Tom Colicchio explains what he expects from a potential Top Chef.
I don’t know what it is about the number ten that feels more momentous than nine or eleven, but whatever the reason, it feels like a milestone to have reached Top Chef’s tenth season. It's been great to have traveled not only the country but the globe with this show and with the talented and energetic chefs who have competed so hard over the past several years. Whether you’ve been with us from the beginning or have just begun watching, thank you for tuning in --I’m excited to be going to Seattle for Season 10 with you.
Seattle’s a great food town. I remember back in the '80s -- it might have been ’84 or ’85 -- as more and more stuff was being written about how the Pacific Northwest was becoming the new San Francisco, food-wise. I was between jobs (and girlfriends), and came so close to packing up my car and everything I own, and just going there and figuring it out when I got there. I was so close -- I had a whiff of what the city was on the verge of becoming and thought it would be great to be a part of it. While it’s all worked out just fine for me back East, it has taken me nearly 30 years to finally get there. In the interim, with all the great restaurants that have been established there, the promise that Seattle would become a food mecca has definitely come true.
So I was pleased with the producers’ decision to go to Seattle. But first we had to settle on just who would be coming with us. A chef’s resume is certainly important, and those of the would-be contestants made a great first step in screening the applicants, but it was great last season to actually have the chance to ask the chefs to show us what they were made of, and to select as the season’s competitors only those whom we felt had a true chance of winning the title. I think I speak for all of the judges when I say that we wanted the opportunity to do so again this season.Every chef is different, and every chef has different criteria for hiring new cooks. I think all the challenges our contestants faced in this first episode were good ones. But for me, I didn’t want to ask the chefs to create a particular dish like soup, a salad, or an omelet -- not only will we be doing that throughout the competition, but also I think you can easily find a good home cook who could make a great omelet, soup, or salad, but that person wouldn’t fare well in the competition. I was looking for someone who showed that s/he knows the ins and outs of and could handle the rigors of a top-flight professional kitchen. And so I put my five contestants through the same tasks I would have them perform were I looking to hire them to work in one of my restaurants.
When I’m assessing potential cooks, I look at their resumes to see their pedigrees, which matter to me. For those people with resumes I like, I invite them into the kitchen to observe. I then have them prep food; I want to see, for example, that they have the dexterity to roll out some pasta. I look to see how they wields a knife; I want to see that they can butcher deftly and correctly. Then, as you saw me do in the show tonight, I ask my staff what they thought of the people. My staff’s answers are particularly important to me.
Some applicants are nervous at first, as Jorel was. But I didn’t dismiss him for that -- he might yet have earned a jacket had he not oversalted the beurre fondue. It was unusable. In fact, even though he oversalted it, I might even have given him a pass had he said, “Oh, I overseasoned it. Let me get another pound of butter and see if I can fix it.” But instead, when I asked him what he thought of it, he said, “I think it’s fine.” I’m not altogether sure that he didn’t realize it -- it’s entirely likely that he himself could tell that it was oversalted but just tried to fake his way through the challenge without fixing what he’d done. Anthony was very tentative from the get-go and remained that way throughout. When I am hiring, I look for people who are confident in their ability and who are going to jump in. This is important to me for two reasons: 1) because it shows me that with this confidence, they will get involved in the kitchen in a meaningful way; and 2) because some of my cooks go on to become my sous-chefs and maybe even one of my executive chefs, and they have to have the maturity born of experience to be able to handle whatever arises. I think Top Chef requires this maturity and corresponding confidence in the kitchen as well. I sensed that Anthony did not have the kind of experience that would win the day for him in a tough situation. Since I didn’t think he could actually win the title of “Top Chef,” he, like Jorel, did not move on to the actual competition.
I will not speak to the decisions my fellow judges made, since I was not there to participate in the judging process. They have always made thoughtful decisions when judging in past seasons.
Given all that the weather has wrought here in the Northeast this week and last (there’s a Nor’easter right now, and I know you don't need me to tell you about Sandy), I’m more than glad to say, “On to Seattle.”