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I Can't Get No

Miami chef and restauranteur Barton G. weighs in on Top Chef.

By Barton G.

OK all you Howie haters...satisfied? I bet you're going to miss him; I know I am. His intensity was oddly riveting, lending some dramatic tension and, however inadvertently, comic moments to virtually every show. Then there was his evolution from bulldog to bear cub to Chef Overboard's (self-) sacrificial lamb. The question is: Was his attempt to withdraw from the competition a genuine bid to save Brian's butt, or an attempt to carry favor with the judges by demonstrating the ultimate in loyalty to his team leader? Either way, it was a brilliant maneuver which cast him in a new, more empathetic light, one which would allow even the most hardened of Howie haters to feel some compassion for him as he was set adrift by the judges.

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Of course the cynic in me leans toward the pandering, but I do think Howie genuinely believed Brian was in jeopardy. How could he not given the way Restaurant Wars went down? The executive chefs of the restaurants were held accountable for their success or failure. Therefore for me, and for Howie no doubt, it stood to reason Brian would be held to the same standard given the lackluster response to the waterborne reception. Granted his title was "team leader," not "executive chef," a case he tried so ineffectually to make to the judges that I was squirming in embarrassment. This from the man who gushed to Tom he had volunteered to take on the team leader position because that's what chefs do -- they lead, and he always relishes the opportunity to do so! Thank God Tom stopped him in his tracks, rightfully accusing him of splitting hairs.

Bottom line: He was designated top toque gun, one who proved to be more enthusiastic cheerleader than decisive commander. It's no accident that in classic French kitchens the term "brigade" is used to refer to the chefs and cooks working under the executive chef; the military parlance is apt, because for a kitchen to work efficiently someone has to be in unequivocally in command.

Brian was not. Encouraging, supportive, motivating? Yes. But he did not exercise effective leadership, the kind of leadership which should have taken control of the menu, developing a plan that that would deliver the biggest culinary bang for their limited buck with some sort of cohesive style. Instead, he went along with everyone essentially doing whatever they wanted, giving lip service to covering all bases and offering variety. Yet, as Dana Cowin pointed out, bread was an all-too-common denominator. That could have been avoided by someone (and who other than Brian?) taking responsibility for the menu as a whole. To my mind, as part of that process he should have discouraged -- even forbidden -- anyone doing two dishes as unnecessarily taxing the time and budget constraints. I rest my case on this point with the fact that no one had a two dish success.

In the kitchen, Brian was all Energizer Bunny, keeping everyone apprised of timing issues and doling out "Atta boys." But we didn't see him actively engaged with his chefs' preparations. By his own account, he was setting the stage and giving them the tools to succeed or fail on their own. In the final analysis, that is what bothered me. For a leader, the failure of any member of his team should not be an avowed option. If all this sounds like Brian bashing it isn't meant to be. While I'm not sure he'll go the distance, he has proven his talent and creativity -- hey, to make Michael Schwartz a "Spam believer" is quite an accomplishment! Rather it is more an expression of my puzzlement about why Tre was banished for what was basically his lack of effective leadership and, under similar circumstances, Brian got a pass. Certainly, there was never any question that Howie would be headed home before much longer. So maybe it was just a matter of timing -- the judges had had enough of Howie, and he gave them ample reason to put send him packing. Meanwhile, it was nice to see Casey with a win and I can't help but wonder about her timing. She declared she's ready to bring out the big guns. Now that sounds intriguing!

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