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The Best of What's Around

Ruth Reichl explains that it's not where you are, but who you're with that really matters.

By Ruth Reichl


How to Watch

Catch up on Top Chef Masters on Peacock or the Bravo App.

When the producers first told us about this challenge, they were incredibly proud. It was going to be a huge production on the back lot of a major movie studio. They described a cast of thousands, with military helicopters hovering overhead. It sounded utterly amazing.

But when the day finally came, it was pouring. I mean major rain, the kind of rain that makes you think about building an ark. And so instead of the back lot we had the front room of the American Legion in Hollywood. Waiting around in that dusty basement, I was deeply disappointed: it seemed like this episode was going to flop.

But you know what?  We could have held this party in a fifth-floor walk-up in Timbuktu, and it wouldn’t have made the least bit of difference. This was such a heartfelt homecoming that nothing could have put a damper on it. 

There were two reasons why this challenge was so successful. In the first place, the servicemen and their families were a truly wonderful group of people. I had the privilege of eating with the Nelsons, and you’d be hard-pressed to find more delightful dining companions. They’re a quirky close-knit family with extremely adventurous appetites. So while Floyd and Traci faced real limitations as they tried to please their servicemen, for Naomi the sky was the limit. Which we all know was a good thing: Naomi definitely dislikes limits. 

Still, had Dr. Nelson asked for hot dogs and potato chips, I know Naomi would have done her best. This time around the chefs threw themselves into the challenge, heart and soul. Each of them did a fantastic job; there was no bad food, and it was truly heartbreaking to have to send Naomi home. What this challenge offered us was the opportunity to see into each chef’s soul. I admired Traci’s restraint: it must have been hard for such a technically adept chef to produce such a modest, down-home meal. And I was awed by Floyd’s professionalism: faced with a difficult challenge, he created beautiful, restaurant-quality food. It was impressive. I appreciated Naomi’s generosity –- she always does more than required. And I’m stunned by Mary Sue’s ability to wow a crowd; in that entire room there was not one person who didn’t love her ribs. 

Sharing that meal with that particular group of people was such an emotional experience that, as the evening ended, it was hard to say goodbye. As she was leaving, Mrs. Nelson turned back to give me a gift, a beautiful scarf that she had knitted herself. To my horror, I burst into tears. For that one moment I was glad it was still raining. 

Finally, you did miss one interesting argument that didn’t make it into the episode. Curtis hated Traci’s peach cobbler; he thought she was wrong to use out-of-season frozen peaches. I disagreed: she gave her sailor exactly what he asked for. We finally agreed to disagree and left it at that. What do you think?


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