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"Finally," I thought to myself. "The chefs are cooking some really good food." The mood among the judges was happy, even ebullient. We felt relieved and vindicated, rewarded for the many weeks of heart-rending choices with some truly good food. The five remaining chefs seemed excited and energized by the Elimination Challenge, which asked each of them to cook one course of a meal for a group of celebrating couples in beautiful Santa Barbara.
We had eaten the chefs' food and reached a consensus about what worked, although we hadn't yet settled on who would be going home -- we needed a few more answers from the chefs to help us decide. All that was left to shoot was the Judge's Table the next day, and then we were off for a three-month break before the Finale. As we headed out for the night, everyone was tired, both physically and emotionally. The chefs were keenly aware that the stakes were the highest they'd been yet - the finalists were going on to Hawaii and one, after all this time, was going home.
And then came the call. Early the next morning, the Top Chef producers were on the line, asking me to please head to the set to handle a sudden crisis. They wouldn't tell me exactly what had happened, but I could tell it was serious. I was pissed -- it was my birthday, and my wife had flown into town to be with me. When I got to the set, the producers told me that the previous evening Cliff, Elia, Ilan and Sam had been drinking. While Marcel slept peacefully in the next room, they made a decision to shave their own heads (only Ilan and Elia actually went through with it) and then to shave Marcel's, whether he liked it or not. Cliff jumped him, abruptly waking him up, and hauled him into a half-nelson, while the others laughingly captured the incident on a crew member's camcorder and debated shaving his head. Marcel was bruised and understandably freaked out, and the video footage had found its way back to the Producers. I watched the tape, stunned. After impressing us with their skills and professionalism earlier in the evening, it seemed the chefs had swung the pendulum as far as they possibly could in the opposite direction, undermining their efforts to date with a ridiculous -- even cruel -- act of juvenile intimidation.
I could see how a goofy drunken idea ("Wouldn't it be funny if we shaved our heads,") escalated into a stupid, thoughtless one ("Wouldn't it be funny if we shaved Marcel's head") and from there into an act of ugly stupidity: ("Let's hold Marcel down and shave his head.") It was like watching an instructional video in bad group dynamics -- four apparently decent individuals (three if you buy Elia's argument that she was clueless), fueled by alcohol and subconscious anger, became one collective disaster gleefully terrorizing the designated odd-man-out. In a flash I understood how frat pranks can morph into ugly acts of hazing, or how a rowdy bachelor party can become the scene of a crime.
The sight of Sam yukking it up or Ilan yelling, "Get him! Get him!" from behind the camera was just as disturbing as the sight of Cliff tackling a stunned and terrified Marcel on the floor. And I'm not willing to hold Elia blameless just because she wasn't in the room -- I know she heard the others entreating her to join them, so she must have heard Marcel calling out for help. The whole thing brought to mind that famous quote, "All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing." Any one of them could have spoken up and said, "This isn't cool, guys. Knock it off." But they didn't, so as far as I was concerned they were all to blame and I was ready to send the lot of them home and let Marcel win by default.
For the first time all season, the Producers stepped in with a veto. Sending all of the chefs but Marcel home wasn't going to happen. Bravo's Legal department advised us of the Top Chef rules, which stated that harming or threatening to harm other contestants was potential grounds for disqualification. According to these guidelines, it was clear that Cliff needed to go. I was sent to the Chef's loft to deliver the news that he was no longer welcome on the show. After Cliff left, it was hard to focus back on the food, but focus we did. I held my personal feelings aside, and tried to keep going.
So, you're wondering ... what about the food? Honestly, it was all good. At this stage in the game, I find myself nitpicking, looking for either minor problems or small, skillful details that separate one dish from the rest. Sam's scallop, lobster and beets was luscious and beautifully executed. Ilan's baked pasta was fantastic -- the flavors were well-balanced and we inhaled the dish. Those two dishes were the standouts. Cliff's beef with puree of lentils was good but a bit mystifying -- why puree lentils unless you're serving them in a soup? I think the dish would have been more successful if he had left the lentils whole and married them to the beef with a bordelaise or veal stock reduction. Marcel's salmon was technically correct and also nicely executed, although it needed a bit more acidity than the wine delivered. (I didn't care for fussy flourish of potato hearts on the filets, but that's me.) Also, by sticking to his initial decision to use beets, even though Sam was starting the meal off with them unfortunately invited comparison between the two dishes, and Sam's was the stronger of the two.
Elia's dish tasted good, but promising a chocolate heart on the menu, and then delivering a small heap of broken lattice, had the unfortunate effect of pointing out where her skills fell short. Chef Ripert was not as impressed with this "chocolate kiss" as he had been with the version she preparedfor the Quickfire.
Understand that none of these dishes were bad. Everything was good and it made picking a "loser" pretty hard. If Cliff hadn't been sent packing, I imagine the Judges would have had our usual in-depth debate about the relative merits of each dish, with some of us persuading others over to our point-of-view. Cliff may have been the one to go. But with Cliff was gone, we just didn't see enough of a difference in the quality of Marcel and Elia's efforts to send one home over the other, so both were asked to pack their knives ... for Hawaii. I won't pretend I'm not disappointed by the behavior I witnessed in tonight's episode. I lost a lot of respect for Cliff, Ilan, Sam and Elia after what they did (or didn't do.) Not as cooks, necessarily, but as people -- and thereby as chefs. Chef means "chief" in French, and "chief" implies someone who leads -- not by bullying or even popularity, but by example.