The Peas that Split

Tom Colicchio weighs in on "Pea-gate."

We’ve all seen the episode, so let’s just get right down to it and address the green elephant in the room. I’m sure that many of you have strong opinions about Alex and the pea puree. Here’s what I have to say about it:

First of all, if there’s a single viewer who still wondered whether the judges know what goes on behind the scenes (and make decisions with any of that in mind), I would hope that this incident would have laid that to rest forevermore. This episode surely proves that we judges absolutely never have access to behind-the-scenes conversations or goings-on, as there is no way on earth that we would blithely have judged the dishes as we did this week without delving into the matter of the creator of that puree. We just judge the food on the plates in front of us.  Not even I knew about the controversy, even though I spent some time in the kitchen, as I had arrived there after Ed had gone searching for his pea puree and there was no mention of the issue to me by any of the contestants while I was there. The other judges and I first learned about it just as you did, by watching the episode this week, and I was not happy to learn that there had been any question of impropriety. I’m surprised, frankly, that the producers didn’t choose to depart from normal protocol and say anything to us to clue us in about the matter.

I think, though, that the reason for that lay in Ed himself. Watching the episode, I expected Ed to call Alex out on the matter to his face, but he didn’t. Ed may have been concerned that to do so would make him look unsportsmanlike, but I think there’s more to it than that: I think that Ed himself may not have been wholly convinced that Alex took his puree.

Think about it: There are three possibilities, right? 1) Alex may indeed knowingly have stolen Ed’s pea puree and used it; 2) Alex may have made his own pea puree and been wrongly maligned by his co-contestants; or, 3) Alex unwittingly may have mistaken Ed’s pea puree for his own and taken Ed’s, but truly believing that he was using his own. In two of the three possibilities, Alex did not intentionally commit any wrongdoing.We will never know. Make no mistake: I care deeply about the integrity of this competition and consider it imperative that cheating be dealt with decisively. But the problem here is that we’ll never know which of the three possibilities actually transpired, and only one of the three possibilities actually involved foul play. And given that we can never know what happened, we need to move on. We can, in fact, move on without needing to belabor the issue because 1) Ed did not get disqualified, or even find himself on the bottom of the challenge. Quite the contrary, he found himself in the top three; and 2) Alex did not win the title of “Top Chef” on the merits of the pea puree in question. He won a single week’s challenge. As we saw with Arnold, one can win a challenge one week and be out of the game altogether in the week following. If it was Alex’s pea puree, then his mug deserves to sojourn on the wall of the Palm dining room.  The judge’s were quite taken with Alex’s pea puree, so if it were, however, Ed’s, perhaps it would have cinched the win for him, and perhaps Ed’s caricature would be peering out at future Palm diners. (When Gail said that the peas on Ed’s plate were superfluous, it’s because he served peas (not a new pea puree) that were not well made, and they were the weak link in an otherwise strong dish.) If Alex did pinch the puree, he’ll have to live with himself, which, if he prides himself as a chef, should gnaw at him over time and be penalty enough. Given that, as I wrote above, we’ll never know, we’ll have to leave it at that and move on. 

As for Andrea’s losing dish, when you use vanilla in a savory dish, the diner perceives the dish as sweet – even if the dish isn’t – because of the general association of sweetness with vanilla, and because of the frankly sweet smell vanilla has, which spills over to and affects one’s sense of taste. The dish could not support that overpowering essence of sweetness. It was so problematic as to have ruined the dish, even more so than Kelly’s oversalting of her beef ruined hers.

We’re half-way through with this season’s competition. From here on out, there will be less and less room for mistakes, and more and more need, I hope, to chose the best and worst dishes in each challenge from amidst all high-level offerings….

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