From Inspiration to Execution
Tom Colicchio explains what the chefs misunderstood about this week's task, and more on "Pea-gate."
Hard to believe it’s already August. Tomatoes are almost at their peak in these parts…we just have to hope the deer have left us some. I just threw a party this past weekend for 40-50 people for my son’s first birthday (without a sous chef! It can be done!) at which I made a salad with a medley of tomatoes that were incredibly flavorful, and I can’t wait to do more with them as the month progresses.
Meanwhile, in D.C., our chefs this week were asked to be inspired by the ingredients, spices, and culinary traditions of nine different countries spanning the globe. I’d like to take a moment to discuss what it actually means for a chef to “be inspired by” a particular cuisine. What it does not mean is to simply copy wholesale some dish or other from the country in question. First of all, there is no creativity in that process; it is merely an exercise in reproduction, and where’s the joy in that? Paul Simon went and spent time in South Africa and didn’t return intent upon recreating South African music. He got busy songwriting, and worked with South African musicians in collaboration with musicians here to bring to fruition his own music inspired by the music that had so moved and motivated him there. This is actually what chefs here in the States tend to do with foreign cuisine anyway — they use the spices, the flavors, the ingredients from a place they’ve been without being intent on a narrow recreation of the dishes they’d eaten while there. As much as I love Chili Crab, I’m not going to return from Singapore intent on making a straight-up Chili Crab dish. But will the influence of a great Chili Crab wend its way into some dish or other that I make at some point this year? Odds are that it will, and I’ll realize as it’s shaping up, “Oh, that came from my last trip to Singapore.”
Furthermore, where Top Chef is concerned, we knew that a lot of these chefs had never studied most of the cuisines we were asking them to draw from, so “inspired by” was a more reasonable challenge, and fitting for a competition in which we’re asking them to show us who they themselves are as chefs.
Kevin’s dish deserves mention as a terrific example of what I’ve been talking about regarding inspiration. He didn’t know how to prepare Indian cuisine; he didn’t have to. He knew enough to braise the chicken properly, and he knew how to work with spices. You need to know to toast them first before grinding them, in order to release some of the oils. That’s a given, and Kevin knew it. He embraced the challenge of being inspired by Indian flavors and created a balanced and delicious dish.In this challenge, a few chefs did do something more conventionally of the country they’d selected. Amanda did a traditional bouef bourguignon that didn’t ask her to think too hard or apply her own stamp. It wasn’t very good, and she’s lucky that three other dishes faired worse than hers, and she didn’t wind up in the bottom. On the other hand, Kelly did a fairly authentic dish as well, but she was bearing in mind the equipment restrictions when making her decision, and the dish itself was very, very good, so it was OK that she’d adhered so closely to the cooking of her selected country. It’s when you try to do an authentic dish and don’t pull off the cooking that you’re not pulling off the authenticity. And as for Tiffany, she took the challenge to heart and went even farther, hitting the ball out of the park with her dish. It was not only true to the flavors and spirit of Mexican food but was absolutely delectable. It was fairly authentic without being dogmatic, it was prepared with enthusiasm and care, and it was as good as any Mexican dish I’ve ever had.
On the other end of the spectrum, Stephen went home this week because of his rice. Cooking rice properly is a pretty basic thing to do and he knew as well as anyone else that he’d overcooked it and presented us with mush. I’m not saying that he doesn’t know how to cook rice – I’m sure he does. But he didn’t do so this time. And at this stage of the game, if you don’t cook rice properly, you’ve got to go.
I can’t conclude without saying a word or two about last week’s pea incident. I was just cooking at a benefit and some folks there, fans of the show, came up to ask me about the incident. I know viewers are up in arms about it, assuming that information is being withheld from them (and usually assuming that the producers are covering up for Alex). But here’s the thing: I actually called the producers and asked about it, and they genuinely do not know what happened. This show is part competition, part “reality TV.” Had the cameras caught Ed making the actual puree that Alex used or Alex lifting Ed’s pea puree, believe me they would have been thrilled to air it – it would have “made great TV.”
Viewers wrote in, indignantly insisting (as though they’re there and they know) that cameras catch every bit of what happens in the kitchen and have footage of every chef at every moment of the process, and asserting that therefore the producers must know what happened and decided to keep viewers in the dark. Not so at all. The fact of the matter is that typically, when the chefs in the kitchen are cooking, there are only two cameras in there. Not only would more cameras be in the way of the chefs, but they would also wind up appearing in the shots taken by the other cameras and thus being seen by the viewers throughout the program. With only two cameras and nine chefs (and, part of the time, myself) to cover, it is simply impossible to get footage of everything that happens in the kitchen. So folks who wrote in that surely there is definitive footage either incriminating or exculpating Alex are wrong. I checked in with the producers a second time today — the producers have gone over and over every minute of the footage, combing it for some indication of what happened … and it isn’t there. It hadn’t been captured by the cameras. If there were footage, the producers would have been excited to air it. I was busy monitoring all the chefs at that time, and while I vaguely registered at some point that Ed was looking for his puree, I was unaware that there was any controversy or issue around it.
By the way, whichever contestant asserted last week that there’s no way Alex could have made so good a pea puree without having begun preparing it on their prep day was wrong. It takes twenty minutes tops to make a great pea puree. I’d dare people to compare one begun one day with one made entirely the next – there’s no reason that the one begun the day before would necessarily be any better.Neither the producers nor I can honestly say what happened. Maybe Alex did take it. Maybe, if he did, he did so by accident, believing it to be his own. Maybe during clean-up at some point, Ed (or someone else) inadvertently tossed the small plastic storage container of his pea puree without even seeing that they’d done so. I know from experience that such things happen in busy, hectic kitchens.
We just don’t know. What I can say, though, is this: We will shortly be filming the reunion episode, and I can practically guarantee you that the Pea Puree Incident will resurface during the episode, and you’ll see in the reunion what people have to say about it….
ALSO NEW THIS WEEK
- Find out what the judges were thinking in exclusive video from this week's Judges' Table.
- Weigh in on the week's best and worst dishes in our Rate the Plate photo gallery.
- Relive all the international culinary intrigue frame by glorious frame.
- Find out what Stephen has to say about his fatally flawed rice in our exclusive exit interview.
- See how to make Tiffany's winning dish in this week's Top Recipe video.
- Take your first step toward Top Chef status by enrolling in Top Chef University.