Speak Up, Listen Up
Tom Colicchio explains how Jamie could've gotten her first Elimination win.
This challenge involved cooking for Gail Simmons' bridal shower. While that was a noble reason to cook and a beautiful affair, many of our chefs were overly concerned with the fact that they were cooking for a bridal shower, when, in fact, that was a red herring: The important thing was to use the theme they had drawn (old, new, borrowed or blue) and simply make good food. (I was also surprised to hear how often people mentioned the fact that they were cooking for 45 guests. This number should not rattle a chef.)
OK, the "Blue" team had it the toughest conceptually. There is no such thing as blue food (even Hubbard Squash, which is as blue as food gets on the outside, has orange flesh on the inside). The team came up with a good idea - the deep blue sea - but then didn't follow it through particularly well. Chilean Sea Bass was a terrible choice. Aside from not being associated with blue water, the Patagonia Toothfish (it's real name) is one that nobody should ever use, as it's been fished out and is endangered (for more about that, you can check out Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish, by G. Bruce Knecht). Even if it weren't an ethical gaffe, this fish is never fresh, but always arrives at the store frozen and is defrosted there. Choice of fish aside, the dish itself just wasn't very good. The whole thing was very pedestrian. Between the very soft fish, the crust that wasn't crisp, and the corn sauce, there was no texture in the dish at all. The team could have done something dynamic and interesting with the deep blue sea concept, but they just didn't. It was a boring dish. Far from playing it safe, the "New" Team went overboard in the other direction and, ultimately, imploded. Where to even start...? An interactive dish could have been OK, but to pull it off would have required a team of very good technical chefs. Nothing was cooked right. This was not a dish where everything could be cooked in advance and reheated. The shrimp was ridiculously overcooked. Beef has some tolerance to it and might have withstood reheating, but Daniel overcrowded the pan, so instead of being sauteed, the beef was just steamed. There is a way to cook mushrooms, but Daniel doesn't know it, and they were horrible. The rice was made incorrectly, and Eugene actually thought he could fix it. You cannot fix bad rice. I always tell my cooks that invariably something will go wrong and they should not try to sneak it past the chef - they'd just be passing bad food along to the diner. I just opened a new Craft in Atlanta this week and on opening night the fingerling potatoes were undercooked. One of the cooks put a lid on them, cranked up the heat and started boiling them to death, but I stopped him. There was no fixing the potatoes in time to plate them; they need to be cooked slowly. I turned to the waiter and told him to please go out and apologize to the diner, explain that the fingerlings weren't ready, and we'd be sending out gratin instead. Then I turned and reminded my chef that he needed to have tasted every single thing in the kitchen to make sure everything was seasoned and cooked correctly. Luckily, the chef from Craft Dallas, who was visiting to help with the opening, caught it in time. Checks and balances. Team "New" should have had checks and balances (note: Carla didn't even taste the mushrooms that Daniel added to her salad), but I don't think they had the judgment. They would have relabeled the fingerlings, "crunchy potatoes," and sent them out. Half the table at Gail's bridal shower work for Food & Wine magazine. There's no way bad rice could have been passed off as something else no matter what Eugene added to it or how hard he beat it with that pan. The team had plenty of time to redo the rice the following day. Why didn't they? This is a good argument for why Eugene should have been thrown off, so why Daniel? When you point out what's bad about a dish, most chefs say, "OK, I see that." Here, not only did every person at the table share the same opinion about the dish, but as we're explaining it, it becomes clear that Daniel doesn't even have the baseline knowledge to understand what we're telling him. He made every bad mistake you can make with every element he brought to the dish, and yet he stood there and defended himself instead of listening and learning. Quite honestly, all three of the chefs had a hand in this mess and all three of them should have gone home, but here's the inherent problem of a team challenge: Once you've figured out that a certain dish is the worst one, we're left with figuring out who caused the least and the most detriment to the dish. While Carla should have spoken up and fought to fix the problems with the dish, we let her off the hook, because her contributions were the least problematic. But Daniel was oblivious to the problems and not only didn't try to fix them, he kept compounding them. He was clearly lost. He had the least amount of skill and know-how, and when certain things were pointed out to him, he just point-blank said, "You're wrong." Part of my role, aside from judging, is to help the cheftestants become better chefs. I'm not allowed to advise them outright while they're cooking, but time and again chefs from past seasons have told me afterwards that they've really learned from my comments and our conversations about the food. But you can't even begin to have a conversation with Daniel, because he's not listening. There's no common ground. It's like having a relationship and wanting to talk about the problems in order to improve the relationship and having the other person say, "There are no problems." There's nowhere to go with that. You get a sense that Carla and Eugene were willing to listen and grow, but Daniel wasn't. He really believed that they'd created a great dish and wasn't open to learning anything.
A note about the winning dish: Viewers typically think that we judges are privy to all the info the viewers have by the time everyone's at the Judges' Table, but we're not. The cameras were rolling when the cheftestants conceived of their dishes, the viewers heard the chefs at the supermarket, in their loft, during prep in the Top Chef kitchen, but the judges don't see any of that footage in advance. While I pay a visit to the kitchen and ask some questions while the chefs are cooking, we basically just sample the food at the challenge and judge it from there. We give the chefs a chance to explain, clarify, and illuminate us when we're questioning them at the Judges' Table, and I, for one, wish they would use that opportunity more than they do. Jamie's carrot puree was terrific; Ariane's lamb was perfect. That's what the judges knew, and what they based their decision on. Jamie could have spoken up and taken deserved credit for having conceptualized the dish and been the team leader on it, but she didn't. That information would have been salient to the judges, who loved the whole dish, and it might have tipped the scales in her favor and earned her the win.