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As a print restaurant critic for four decades and even now, documenting a thumb’s up or down and what’s new and hot on my Web site, InsatiableCritic, I was not totally ready to be an on-screen judge, to speak directly to “the victims” or “heros.” In a restaurant I don’t say what I think out loud. I certainly don’t say it to the chef’s face. I take time to weigh a tangle of impresssions and I would never dream of to submitting my opinions to debate. In that way I needed a learning curve to perform on Top Chef Masters and the lesson would be recorded from day one on camera.
A wanderer in a strange land, I had arrived that first day of work in a vast, rather shabby warehouse studio wheeling into the Green Room where my hats had already arrived plumped up with tissue in a tough brown box.
I’d never met James Oseland, never even heard of Jay Rayner, and no one had told me that Kelly Choi — a familiar face, a big welcome — would be the host and moderater. Kelly had interviewed me for her TV show, Let’s Eat Out NY and we meet often at food world events. Even with her hair in big fat rollers she was gorgeous, tall in towering platform heels, slim in her strapless dress. I figured I would just have to be a good sport about standing on the same TV screen with her…. Let’s face it, 40 years of life, never mind 40 years as a restaurant critic does add, shall we say, character to one’s face.
Day one. It sounded like an impossible challenge to me: to cook a three-course meal in a cramped dormitory room with nothing but a toaster oven, a microwave, and a hot plate. Trying to imagine what I would do given the same challenge – sneak a chef in to give me a hand, I suppose – made me appreciate once again what kind of confidence, or chutzpah, or charitable inspiration it must have taken to get chefs of this caliber, master chefs, star chefs, chef-owners – Hubert Keller, Michael Schlow, Tim Love, and Christpher Lee on this first segment – to sign up for Top Chef rigors with a risk of looking foolish or inadequate.
I thought I’d been summoned to Los Angeles to be the nasty judge. Apparently three of us, James Oseland, Jay Rayner, and I all thought that would by our role at Top Chef Masters. I wondered what would happen when a chef I knew and have celebrated or panned in the past was among the competitors. But I was determined to just focus on the look and taste of the food in front of me and the chef’s response to the specific challenge.
Of course I knew Hubert Keller’s name from his years as a star chef but we’d never met. I’d loved Christopher Lee’s food in one meal at Gilt before he went on to Aureole. And what I recalled of Tim Love’s New York City effort, Lonesome Dove in 2005 was the fabulous silverware.
Given the surprise of the assignment, the ridiculously inadequate equipment, and the cramped space in untidy rooms, the food the chefs delivered was impressive. Later when we learned about Tim Love accidently freezing all his provisions over night and Keller’s spontaneous ingenuity of cooling his pasta and then reheating it in the shower, my respect for the accomplishment soared. True three of them took the easy way home with ceviche and crudo. That made Keller’s luscious half-cooked salmon on whole grain mustard cream even more of a triumph.
Though the judges and Kelly pretty much agreed on Michael’s cabbage bacon soup (great combination that needed more cooking) and loved Love’s savory squash and corn posole-less posole, the remarkable flavor of Lee’s risotto wasn’t enough to offset the overcooking. Love’s determination to rescue his thawed ingredients was valiant, very John Wayne, but too much salt knocked him out of the race. And in the end, Keller’s seductive mac&cheese with exquisitely cooked prawns, combined with his salmon made him the winner in spite of our complaints about his oddly foaming and over-cinnamoned soup.
I read a headline this week calling us coddling judges. I agree the emphasis was on what worked in this first show. Even to myself, I sounded unnaturally benign, but given the challenge and the mostly impressive end result on the plate, the tone seemed quite right to me.
Editor's Note: In response to reader comments, Gael Greene had this to add:
You're right. All the judges agreed there was far too much cinnamon in Hubert Keller's soup and an ugly foam on top, though as I said, I did find the cinnamon croutons addictive. I thought the soup might be enough to lose it for Keller but his mi-cuit salmon and the fresh-from-the-shower macaroni were impressive enough to carry him to the top.
In every case I tried to consider how the chef met the challenge as well as the success of a dish...I think all the judges did. Keller's ability to cooly turn on a dime to overcome the dormitory limitations and Tim Love's determined comeback from freezer burn were very impressive.