The sound you hear still echoing through the halls of the Top Chef studio, the loud clack of large, titanium steel objects, is the sound of recently departed chef Dale Levitski's impressively huge balls.
Throughout previous appearances on the show, every time Dale presented a dish I'd often find myself thinking back to my Yankee hero , the home run-hitting Reggie Jackson. Back in the day, when Reggie would step up to the plate and see what looked like his pitch, he'd almost always take an absolutely gigantic swing at the ball. Reggie had no interest in chopping one over the second baseman's head for a clutch single or an RBI. He wasn't looking to squeeze out an extra base from a hard bounce off the center field wall. Reggie was looking to cream that thing, pulverize it, drive it out of the park, over the cheap seats, beyond the stadium and into the East River -- farther, if possible, than any ball had been hit before. More often than not -- baseball being baseball -- he'd miss, and his massive upper body would seem to nearly tip him over. You usually don't look good when you take a big swing and miss. You look awkward and off balance and even a bit silly.
But I guess that's the risk you take when you're constantly swinging for the moon. It's why I admire Dale Levitski and why I'm sorry to see him go. His insistence, time and time again, on not playing it safe, on not modulating his ambitions speaks well of him. There was something heroic -- if occasionally foolhardy -- about it. Of all the contestants in all the seasons of Top Chef, no one has ever been so consistently, relentlessly fearless. "Dazzle or Die Trying" might well be the Levitski credo. Good was never enough. And as a result, when he was successful, he was amazing. When he wasn't? He made French toast -- with peanuts, popcorn and veal. It was a disaster of a dish this week. But with Dale, it might just as well have been a home run. As has been seen in his past season, sometimes when you're ready to count the guy out, he reaches deep and comes up -- seemingly out of nowhere -- with something truly extraordinary. You don't get that from a chef who takes the safe route. That kind of character and spirit of innovation, that kind of willingness to take chances is what distinguishes truly creative people from the rest.
It also makes for good television. Dale will be missed.
And while we sing the praises of departed heroes (and testicles) let us acknowledge the underappreciated Steven, who was also sent home. Steven has been playing out of his league since his first episode. As he readily admits, he's a front-of-the-house guy. It is a hard -- very hard -- thing being
asked of these contestants. But like Dale L., he has never allowed himself to be intimidated by either the challenge, the competition, or the judges. His incisive self-criticism, his ability to analyze what went wrong, his composure at JT, are to be commended. His technical skills -- when he's on familiar turf -- are excellent. His salmon on this episode was perfectly, exquisitely cooked. But as he realized himself, his enthusiasm for the challenge outpaced good sense. There were elements of his mise en place that should have never made it into the dish. His lack of back of the house/mosh pit experience allowed him to get flustered. He knew how to make a great dish, but he listened to an evil little voice in his head and
went further, much further than he should have with his aromatics -- and fatally lost his way. His dish might have left an aftertaste of hippie. But Steven, too, should be recognized for having some serious cojones.