Shooting this week’s episode was one of the best experiences I have had in my years judging this competition. No, not because I was seated next to Charlize Theron, terrific as she is, but because the chefs delivered one of the finest meals I have ever had on Top Chef. From the first course to the last, they kept on bringing it. I know some viewers have wondered whether the chefs this season are as talented as many in seasons past. This episode finally answers that question with a remarkable seven-course yes.
The chefs’ high level of performance shows just how creative chefs can be when presented with an idea. Chefs can derive inspiration in so many ways, from seeing ingredients and imagining ways to play with them, from tasting the food of other chefs or from foreign locales, or, as here, from an idea. Here, the notion of playing off of evil and fear freed our chefs. Look, for example, at the handprint Paul put on the plate -- that would never have happened without this challenge, and it worked. It was the right counterpoint to his beautiful (and delicious) enchanted forest, and if it made Eric squeamish, well, that was the desired effect, right? Grayson’s black chicken “slaughtered on the plate”--– whoa. Sarah’s blood risotto -- fantastic idea. The chefs’ food showed that they clearly relished the challenge. And as a result, it was all really great.
And so it came down to splitting hairs in order to figure out who won and who had to pack his/her knives and go. While this may feel unfair, stop and think about it: Isn’t this exactly what we hope for -- a competition in which the competitors are achieving at such a high level that it has to come down to small details? A football game that comes down to the last play of the fourth quarter because both teams have been performing incredibly? That’s a good game. An Olympic downhill race in which the difference between taking home the gold or the silver coming down to mere one-hundredths of a second? Exhilarating. I want more challenges in which the food was exciting, and the difference between flying to the world premiere of a film and packing one’s knives and flying home comes down to the smallest of differences in otherwise complex, innovative and well-executed dishes.
Beverly, Grayson, and Sarah all presented us with great dishes; each had minor challenges. I meant it when I said that if they kept cooking like that they’d have great careers and that they should serve their dishes at their restaurants (with slight reworkings….) At the end of the day, Beverly went home for a combination of matters: Her sauce was sticky… and she played it the safest in terms of the challenge. She went easy on the story; she didn’t run with the conceptual football as fast and far as the others did. In a competition in which all the food is as outstanding as these dishes were, that fact had to be taken into consideration. The chefs were not merely asked to make dishes; they were asked to make dishes that would have pleased the murderous Evil Queen Charlize plays in her upcoming film. We had to weigh how well each chef accomplished this task, and Beverly fell short of the other chefs in the overall concept of her dish. As for the evil Queen herself, while it was a fun conceit to have Charlize Theron join us as a judge because it gave us a chance to craft a fun challenge for the chefs, you may not know that not only is Charlize a huge fan of the show, but she’s also a good amateur cook. I’ve cooked with her before, and she knows her way around the kitchen.
All in all, this was a great challenge, in which I was served memorable food and shown a line-up of very fine chefs. Note, please, that we’re no longer cooking BBQ. The flame under this season has just been turned way, way up…. Stay tuned…