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Top Quarterback

Toby Young compares cooking at Le Bernardin to playing in the Super Bowl.

Suppose there was a reality show called "Top Quarterback" in which various high school football players competed to win a year’s supply of jockstraps and an invitation to Hugh Hefner’s 4th of July party. Now imagine a challenge in which the remaining contestants got to play in the Super Bowl. This week’s elimination challenge was a bit like that: Cooking at Le Bernardin is the culinary equivalent of playing in the Super Bowl.

Voted the 20th best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine, Le Bernardin has held on to its four-star rating in The New York Times for longer than anyone else and is one of only four places in the city to be awarded three Michelin stars. For professional chefs, the kitchen at Le Bernardin is hallowed ground — the sort of place that most of them can only dream about working in — so my heart goes out to the six contestants who participated in last night’s challenge. I can only imagine the pressure they were under.

That might explain some of the poor performances during the Quickfire. Under the watchful eye of Eric Ripert, the head chef of Le Bernardin, contestants who are normally quite robust seemed to go to pieces. Hosea complained of shaking hands, Carla butchered a sardine, and Leah just gave up. Only Stefan seemed unfazed by the experience, a testament to his Terminator-like ability to get the job done, no matter how many explosions are going off around him.

When it came to the Elimination Challenge, I wasn’t surprised that Stefan again emerged the winner. This was a test that played to his strengths in that he wasn’t required to produce an original dish, simply reproduce exactly what someone else had done. If Stefan has a shortcoming it is that his food lacks imagination, but no one could doubt his credentials as a skilled technician. As he said last night, he worked out immediately what was in the lobster dish he was expected to prepare – and of all the dishes the judges ate, his was the closest to the original.Deciding on the loser was more difficult because both Leah and Jamie produced very weak dishes. I was initially inclined to judge Leah more harshly, if only because I was so impressed by Eric Ripert’s original dish. I’m not a big fan of mahi-mahi, having been disappointed by it too often in the Caribbean, so I was blown away by the version I ate at Le Bernardin. Truly, Chef Ripert had taken a sow’s ear and turned it into a silk purse — or made lemonade out of lemons, as you say in America. Leah’s dish was much more like the tasteless, rubbery mahi-mahi I’ve encountered before.

In the end, though, it was right to send Jamie home. She’s a competent chef, as she’s demonstrated throughout the season, but something went horribly wrong with her braised celery. It was so poisonous, I couldn’t even taste the black bass. Leah’s dish was merely mediocre; Jamie’s was inedible. In Top Chef, as in the Super Bowl, it’s not about your track record, it’s about how you perform on the night.

For more about Toby, visit his Web site at

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