Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Small Screening

Tom Colicchio shares his wisdom about presenting food on TV. He would know — he's never had a major disaster!

It's amusing to me how so many of our cheftestants said, in response to this week's Elimination Challenge, that they did not want to "do TV" in their careers as chefs ... while they're doing TV to advance their careers as chefs. As I recall, they were saying those words directly into the lens of a television camera. Let's face it: The media has long been a critical factor in shaping high-level careers of all kinds, and today's Top Chefs must be able not only to cook, but to generate heat about their cooking. On TV.

If a chef can get on television, whether local or national, s/he should not hesitate. Chefs should be pleased to start with local television - its viewers, of course, are your future patrons, and this is your moment to hook them. You're establishing relationships. If you do a good job the first time, you will have made the segment producer look good to his/her boss and they'll be happy to have you back, which, of course helps as you progress in your career and want to promote newer ventures. Here in NYC, the chefs' entree to television is usually CBS's "Chef on a Shoestring", which is great. The national morning shows are the biggies that you ultimately want to be on, but they usually won't let you on until you show them some tape and they like what they see. This is another reason it's important to do something in your local market and to do it well. I have always finished my segments and I've never had a major disaster. This is not to say that I haven't had my share of anxiety. My first time on television was the worst experience of my life. In '91, right after winning Best New Chef from Food and Wine magazine, I was asked to appear on Regis and Kathy Lee. I was doing a braised red snapper in a lemon rosemary vinaigrette with roasted red peppers and an eggplant caviar napoleon. I was told to be there at 8 a.m. and showed up prepped and ready to go ... only to be yelled at by the producer, who said I should've been there at 6, had missed rehearsal, and "was going to screw it all up." Nowadays, there is someone on the set to help you set it all up; back then, it was just me, setting up off-camera. And this producer kept coming by every five minutes to shout at me that I was going to screw it all up. To make matters worse, Regis made a few references to missing rehearsal that I thought were directed at me, too, until I realized that he himself had missed rehearsal and was actually busting on himself. The segment went off without a hitch and the producer who had been yelling at me beforehand was thrilled with me afterwards, offering to have me back any time I wanted ... while I was thinking "Are you kidding? I was so nervous, I'm NEVER doing live TV again."

Clearly, I got over it. TV's actually very easy to do. You can make things as complicated or as simple as you want. The best way to assure you finish on time is to have swap-outs, where food is already prepared. You can have as many swap-outs as you like, to use along the way, and you should always have a beauty plate done. Jamie was looking to do her entire dish in the two minutes allotted, which is why she came up short. Leah should have had a duck already cooked, should have had the relish already made, and should've had the whole thing already plated. You'll notice that Stefan didn't try to make his whole soup in two minutes - he had the ingredients ready to show us how to make it, but then had the soup finished for a swap-out. Jeff handled his segment perfectly: He had a beauty plate ready, and the food was really good. In that segment on Regis and Kathy Lee, I had swap-outs for every step of the process: I had the fish raw, plus in the oven, plus the beauty-dish already made. The various elements of the eggplant caviar napoleon were ready, as was the fully assembled dish, and I swapped at each step. It's the only way I could be sure to finish the segment successfully in the time allotted.

A lot of our contestants didn't make it on time. We were trying to distract them, because this is exactly what happens on air: The hosts will be asking a barrage of questions throughout. Speaking of the host, always ask him or her to help you ("Can you stir this for me?"), which none of our cheftestants did. Engage the host. He or she is the one with whom the audience feels a connection, so you are being introduced to your viewers through the host and need to establish that you have a rapport with him or her. No matter what. Once, in Dallas, the on-air talent mispronounced my name and introduced me as the new chef of the W Hotel. I didn't correct him, which would have been a gaffe, but at the end I just put in a plug for "the new Craft Restaurant at the W Hotel". As for your rapport with the audience, mugging like Daniel did doesn't usually go over well. It's just unprofessional. And as for rapport with the crew, I always bring a ton of extra food for the stagehands. These folks have been at work since 4 a.m., so by the time you're on at 10, they're pretty hungry.

Finally, when doing a segment on TV, you're usually there for a reason such as a new restaurant. You want to take that moment and shine, plug your work, and, in the very short time allotted, find that one message to put out there and then stay on that message the whole time, using descriptive words that help convey the food to an audience that only has a visual of it. Ariane did all of that really well. She mentioned her restaurant in New Jersey right up front, she highlighted the fresh Jersey ingredients that she'd chosen to honor the state, and pointed out that the ingredients were readily available and the recipe easily accessible to the home viewer. The only caveat I'll make is that you want to pick a signature dish that will help set you up, and there wasn't anything unique enough about Ariane's selection to do that for her.

This challenge was a test of both flavor and presentation, and presentation of the chef as well as the food It was as "New York" as a challenge could be, and I encourage our cheftestants to hone the skills required to master it. By the way, I was asked to do Top Chef based on a segment the producer of Top Chef saw on the Today show. I'm glad that segment went off without a hitch.

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Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Richard Blais explains why Mei Lin won, and why we'll definitely be hearing from Gregory Gourdet soon.

The finale of Top Chef is the one absolute every season. Make the best meal of your life, in a multi-course tasting format for a room of the "who's who" in the culinary industry.

If you get to the finals, it's the type of thing you can prepare for. Every finalist should have a few four to five course menus floating around their heads, including a dessert, and all complete with options and Plan B's transcribed to their moleskins. And although the knowledge of what's coming is helpful, the format does not play to every chef's strengths.

There aren't too many restaurants committed to such meal services. Which means less chefs experienced with how to "write" and execute them. A progressive meal has to have a certain flow about it. And even the stereotypical versions of the "menu degustation" could force a contestant into cooking a dish that's not in their wheelhouse, for instance a straight forward fish course because "it belongs there."

Tonight, Mei Lin has a slight advantage. She cooks in a restaurant every day that showcases a tasting menu. Her food has been the epitome of a modern tasting menu all season. Many previous times, to a fault. Mei's food is small and precise. Beautiful to look at, and intellectually stimulating to discuss. Cold sometimes, every once in a while a shaved radish plated with tweezers heavy. It's not for everyone. It's not for everyday. But it's the type of food that when done well, can win Top Chef. Win James Beard Award noms. Win Best New Chef honors. Win Michelin stars.

Her future could indeed be bright.

What struck me most about Mei's food tonight however, wasn't technique. Technique and presentation often can get in the way of flavor. But tonight Mei delivered a few courses that were deeply satisfying. Soulful, delicious food that also was presented at a high level and cooked with surgeon's precision. That congee though...combined with a simple dessert that took yogurt and granola to another planet, won her the day. Her other two courses were fine, but suffered from the strains of modernity. Overly plated (the duck) and technically overwrought (the fried octopus).

Gregory on the other hand, it's just not his finest work. You can hear it in his voice as he's explaining his food. He's cooking improv, an ode to Mexico. The problem is, this isn't a jam session at a local cantina. This is a studio session where the chefs should be cooking practiced and refined pieces.

His octopus was a highlight and featured the unusual combination of passion fruit and avocado. It was an explosive start. The following two courses unraveled a bit, with the soup being good, but way too unrefined for the moment and technically problematic (the crispy shrimp heads), and the fish course bordering on dessert with the sugary carrot purée.

The mole was authentic and delicious, the rib cooked perfectly, but the dish felt a little incomplete. I believe Gregory had the better ideas, but just needed to think them through a bit more.

His sadness after the fact, I can attest, is profound. Tearful. Absolute emptiness. Close to the feeling of the sudden loss of a loved one. This may shock some of you, because it is indeed just a game. The mere thought of feeling that way over such silliness is well, silly. But not for us. This isn't the Super Bowl where an athlete loses and they can shake it off. Jump in their Bentley and start thinking about next season. There is no next season. There is no guaranteed pay day for the runner-up. The ten wins you had before don't matter. It just ends. Suddenly. And it's rather sad.

The good thing is, this is certainly, 100%, not the last time you will hear from Gregory. I waxed last week about Doug's professionalism, all of which is very true. But Gregory... Gregory is a special talent. His food (and I can say HIS type of food, because it's unique to him), is a study in refined, exotic comfort. What the man can do with a one-pot meal of braised anything, some chilies, sugar, vinegar, herbs, and spices is beyond impressive. Rarely do I taste food that makes me jealous as a cook. Rarely do I taste food that makes me start thinking about a new restaurant concept. The word inspiring in cooking competitions is sort of like the word "love," when it gets used too much, it loses it luster. Gregory's food however. I love it. It is inspiring.

Congrats to Mei and Gregory! Tom was right, I can't wait to one day say I saw you two way back when, in Mexico, in a little kitchen, before the bright lights, fancy kitchens, and big stages that lay ahead for both of you.

See you next season. I hope!

Richard Blais
@RichardBlais - Twitter and Instagram

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