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Up In Their Grills

Tom Colicchio talks BBQ, judging, and dealing with all the drama.

By Tom Colicchio

First off, I would like to address the groundswell of opinions on the boards from my last blog. A large number of people, citing Dave's downfall in Season One, wrote in that Howie should have been eliminated from the first episode because he ran out of time and left off part of his dish, rather than Clay, whose dish - while awful -- was complete. Apparently, there's a group of scorekeepers out there who carefully tally the results from episode to episode, and frame them as inviolable precedent. The only way for me to address this is to explain that there are no hard and fast rules; As a judge, I need to reserve the right to stay in the moment and use my judgment based on the overall criteria and the ever changing scenarios before us.

How to Watch

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

I'm not suggesting that we throw consistency out the window -- that would be ludicrous, and would undermine the credibility of the judging process; rather that our audiences understand that with each new challenge, the context changes perceptibly. What may make perfect sense in one challenge with one set of competitors is less relevant in a challenge with different parameters. As judges we need to stay on our feet and evaluate the totality of the experience, without an anxious recap of all episodes past; we need to go by our gut of what is fair and truthful given the challenge at hand.

So for last week's challenge -- though it may seem to many that we used different "rules" in determining that Howie could stay with an incomplete dish, vs. Dave in Season One, who was sent home from the finale after completing only two of three dishes; it wasn't so much that we changed the rules but that we allowed ourselves to evaluate on a whole number of criteria, each of which differed in importance, depending on the judge, and only some of which can actually make it into the edited episode.


As I saw it, first and foremost, the dish needed to taste great. Howie's incomplete dish still tasted good, despite its unfinished state; Clay's did not. Other factors we looked at were how well each chef adhered to the challenge and how well they used the products. At the end of protracted debate, we felt that Clay's full dish was worse than Howie's half dish. End of story. Why is this different than what went down in Season One with Dave? For one thing, it was a simple numbers game -- Dave got credit for winning one out of three challenges, losing another and failing to complete the third. Tiffani came in second for all three. That made her the stronger contender overall, so she came in second. It was never simply that Dave was let go because he failed to complete a challenge - that went into our overall calculations over three challenges, and it contributed (key word -- contributed) to his demise.

This brings us to tonight's episode. The challenge was to create an upscale BBQ dish. Our debate at the judges table hinged on the question, 'Was it better to have served an upscale dish that wasn't BBQ, or a BBQ dish that really wasn't upscale?' We went back and forth among ourselves about which element of the challenge mattered most. Ultimately, we decided it was the BBQ. By her own admission, Sandee didn't truly barbecue her dish. In her effort to go in a different direction than the others, she poached her lobster. Poaching means to cook a product very gently in liquid -- not a bad technique at all, but this was a grilling challenge. Sandee's dish was certainly upscale, but the grill became, in essence, a way to reheat a non-BBQ dish, and as such, just didn't meet the criteria of the challenge.

Sara, Micah and Brian all impressed us but in the end the judges felt it was Brian who really delivered. His dish fit the criteria -- sausage makes sense at a BBQ. By substituting seafood in the casing for ground meat, Brian elevated the dish to something more upscale, which is what the challenge demanded, and his execution was spot on. (That said, Brian gave himself a lot of credit for innovation, but seafood sausage is hardly breaking news; my friend David Waltuck, at NYC's Chanterelle, has been making seafood sausage for 30 years.) Still, the challenge wasn't to come up with something totally new. It was to meet the criteria skillfully and with imagination, which is what Brian did.

An interesting thing about being a judge on this show is that none of us are really privy to the back-stories and infighting that are developing behind the scenes until much later. And quite frankly we're better off not knowing. I don't care what anyone's hair looks like or if someone calls someone else a bitch, bitch -- it's not part of our job. Our first exposure to this kind of thing is when we finally see the completed episodes - in my case, a day or two before they air (so that I can write this blog.) A lot of the bickering between chefs happens while we're at the judge's table deliberating. (And for the curious out there, a typical judge's deliberation lasts two or more hours, all of which gets thrown in with the other 16-18 hours of footage apiece from six different cameras, and edited down into one 48-minute episode.) I get a kick out of the idea that we base our decisions on who makes a great character, or to perpetuate the 'drama' brewing between two chefs. Padma, Gail, Ted and I already have more than we can handle just debating the merits of each dish.

I guess where I'm going with this, is that I agreed to judge this show because I received an explicit promise from the producers that I would not be dictated to or used as a tool by a team of "creatives" looking to manufacture drama at the expense of honesty. Without exception, the producers of this show have upheld this since day one, and thereby allowed me to really deliver what I consider my job to be -- an honest, unflinching assessment of a group of aspiring young chefs being put through their paces. Our eagle-eyed viewers have noted the producer's disclaimer (which I understand is typical on shows of this type) and suggested it means that the final call can be made by our producers. While we do consult with them from time to time for clarification of the challenge, they leave the judging entirely to us.

Throughout the upcoming season, I can pretty much guarantee that my decisions won't please everyone, but they will always be arrived at honestly. I don't have a dog in this fight, but I do have my integrity, and it will remain intact. P.S. Carol: 6'8." Evan: Good for you for deciding to follow your passion and go to Cornell (my wife's alma mater, by the way). I have a feeling you're going to do great things. Don't look back, and when the time comes, I'll be honored to have your graduation dinner at Craft.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to a glitch on our server today, the original version of this blog was erased, unfortunately with all of the comments left on Wednesday 6/20 and Thursday 6/21. The best news was that Tom (as something of a perfectionist) took the time to re-work his blog, and sent us a new and improved version. We invite you to re-post your comments, and we apologize for any confusion. Thanks, readers!

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