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It's Elementary, Watson

Tom Colicchio weighs in on profanity, Spike, and "mini cocktails."

By Tom Colicchio

Dear Friends:

How to Watch

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

First off, I'd like to share my regret at missing the last couple of weeks' blog. This has been a hectic time -- I am opening a new place in Connecticut on May 17th, and finishing up my third book (about sandwiches). My kitchen and cookbook duties had to come first.

But I have been reading your comments when I can, and I want to put in my two cents about one thing -- the language on the show. I'm flattered that people think I have enough input over the production and editing to impact this. In reality, we spend about six weeks shooting the show, during which time the judges are in a state of semi-isolation, kept from interacting with the chefs except in our kitchen walk-throughs and the Judges' Table. The "talking-head" interviews you see are filmed away from us and then woven later into the episode by the editorial staff. I see those interviews when you do -- when I watch the show. And you can be sure the chefs are on their best behavior when I stroll the kitchen, (though I wouldn't be surprised if they are swearing at my back, as I move on through.)

That said, I have to agree that the gutter language has been excessive. One of my biggest thrills has been meeting kids of all ages who tell me that Top Chef has induced them to try new foods, or get into the kitchen and start cooking. It bums me out to think that parents might decide to restrict their kids from watching because of the chefs' language. Admittedly, we cooks are a special, salty breed -- more longshoremen than naval officers, if you catch my drift. But I learned fairly early in my career that making my mark as a chef would require me to do more than just cook -- like interacting with the public and the press. In short, I cleaned up my act. The chefs in our competition would be wise to do the same, and hold their food and their demeanor to a high standard. To the extent that I am able, I will ask the producers to stay on the chefs about this in subsequent seasons. In the meantime, to the parents out there, my apologies.

This week's Elimination Challenge divided the chefs into four "element" teams --- Air, Water, Fire, and Earth, which then provided inspiration for an appetizer for a Meals on Wheels fundraiser. Meals on Wheels is a terrific charity that provides hot meals to the house-bound elderly. I love this organization, and was happy Top Chef could help raise awareness of their cause. As chefs we need to champion feeding everyone who's hungry, not just the fortunate few who can make a reservation.

This challenge once again gave our chefs the chance to adapt themselves to a typical off-site environment -- away from their own well-stocked kitchen. In this case, the chefs were sent into the vast kitchen at Marshall Field's which was well-equipped, but lacking in even the most basic staples. Lesson number one: Bring everything you think you'll need -- even salt and pepper.

The results of the challenge were pretty straightforward, so I won't reiterate them here. But I will give you a quick window into the judges' logic in picking both our winners and our losers.

First off, the winner: Fire was our favorite. Their dish of Grilled Shrimp with Miso-smoked Bacon, Deviled Aioli and Pickled Chili Salad was the best, both conceptually (grill, smoke, devil, chili) and technically. It worked, it looked good, and it tasted great. And though Dale clearly resented Lisa taking home the trip to Italy, I stand behind her as our choice of winner. Why? For one, Dale's big idea had been to prepare a deviled egg. Nothing wrong with deviled eggs, people, but this dish needed to be a "wow." Lisa was the one who talked him off that ledge, thankfully, relegating the idea to a witty garnish. She pushed the team to play to their strengths, introduced the idea of bacon, and then executed it well. The smoke and saltiness of the bacon is what pulled the entire dish together and elevated it from merely good to great. Buon Viaggo, Lisa.

For the losers, we were torn between Water and Earth. Cooking their salmon sous vide was in line with their theme, but the dish they served was marred by scales mixed throughout (not just on the fish, oddly enough). At one point in my walk-through, I noticed the team's salmon filets dumped unceremoniously in a plastic tub. This might sound like nitpicking, but even at the earliest stages of prep, it's essential that chefs work "clean." As an extra precaution, you'll see good cooks neatly line up their raw ingredients before they hit the pan so they can count them, look them over, etc. If the salmon had been lined up neatly in the bus tub, the scales that had failed to be rinsed away would have been visible. An errant scale now and then is one thing, but six or seven? That's just careless. An insipid parsnip puree also didn't help matters.

Earth's dish of Beef Carpaccio with a Wild Mushroom Salad and Sunchoke Aioli was fine conceptually (both mushrooms and sunchokes -- a tuber -- speak to me of "earth.") And yet mysteriously, nothing on the plate tasted even remotely earthy. I would have liked to see the team roast the mushrooms and sunchokes to help concentrate their earthy flavors. Instead, it seemed they were either boiled or quickly sauteed, to bland effect. Spike's comment that he would have liked to squeeze a lemon over the beef made no sense. How would that have helped increase the earthiness? At the end of the day, though, the team didn't lose because of the carpaccio; the "earth" in the dish hinged on the mushrooms, which didn't deliver on their earthy promise. Ming Tsai pointed out that, despite its flaws, Water's dish fulfilled it's mission, whereas Earth's did not. And since Zoi was responsible for the cornerstone of that dish, she was the one to go.

I felt that Spike's repudiation of Antonia afterwards was misguided. Both he and Zoi allowed the teammate with immunity to determine their course. (And for the record, I think Antonia was right to push her own agenda if she believed in it, immunity or not). If Spike felt so strongly about making soup, he should have put his foot down and said, "I'm making soup." (Lisa was a case in point: She refused to be steamrollered by her teammates into deviled eggs, and improved all of their fortunes by sticking to her guns.) Spike's anger at Zoi's dismissal was misdirected -- he should have turned it on himself.

I can't sign off without at least commenting on the trend of the "mini-cocktail" garnish; those "pomerinis" and "refreshers" and whatever-else-you-want-to-call-them rarely impress me. We're chefs, not mixologists. I'm not saying I'll never give a win to someone who prepares one -- IF the food alongside is the best in the competition. The wee-drink-on-a-plate comes across as slightly precious and hasn't yet pushed a single dish into the winning category. Still, without fail, dishes keep turning up with these silly shot glasses competing for real estate. My advice to our future contestants: Quit trying to be cute, and focus on the food. Tom

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