Foodie Fighters

Head judge Tom Colicchio sheds light on the difference between a chef and a cook.

When I arrived in Rochester for this week's Elimination Challenge and saw the rows of microwaves and toaster ovens, I thought, "They've got to make Thanksgiving dinner in this? This is horrible." (No, contrary to popular belief, I do not have a hand in every Top Chef decision. The other producers are responsible for designing the challenges, the curveballs, and the insanity that ensues.) I couldn't believe it. To make matters worse, the electricity kept cutting out. And then it began to rain. Between the Quickfire and Elimination Challenges, this whole episode was rife with curveballs, and our chefs largely swung and connected. So I want to start right off by acknowledging how well our cheftestants did up in Rochester under really adverse circumstances. For the most part, the food was good; as a whole, they did a really good job.

The Elimination Challenge, which was to cook Thanksgiving Dinner for the Foo Fighters and their entourage before their concert in Rochester, presented only two real variables for our chefs to consider: preparing Thanksgiving Dinner, and incorporating the band's likes and dislikes as set forth in their Rider. That rider goes out to anyone who ever prepares food for the Foo Fighters. Our chefs needed only overlap the rider with making Thanksgiving dishes.

You might want to know that the Foo Fighters are really into food; bandleader Dave Grohl is an avid Top Chef watcher and was excited to be on the show. After their Grammy appearance last year, in fact, the band celebrated by dining at Craft LA. These guys were great to work with. By the time we showed up, they had been on the road for around three hundred days; their tour was coming to an end. After that long on the road, it's hard to face the holidays without family, and it makes sense that they would probably want something homey, comforting, and familiar. So, in contrast to last week's challenge, here we were looking for our chefs' takes on the most traditional of American meals. It was entirely up to the band to pick the winning team. There was a lively discussion around that table that didn't make the final edit of the show, and it was a very close call. I myself tried to persuade the guys to pick the other team, since the proteins are the heart of the meal, and both Ariane's turkey and Eugene's pork were great (not to mention the fact that Eugene's decision to create a makeshift grill was brilliant). In my mind, great proteins should have beaten out great desserts, but I was content with the choice, since it enabled us to send home the person who created the overall worst dish of the evening, the S'mores. Folks didn't like Jeff's dessert either: The pumpkin foam didn't work in largest part because Jeff tried to marry pumpkin, which is quintessentially autumnal, with raspberries, which are too bright and summery. Dried fruits such as cranberries or raisins pair well with pumpkin, as do nuts. But that mistake doesn't come close to the S'mores, which were a poor choice both conceptually and for logistical reasons. Richard got hung up on the fact that the rider mentioned the Foo Fighters' love of bananas. Big mistake right there - the team didn't need to address every single element in the rider, and what role have bananas ever played in anyone's Thanksgiving meal? If the rider said they liked Caprese Salad, would you have made that for Thanksgiving? I'm thinking not. And then to make the bananas into S'mores...? Have you ever seen a banana in a S'more? Bananas aside, let's talk about S'mores. They're never made in the home as part of a homey, comforting fall meal; they're made outside, in the summertime, around a campfire. So...why banana S'mores? Not to mention the fact that their execution was destined to fail, since they needed to be fresh and warm to be enjoyed, an impossibility under the circumstances of this challenge. I was mystified by the choice on every level.

Radhika's decision to make a vegan stuffing, on the other hand, was an example of a smart choice that incorporated Thanksgiving basics with the specifics of the rider. And everyone, vegan and otherwise, loved the dish. You'll note that there was no one winner this time around. Had there been, my vote would have gone to either Ariane or Eugene (though, of course, they were on the losing team, so never mind). This challenge highlights a point about restaurant cooking that I think is worth mentioning: Jeff kept saying that he thought he had undertaken too many dishes, but this was not his problem. Jeff's issues point to the difference between a chef and a cook. When you're a cook in a restaurant, you cook. When you're a sous-chef, you cook less. And a chef no longer cooks, with good reason. At Craft during dinner service there are four stations on the hotline, and a chef must be walking around, tasting, supervising, trouble-shooting. If s/he is working at one, s/he can't be on top of what's happening at the others. In this competition, Jeff stepped into the role of chef and organized his team so that the team's whole meal cohered. He did a great job as a chef, and, therefore, was most likely distracted and it took his focus and some of his time away from the individual dishes that he was cooking. What he did was certainly good for the group, but not for him personally. And aside from the fact that Richard's S'mores were far worse than Jeff's dessert, Jeff's efforts are probably why we gave him a pass - we recognized what he did for the team and liked the initiative he took. In fact, at the Judges' Table, he took responsibility for what he had done without using it as an excuse. Grant said it well when he said that were he to choose his team, he'd want someone on it like Jeff.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Whether your meal is made in a microwave, a toaster oven or an actual kitchen, for famous musicians or family members, I hope you enjoy it.

P.S. Addressing fans' concerns regarding Ariane and Jill last week: Although Padma spit out Ariane's dessert, she is one of four judges, and the others all felt that Jill's dish was worse.

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