Tennis Serve

Tom Colicchio explains how the challenge could have gone very differently.

The US Open. For New Yorkers, it is summer’s last hoorah, its endnote, our signal that summer will draw to a close with the close of the games. I learned a lot about the US Open from this week’s challenge. I learned, for example, that it is the current iteration of what is actually one of the very oldest tennis championships in the world. Now boasting mixed doubles, and matches for wheelchair-bound players, it’s come a long way since its days as a men’s singles championship in the 1880s.  
It was thrilling to be out on courts where the greats of my time have played. And it was great to have Taylor Dent with us. I was actually at the US Open in 2009 when he upset Feliciano Lopez and then Ivan Navarro before being beaten by Andy Murray in the third round. Taylor knows food, knew the language of it and how to talk about it, and was a good judge.
It was also nice to get to judge with Tony Montuano of Spiaggia in Chicago, whom we were fortunate to have with us because the Levy Group that runs the US Open is out of Chicago. In fact, he and some other Top Chef Masters did dishes at the Open’s food court, which was a lot of fun.
As for our “match”: Once again, I have to address Jamie and her lack of contribution to the challenge. Having seen the whole episode, I recognize that she agreed the night before to the team’s decision to put the weakest dish out first … and then balked and simply refused to put her food out. But the rest of the team should have said to her, “Jamie, that was the decision. You’re going out.” And when we called for them to say whose dish was up first, they should simply have called back, “Jamie’s.” End of story. She would have had to abide by the group’s decision … and perhaps the results would have been different. But the team didn’t do that, and they have to reconcile themselves to their role in that.…just as Spike has to reconcile himself to being responsible for not preventing his teammates from tweaking his dish. He should have been decisive about it. Again, perhaps the evening might have gone differently. Adding the yuzu was a mistake, as was Spike’s failure to better season his shrimp.
Casey’s dish was solid; it just wasn’t as good as Fabio’s, so Casey wasn’t going home. Tre couldn’t be sent home, and Tiffany’s dish, while underseasoned, still outshone Spike’s.  
I’m trying to think, for the future, about how better to structure the challenge to avoid another situation in which a competitor might elude possible elimination as Jamie did. Perhaps the judges should have to taste all the dishes, regardless of how the challenge goes. I’m not sure, though. I also kind of like the strategizing that comes of knowing that the game could actually go as it did and that the chef of a poorer dish that never gets served might be spared elimination. It raises the stakes for everyone, and I’m all for a challenge that asks the absolute best of the chefs.
And in general, that is what we got. The food was generally terrific. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, especially as many of us prepare for large holiday gatherings, that food need not be “fancy” to be fantastic. Carla took the win with an elegant interplay of flavors in a dish that could also be classified as “homey.” It shone from amidst a collection of complex, layered, sophisticated and truly fine dishes.
So enjoy whatever you’re preparing this week, and enjoy sharing it with your loved ones. Whatever you celebrate, may you all have a great Holiday Season and a very happy, healthy and safe New Year.

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