Keep it Simple
Toby Young explains the advantages of keeping it simple, and who he would have sent home.
Watching last night’s episode, it was incredible to see so many legendary chefs assembled at one table. It was the culinary equivalent of The Avengers, the team of Marvel superheroes that includes Ant-Man, Wasp, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America. No wonder Hosea said having to cook for them was the most daunting challenge he has faced so far.
In fact, it wasn’t nearly as difficult as last week’s challenge. The guests may have been distinguished chefs, but they were asked to name the last meal they’d like to eat, not the most difficult dish they’d had to prepare. In responding, they did what most of us would do — they named the meal that meant the most to them as children. Typically, children like food that is fairly simple and undemanding. These culinary superstars weren’t asking the contestants to prepare modern, complicated food; they were after the equivalent of Proust’s madeleines. Even Wylie Dufresne, a molecular gastronomist, opted for eggs Benedict.
For that reason, it was easy to pick last night’s winner. Fabio decided to use his grandmother’s roast chicken recipe and, by invoking a taste memory from his own childhood, he cooked exactly the dish that Lidia Bastianich had in mind. The fact that he managed to pull off this triumph with a broken finger made it all the more impressive. His line about working through the pain — “It’s Top Chef, not Top Pussy” — was almost as good as his comment on Jamie’s food: “Is Top Chef, not Top Scallop.”
Choosing the loser was much harder. I leaned towards Hosea because I thought his attempt to reinvent shrimp scampi was completely wrong-headed — it was so not what this challenge was about — but Tom was convinced that Leah ought to go because the hollandaise sauce in her eggs Benedict was watery and flavourless. In the end, Tom managed to convince the rest of the judges to send Leah home on the grounds that she’d failed to do what she’d set out to do. Hosea’s dish may have been misconceived, but at least he managed to produce a decent version of his idiosyncratic interpretation of shrimp scampi.
Last night’s episode was a good illustration of the golden rule when it comes to food reality shows: Keep it simple. I know from having been a judge on three different ones that the most common reason contestants are eliminated is because they over-reach; they opt for the fussy and complicated when, really, they’d be better off cooking the most straightforward version of the dish in question.
However, this is only a good strategy for avoiding elimination. Once you’ve reached the final, you have to pull out all the stops. So far on this season of Top Chef, Stefan, Carla, and Fabio have survived by cooking well in a fairly safe, conventional way. Hosea has been much more ambitious — and, as a result, he has been among the losers as often as he has among the winners. It will be interesting to see how he fares in the next two episodes and whether the other three can raise their game.
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