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A Matter Of Consistency

Tom on the so-called worst dish in Top Chef history.

By Tom Colicchio

The day I accumulated enough miles to graduate to business/first class was a cause for celebration - no more yogic contortions in cramped seats, no more neck strain from watching movies on high hung communal screens, no more dismal airplane meals... I learned that in first class the seats were indeed better, but the food was still a disappointment. Oh well, I figured. I'm three-quarters of the way to flat; at least I'll catch upon my sleep.

How to Watch

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

In recent years, though, I've seen a real effort (at least in first class) to turn airline food around, especially on international flights, where airlines have enlisted well-known chefs to lend a hand. Here and there I've actually experienced greatness, like the time my friend and colleague Neal Perry flew me to Sydney on Qantas to cook for a charity fundraiser at his restaurant Rockpool, and sample the first class airline menu he'd created along the way. All I remember from the meal was a luscious piece of Tasmanian sea bass poached in a light herb broth with olive oil, but the fact that any dish from my flight stands out as terrific (and I don't just mean terrific for airline food,) was actually shocking, and laid to rest for me the myth that food can't be good on a plane.

From what I can see, there are a couple things that came into play in this challenge. The first, and I said it in tonight's episode, is if you put good food into the box, you'll get good food out. Incidentally, this rule also applies to stocks, stews, kid food, and all other things that people assume will somehow miraculously turn out fine even in the absence of high quality ingredients. So, the need for good ingredients was a given.

Second, was the need to winnow those ingredients down to fit the parameters of cooking on a plane. Everything was going into a tiny convection oven for a minimum of ten minutes. Whatever item the chefs chose was going to have to be something that was actually improved by this rapid blast of dry heat. There would be no room for gentle basting, a slow simmer, or coaxing out flavor with handfuls of fresh herbs. The skill here was going to be in choosing what to cook, and then executing with precision, since all the proteins and vegetables would need to be prepped so that everything cooked at the same rate. Thus, both the consistency of the food itself (i.e. an oily fish, versus a drier, flaky one) and the consistency of the prep work were important factors.

Without question Casey's veal and Hung's Chilean sea bass were the standouts for both of those reasons. I'm not a big fan of Chilean sea bass, but in this context, it was the perfect choice; a fish with a moist, oily flesh that is virtually impossible to overcook. The accompanying vegetables were light and flavorful, and worked well with the overall dish.

Casey's veal was also a great choice. Veal is moist and dense, and actually benefits from being cooked to medium, as opposed to medium rare, which gave Casey a more forgiving window. She seared the meat off beautifully ahead of time in the Continental kitchen, and used the cook time onboard to bring the veal to temperature. Casey's decision to prepare a cauliflower gratin alongside was also smart - the gooey, melted cheese made the cauliflower flavorful yet comforting, and kept the dish from drying out.

I wish I could say the same about the other entrees. Sara ran into major problems with her fennel and coriander salmon. Salmon is a fairly oily fish, but Sara's portions were of varying thickness, which meant that a few were way overcooked and sadly for her, those portions found their way over to Tony and me. Bourdain called it 'cat food' (the man lives for those snarky sound bytes) which, once I stopped laughing, I found a bit harsh. Compared to Sara's usual sure-handed touch, this dish was definitely a disappointment, and the dry flavorless couscous she served on the side didn't help.

Brian's NY strip steak was unwieldy; I'm all for large portions, but this felt like the big steaks Grandma serves in Napolean Dynamite - huge hunks of meat that lacked the finesse one expects in first class. But Brian's real problem was his bizarre purple Peruvian lobster hash. The lobster was overcooked into rubbery little nuggets and the dish just plain didn't work. Despite getting shaker-happy with the pepper, Dale's steak and shrimp surf 'n turf was tasty. His big error was that he miscounted his portions, and came up short, leaving one hapless unfed passenger. The guy was cool about it (it probably helped that he was a real-life flight attendant), but I can promise you the actual jilted first-class passenger would've raised hell. Noisy, pissed-off, write-a-letter-to-Corporate hell.

CJ's pan-seared halibut on toasted faro was overcooked. But his side dish of roasted broccolini with breadcrumbs and a mint vinaigrette carries the distinction of being my single least favorite dish in three seasons of Top Chef. I'm actually baffled as to how CJ achieved this with such innocuous ingredients. My wife was mystified at my reaction: 'So he overcooked it,' she kept saying, 'Big deal.' My only answer is that it had to be experienced to be understood; The oven's dry heat somehow turned the blanched broccolini into musty, desiccated swamp vegetables punctuated by a bracing, medicinal slap of warm mint. I can say for a fact, without even having stepped into that galley, that there is no way CJ tasted that dish before he sent it out, as even the most novice chef is taught to do. In tonight's challenge, this dish put us over the edge and sent CJ home. I can hear the outrage brewing among our loyal viewers and message board habitues even as I type...But wait! You're thinking. CJ's broccolini may have sucked, but Dale left off a dish! He came up short! When Dave did that in Season One you sent him packing! Clearly you guys are a bunch of inconsistent namby pamby producer pawns that can't make up your minds from season to season and challenge to challenge.

The important thing to realize here is that as judges we absolutely strive for consistency, but the context changes with each and every challenge, thus subtly altering the debate. We don't say to ourselves, "Aha, Selves! The rule is that leaving a dish off means automatic disqualification!" We say, "In this case, leaving the dish off overshadowed the other factors." In an episode of Season One we argued whether it was worse to leave off a major part of a dish or serve something so bad it was practically inedible. In that particular case, inedible was worse.

This never comes up when there's a clear winner or clear loser to a challenge. It's when the results are close that other factors come into play - two dishes are neck to neck, so we ask ourselves who stepped up? Who played it safe? Who forgot something, vs. who forged forward with a bad dish? It is simply impossible for us to cleave to some strictly defined criteria when the context shifts - sometimes in subtle ways - from challenge to challenge. Did we discuss that Tre had stepping up and taken leadership? You bet we did. But in the same breath we all had to agree, he f**ked it up. The food he served was terrible. We didn't send him home for sticking his neck out, we sent him home for doing a bad job.

And when we're debating, we rarely stop to think about how it will seem once edited into a scant three minutes (or frankly, what will contribute to the episode's drama - an impossible abstraction at that stage of the game.) We're usually too focused on the food, and we assume the gist of our long debates will make it into the episode. Often it does. But when some of it doesn't (and to be fair, the editors are charged with reducing hours of debate down accurately AND creating enough nail-biting drama to keep you from clicking over to Pimp My Ride) it makes the judging seem inconsistent and hence, unfair. I get it. I really do.

And herein lies the central maddening reality of reality TV. A typical judge's table debate lasts for about two hours, and sometimes much longer. Trust me when I say you don't want to watch it in real time - it's edited for a good reason. But in the editing, some information, some key factors or trains of thoughts, by necessity are left out. When Mia chose to pull herself out of the competition in Season Two, we let her go. We told Howie the same thing in last week's episode - you can leave, dude, but the decision of who goes home isn't yours to make. When he realized that martyring himself wasn't necessarily going to spare one of his colleagues, he opted to stay. Sadly, when the editors make their choices, many of these details lose out to the overriding narrative thrust a one-hour program demands. I'm not going to lie, it bothers me too. But I don't see a way around it other than, say, writing a blog after the hatchet job is done.

Best of luck to you, C.J. You're a great guy, with a towering sense of humor to match your height. You will be missed.

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