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Deconstruction Junction: What’s Your Function?

Tom Colicchio won't take "I don't deconstruct" as an excuse!

By Tom Colicchio

I’m back from Los Angeles, from the Emmy Awards. Traveling with my six-week-old was its own reward. As for the Emmys, being nominated was its own reward, too. This is Top Chef’s third year being nominated and the first year that Padma and I received nominations in the “Best Host(s)” category, and the warm reception that we have received each year has been amazing. It floors me to have people whose work I admire come up to me and say, “Hey, man, I love your show!” I don’t feel that television is actually my industry – I’m a chef – so I always feel a bit like a fish out of water, but when I said that to someone at the Emmys, they said, “Well, guess what – it IS your industry now!” It feels great for our show to be acknowledged when you consider how many reality shows are out there. And I must add that Neil Patrick Harris KILLED – he was great! He’s been a guest judge on Top Chef Masters, so it was cool seeing him up there having so much fun and doing such an excellent job as MC.

But meanwhile, back in Vegas… There’s one more behind-the-scenes logistics I’d like to clarify before discussing this week’s challenge. People ask whether the first to serve are at a disadvantage because they have less time to cook … or, conversely, whether the last to serve are at a disadvantage because their food’s grown old and cold … OK, while I know that in this episode we saw all the cheftestants walk into the kitchen together, and it seemed as though everyone started and finished cooking for the Elimination Challenge at the same time, in actuality, the cook times for the Elimination Challenges are often staggered to comport with the order in which the dishes will be served. This time, it took us a half-hour to taste, give a few comments, clear, and get ready for the next course, so we staggered the start times by forty five minutes. Our director is not on the set – he is directing the multi-camera shoot from “Video Village,” a room in a remote location, where he is surrounded by screens showing him what each of the six cameras is doing, and he is communicating remotely with the camera crew, instructing them to zoom in and out to get the coverage he wants. Meanwhile, the set itself is the domain of the Assistant Director, Hogan, and he does a phenomenal job. From Day One, he has timed the staggered starts and finishes perfectly. Hot food never sits around. Every chef has the same exact amount of time to cook, their food is always served hot, and the whole enterprise runs like clockwork and works in a way that is fair to all the chefs.

A bunch of the chefs griped that this week’s challenge wasn’t fair to them all, because it called for them to deconstruct food, and a few of them said, “I don’t ‘do’ deconstructed food.” Nonsense. I’ll explain:  Deconstructed food has been going on for a while now. It’s an approach to a plating style, as well as a way of personalizing a dish and making it one’s own. For example, I used to do a dish based on minestrone soup: the veggies became the garnish for a roasted rack of lamb, the soup itself became a sauce, and in lieu of the minestrone noodles, I made a goat-cheese ravioli. Deconstruction is a great way for a chef to put his or her own stamp on a classic – I thought this was a great challenge. For Laurine and others to say “that’s not what I do” makes no sense to me. The point is to stretch yourself as a chef. You may not be a chef who does this often, but this doesn’t mean you can’t give the matter some thought, apply your knowledge of your craft, and come up with a thousand different ways to rework something so that the flavors are there along with the imagination.

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Mike (who never said the word “explode,” by the way!) created his dish brilliantly. Brilliantly. The dish had all the components of a Caesar Salad but was beautiful  If you ate it blindfolded, you’d think, “Oh, Caesar Salad!” Kevin edged him out for the win simply because his mole was just so flavorful. But they were both special. Ashley’s deconstructed pot roast worked so well because she had caramelized the meat so deeply that it had that flavor we all associate with pot roast, yet she reworked it to serve up a nice (and nice-looking) piece of meat. And her veggies all made good sense. Jennifer’s dish was a little sloppy in its presentation, and it wasn’t as adventurous as either the chicken mole or the Caesar Salad, but everything was beautifully prepared and the flavors melded extremely well. This challenge was two-pronged:  It was first a challenge to people’s creativity. And then the chefs had to have the chops to pull off what they’d conceived, as with a piece for classical guitar where being able to play the elaborate composition you’ve set down on paper is critical to its success. Robin’s dish sends that message home. She had immunity, but let’s face it: she didn’t have the technical proficiency to pull off her own concept, and so her flan and her chips both failed. Michael Isabella tried to be creative, using kale instead of spinach, for example, but the dish ultimately wasn’t that good. He had the imagination to break apart his Eggs Florentine, but, ultimately, he didn’t have the ability to put his conception back together. Contrast both of these with Kevin, who is a tremendous cook and who, thus, is able to actualize the dishes that spring from his great imagination.

As for the bottom three dishes, Ash’s didn’t fail because he didn’t understand deconstruction; it failed in part because Ash didn’t really know what a Shepherd’s Pie was, and in part because he made technical errors that kept the mashed potatoes from ever seeing the light of day, which is disastrous when one’s dish is Shepherd’s Pie. Laurine’s dish was also in the bottom three for technical reasons: it was so poorly executed.  And Ron was there for several reasons.  It was clear that he didn’t really know how to make paella properly to begin with, which is important to know in order to then deconstruct the dish. He showed a stunning failure of imagination in his approach to the challenge – off the top of my head, I can think of countless ways to deconstruct paella. How about making a risotto cake with a ragut of all the shellfish alongside it …?  And, as with the other two dishes in the bottom three, his was also a case of poor cooking. Not to mention poor presentation. And so, unfortunately for Ron, his dish outnumbered those of his peers in reasons it failed. As we said in the episode, it was unanimous among the judges (including our guest judge, Michelle Bernstein, who is a great cook and a bubbly person – she’s been on the show a bunch of times now, by the way, and we love having her with us) – we all felt that the choice for elimination was clear. I appreciated Ron’s gracious comments at the end of the episode, and I wish him all the best.

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