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How Do You Say “Ouch” in French?

Tom Colicchio explains why the top dishes were so impressive and why Mattin wasn't the one to go home.

By Tom Colicchio

At this stage of the game, we are fielding enough comments both from contestants and viewers about the fact that the three (and now, with Jessie’s loss in this week’s Quickfire Challenge, four) first chefs to go home were women that it seems worth a comment from yours truly.  And so, a note about casting: The casting directors of Top Chef always cast an equal number of male and female contestants, but this is a ratio not seen in the industry itself. There are not nearly as many women as men in the field. In past blogs I’ve delved into the inequities facing women in the workplace, so I won’t reiterate it all here. More men typically try out to be contestants on Top Chef, giving us a larger male talent pool to draw from. In no way does this mean that women are somehow deficient as chefs. It is simply a matter of the numbers. For those of you ready to flame away that four women were the first to leave the show, consider this: we judge every challenge on the food in front of us and the considerations of that particular challenge. The sexist and patronizing thing to do would be to give special consideration to anyone due to his/her gender.

And I think it makes no sense whatsoever to suggest that if the editors have chosen to include a sexist remark by a particular cheftestant in a given season this means that Top Chef condones sexism. All it does is highlight the sexism of that particular chef.  If anything, it reflects well on the editors of the show, who have chosen to reveal an individual’s true colors rather than shield him from the censure of viewers.

This week’s is one Quickfire Challenge I can comment on, since I was actually there. As it featured the snail, let me take the opportunity to note that while there is such thing as a sea snail, it is a minor subclass of the species — generally, snails are not sea creatures. They can be found on land. Their meal of choice is grape leaves, and they are often found in vineyards, which might explain why they became a commonly used protein in France. The snails we presented to the chefs were live. However, to cook a live snail requires a lengthy purging process that the chefs wouldn’t have time to do. They were given snails that had been precooked, and just needed to be seasoned while being finished. This leveled the playing field, so that those chefs who had never before worked with snails weren’t put at that much of a disadvantage.  

Many of the dishes the chefs made weren’t even mentioned. For example, Michael V. made a lasagna of sorts with pasta and snails that was really good, but not given air time. Also not on air was our encouragement of the chefs not to make the traditional garlic-butter-snails dish. In general, a lot of the dishes succeeded. Kevin’s bacon jam was so good that while I have never before used any of the dishes that have come out of these challenges, I went home after shooting the season and immediately began working on a bacon jam – I worked it into a soft-shell crab dish that was on my Tom: Tuesday Dinner menu.

Harsh as it is to send an extra person home in a given episode, I like the idea of upping the stakes by throwing in a Quickfire Challenge in which someone will be eliminated, in addition to those in which someone will win money. These challenges keep the chefs on their feet and creating great dishes, as opposed to their saying, simply, “Well, I can’t be sent home for a Quickfire, so I just need to play it safe.” And I appreciated that rather than simply naming the worst dish and sending home the chef who created it, we identified the bottom three dishes and had the chefs who made them go right back into the kitchen and keep inventing. Working in restaurants, there are times when a bad dish goes out, and you can’t stop and bemoan the fact … you must just move on to the next, as these three chefs did. I believe that it was Jesse’s time to go. Looking back now over this season thus far, Jesse was consistently in the bottom of the Elimination Challenges, and while she may be a talented chef, competition isn’t for everyone – it doesn’t always bring out one’s best.

On the other hand, Kevin was the clear winner, and he was right to be ecstatic about his prize.  Sitting at a table full of the talented chefs who assembled for this meal would have been amazing enough, but having Joel Robuchon presiding over the meal was a dream come true.  His restaurants worldwide have garnered an amazing 25 Michelin Guide stars – the most of any chef in the world – and his restaurant Jamin was legendary. Joel is known for striving for perfection; every detail must be perfect. All chefs who have worked with him have stressed this about him: he’ll take a dish someone had worked hard on all afternoon and toss it if it isn’t perfect. He has honed methods and techniques down to how a fish is butchered so as to handle the fish with as little movement and as much efficiency as possible … and his chefs are to learn these methods and use them. They’re even to wear their aprons as he instructs. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him on several occasions. On one, a bunch of his chefs were in Vegas preparing to open one of his restaurants, and they were complaining about the products they were finding there, saying, “How are we supposed to cook with these?” They all came to eat at my steakhouse, and Joel said to them, “This is perfect, there’s nothing wrong with these products. We just have to find these products.” And he did.

Not only is Joel a paragon of excellence, he is also a food historian. It was amazing to have him with us. Esteemed as the group was, we were all hanging on his words, and his was always the last word. For a young chef like Kevin, this was an unparalleled experience.

Joel is all about taking classic dishes and modernizing the way they were done, using great ingredients and creating new twists. But to do so, you first need to know the classics. As Mark Kurlansky wrote in Choice Cuts (2002), “You have to be dominated by Escoffier [French chef, 1846-1935, who popularized French cooking] before rejecting him becomes meaningful.” 30years ago, when I started cooking, we were taught French food, true classics like a Chasseur, a Béarnaise, an Américaine. Unfortunately, these are not generally taught properly here in the States nowadays. A Sauce Américaine, for example, is not a lobster cream sauce.  Eli was wrong about that, and, unfortunately, a lobster cream sauce is just what he gave us.  Michael Isabella was right to say that he would admonish future chefs to “learn a Béarnaise.”  As we witnessed in the program, where Michael had the concept of deconstructing the Béarnaise, but Bryan had to walk him through how to execute that concept, all of our chefs should know the classics first.It’s funny – at this stage of the competition, we knew the chefs well enough to know that the winning dish was in the style of cooking that Bryan does, that it just didn’t seem like a Michael Isabella dish.

I loved this challenge, loved how it required the chefs to work collaboratively to pair a sauce and a protein. Ash couldn’t finish his dish because Hector’s meat wasn’t done on time. Ashley had a solid idea to flavor the classic volute with asparagus but was shot down by Mattin and, unfortunately, deferred to him. If done properly, this would have been entirely acceptable. I will note that I respect Ashley for not throwing Mattin under the bus when he lied about this at the Judge’s Table … and I think viewers will lose respect for Mattin for lying.

The two top dishes were head and shoulders above the rest. The rabbit dish was an amazing one. Michael made a thin “vermicelli” from a bunch of mustards, to which he added agar and let set. Agar holds up very well and doesn’t melt under heat. The “vermicelli” had the consistency of pasta but tasted like the mustard, and was just great. It was nice to see all the parts of the rabbit used in the execution of the dish, and Jen’s sauce was fantastic.

A note about the winning dish: remember how I said that the fish seemed simple, but I knew it involved a far more complex preparation than it seemed to? You can find out about a similar preparation of that fish in Thomas Keller’s book, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide (2008), on page 88. Bryan took the two top fillets, placed a thin layer of prosciutto between them, used a powder called Ajinomoto RM Transglutaminase (affectionately called “meat glue”) to glue them together, and sous vide them, cryovac-ing them. The flavors remain pure and the texture delicate. Bryan did this perfectly. While both leading dishes were excellent, we all just kept coming back to that fish in our discussions. It was simply the most memorable item we sampled in the whole challenge, and this is why it garnered Bryan the win.

Mattin’s poussin, by contrast, was way overcooked. It was seared, roasted, and then reheated in a pan. Mattin should have been basting it constantly to keep it moist. Mattin grew up in the Basque region of France, where the cooking is more Spanish than French, frankly, but even had he been living in the heart of Dordogne or Burgundy, living in France doesn’t give one a leg up on French cuisine. One can argue that the best French food in the U.S. is done by Thomas Keller, an American, at the French Laundry. Mattin was too self-confident going into this challenge. Lucky for him, Hector’s meat was as disastrous as it was, or Mattin would have found himself packing his knives over a classic French challenge. Ouch.

How to Watch

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


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