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Black Fish, Beige Veal, Red Herring

Tom Colicchio explains what the Commander's Palace challenge was really about, and reveals a special behind-the-scenes moment.

By Tom Colicchio

Having experienced the elimination challenges as a judge in real time, it’s always interesting to me to then watch the episodes and get the full story. As I’ve written in past blogs, we judges aren’t privy to what the chefs are doing and saying over the course of each challenge -- aside from when I do a walk-through through the kitchen, I don’t encounter the chefs until I’m eating and judging their contributions to the competition. And so, remembering the dishes I was served by our chefs at Commander's Palace, I was intrigued while watching the episode to hear directly from the chefs themselves which of them were frightened and dismayed by the challenge and which were excited and invigorated by it. I see a direct correlation between their feelings about the challenge and how well they did. 

How to Watch

Watch the Top Chef Season 21 premiere on Wednesday, March 20 at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

But not because of the nature of the challenge itself.

It was surely difficult to taste a dish once and be asked to replicate it exactly… especially when the chefs who had created three of the four dishes were right there at the table. I get how that could be nerve-wracking. And chefs tend to get set in their ways. The chefs in our challenge had two options, basically. They could have tasted the dish and said, “This is how I myself would do this.” Or they could have said, “How do I think the chef who created this would have made this?” I personally think the first way is the better way to go. Just do it your own way, in terms of flavors. Presentation is another story -- that’s just a matter of mimicry.

So while watching this, I can imagine you were expecting to see chefs falter in their abilities to discern precisely which ingredients were in a dish or just how a dish was constructed. But, in fact, it came down to the two things that it usually comes down to in our competition: using good technique and seasoning the food correctly. What made the challenge, well, challenging was less the need to recreate a dish they’d only eaten once and more the fact of having to make the amount of plates in the time allotted in a crowded kitchen, and still managing to get those two things -- technique and seasoning -- right.

The chefs who were most nervous about recreating dishes might have been thrown off their game by knowing that the chefs who created the originals were seated at the table. But it just so happened that Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, and Tory McPhail were there. In fact, the competitors faced the same challenges they would have at their own restaurants -- creating well-seasoned, properly-prepared food for many people, under pressure. 

When you’re cooking, you need to worry about everything. The chefs who were successful were the ones who got everything right, not necessarily the ones who made it identical to the original. In fact, Stephanie’s biscuit was actually better than the original. Justin’s beignets were amazing -- were they made in identical fashion to Tory McPhail’s? I couldn’t tell you. This challenge weeded out the better chefs not because they could ascertain how to recreate the dishes, but because they could do so within the parameters of the competition and deliver up good food. Carlos and Louis seemed surprised to be in the bottom three, and of course they were – they never tasted their food. So how would they know it was completely underseasoned? But Bret knew exactly why he was there. Don’t mistake: the fact that Bret didn’t muscle his veal on to the grill in time is not what did him in. He had plenty of time to get a proper sear on his veal; he just didn’t. He had enough time, in fact, to overcook my veal. So time was not his enemy on this one -- he was his own enemy. Not only that, but the chefs were charged with presenting the dishes as the originals had been presented, and Bret’s presentation, by his own admission, was sloppy as well. He expected to be on the bottom of this challenge, which is why he didn’t make a case for staying, as the chefs often do at Judges' Table. 

Commander’s Palace became the institution it is today under the careful nurturing of Ella Brennan, mother and aunt of proprietors Ti Martin and Lally Brennan, respectively, whom you sort of met watching the episode. We typically have about three hours between the end of service for the Elimination Challenge and the start of Judges' Table, and, especially in New Orleans, which was incredibly hot, we judges normally changed out of our “judges-wear” and into T-shirts and shorts during that hiatus. But not on the day of this challenge. We finished our meal at about 5 p.m.… and were happily surprised with an invitation to cocktails at Ella Brennan’s home, right next door to the restaurant. Normally, cocktails precede dinner, but our filming schedule had us eating first, and none of us minded. We all went over, and Miss Ella said, “This is what we’re drinking today,” and poured us each a cocktail. And thus commenced possibly my favorite moments of the whole season. I remember thinking, “This is how you start a night down south.” Or, at least, how you start one off on the right foot – with cocktails in the parlor of a grand old home, being shown classic Southern hospitality. A lot of great chefs have come through Commander’s Palace. On that particular night, during that break between the Elimination Challenge and Judges' Table, the other judges and I couldn’t have been more glad that ours did, too.

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