames Others. Persecution Complex. Confrontational. What Bill Buford, in his excellent book, "Heat" came to recognize as a "dickhead". It's a good thing the judges don't see the backstage melodrama. Most chefs I know get wood from kicking guys like that to the curb.
Poor Dale. The SAS motto is "He Who Dares Wins." Well...not in this case. It was a bold move, picking dessert. He took a chance...and got burned. Or rather Camille did. Her "pineapple upside down cake" being the worst of a bad lot, she got the chop. Still, you've got to admire Dale (or I do anyway) for a) taking a chance, thereby erring on the side of creativity and b) taking responsibility: assuming guilt when a teammate took it in the neck as a result. These are good qualities in a chef. You take responsibility for a bad decision. You learn from it. Then you move on. Best of all -- you manage to survive.
Hung, Hung, Hung. Clearly one of the most talented, fearless and creative of the lot. Shrimp was a wise, ballsy choice of ingredient -- and his team worked the way a kitchen should. I just don't understand why he feels compelled to play the bad guy. He need only look at his buddy Astro Boy from Season Two to see that talent is often not enough. Survival requires a measure of WISDOM. For a guy with technique as good as his -- as fast on his feet, as versatile and creative as he is -- he's not winning these challenges as often as he should. A little humility; a willingness to accommodate what people are likely to enjoy and appreciate, instead of pursuing that which honors only his own perceived genius, would be a good adjustment. It may have been good foam. But it was still foam. Get over it. Chances are, any experienced judge on "Top Chef" has been awash in foam, drowned in it and become bored by it for years. It's OVER. It's become a bad joke. A trope. A cliche. And it's very appearance on a dish, at this point, is likely to count as a point against when facing such jaded palates.
Hung is a better cook I think, and much more versatile, and much less slavishly attached to the Church of Adria (1999 edition) than his wolverine-haired predecessor. But he need only look at the simple yet refined charms of the winning dish, his teammate Lia's olive oil poached shrimp (exactly the sort of dish that Ferran Adria likes to eat when off duty, by the way) to see a potentially fruitful avenue towards victory. Just the same -- from this episode, Hung still looks like the guy to beat. Of this talented and diverse group, the most likely candidate to beat Hung...is Hung. -- Anthony Bourdain