Forget the Foo Fighters, rock-star chef Grant Achatz answers our questions about his experience as guest judge.
Bravotv.com: Do you watch Top Chef regularly? If so, who has been your favorite chef on all the seasons?
Unfortunately I do not. I rarely watch TV in general, always too busy working. I watched two episodes last year however, making it a priority because I knew two of the contestants. I was pulling hard for Blais -- I had worked with him at the French Laundry back in 1997 -- but was happy to see Stephanie win; she is a respected chef here in Chicago.
Bravotv.com: It is often said that soup is the true sign of a chef's ability. Do you think that's true? What are the keys to making a successful soup?
I thought a true sign of ability was eggs?? Maybe that was 90 years ago ... Soup is easy. Great soup is hard. With soup you have the opportunity to build a complex layering of flavors. First the aroma blast, then the mid palette ... and finally the finish. I also find texture to be critical. Often soups are either too thin, and more than likely too thick. Finessing a soup to a silky consistency requires a light touch and a real understanding of how ingredients work. So yes ... to make a truly great soup, you need to be a great chef, but wait -- isn't that true with everything??
Bravotv.com: How do you think the chefs did with the first curveball of having to take the ingredients they were working with and make soup?
Most did quite well, a few struggled. The fact that they were working from recipes that were intended to be composed plates of solid components, and then had to transform the concepts into a soup form had to be difficult. Especially Leah's. White asparagus and raw tuna pose some challenges. She impressed me with that one.
Bravotv.com: Which soups stood out to you?
Leah's White Asparagus was the best on all levels for me. It was a great interpretation of the original recipe, showcased the focal flavors, and tasted great ... she rocked it out. Carla and Jamie put forth some great stuff ... as well as Danny. I think Fabio was trying too hard. He is a smart guy ... and read me and my cooking style ... so he went for a more advanced approach to technique to try and impress ... but it was a bit off. To me that is a sin. Play with fancy technique only if you can make the overall dish better.
Bravotv.com: Onto the Elim Challenge, are you a Foo Fighter fan?
I am now. But somehow they skipped my radar. Not surprising ... from 1995 to 2005 I was buried in work in environments without music. We don't allow music in our kitchens unlike most. No boombox or iPods allowed. I have basically lived a Monk-like life revolving around cooking since I was 22. Bravotv.com: Have you ever tried to cook turkey and all the fixins in just microwaves and toaster ovens? Of all the curveballs, what do you think was the biggest obstacle for the chefs?
Of course not! Why would I place those limitations on myself ... that stuff is pure TV! Look, they had no kitchen to work with -- when I saw that I was stunned, especially after I tasted the food. I was expecting garbage because that is what they had to work with, but they were all creative. They did a great job. The turkey was amazing ... better than most I have ever had cooked in real home kitchens.
Bravotv.com: What did you think of the food overall? What dishes stood out to you for better or worse?
The turkeys were really good. Ariane did an amazing job. And honestly, Gene rocked it out. Give me that guy on my team anytime. He was creative in making a smoker and executed a perfect protein. That is the sign of a cook that knows how to cook. He went on instinct -- that is impressive.
Bravotv.com: What do you think was the biggest mistake the chefs made?
Over-reaching. As I said on the show, if I were picking chefs for my team my first choice would have been Jeff. However a couple of his dishes were flawed because he tried to take on too much. Sometimes less is more, and self-editing and knowing your limitations are always a recipe for success.
Bravotv.com: Diners probably have pre-conceived notions of what Thanksgiving means and what things should taste like, do you think that was ultimately the losing chef's problem? Why was his the worst?
In this case it had less to do with the Thanksgiving theme and more to do with execution of concept. Richard chose a riff on S'mores. While it is great to take creative freedoms and reinvent known dishes, it is important to keep certain integrities of the original dish. The dessert did not uphold the necessary qualities of S'mores. Sure it had graham crackers, but no burnt sugar elements, no gooey textures from the marshmallows and melted chocolate, and the additions of non-S'mores ingredients such as bananas and a poorly executed vanilla froth. Bravotv.com: How accurate were the Foo Fighters' comments?
They impressed me with their food knowledge. A few of them threw around some culinary related terms, and even knew the techniques used to produce some of the dishes that we were served. I would have never guessed they had the time nor the interest in gastronomy.
Bravotv.com: You of course don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but I'm sure some of our foodie fans would like to know how you're doing health-wise and if your tastes have changed at all over time?
My health is great. I am one year out of treatment and still in remission. The past year has been an amazing learning experience for me in terms of the way taste works. It has certainly made me a better chef. I now have the most intimate knowledge of flavor, and am able to process it in a more intellectual way than before.
Bravotv.com: Also, for those who don't know Alinea -- can you describe it a bit and how people can try your food?