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I hate to disagree with the outcome of an episode—after all, I have a say in it—but when it came to this Critics’ Table, I was outvoted by a pretty passionate group. Still, I maintain that Franklin wasn’t the weak link in this challenge. Sure, the doughnut holes weren’t the best thing I’d ever tasted—but they also weren’t the worst. It’s particularly forgivable when you consider that Franklin spent the remainder of his time creating a second dish (the quite delicious salmon crudo, one of the better plates of food served at Curtis’s party) that balanced out his teammates’ shortcomings. It seems unfair to me to punish him for his bigheartedness, for his willingness to take on a burden and help out his team. He put himself out there, and it saddens me that he suffered for that.
Still, the crudo wasn’t enough to save him. The real problem with those little dough balls, I think, was that Franklin was cooking for the engagement party, not for the Critics’ Table. They were technically well-executed, but they missed something on the palate: They weren’t sweet enough or interesting enough, and could have used a heavy dose of powdered sugar, cinnamon, chocolate sauce, or some combination of the three. That’s forgivable in a catering situation, when the priority is executing a large number of servings in a consistent, simple way. But on a show like Top Chef Masters, you’ve also got to consider the judges.
As critics, we don’t know what we’re going to eat—or the circumstances in which our meals are prepared—until the food is actually in front of us. Still, when it comes down to making final decisions about winners and losers, we’re constantly reminded by the fine folks from Bravo of what exactly the challenge is that we’re assessing. Whether the chefs are using unfamiliar ingredients or have only 20 minutes to prep or are coming to the stoves fresh off a 10,000-foot skydive, we’re reminded (off-camera) of precisely what the context for our meal happens to be. So Franklin made his bland mini-doughnuts for a party of 70 people—that matters intellectually when we’re making our decisions.
But what also matters is what’s going on inside our mouths. The obstacles given to the contestants produce interesting, surprising results, but at the end of the day the questions really are: Does this taste good? Does this make me happy to be eating it? Paying attention to my visceral response to a bite of food is the most important part of my role as a critic on this show. If only my fellow critics hadn’t come down so hard on those blasted doughnut holes!
One last note: the engagement party was incredibly fun—but even more fun was the fact that it was, for the record, totally a surprise to Curtis. I had such a great time with his fiancée, Lindsay, knowing we were pulling one over on him, and standing there just before the reveal with the knowledge that he didn’t have a clue what he was in for was one of the most pleasurable parts of the whole episode. I hope you felt that way, too.
James Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur.