Home Sweet City

Home Sweet City

Top Chef's head judge talks about the experience of competing in New York.

Welcome back to Top Chef! Thank you for tuning in for Season Five. I'm excited about the chefs who have assembled to compete this season. And welcome, too, to my hometown, New York City. To say that I'm glad we're here this season is an understatement. Aside from the obvious - staying put, being in my own home with my wife and son, not living out of suitcases - I'm also pleased to have this season of Top Chef happen in the city that is arguably the restaurant capital not only of the country but of the world.

Growing up a half-hour outside of New York, the city always had a pull for me, because I knew that that's where the food world was. But I saw that the city had one of two effects on those who grew up in its shadow: either you'd never go because you were too intimidated, or you felt the pull that I did, in which case the question was simply (and not so simply, as it turns out) "when." I faced this important question twice. I had been working in restaurants for almost nine years before I came to New York to work for the first time. My first job in the big city was at the Quilted Giraffe, where, after a scant four months, they gave me a sous-chef position. What a great intro to New York! I was working in what was widely considered one of the three top restaurants in the New York and, perhaps, the country. Coming off of that experience, my next move, logically, would have been to take a chef's position. But I chose to do so not in New York City, but back in New Jersey - I knew a chef should have a decidedly unique style and I wanted to develop and hone mine out of the spotlight. I worked in New Jersey for a year, then worked with Alfred Portale, and then traveled and did a stage in France. It was only all of these that I came back to New York and worked as a chef at Mondrian. This city has been my home ever since, and after all these years it still inspires both awe and love. I believe that all of our competing chefs this season were simultaneously excited and intimidated about coming to New York. If you're working in Miami or Boulder, you always wonder, "Can I compete in New York?" I find it interesting, for example, that Fabio had never come to New York; he went straight from Italy to California ... perhaps in anticipation of coming here eventually. The question we all face and must decide for ourselves is "Am I happy to be a big fish in a small pond somewhere else ... or do I want to take a shot at the top?" New York draws the best from everywhere, all coming here trying to make it. And even those who don't make it to the top and who are toiling somewhere in the middle here in NYC are still operating at a level of professionalism and creativity above that at the top of the heap in many other places. Using acting as a metaphor, New York is not like Hollywood, where you might luck into a break. Here, you must either do something so unique and different as to be noteworthy, like David Chang did with Momofuku, or you must rise to the top through sheer excellence, like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for example. There are several routes by which one might make it in New York, but one way or another, this city brings out the absolute best - and the worst - in everybody who comes and tries. The best, for obvious reasons. The worst, because there's something about coming here and being so driven that you tend to put blinders on and forget everything else the city has to offer, and you don't go out and experience it all. I speak from personal experience: I am so hyper-focused on Manhattan, for example, that it was a long time before I discovered the joys and wonders of Brighton Beach, of Ozone Park. Some of the best Chinese food in the world, for example, is in Queens. Did you know that there is a neighborhood in Queens that is the single most diverse neighborhood in the entire world? In its grade school at one point in recent years there were students speaking fifty-seven different languages and dialects. Fifty-seven. I didn't make that up - it's true. And the neighborhood is a thriving and harmonious community. Full of great food, I might add. That community highlights what's amazing about New York. You are allowed to be your fullest self here, to bring everything with you, your food, your culture. You are encouraged not to assimilate. Mayor John Lindsay once said of the city he governed that "not only is New York the nation's melting pot, it is also the casserole, the chafing dish and the charcoal grill". He would have liked our first Elimination Challenge, which proved him right.

I loved this challenge, which was to go to a randomly assigned neighborhood such as Little Italy, Chinatown, Astoria or Brighton Beach, shop there, and then return to the Top Chef kitchen to create a meal inspired by what that neighborhood had to offer. I thought it was the perfect challenge to kick off this season. It gave us a chance to see the real New York, not just the rarified high-end restaurants that get all of the press. And it gave us an opportunity to meet our Season Five chefs and get to know their personalities and particular styles. As you saw on the show tonight, some of the chefs were jazzed and motivated by the challenge; others were intimidated. A word about that, if I may: I think this issue of inspiration vs. intimidation spoke not only to the chefs' individual personalities, but to their levels of experience as chefs, as well. I would love nothing better than to find a culinary student with such outsized talent that it preempts the need for experience, but I believe that a chef needs both. Remember, I wrote above that I spent nine years working with food before I came to New York. Not only working, but traveling, eating, experiencing food. A chef with more experience of the world and its food would not be intimidated by the thought of cooking with foods from another region, whether she or he had ever done so before. Rather, she or he would say "I understand this - it's still just cooking." The point of our challenge was for the chefs to be inspired by new ingredients and then decide how to make them their own. In fact, that's what American cooking is about. Hosea's dish is a good example of what I'm talking about. Hosea was clearly working with his Russian theme, serving smoked fish, caviar and potato pancakes, or latkes. (Each latke, by the way, was flavored to correspond with the sauce with which it was paired.) And yet Hosea managed to give us a clear sense of his own plating style; though it contained traditional Russian elements, the plate looked very modern. He didn't make the top three, but the dish was beautifully executed.

Let's contrast this with Patrick, still a culinary student, who simply lacks experience. Some things can't be learned in school - one must travel. This is why, for example, it's so important to do a stage if you're studying French food. There, you learn why; here, you just learn how. Food in Alsace is different than in Brittany or the Loire Valley. Similarly, as Jean-Georges pointed out, you can't just put bok choy on a plate and call it "Chinese Food." And what, if anything, did Patrick do to make that piece of salmon reflect Chinatown? He could have marinated it in plum wine, sesame oil, ginger...anything. There was nothing about the salmon that "spoke Chinese." This is why I believe a student just isn't ready to contend in this competition. Experience traveling, gaining familiarity with food and coming to understand it would have enabled Patrick to look at the unique items in Chinatown, put them together and make them his own.

One way Patrick might have been more successful would have been to think of one Chinese dish he loved - orange-flavored beef, for example, think about what was in that dish - beef cut thin, dipped in corn starch and fried; sauce with sezhuan peppers and burnt orange peel, and then play with how to take those flavors and turn them into a dish he could call his own. Hmmm ... perhaps take a short rib, braise it in orange and the chilis and some of the spices. What else could be brought in? What else would work with this? Chinese long beans, great in garlic and soy. OK. Maybe take the short-rib, mince it, and turn it into a wonton? Etc. I encourage chefs to take the idea of a full dish and rework it, making it your own, as Hosea did so successfully. Like Hosea, Eugene's experience as a chef yielded him success in this Elimination Challenge. He didn't know anything about Indian food. He didn't have to - he's a smart enough cook, who cooked his way past the problem. Knowing how to cook lamb and how to cook curry were enough to get him through this challenge. Although Padma said that he created an authentic Indian dish, it is not traditionally made with rack of lamb. Alex used the knowledge of his own culture's cuisine and was excited to adapt it. Jamie took the idea of Greek ingredients - olives, eggplant puree - and then did her own play on a Greek Salad. It wasn't a Greek dish per se. It didn't have to be. The challenge was not to make an authentic dish but, rather, to use the neighborhood and foods for inspiration. If I take a vacation in Spain and eat around, it's almost impossible for me not to bring the ideas back and play with them. I find ingredients in my travels and then work them into what I do back home. If you're in a creative field, everything you do out in the world will find its expression in your work. Paul Simon traveled to Africa, to Brazil, and created albums that were fusions. His inspirations found their way into both the music and the lyrics in ways that were seamless, not forced.

By the way, while Patrick had the technique but not the inspiration, Ariane had the inspiration but not the technique. Her undercooking of the farro was such a rudimentary mistake that we just could not give her a pass on it. She knew it, too. I could all but see her kicking herself. I must add that I was a bit taken aback by her defense of her lack of knowledge of Mediterranean cuisine despite living so close to New York. She commented, basically, that she didn't need to explore because at home she had books to refer to were she faced with a particular cooking challenge. I have always taken to heart the words of Jacques Pepin, who wrote in La Technique not to read the book as a book, but, rather, to treat it as an apprenticeship. Don't just read ... DO. Cook your way through. In other words, gain experience.

So here we are, with chefs from diverse backgrounds and even diverse countries, all converging in New York for these next several weeks. We started them off with little apples in their first Quickfire Challenge. Now we'll see what the Big Apple has in store for each of them...

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