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A number of people, including the chefs themselves, accused me of being grumpy during this week’s Quickfire. I watched it and wondered whether they had a point. Was I? Thinking back to when we filmed this it struck me that I might have been.
Anybody who whined about the Top Chef Masters gig, would deserve to be poked with the business end of cattle prod. It’s a huge privilege and an honour to be involved with this show. And hell, we even get paid. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its strains. The shooting days could be very long – certainly much longer than would ever be allowed in the UK – and the shoot itself is concentrated. I know those chefs, pushed into the deeper days of the competition round, feel it and I have no idea how the crew, working much longer days than us, manage. Still, there is a certain pressure on us as judges and I had some of my own. My newspaper, which craves my attention, was keeping me working all the time I was out there, and I had been filing features from Los Angeles on what were supposed to be my days off. Indeed I had worked flat out for a couple of weeks.
And then, on what was supposed to be my first real day off, I get a very early morning call. One of the Quickfire judges can’t make it, and I’m in. See you in 20 minutes. So was I grumpy? You know what? Possibly. Did this interfere with the way I looked at the dishes? Absolutely not. Sure, I might have been less bubbly and effusive. There might have been a little more piss and vinegar in my pronouncements, but at the end of the day – or the very beginning, which is when we shot this – the basic critical faculties still kick in. Rick’s octopus was tough. There wasn’t enough crab in Jonathan’s crab pasta. And the skin on Susan’s chicken was crisp. Put me through four days of sleep deprivation and a little light waterboarding and I’d still come up with the same answers. Would I say they were definitive answers? Absolutely not. We all know that James Oseland has a palate calibrated by the scientists who built the Large Hadron Collider for CERN. He might reach a different view. But both of us would be consistent. Grumpy or not.
If there was one thing guaranteed to lighten my mood, it was always when the Top Chef Masters team went out on location. For a Londoner, starved of sunlight, it was always a slight disappointment that we were locked for most of the time in the studio complex. And then all of a sudden we were going to the game, and what a remarkable operation it was. Nothing I have ever seen in England prepared me for this: the size, the vitality, the drama.
Seemingly from nowhere the production team conjured up a full tent village, complete with a video gallery to run the shoot, and the six cooking stations for our chefs. The sun shone, the crowds cheered, and we tramped out to eat our tailgate food. This, for me, was the essence of Top Chef Masters. Any of these guys, given a properly-equipped kitchen and enough ingredients, could play a blinder; but here they were in the field, with just a Weber Grill with which to work and cramped surroundings. Plus, for two of them — Marcus and Susur — it was completely alien territory. They had no hard-wired cultural memory of what a tailgate party might be. Curiously, I think that might be why they went through and Tony didn’t.
Marcus and Susur just cooked. Susur in particular simply decided to regard the grill as another hot thing. The dumpling might have been one of those ideas to be filed under "very bad," but his Korean beef was luscious. Tony, by contrast, headed towards the essence of tailgate and went for party food, which meant simple food. The problem is if you do simple food there is absolutely no margin for error. It has to be perfect. Tony’s grilled pizza simply was not perfect.
Which was why he lost. Which was why he went home. Which was why, in this edition of Top Chef Masters, he was the one who ended up being genuinely grumpy.
Jay Rayner is the author of The Man Who Ate The World: In search of the perfect dinner, published by Henry Holt. Follow him on twitter @jayrayner1