As Tom says, it's all about the ingredients. Five years ago, I was the winning contestant in a British food reality show and the reason I won isn't because I'm a particularly accomplished chef - I'm not - but because I knew where to get the best ingredients. In a sense, it wasn't a level playing field. As the only food critic among the cheftestants I had an unfair advantage: I know just how important the ingredients are. The centrepiece of my winning dish was a beef fillet that I bought from Lidgates, probably the best butcher in London. It cost $120, which is a lot given that it only had to feed five people, but it was worth every cent. It had come from a cow that had been reared on Prince Charles' farm in Scotland. Our future king is famous for once having confessed that he liked talking to plants, and I joked at the time that the reason my cow tasted so good was because the grass it had eaten had been spoken to by Prince Charles himself.
In last night's episode of Top Chef, the contestants were lucky enough to work with some of the best ingredients in America - and, to be frank, the results should have been more spectacular. The best chefs, by a country mile, were Stefan, Jamie, and Carla, but they had a slight advantage in that they only had to cook chicken. Of course, chicken can be cooked a hundred different ways, but the way you cook it isn't dictated by the quality of the animal - at least, not primarily. I like my chicken on the bone with the skin on, but it's always going to taste better that way, irrespective of how it's reared.
Not so lamb and pork. Both teams decided to cut the fat off their protein and de-bone it, which would have been the right decision if the beasts in question had been of a lower quality. The point of preparing lamb in this way, for instance, and then tenderising it, marinating it and rolling it, is to try and pep it up a bit, not trusting in its natural flavour. But for these particular animals - lovingly reared in some of the nicest farmland in the country - it was a cardinal sin. It was the equivalent of taking a fillet of beef from Lidgates and then grinding it up and making a chili out of it. In retrospect, I feel bad about saying Ariane can't cook, but I was angry about the sacrilegious treatment of the Stone Barns livestock. All of the chefs in Team Lamb and Team Pork screwed up, but she was the most culpable. By butchering, tenderising, and marinating that lamb she turned what had been a very special ingredient into just another piece of meat.
In Ariane's defense, Padma pointed out that she can cook - she proved that earlier in the season. However, Tom made it clear to me from the get-go that when it comes to eliminations the judges have to base their decision entirely on the food that's been cooked in that round. We have to disregard everything they've done before, including the Quickfires in that episode. On that basis, I think we made the right call.
For more about Toby, visit his Web site at www.tobyyoung.co.uk