Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Importance of Improvisation

Gail Simmons defends the decision to send Jennifer Biesty home.

I will never forget the priceless looks on the faces of our poor contestants when they realized that a fun night out at Chicago's Second City had made a sharp turn into an Elimination Challenge, especially one in which the audience controlled their fate! The basis of the challenge came from a list of words, screamed out by slightly inebriated comedy fans, each to include a color, an emotion, and an edible item. Obviously, the turn of events got me thinking a lot about the importance of improvisation, in the professional kitchen as well as at home.

Learning how to use whatever you are given and turn it into something delicious is no easy task. Improvisation is also crucial when you find yourself without the ideal ingredients on hand for what you need to make. It requires split-second decision-making and a palate that can anticipate depth of flavor without necessarily having tasted the exact combination before. Just like comedy, improvisational cooking requires impeccable timing, responsiveness, and spontaneity, but above all else it demands the utmost confidence. Without it, one can easily lose sight of the ultimate goal, whether making people laugh or satisfying their appetites.

There will always be tricks to fall back on that every chef knows. In comedy it seems these often take the form of swearing a lot or talking about sex. But the best improvisational comedy does not rely on cheap laughs or tricks. Comics like Andy Kaufman and Billy Crystal were groundbreaking because they made you laugh and use your mind at the same time. Their comedy was not just hysterical, it was smart. Cooking is much the same.
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I think it is fair to say that Richard and Dale won because they cooked smart. They did not try to overcompensate for what they were given, but rather presented a dish that was full flavored, interesting, and appetizing. When creating one cohesive dish based on an arbitrary list of green, perplexed, tofu, they were literal enough so that you could trace its genesis, but pushed it far enough from where it started that it took on meaning of its own. Their Tofu Steak Marinated in Beef Fat with Green Curry was a dish that if seen on a menu, completely out of context, would not appear strange or out of the ordinary. In fact, considering my love of beef fat and green curry, and in spite of my relative disdain for tofu steaks, I would probably be intrigued enough to give it a try.

Jennifer and Stephanie did exactly the opposite. They used the words they were given in the most uninspiring and literal way, then added so many other layers that their dish became almost unrecognizable. I am not suggesting that the words orange, turned-on, and asparagus are easy to connect, but I believe they could have thought their dish through more thoroughly and come up with a plate much more subtle and refined. Of course, given the "turned-on" motif, a menage à trois is not at all a bad idea to start, if implemented correctly. Incorporating Orange and Asparagus was inevitable. It was adding that semi-soggy, phallic piece of bread, in addition to what looked like a large disc of goat cheese, salad and olive tapenade that all of a sudden drowned out any of the dish's integrity. In short, they resorted to those cheap tricks I spoke of earlier.
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Compared to the other food prepared that night, theirs did appear to be the weakest. That said, I have to admit that watching the ending I did not feel it was totally clear why Jennifer was sent home instead of Stephanie. However, knowing how arduous Judges' Table can be, I have no doubt there was more to the story than they were able to show us at home. We will have to assume that it was because Jennifer was responsible for the addition of that oversized and ill-conceived slice of bread.

Mistakes like Jennifer's may seem small to the viewers, but let me warn you: From here on in, be prepared to see such mistakes prove costly more often than not. When we are given a meal of mostly great food, the most benign mistakes become glaringly apparent. The blessing and curse of judging such a talented group of young chefs is this: As the food gets better, the decisions become more difficult, and any misstep, however small, can mean the end of the road.