The District of Columbia has been a great host city for Top Chef this season. It’s been eye-opening to spend a block of time in the seat of our nation’s governance, to be surrounded by and have our brief intersections with makers of domestic and foreign policy. Even reading the Washington Post was a treat – they cover the goings-on on the Hill in far greater depth on a daily basis than other newspapers do. It’s also been very interesting to be in a stand-alone city that is not under the larger jurisdiction of a state. So it made good sense to me that the finale for such a season would “go international”…and that it would be held, of all places, in a City-State.
Singapore was the perfect choice for a Top Chef season finale. It is a well-known axiom that eating is Singapore’s national pastime. To the last of them, Singaporeans are passionate about food. And knowledgeable, though none more so than our guest judge K. F. Seetoh, author of Makansutra, the definitive guide to everything from street food to fine dining in Singapore. He explained that there was a time when people prepared food in their homes, brought a hibachi to the streets, and cooked and sold what they’d prepared, but that about twenty years ago, the government recognized that this could be a health hazard and organized the hawker market, assigning spaces, rigging running water, inspecting regularly…and the hawker market of today was born. Seetoh was a lot of fun to work with and very knowledgeable. On our second day there, he took us around to all of the markets, where I stumbled upon a very interesting preparation of pork: It had been compressed into sheets and grilled. I brought some back to the States with me. I have said before that a chef can’t help but be inspired by the foods s/he tastes while traveling. My time in Singapore – especially that day in the hawker markets with Seeto – made its way into a dish I made for a dinner party in my home shortly after I returned. I made a cuttlefish dish in which I grilled the cuttlefish, cut it into pieces, and mixed it with that pork, along with cilantro, chilies, sugar and vinegar (It was a hit!).
This is why Angelo was not at an advantage going into the finale. You might have thought that he would be, because he’d traveled in this region and worked with some of the cuisines that have made their way into that of Singapore. But he truly wasn’t; nor was Kelly at a particular disadvantage, even though she did wind up being eliminated. Nor was Kevin remiss for failing to practicing his wok skills before he arrived, as Padma suggested (I thought he answered her well – he was busier tasting the flavors of the region, which would spark his imagination). As I’ve stressed regarding prior challenges, the chefs are not asked on Top Chef to recreate authentic dishes of various cuisines – such dishes would be mere forgeries anyway. Rather, the chefs are asked to take the flavors and indigenous foods, be inspired by them, and make from them a dish that celebrates them but that is the chef’s own. If one is a good cook, accustomed to layering flavors adeptly, one can adapt and layer new flavors well, too. At Cafe Boulud, Daniel has devoted a whole section of the menu to travel, to dishes inspired by cuisines of the world. Eric Ripert wrote a cookbook about food inspired by a place he was visiting. Any chef that travels finds that the foods encountered along the way make their way into his/her own repertoire…but with the chef’s own twist. A full three or four months after a trip I’d taken to the northern regions of Spain, a dish popped into my head and onto my menu: stuffed squid with Italian kale served over black rice with a spicy tomato jam. I wasn’t surprised. We just can’t help but be influenced by where we’ve traveled and eaten.
In this challenge, that’s what the chefs did. They honored the many cuisines that made their way into the cuisine of Singapore. As the crossroads of trade in Asia, Singapore has become a culinary crossroads as well. This bode well for our chefs, who could do most anything with Indian, Chinese, Thai and Malaysian palates to select from and still be fulfilling the challenge they were given.
And they delivered what was by far the best food of the season to date. Kelly wasn’t sent home for bad food. She cooked very well. It’s just that the others did an even better job. The banana with chili dish that Ed made was incredible. It was one of those things you taste where you instantly think, “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?!” You’d think that being granted immunity would cause a competitor to kick back and relax, but when someone is passionate about their craft, as Ed is, it can do exactly the opposite – inspire a chef to take a huge risk. That’s precisely what Ed did here, and it paid off in spades. Kelly’s dishes, on the other hand, while very good, were a little timid. Her curried shrimp dish was not a standout in an evening of standout dishes, and the texture of her fish in the soup was problematic.
A quick word about Kelly’s elimination: I was unpleasantly surprised that someone on Twitter suggested we were racist for eliminating Tiffany and, this week, sexist for eliminating Kelly. I don’t think Tiffany or Kelly would have wanted special dispensation for being minorities. When Stephanie Izzard was interviewed about becoming our first female Top Chef in Season Four, she said that she didn’t care about that – she wasn’t a ‘female chef’, she was just a chef. Nor do we care about it. In fact, I think it’s offensive that it was even suggested. Do you think Gail and Padma were being sexist? Might I point out that both of our senior executives at Bravo, Lauren Zalaznick and Frances Berwick are women, as are Nan Strait and Liz Cook, two of the executive producers at Magical Elves and Jane Lipsitz, another executive producer and one of the two partners at Magical Elves? So really. Let’s all just stop right there. Enough.
Let’s all stay focused on the food. As our chefs did. All four did beautiful work, and it was exciting to be judging them. This is just what we hope for on Top Chef – a competition in which fine chefs cook their hearts out and we, in turn, find ourselves genuinely challenged to ascertain the most and least excellent of the selections.