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Home Team Advantage?

Tom Colicchio assesses the veterans' advantages and disadvantages.

By Tom Colicchio

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

As you all know, I am seldom at the Quickfire Challenges, so I don’t see what goes on there until I watch the edited episodes. Watching this one, I was struck by how ticked off the chefs were when they were told that Stefan, CJ, and Josie were going to be competing alongside them. They immediately started bitching -- they were not shy about it. I get it -- the chefs were concerned that the new (i.e. old) three would have an advantage over them because the three had been through the process before.

 It might seem that CJ, Josie, and Stefan have an advantage… but do they? Let’s break this down, pluses first:

· These three know what to expect. Yes, they do. They’ve already had plenty of practice making dishes under severe time pressure, in teams, solo, with unexpected ingredients, in weird locations, for world class chefs. Yes, they’ve been through it before. For what that’s worth.

· They have experienced Judges' Table. Yes, they’ve all been there for both winning and losing dishes. They know what it feels like. For what that’s worth.

· They know the mechanics of the show. They’ve lived in a house with competitors, they’ve had to collaborate with their competitors, they’ve been through the rigors of this very intense competition. All true. Again, for what that’s worth.

They also face the following potential pitfalls not faced by the rest of the contestants:

· While we judges always strive for complete objectivity, it’s hard not to expect more from them because they’ve been here before (Quail is small, Stefan? Did you really use that as an excuse for overcooking it? Newsflash, buddy: It’s a quail. Deal with it.)

· They may not display the same edge as the new contestants, precisely because they have been here before, and they may be feeling a bit above it all (not naming names here… pretty self-evident…)

· They may think that they “know what I’m looking for.” If they’re saying that, then they don’t know what I’m looking for. Here’s what I’m “looking for”:  the same thing anyone dining in a restaurant is looking for, i.e., food that is cooked andseasoned correctly, and that has been made from an interesting, thoughtful and creative combination of ingredients. That’s it. There’s no angle, no hidden agenda, nothing to figure out that makes it an advantage to have competed before.  

I think the minuses cancel out the pluses.  I think it’s a pretty even playing field, and everyone is going to have to bring it.  I think this assessment was born out by the Elimination Challenge, in which the Red Team wound up one of the two teams on the bottom. Too many components in their dish, overcooked quail, not enough cherries in a sauce they made a quart of (so the proportions were way off)… I’m not sure that changing their concept midstream was the great idea they thought it would be.

This week’s was a good Elimination Challenge. Seattle is known for its seafood, plus we shot this episode at the beginning of the summer, when we also had beautiful produce such as rhubarb and morels at our disposal. I was glad to have a challenge right at the get-go that could highlight Seattle in this way. The challenge gave us a chance, further, to see the chefs’ product… and we did have some great results.

The chefs did well overall. As for Blue Team, there were a few noteworthy reasons for their win. They had a great concept for the dish -- they didn’t overcomplicate it, as there is a tendency to do in such team challenges, when every chef on the team wants to display his or her culinary point of view. In contrast to such overwrought dishes, the Blue Team’s dish seemed as though it had been conceived and made by one person. Each person did one thing to contribute to the dish -- one made the fish, one the dashi and one the prawns, so they had not only a well-conceived dish but also a good gameplan for executing it. And they worked collaboratively. John looked out for the team, for example, noticing that Kuniko had burnt the chili oil and bringing it to her attention with enough time for her to make a new one.

Our favorite part of that dish, hands down, was the cod -- Kuniko was the clear winner for that. The technique of poaching fish in oil (or duck fat) reflects a relatively modern way of cooking -- it’s been around for the last ten years or so. So the idea of poaching the fish in chili oil was a very good one. To do it well, though, the chef must understand that the bottom of the pan is hotterthan the oil itself, so if the fish is sitting on the bottom of the pan, itcould become overdone. Making the fish well requires the discipline to let it cook slowly, and it’s not something every chef could pull off. In preparing the cod perfectly, as Kuniko did, she showed really nice technique. This is why she won.

The losing Gray Team had a basically good dish. The garnishes were nicely done and the dish was seasoned well. Unfortunately, though, the fish was completely overcooked. The terms “overcooked” or “overseasoned” are never the end of the story in and of themselves -- whether they are a deal-breaker that will get a person sent home is always a matter of degree: the dish could be slightly overcooked or overseasoned… or it could be hammered. Stefan’s quail was somewhat overcooked; Jeffrey’s halibut was hammered. Had Jeffrey’s fish not been so drastically overcooked, Stefan would most likely have been sent home. His neck was saved in this challenge by the presence of a worse offender. Furthermore, in stark contrast to the Blue Team, the Gray Team did not display good teamwork. Brooke saw that Jeffrey’s fish was overdone and didn’t say anything to him. She just let the fish go out to the judges that way. The teammates should have been looking out for one another’s food, particularly when one of the components was something as delicate as halibut. I understand that it was early in the season and the chefs are just getting to know one another, but this was a team challenge, and Brooke wound up at Judges' Table with one of the two worst dishes, which is not a place she wants to be.But all in all, as I wrote above, I thought the chefs were off to a good start. Will the new (old) chefs pick up their game? Will Carla lower her decibel level in the kitchen before someone clocks her? Will Micah’s game face ever actually intimidate anyone? None of that is important; stay tuned to see what the chefs cook next, which is what matters. Have a good week, all.

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