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I swear I don’t take offense at being called “fish boy” by my fellow critic Jay Rayner on Episode 5 of Top Chef Masters. In fact, I’m thinking of having those very words emblazoned on a t-shirt. Perhaps I will wear it proudly on season two of the show.
What prompted Jay’s words? I sensed an overly fishy taste in chef Nils Noren’s main course— salmon with napa cabbage and chorizo — and Jay didn’t. That two critics would have such divergent opinions about a dish are par for the course when it comes to food criticism. I’ve always believed that off-the-cuff responses to food — the kind Jay, Gael, and I make on the show — make for an even truer assessment of the meal than written reviews do. I tend to be at my most honest when I’m reacting spontaneously to what I eat, without all the contemplating, processing, storytelling, and editing that may come between a meal and a review.
So, when I signed on to be a critic on Top Chef Masters, I decided that despite all the odd situations in which we would be eating and critiquing, I was going to strive to be as open-minded, as true to my gut reactions, and, well, as real as possible. After all, this is reality TV, though I must confess that eating in front of eight cameras is far from my usual notion of what constitutes reality.
Going with my gut led to some interesting dynamics on the show’s most recent episode. For example, Jay, Gael, and I agreed right off the bat that chef Rick Moonen’s ceviche with yuzu and avocado was a standout; the dish was a gorgeous, silken masterpiece. And we were equally unanimous in our opinion that chef Nils’s salmon main course was a hit. That Nils prepared a hundred portions and each one came out impeccably is nothing short of astonishing. But I noticed immediately — and, alas, blurted out — that the fish itself tasted slightly too fishy. Jay and Gael felt otherwise. It may have been that my piece came from a part of the fish closer to the tail or the bloodline than the pieces that Gael and Jay ate. It may have been that I’m more sensitive to fishy-tasting fish (though I love mackerel — one of the fishiest of all fishes — so I doubt that’s the case) or that something about the way the other components in the dish played upon my palate that night produced a perception different from the other critics’.
Taste is subjective, an endlessly personal experience. The response I had was the kind of honest one we all have every time we take a bite. Each of us grew up eating different foods, and our ideas about what food should taste like are built on those formative experiences, whether they included Kraft mac and cheese or kimchi. That I lived in South Asia and Southeast Asia for years shaped my palate as much as my mom’s very capable pot roast did, and every dish I’ve savored since — among them the ones I’ve experienced on this show —h as shaped it some more. Our palates are particular, and various configurations of taste buds possess varying degrees of sensitivity, whether we’re food critics or not.
Is my palate more discerning than Jay’s or Gael’s? I doubt it. Are ours more sensitive than yours? I doubt that, too. But that’s the thing about matters of taste: everyone’s a critic. That’s a good thing, right?