Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

All in the Game

Anthony Bourdain comments on this week's challenge, Jennifer's elimination, and Elia's public comments about Tom Colicchio.

Omar Little, street philosopher, almost-superhero, stick-up man extraordinaire -- the most memorable character on the best dramatic series in the history of television, The Wire, articulated the Code of the Streets perfectly. While gleefully sticking up a drug dealer, he takes time to explain the brutal logic of what's happening.

"It's all in The Game, yo! It's all in The Game!"

What Mr. Little means, presumably, is that in the day to day ebb and flow of his victim's chosen profession (in this case, slinging dope on Baltimore street corners), one must anticipate
the occasional unpleasantness. Like Mr. Little shoving a large caliber weapon in your face and taking all your money and product. Nobody is more aware of the rules than Omar himself. He lives his life knowing full well that in all likelihood, he too will fall. And that when it comes it will be fast, unexpected, probably from behind -- and decidedly "unfair."

Yet in a harsh, insecure world of constantly shifting loyalties and great danger, Omar has chosen to live by certain hard and fast rules. He doesn't curse or use bad language. He doesn't hurt, kill, or otherwise victimize anyone not "in the game" like him. He never explains, complains, snitches, blames, finger points, or whines. When his own end comes on the floor of a convenience store, shot from behind by a small boy, one is certain that had he a few seconds left of consciousness, he would not be griping about how "wrong" or "unfair" or undeserved it all was. 

Compare and contrast to the first two weeks' eliminations on Top Chef All-Stars.

My heart went out to our gastro-gladiators this week. Highly trained, experienced professionals, all of them looking for an opportunity to cook their asses off, do their best, give us their best game, hoping, hoping for nothing less than a clean shot at redemption, perhaps a challenge in their comfort zone, a few good swings at the proverbial plate.

It was not to be. Instead, they found themselves toiling in the 9th circle of Hell , surrounded by squealing, sugar-jacked children, struggling to comprehend (and feign enthusiasm for) the inexplicable appearance of Mr. Joe Jonas. Dale Talde said it best. "I thought he was a pastry chef."

In trying to understand what the Deep Thinkers at Bravo Central were thinking, one can only imagine an urgent desire to appeal to that vital demographic of potential car buyers in the age 8-13 group. I would have thought it past their bedtime when Top Chef airs. In fact, I'd guess that about 99% of the people who even know or care who the Jonas Brothers are would be long asleep in their jammies by the time Top Chef comes on.   But what do I know?  At least many of these young people will be, in time, making heavy use of the Glad Family of Bags -- as I did as a tween. Good to start early building that kind of brand loyalty. You could actually see the chef/contestants' expressions cave, their spirits slump -- as it became clear that whomever was going home today would be doing so covered in a sticky sheen of Twizzlers, Silly Bandz, and crushed Ritalin. It was apparent which among the chefs had any familiarity with children as some actually wondered out loud whether the kids would prefer salty or sweet.

While it may be morally dubious to feed kids raw sugar out of a bag -- with a chaser of chocolate syrup? -- that would have probably been a crowd pleaser.

After a weird, cruel, pointless, and degrading night of being pelted with juice boxes, our heroes no doubt looked forward to falling into the arms of Morpheus -- or Oxycontin -- to sleep deep, to forget -- Lohan-like -- the indignities of the night before. But this too, was not to be. In a monstrous turn of events, a final twist of the knife, they were informed instead that they would be spending a few fitful hours on army cots -- among the dioramas and dinosaurs -- only to rise at the crack of ass and make breakfast for the same adorable rug rats and their parents.

But not just any breakfast.

I'd describe in detail how each chef rose to the challenge (or fell). But I am myself a sufferer from Post-Traumatic Brunch Syndrome, having spent way too many dark years in  the culinary wilderness scraping batter from waffle irons, roasting home fries, flipping ----ing omelets, poaching eggs ----ing Bennies, plating French ----ing toast with requisite orange twist and strawberry fan.  So, no one empathizes more with the victims of this challenge more than me.
That said? I don't have a lot of sympathy for Jamie -- who deserted the front lines (all too happily, it seemed) in order to have TWO stitches put in. Just about any line cook I ever knew would have gone for the Vince Lombardi option of "spit on it and run a lap" -- at least until the end of the shift. And when you're competing for a quarter million dollars?  Most would  cauterize even a sucking chest wound with a hot spoon.

I had enormous sympathy for Jennifer, who (as she knows all too well, apparently) was one of the strongest challengers in the field. In a perfect world, she deserved a lot better than to fall from this particular challenge. One would have hoped -- again, in a perfect world -- that a chef with as much talent and experience and pedigree as Jennifer would have had a cleaner shot at the gold to succeed or fail at.

But it is -- as Omar reminds us -- NOT a perfect world. 

Her behavior at Judges' Table and after Elimination was petulant, visibly contemptuous, unprofessional, and frankly -- appalling. That's no way to go out.

The only worse way to go out, as I see it, would be the Elia Option: Leave rude. Whine later. Blame your elimination in the press on a conspiracy theory involving Tom Colicchio's possibly mind-addling use of Diet Coke. Suggest that the judges were not fit to evaluate a specimen as magnificent as you. Mention your prior experience with Robuchon as evidence of your perpetualinfallibility.

I have spent some time with Monsieur Robuchon. Not as much as many of my friends, but have a pretty good idea what he would have said about that fish.

I suspect it would have been a LOT less diplomatic than what was said at Judges' Table.

And whether you believe -- as I do -- that Tom Colicchio is one of the most important, pioneering chefs in American gastronomy -- and a fair and incisive judge ... or whether you think he's a high-fructose swilling, gas-guzzling enemy of locavores, Satan worshipper, tormentor of small animals, possible JFK conspirator and television whore -- as Elia seems to believe -- you know what?

He STILL knows what a raw piece of fish is.

And that fish was not medium rare. It was was not even rare in the center. It was ----ing raw on one side. Period.

When one embarks on an enterprise where one can reasonably anticipate coming face to face with Joe Jonas, Paula Deen, or Elmo at any moment, or be asked to grill satay in the back of a moving Toyota Highlander, it is useful to have a sense of humor about oneself. And when one is a professional, facing other professionals, and the chop comes down, it is always useful to comport oneself with dignity -- and a measure of grace. Regardless of what one might think -- or what pain and heartbreak may boil inside -- one thanks one's executioners. One stands tall and proud. One leaves this world -- to whatever degree possible, looking GOOD.

The true business of television, as I have learned painfully over the years, is not to make you look good. The business of television is to create drama. That people want to watch.

Many have learned this lesson at great cost and over many years. 

Apart from the judging, which has always, always been straight and uninfluenced by the production side from my experience, the editing will always come down on whatever bit of raw meat the participants care to throw them. Snarling, snapping and sneering at Judges' Table is guaranteed to end up in final cut. One would have thought these veterans had learned this lesson already.
I draw your attention to the famous "Death of Snoop" scene from The Wire -- a show which might well serve as a field manual for appropriate comportment. Young Michael, on his way to his execution with Snoop, figures it out, turns the tables, and gets the drop on her. (I quote from memory. Apologies to fellow Wire nerds.)

"You always was smart." says Snoop, knowing it's the end for her. She looks in the side view mirror, checking her hair.

"How do I look, Mike?"

"You look good, girl," says Michael.


THAT'S the way to go out.

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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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