Circle of Life

Richard Blais talks alliances.

Sorry I'm a touch late this week. Ironically, it's because I spent the better part of the week at the Pennsylvania farm show, hanging out with the exact type of people that were featured in this episode. Farmers. And, well, animals. As a matter of fact, I milked my first cow! You can go to YouTube and find it if you're interested.

I've been on a few farms. I actually did an internship at Cabbage Hill, in Mount Kisco, New York. There I minded huge fish tanks of Tilapia. They swam in water that nourished lettuces. The lettuces and compost fed the vegetables outside. The vegetables were eaten by pigs, and goats, and cows. The animals were raised for meat. You get the picture -- it's the circle of life.

For a chef, it's most important to understand our ingredients. It's really easy to blow a few thousand dollars at a cheap culinary school and cook meat that arrives pre-portioned in airtight bags. It's even easier for the masses to think of lamb, chicken, and pig, just like they do a candy bar. We unwrap it, we eat it. Or maybe we even unwrap it, eat some of it, and throw it away.

Tonight reminded me very much of our pig challenge in Puerto Rico. That day we were treated to a fiesta where a whole pig was roasted. It struck me that day how that pig didn't just represent a party, or great flavor. It represented feeding a village. It was much more than food. During my training, I had quite a few chefs tell me how every stem and peel, from anything, represented money. "How could you throw 5 bucks away like that?" they'd say as they scoured the trash bin for scraps. But it's about more than business. While those guys are surely getting their monthly food cost bonuses, they still don't get it. Do our chefs tonight? The challenge at Stone Barns was very clear. Honor your ingredients and make people happy. I'm going to start sounding like I'm bashing my brethren, but once again these chefs misinterpreted the mission. Simple doesn't mean simple food. It means simple cooking.

I am absolutely amazed that I've seen creme brulee as many times as we have this year. That might win the Next Food Network Star, but it's not going to win Top Chef. Maybe it's personal, but I equate creme brulee with the easy-bake oven. Actually, I think it would be neater if someone cooked in an easy bake oven and explained how that was their first experience with cake, and how the technology of the low watt lightbulb actually makes a great cooking medium. But (sigh) I digress...

We are also seeing the first hardcore signs of fatigue here. What you don't realize is that these competitions are stacked right on top of each other, day after day. It's grueling and it's why I sounded like my head was in a fish tank for the last five challenges. So, I hope this is why everyone seems mentally exhausted. No one is showing leadership, with the exception of Jaime and Stefan and maybe Jeff. No one is working like they actually do this all day.

The best example is Lamb-gate. Hosea and Leah both break down lamb all the time folks. It's old hat. Yet, they let Ariane do it? In a competitive kitchen, on your way up the rank and file, a cook's dream is to be the guy or girl butchering. Cooking the meat, and making the sauce. No chef in this country will tell you differently. There's a certain amount of bravado to it. The best cooks in the kitchen WANT to cook the meat, the foie, and do the butchering. It's a rite of passage and the task that separate cooks and interns, from chefs and sous and so on. I don't think Hosea and Leah have ever seen an entire lamb carcass laid before them. They seemed scared. Although Ariane did literally butcher it. At least she did it. This was an ignoble act of cowardice.

And don't think that there aren't alliances amongst the chefs on this show. Hosea and Leah's alliance is obvious, even to Mr. Magoo. The contestants talk about it all the time.

I had an alliance with Dale Talde. We both felt like we were the best chefs in the house. We wanted to go head to head at the end. We decided one night, in the darkness of our dorm, from the heights of our Ikea bunk beds, and topless...that we would do anything possible to reach that outcome.

Next up is Restaurant Wars, where someone unexpected always seems to get the cleaver. And like tonight, unfortunately, it's always the leader from this point forward who's going home.

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