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What is a Chef's Ultimate Mission?

Ruth Reichl wonders what a chef's ultimate mission should be.

By Ruth Reichl

What I’m loving about Top Chef Masters is that every week it makes me think about what a restaurant really is, and what a chef owes his/her customers.

This week I was excited about the hidden challenge buried inside the calorie contest. These chefs were faced with more than merely putting well-loved dishes on a diet. The real question here is: What is a chef’s ultimate mission?  Is it to please himself or please his customer?

In the 30 years that I was reviewing restaurants, it was a question I faced every time I sat down to eat. I’ve had guests ask to have their fish cooked a bit more, only to be told, “That’s how Chef serves it.” Waiters have told friends asking for sauce on the side, “Chef doesn’t do that,” and I once got a letter from a reader complaining that he had been kicked out of a fine restaurant because he had irritated the chef with a request for well-done steak.

At one point I asked a number of chefs how they handled these kind of requests. The great Masa Takayama (chef/owner of Masa in New York) offered the most interesting answer anyone ever gave me. At his legendary (and legendarily expensive) restaurant in Los Angeles, he was asked to prepare a special meal for a visiting dignitary from Germany. After watching her push sushi around on the plate he said, “You don’t like raw fish, do you?” She admitted that she did not. “What do you like?” he asked. She replied that pasta was her favorite food. “So,” Masa told me, “I went to the little shop next door, bought some packaged soba and prepared it very simply for her. Why serve sushi to someone who hates raw fish? My only job is to make my customers happy.”

In this challenge, Suvir stuck to his principles, which is always a good thing, but he did not make his customer happy. The question that we’re left with is this: Could he have stuck to his principles and still served something that thrilled her? That was the real challenge here –- and it’s one that a true master should be able to meet. The Quickfire, on the other hand, left me amazed by the ability of these chefs. I’m fairly awed by the dishes they created in 12 minutes flat. I only wish we’d seen Mary Sue making those tortillas; I still don’t get how she managed to do that, and melt the cheese, and make a salsa in the time it takes most of us to tear the plastic off a package.

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