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In Real Time

Ruth Reichl explains why watching the chefs interact while cooking was so fascinating to her.

By Ruth Reichl


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This challenge was so much fun that it made me wish we had more opportunities to watch the chefs at work. Most of the time we’re away from the action; we don’t find out what went on behind the scenes until the shows are aired. So being there --watching the chefs interacting in real time -- was fascinating for me. 

It was extraordinary to see the different ways the teams worked together. The contrast between the companionship of the Yellow Team (“I’m not really here,” says Patricia as she quietly steps in to help Takashi) and the rancor of the White Team (“Damn it Art, where’s my mandolin!” cries Chris), was really telling.  We get to see Takashi’s cool professionalism, Kerry’s flair for the dramatic, and Thierry’s unflappable good humor.  Watching them working that teppan made me long for more opportunities to watch the chefs at work.

For me this sense was especially strong because I was sitting on the far side of that teppan with Jonathan, Susan, and Mary Sue. We’ve all grown up together in this business. I first met Jonathan when we were both in our twenties; I was doing my first big story (about the opening of Michael’s in Santa Monica), where he was one of  the chefs. I spent a year there, on and off, a lot of it in the kitchen with Jonathan. I will never forget him teaching me to make beurre blanc; insisting that real chefs have asbestos finger tips, he made me stir the sauce with my bare fingers in a very hot pan. A couple of years later, when I was working on another L.A. story, Wolfgang Puck suggested I go down to a little restaurant on Melrose Avenue. “You aren’t going to believe these women,” he said. “Susan and Mary Sue have nothing but a hot plate in the alley, but they’re making incredible food.” I was so impressed with the little City Cafe that I stayed to interview the chefs. Susan and Mary Sue were pioneers, not just because they were women in a mostly male profession, but also because they were among the first chefs to take the foods of Asia, India, and South America as seriously as those of Europe. I think we all agreed that judging this challenge was especially difficult. I loved Art’s dish, but I didn’t blame Chris for being frustrated as he watched the time disappear. And while I admired the way the White Team used the teppan in innovative ways, not even attempting to make Asian food, I loved the Asian flavors in Patricia’s kalbi wrap and Kerry’s shrimp with kochujang sauce. And it was, I thought, very gutsy of Mark to attempt something of such stark simplicity. If he’d remembered the salt, I would have fought to keep him on. Watching him cook made me think that Mark is a lot like his food: not showy, but both bold and gentle. He’ll be missed. 


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