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Life Imitating Art

James Oseland compares a recent dining experience at Rouge Tomate to the lo-cal Elimination Challenge.

By James Oseland

Last week I had dinner at a restaurant in New York called Rouge Tomate. It’s the American outpost of a restaurant by the same name in Belgium, but it’s not the place to go for that country’s famous frites or creamy gratins; instead, the restaurant’s menu is designed to keep the diner feeling light—even after a five-course tasting menu like the one my partner, Daniel, and I consumed that night. During our meal, the chef came over to chat. He explained how the restaurant works: “I do my dream version of a dish,” he said, and then explained that his collaborator in the kitchen, a nutritionist, works with him to edit it into something lower calorie, lower fat, and more nutritionally varied.

It was uncanny that I’d eaten at this restaurant just a few days before watching Episode 4, considering how similar The Biggest Loser challenge was to the nutritional mandate Rouge Tomate’s chef adheres to every day. It was particularly notable because our meal at Rouge Tomate was really terrific—a delicious, nuanced, light (and light-hearted in its conception) repast, and one that clocked in at under 1,000 calories—whereas the dishes produced during tonight’s Elimination Challenge were uniformly among the most lackluster I’ve sampled on Top Chef Masters.

Mary Sue really hit the nail on the head when she pointed out that calorie counting is a largely foreign concept to chefs. In the challenge, the chefs were stripped of their usual weapons: butter, heavy cream, animal fats, cured meats — all those marvelous vehicles for flavor — were off the table.

There was absolutely no question that Floyd deserved to win this week. Compared to the other chefs’ dishes — flimsy, lo-cal shadows of the flavor-bombs on which they were based — Floyd delivered a plate of food that really stood on its own. With gloriously layered, bright, smart flavors, it wasn’t a healthy version of a meatball sub; instead, it was a dish unto itself, one that referenced the tastes and textures of its source material, but was an original composition in its own right.The only other dish that came close to Floyd’s in terms of tastiness was Hugh’s steak and potatoes, which succeeded on the strength of Hugh’s portion control, rather than ingredient substitution, to lessen the number of calories on the plate. Everyone else bombed, in one way or another, and I was surprised and disappointed to see such rigidly literal interpretations of the original dishes. It felt like the chefs, all of whom I know are capable of creating beautiful, thoughtful food, were dumbing themselves down. George’s pizza? Eh. Naomi’s French toast? Texturally on point, but lacking in flavor. Traci’s take on Chinese buffet? I would much rather have been eating the real thing.

And then there was Suvir’s “bacon cheeseburger.” Like Floyd, Suvir had the confidence to use his original dish as an inspiration rather than a strict blueprint. But unlike Floyd, he retained absolutely no reference points from the original—what does a mashed potato patty wedged into a slice of pita have to do with the hearty, juicy, joyful umami of a real bacon cheeseburger? Suvir is a vegetarian, and, as he’s told us several times, he’s committed to wholesome, ethical eating; this challenge should have been his chance to shine.

It’s curious to me that these chefs, an extraordinarily creative and massively talented group, kind of phoned it in when forced to answer a question that almost every non-chef takes into account when cooking: Is this food that I’m making healthy? Whether it’s through portion control or making smart ingredient choices, preparing good-for-you (and lo-cal) food that also tastes delicious can be done… as Floyd and Hugh so ably demonstrated.

James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine.

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