The finale marks my third trip to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico.The first trip, about ten years ago, was to cook at a charity dinner. My wife (then girlfriend) and I strolled happily around old San Juan enjoying the pastel Colonial architecture and ocean breezes. My second trip, a few years later, was to a large family resort where we ran through a trough of sunscreen and suffered through endless rounds of chicken fingers (even chefs' kids go through this phase).
This time around I was hoping for some better food. Puerto Rico does its own distinctive riff on Latin cuisine by marrying indigenous (fruit, seafood) Spanish (beef, pork, rice), and African slave ingredients (okra, taro) into something uniquely its own. I was interested to see how the cocina criolla, as the locals call it, would find it's way into the final four's efforts. I was also really curious to see how each of them would attack their pig.
Now people who know me know I take pig (what we chefs like to call "that magical animal") very seriously. Butchered well, an entire pig is capable of yielding up more satisfying culinary opportunities than any other creature on earth, down to their snouts and tails (haute dog cuisine). And as I said in my previous blog, I think butchering is a skill that every chef should have. I was lucky enough to be taught how to butcher from one of the cooks at a restaurant gig in Union, NJ that served a lot of veal (learn to butcher a young cow, and you can handle any mammal nature throws at you, with the exception of a whale). My suggestion to aspiring chefs -- if butchering isn't taught to you in culinary school (and even if it is) -- toss your charts and apprentice yourself on weekends to a local butcher. You will never have cause to regret it. Especially when you're handed an entire pig during an Elimination Challenge.
Our final four gave it their best shots. None were surgeons (I'm being kind), but they all emerged with usable pork. And for the most part, the dishes they made out of it were pretty darn good. In fact, Richard's was so good we gave him a car. But this is the stage in the competition when we start to nitpick mercilessly; the remaining chefs are all skilled enough that they rarely make huge mistakes, and execution is, for the most part, solid.
So who made the small mistakes? Lisa's puree was too sweet. Antonia's pigeon peas were undercooked and she opted to serve all of her offerings on one plate. Rather than giving it the rustic feel she was going for, this gave her food a muddy, jumbled quality, and turned the "al dente" peas into a spoiler for four dishes instead of just one.
One taste of each contestant's dishes was all it took for me to know immediately how the judging would play out, and a quick glance around the party confirmed it: As the guests queued up for seconds, a long, winding line snaked its way around Richard's table. Another line, of decent length, led to Stephanie's, and a short but interested one led to Lisa's. There was no line at Antonia's table.
Alas, we had to let Antonia go, which of course has brought a wellspring of vitriol from the theorists on our message boards. Therefore, I'm compelled to give my once-a-season response to those cynics out there who insist we make our decisions to manipulate the ratings. If I sound defensive, I think I'm entitled: Let's just say we were the types of judges that, in exchange for scaling the breathtaking heights of reality TV, yielded to the producers directives, in order to play to audiences. Wouldn't that mean we would have let Lisa go?
For the uninitiated: the bulk of the Top Chef season is shot over six grueling weeks some months before the show airs (up until the finale, which is shot as the early episodes air.) While we're shooting, I have very little contact with the contestants beyond those filmed kitchen forays where the chefs struggle to stay friendly to me as they're quietly freaking out, the rare interaction during a challenge (like my bout as expediter at Tramonto), and the couple of minutes it takes for us to taste the food, and share our judgment with them at the Judges' Table. We see tape of the chefs' interviews, and clips of them cooking, bonding, or fighting only after they've been cut into the final episode. It's thus impossible for us to draw anything other than the most cursory conclusions about the chefs, much less figure out ratings that don't yet exist, or who will eventually be "villain" or fan favorite.
If we had been able to somehow able to figure this out ahead of time and thereby act upon it, Tiffani would have been booted early in Season One (or Stephen, take your pick), Marcel would have never made it to the head-shaving incident, Sam would have won Season Two hands down on the female vote alone, and Tre would have stayed, despite screwing up, because he was such a likable and competent guy. In fact, we would have been compelled to ignore all of his subsequent mistakes because he had been such an able contender up to that point.
It seems that the theory-that-just-won't-die has surfaced yet again because of Lisa, who has enraged people with her defiant, arms-crossed Judges' Table scowl. She's clearly not as loved as some of the other chefs who have been sent packing, leading to the conspiracy theories: They kept her for the ratings! I can see why some take issue with Lisa -- she's been called out on the carpet a number of times and somehow seems to hang on. I think Lisa, along with a few chefs from past seasons (Dave Martin and Mike Midgley are two that come to mind,) benefited from a phenomenon I call the "lucky-dog-who-keeps-skating-by-effect," in which a chef of decent, but not stellar, skills gets lucky and doesn't screw up at precisely the moment that one of their more gifted opponents does. And since we judge each week's Elimination Challenge on its own merits, we are operating each time under the assumption that everyone still cooking deserves to be there.
Now you may hate us for standing in the "judge each week on it's own merits" corner, and personally subscribe to the "judge each week by overall performance" camp, but consider for a moment if we did judge each contestant based on their cumulative merits -- by whose analysis, exactly? And how do we arrive at a consensus? My idea of how the chefs rank may vary widely from Ted or Gail's. And what about our Guest Judge -- he or she doesn't know any of the chefs -- of what value at that point is their input? The debate would shift from "who won this episode?" to "who's won the most episodes?" and "should we factor in the Quickfires?" "Does attitude or likability count?" "How about we assign each dish a score, tally them up, and then knock people off by the numbers?" Etc. etc .... It opens a huge, even more contentious can of worms. The "week-by-week" logic may be only incrementally fairer than the "overall performance" argument, but it's our story, and we're sticking to it.
That said, I felt manipulated by the week-before-last's show -- it really did seem like Lisa should have been sent home over Dale. I wrote this in my blog not to sell my fellow judges up the river, but rather to empathize with viewers who are left to wonder, How did that happen?" It's hard to boil four or more hours of nuanced debate into a few minutes of screen time, and I can see why the results don't always mesh with what viewers have seen.
I can only resolve to follow my gut each week about the food in front of me, and hope that Top Chef fans stick it out with us and keep writing in. Your thoughts and comments, even when I don't agree, are an essential part of making this a dish that works.