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Desert Heat

Tom explains the judging criteria and what he hoped for during the ranch challenge.

By Tom Colicchio

I want to take a moment to thank you all for watching Top Chef and reading my blog. I also really appreciate that so many of you feel compelled enough by what you read to write a response. Though I don’t have time to reply to them all, when I see enough comments in a particular vein, I try to address them here. Since people are asking about judging criteria, I thought I’d give you some insight into how the show and the judging go down:

We shoot a season in 20 days, two days per episode. During that time, we judges are not allowed to interact with the contestants at all. So the whole “reality” aspect of the program? We don’t see it until you do. The “villains,” so to speak, the “nice guys,” the crowd favorites and least favorites … we don’t know the personalities. For example, we didn’t know that Mattin was lying at the Judges' Table about negging the asparagus in the volute in Episode Four. I learned about it the same way you did, by watching the edited episode. We have never made decisions about whom to send home based on who or what might be more interesting or “make better TV.”  We couldn’t if we wanted to … which we don’t, anyway. We judge the food, plain and simple, and it’s the food that determines who will be packing his/her knives.

So let’s talk about that for a moment.  Some people, assuming that we’re hungrier when we first sit down to judge than we are by the end, have wondered whether we are kinder to the first dish than the last. The answer is no. When we judge the dishes, we’re just tasting them, as opposed to hunkering down and eating. In fact, we’re still hungry after the last dish and often go out for dinner directly after judging! So the earlier dishes have no advantage over the later ones. Other people have wondered whether the dishes should be judged “blind” in order to ensure fairness in judging. Again, no, and here’s why. First of all, as I wrote above, we don’t know the contestants as people and so are not influenced by their personalities. Second, we quickly learn chefs’ particular styles of cooking from both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges and thus, even were we to taste the food “blind,” we’d still be able to tell, with about 90% accuracy, who made which dish. So judging “blind” doesn’t eliminate propensities for bias.

Here’s what does: judging the food on particular criteria. And here are the criteria we use: First and foremost, when tasting the food we look to see if, technically, it was prepared correctly or whether it was overcooked or undercooked. After that, we check to see whether it was correctly seasoned, by which I’m talking about whether it was salted correctly, because salt has the ability to bring out the other three types of taste you experience on your tongue, i.e., sweetness, bitterness and sourness. Then we look at how items are cut. Are they cut evenly?  If so, they will cook evenly. We look at food combinations to see if the proportions are harmonious. And lastly, we look at presentation, but usually only when it is particularly ugly. If veggies are cooked correctly, they’ll stay green; if not, they’ll turn brown. How something is cut will affect presentation. We also just take note of whether, as with all great chefs, a personal style is emerging in a consistent way, or whether they’re just all over the place. Often we’ve seen a chef come in with a particular style and then, part-way through the competition, begin mimicking everyone else. These chefs tend to flame out; they don’t make it to the final four, and, frankly, they’re not yet secure and mature enough as chefs to be there. We do look at originality, as with Bryan’s winning take on chips and guacamole in Episode Two, or Kevin’s bacon jam, which was utterly original, different, and very, very good. I knew exactly where Bryan’s dish for Joel Robuchon came from – he adapted a dish from Thomas Keller – but he did make it his own. And, even hearkening back to prior seasons, most of our viewers were not familiar with molecular gastronomy and thought that Marcel was innovating, whereas, in fact, his techniques had been around for at least a decade and he wasn’t being particular novel in his application of it but was solidly adept at what he was doing.

You’ll notice that we judges are seldom in disagreement. This is because we are always applying the criteria I just outlined above, and, in doing so, tend to reach similar conclusions. We’re not applying whim or personal preference; the dishes themselves tend to give each of us the same basic information upon which to base our decisions.

Applying all of the above to this week’s challenge: 

First, let me digress and say that what I liked about this challenge was the chance to get off the strip. There’s a vast desert out there, and it was neat to see a whole different side of Vegas.  What didn’t work? The heat. It was too hot to cook, too hot to eat … that heat was obnoxious.  And while the idea of cooking over an open flame was nice in the abstract, in actuality the “fire pits” were propane, so they were no big deal to cook on. The other thing I didn’t like about the challenge was that it was too open-ended. The chefs were not asked to do anything food-wise that tied into their being on a ranch. Yes, it was a fun idea to have the chefs sleep and cook in the great outdoors, but as with the use of cactus in the Quickfire Challenge, I would have liked to have seen the challenge more closely connected on a food level with the life of the ranch. Interestingly enough, not one cheftestant cooked steak. I was so surprised by that.

As our cheftestants didn’t know what they’d find in terms of kitchen when they arrived, you’d think that they would have planned dishes that were simple and executable. You know you’re going to a ranch; the odds are good you’d succeed with something that works really well on a grill. Take any piece of meat, fowl, even fish, put a fruit-based or tomato-based salsa with it, add a little spice and a little acid, and you’re set. And, as I said, keep it simple. This is basically what Bryan did: Polenta, a pork loin, some dandelion greens. It was straightforward, and he was able to control the cooking and the seasoning. Contrast that simple game plan with grilling lettuce leaves and such. There was too much that could go wrong. Furthermore, everyone expressed such concern about the cooking elements, but we didn’t hear a peep about the refrigeration, which should have been considered. These chefs spent time around the pool at their digs. They knew it was hot out in the Vegas area. Maybe Robin’s shrimp turned overnight. One way or another, the dishes we were served this episode were the worst of the season to date.

Mattin was the Dauphin of the Overplan. We’ve said this over and over again, even in this very season: Why do three things when you could focus your energies on doing one well? And he said over and over that he does Basque food, but I didn’t see much of that during the season.  Why didn’t he do any? He may have proved far more successful had he applied his particular body of knowledge to these challenges. Even so, though, he failed in the criteria outlined above. Ceviche must be cooked evenly. Mattin’s food was not cut evenly, thus it didn’t cook evenly. Some was cooked while some was raw.  Nor was it seasoned properly. As soon as it landed in my mouth, I tried to get it down and realized I just couldn’t.

And one note about last week’s challenge, in response to any postings that suggested that it was unfair to ask the cheftestants to prepare French sauces when they might not all have attended culinary schools: I never went to culinary school, and one of the first things I taught myself was how to prepare these basic sauces. Learning them is just Cooking 101; they are essential tools for every chef and are the first things that anyone wanting to enter the field must learn, whether in school, on the job, or by teaching oneself (as I did, at first). And not only are the sauces basic in terms of training, they are also a must regardless of what culture a chef has emerged from. Marcus Samuelssohn was born in Ethiopia and later raised in Sweden, and I can guarantee you he can make a béarnaise. It’s just very, very basic. Not knowing these sauces would be like being a woodworker and not knowing how to use sandpaper. You’ll note that there was not a single cheftestant who complained about this challenge, as they all recognized that they were being asked to do something utterly basic.  No one was at a disadvantage, regardless of training background. And at the end of the day, no one was disqualified for not knowing how to make one of these sauces. Hector was disqualified for improperly cooking a piece of meat. He could’ve served first, we could’ve tasted it blind…it wouldn’t have made a difference.

On a personal note, good hearing from you in response to Episode Two, Brian M.

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

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