Top Guns on 'Top Chef'
Tom shares his thoughts on this truly humbling challenge.
I think I can safely speak not only for myself for also for most or all of us involved with the shooting of this episode when I say that it was a humbling and moving experience. Here in the States, we’re so used to tuning in here and there to our 15 minutes of war coverage on CNN and then resuming our normal day-to-day activities that it’s been easy to become inured to it. Our men and women in uniform, however, live with the realities of our being at war every day.
We had an opportunity to really spend some time with the people we were cooking for at Nellis Air Force Base — some about to be deployed, some just returning, as well as their family members, and we were able to hear firsthand about how their experiences were affecting them. Whether pilots or crew servicing the equipment, they put their lives on the line for us and endure ongoing and traumatic stress and often horror, and their families in turn undergo great strain and hardship. Michael Voltaggio summed it up beautifully when he said that our work is about hospitality. Food is hospitable in its truest sense; it’s a way of taking care of people. Here, we were able to do something caretaking for people who put themselves in harm’s way, who see things they shouldn’t see and undergo experiences no person should ever have to undergo, and the contestants were really touched by their having the opportunity to make this meal and show caring for and appreciation towards the people we cooked for that day. It was an honor to feel we could make a little difference for people who do so much for us all.
Our chefs handled the challenge very well. The decision to place Jennifer in the role of Executive Chef was a smart one, and she played the role expertly. In past seasons, the contestants who stepped into that role for various challenges never really fully inhabited the position, but Jennifer did, and the other chefs saw that she handled her responsibilities fairly and strongly, with professionalism and without ego. They realized that they were being well managed, and they never questioned her authority. Jennifer was concerned about ensuring that every chef create the best dish possible and she kept the kitchen running smoothly and well. For example, she was not unduly harsh with Hector when she reminded him to stay focused: other chefs awaited their turn with the equipment he was using, and she needed to keep him on schedule. She did a great job.
This challenge was less about creativity and more about basic cooking done well. With the winning dish, the idea of taking the smoked slab of bacon and braising it was a good one – it coaxed out the flavors beautifully. And what’s so creative about bread pudding? Nothing. But even if a tad dry, the bread pudding was intensely flavorful and satisfying. It was a good version of bread pudding. Similarly, the potato salad was fairly conventional, but it was very well done.
On the other hand, while Preeti and Michael Isabella recognized that the challenge was not about innovation, they failed to execute their dishes well. Unlike the bread pudding or the potato salad I just cited, Preeti’s pasta salad wasn’t professionally done. It’s as though she and Laurine trolled the Internet for a run-of-the-mill pasta salad recipe, and then put little effort into ensuring that its flavors and textures worked well. It was bland. But Preeti, unlike Laurine, failed to recognize it as such. Michael, on the other hand, knew full well that his dish was lackluster. He said right at the onset (incorrectly, as he would subsequently learn) that he would not be judged on the dish, and so he treated it as a throwaway. And that’s what we got. And that’s why he was back in the bottom three. If there’s a dish on your restaurant menu that you consider a throwaway dish, you’d better believe that that’s the dish your reviewer is going to lock onto and decimate you for in print, online, on air, for posterity. I hope we’ve saved Michael from that experience, angry as he was while at the Judges' Table.
I think that given the nature of the challenge, the episode was fairly self-explanatory, and there isn’t much more to say about the dishes. In this third episode, we see that the level of cooking and professionalism in general is head and shoulders above prior seasons. Preeti was right in saying in her exit interview that this season is far tougher than seasons past. It’s fitting that chefs of this caliber had the honor of cooking for Top Guns.
One final word or three about last week’s blog, for all who seemed to feel that not only Ashley but I should not have discussed same-sex marriage on what is first and foremost a cooking show (and blog). The chefs who participate are real people with real lives who, as one person posted last week, “don’t cook in a vacuum.” Ashley was entitled to have an emotional response to the circumstances of the challenge, even if I disagreed with her implication that it should not have been a Top Chef challenge. In my blog, I comment each week on the events of the show. Last week, I gave my views on same-sex marriage in order to then comment on Ashley’s remarks. Had I not put my remarks about her dismay into the larger context of my views on same-sex marriage, people would wrongly have assumed that I was not a proponent and would have blasted me for it. Thus I proffered my views in last week’s blog so that I would not have to clarify and defend them in this week’s. You’ll notice that I didn’t voice them on air in the episode, which, yes, is a cooking show. I put them in my blog, where I am afforded a soapbox, and where I have the prerogative of waxing on about whatever aspects of the show I consider important. And I do consider this important. If what I wrote reaches a couple of thousand people, great … and if it moves even one of those people to achieve even a slightly different understanding of someone else’s situation, extra great. It may or may not, but I’m glad to have the forum in which to try.
Have a great week, all.