Balls to the Wall
Sure, Dale Levitski and Stephen Asprinio went home, but Anthony Bourdain explains why they both have a lot to be proud of.
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. Maybe the word "balls" is inadequate -- inappropriate even -- when trying to describe the qualities of strength, fortitude, audaciousness, fearlessness. Particularly since these attributes appear in abundance with most of the women chefs on Top Chef. Antonia has generally been rock solid, rarely wavering -- regardless of the situation. (Last week's undercooked fritatta being a rare misstep). She's consistently cooked smart, kept her head when all around her is chaos -- and, at least in my experience, made delicious food.
A strong, strong contender. Her peas and carrot riff this week was just right for the setting, getting right in the spirit of David Burke's Townhouse without sacrificing flavor for cleverness.
Casey's "Scallibut" was also smart, clever, and very tasty. Carla was faced with maybe the steepest hill to climb at wd~50, a restaurant and a chef with a style of cooking as far from her own as could be imagined. She dug in her heels, fell back on her strengths -- yet managed to honor the spirit of the place to great effect. Tiffany Derry continues to play strong and smart. She may get weepy at Judges' Table now and again, but I'm pretty sure you could take you in a fair fight. The recently departed Jennifer Carroll, though she had a disastrous night last week, was certainly lacking in neither ability, strength, nor -- for lack of a better word -- balls.
This week's challenge was everything a serious Top Chef fan could hope for: It was all about the food and the application of all the chefly virtues. It was a New York challenge that could only have taken place in New York. It included four of the most important chefs and restaurants in the country. It was fiendishly difficult.There were no tween idols, oversized plush toys, projectile vomiting children, or frozen meals factoring in.
To be asked to walk into David Chang, or David Burke, or Michael White, or Wylie Dufresne's kitchen -- and then cook an original dish for them --evocative of their styles? Terrifying.
Other than Carla, the other chef who found himself at the polar opposite of his comfort zone was Fabio. He clearly had no feel for what Chang does. And said so. Sitting at Ma Peche, looking at the cuisine he was expected to riff on, he looked like a man who'd just seen his dog run over by an ice cream truck. His lamb chops were clunky,muddled in concept -- and he inexplicably didn't wrap the exposed bones before grilling. The result was by no stretch of the imagination a Changesque dish. But it didn't taste bad at all. Hell, I'd eat it again. Whatever it was. Marcel found himself right where you'd think he'd want to be -- in the kitchen of Wylie Dufresne, whose work he's been duping for years. Rarely have a contestant and a challenge been so well matched. To return to the baseball metaphor, if ever Marcel had his pitch -- this was it. And yet he played it safe. For such a brash young man, he really dialed it back this week. His comment about Tiffani's melon dish, that she was "showcasing technique just to do it," was both absolutely on target -- and something he's chronically guilty of himself. But not this week. This was a relatively restrained Astro-Boy, playing it safe just when he had his best chance--and best audience (one would think) for a shot at greatness.
Richard, in his wisdom, recognized his own tendencies to overreach -- and like Marcel, reigned himself in. Maybe too much.
Jamie's tomato soup was weak -- but unobjectionable. Make that very weak. She may as well have gone back to the hospital to check out those stitches. Angelo's contribution was everything you'd expect of Angelo at this point. Creative and generally excellent.
Tre's swordfish was impeccable though less inspired than Dale Talde's contribution. Dale's winning dish brought home how much he's grown since his "Angry Dale" period. Or should we now call him "The Artist Formerly Known As Angry Dale"? He did everything right this week. He identified who he was cooking for (Wylie) -- and even more shrewdly, what he loved. (Eggs.) He acknowledged his own strengths and weaknesses -- realizing that "molecular" was not his area of expertise -- but managed to pay brilliant homage to the Dufresne style in spirit. He executed his dish with flawless technique, making something that managed to be creative, fun, pleasurable to eat, and supremely delicious. In short, he used his head, heart, senses, and skills to maximum effect. This week, he was truly the Top Chef.