Well, I guess you've all met me by now: the Demon Belcher of Fleet Street. Watching the way I was billed in last night's episode, you were probably expecting the British equivalent of Anton Ego, the fearsome food critic in Ratatouille - particularly as I've written a book called How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. But the truth is, I'm not your typical food snob. When I review a restaurant, I try to be as straightforward and unpretentious as possible. I get hung up on the little things that most foodies could care less about. For instance, when I reviewed Royal Hospital Road, Gordon Ramsay's flagship restaurant in London, I couldn't get past the fact that the tasting menu was described as "Menu Prestige." Isn't the adjective supposed to come before the noun? It was typical of the garbled Franglais that passes for English in high-end restaurants. When the waiter appeared I was tempted to launch into a Yoda impression: "Menu Prestige have I will."
Luckily, the remaining contestants in Top Chef seem like a pretty down-to-earth bunch - with the exception of Carla, obviously, who's from outer space. I love it when she just bursts out laughing, apropos of nothing. She has real charm, which is a fairly rare commodity in a chef. In my experience, chefs are much more like Gene - scrappy little hard nuts, ready to take on all comers. I was sorry to see him go.
The blind tasting was a great way to be introduced to the contestants - by their dishes you shall know them -- and I felt honoured that this week's challenge was dreamt up for my benefit. I was a little harsh about some of the dishes, but in general I was very impressed by the standard of the cooking. What the contestants lack in confidence, they make up for in technique. I'm going to enjoy being a judge for the next six episodes. My one big worry in last night's episode is that there's a bit of history between Jean-Christophe Novelli and me. A few years ago, I appeared as a judge on an episode of the British version of Hell's Kitchen and Jean-Christophe was one of two celebrity chefs leading a team of contestants. To cut a long story short, he took such violent exception to my remarks about his team's food that he banned me from all his restaurants. Until last night, our paths hadn't crossed and I was concerned that the tension between us might spill out on to the show.
In fact, after some perfunctory squaring off, we decided to bury the hatchet and - as is the way with these things - ended up getting horribly drunk together when the show had wrapped. We may have even pricked our fingers and become blood brothers - I'm afraid I don't remember. It was the first of what I hope will be many wonderful experiences working on Top Chef.
For more about Toby, visit his Web site at www.tobyyoung.co.uk