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Four-Star Forgeries

Tom Colicchio talks about the challenge at Le Bernardin and what it must have been like for the chefs to cook under Chef Eric Ripert.

As a child, I loved going crabbing and fishing with my grandfather. Growing up in an Italian family, crabs meant one thing: crab gravy. We would cook the crabs, clean them, remove the shells and simmer them in marinara. What does this have to do with eels? Everything. We’d often catch eels in the crab traps — a bonus. We’d fry them up with other fish we’d catch along the way and have a big fish fry along with the crab marinara, and, quite honestly, the fried eels were often the highlight of the meal. But that was the payoff for hard work on my part: Upon returning from fishing or crabbing with our catch, my grandfather would head upstairs for a nap, and I’d be left to clean all the fish, eels included.

Stefan’s method of nailing the head of the still-squirming dead eel is one way to do it. The other way, though not quite as gruesome, is still not for the squeamish. You cut through the other side of the neck, straight through the bone to the skin, without cutting all the way through the skin. You then work your thumb between the meat and the skin, take a dry rag, and grab the bone and whatever meat you can get some purchase on (with the towel, since it’s slimey), grab the head with one hand and strip the eel inside out with your other hand in one deft move. — There you have it – my eel-skinning technique. Good luck with it, y’all!

Moving from the slimey to the sublime: Le Bernardin, the only restaurant in New York to get four stars from The New York Times at the time it opened … and retain them. Eric Ripert has been a very good friend over the years, so I was hesitant to approach him about opening his restaurant to Top Chef. The producers of the show did, and I was so surprised that he agreed not only to permit Top Chef into his restaurant, but to do so on a night that the restaurant was open for service to other diners. It’s hard enough to provide perfect service over the course of an evening, never mind while six cameras are moving around the space, and yet the restaurant still managed to do so. It is a testament not only to Eric but to his entire team.Most chefs would be intimidated about going into Le Bernardin and cooking, with its deservedly exceptional reputation, and that of Eric. He was the chef de cuisine at the time of the tragic and unexpected death of chef/co-owner Gilbert Le Coze, and most people expected some sort of a hiccup when he suddenly assumed the reigns, but, in fact, there was not a moment’s dip in the caliber of the restaurant. Amazingly, Eric even elevated it. The restaurant has received an unprecedented four four-star reviews (1986, 1989, 1995 and 2005) thus far.

This challenge did not ask of the chefs that they create their own dishes, but it asked of them something equally important in becoming a great chef. A critical part of a chef’s training involves working under other great chefs, so the beginning of one’s career is always simply about imitating, as our chefs did in this challenge. Initially, a chef tries to emulate the greats, i.e., the Troisgros Brothers, Michel Gerard, and Georges Blanc, among others. Of course, you never know at the time whether you’ve prepared a given dish well, because the chef obviously doesn’t come to your house to review what you’ve done. In this challenge, though, the chefs got to receive Eric’s feedback in the moment, which was an amazing learning opportunity for them. Up-and-coming chefs are always working under other chefs until they get to that point in the development of their craft at which they’ve internalized the lessons learned, the imitation can stop, and they’re ready to find their own way. Hopefully they can then take what they’ve gleaned and apply it to their own work in a fresh, creative and exciting way.

The chefs stated repeatedly what an honor it was to have participated in this challenge, and a few commented on how jazzed they were by the experience. They’re right — it really was an honor, and I’m glad they recognized it for the tremendous opportunity and experience that it was.

Jamie expressed that Eric’s food really didn’t do much for her, and as misguided as that may be, I respect it. As good as Eric is, his work isn’t every chef’s cup of tea. I don’t know whether this affected Jamie’s enthusiasm for the challenge at hand; I do know that it was obvious to all the judges that hers was the weakest dish. That celery was inedible. While we selected the top three and bottom three dishes and discussed them as such, five of the six were actually well done, and the only chef that any of us ever considered sending home that night was Jamie.  She knew it, too. All of the chefs knew what was working and what wasn’t. If you’re a diver, you know as you’re diving whether you’ve nailed the dive or whether you’re going over the vertical point on entry. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to diving into the final challenges as we near the season finale …

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