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On Rites, Rights, and Cooking Right

Tom Colicchio addresses Ashley's concerns about this week's challenge.

By Tom Colicchio

First of all, thanks to all who wrote for the sweeping, decisively positive response to the question I posed at the end of last week’s blog. It’s always been a goal of mine, in doing Top Chef, not only to help the chefs become better at their craft, but also to inspire the viewer to play and create in the kitchen and to enjoy the process more, perhaps, than before s/he tuned in. Keep the anecdotes coming … and keep on cooking ….

This week, our chefs cooked for joint bachelor/bachelorette parties, and Ashley spoke articulately about her dismay and discomfort cooking to celebrate an upcoming wedding when gay people are still denied the right to wed throughout most of the world. I’m going to go out on a limb and say a few words about same-sex marriage: First of all, part of the problem with the issue is that it is framed by opponents as a discussion of whether gay people should get special rights. This is specious – yes, special legislation or court decisions grant them the right to wed in a particular state, however this is done to ensure that they share equal protection under the law by finally being able to avail themselves of the same rights as everyone else.  They are not seeking special treatment, just equitable treatment. Second, religion has no business being part of the discussion. When a couple is wed in a house of worship, the officiant may be performing a religious rite, but as far as the law is concerned, that officiant has been authorized to perform a civil function, plain and simple. And even were same-sex marriage to be legalized by the state, no one would be holding a gun to the heads of the clergy to require them to perform a ceremony that their faith or personal creed does not condone.  Just as some rabbis would not perform my marriage to my wife because I wasn’t Jewish, clergy can decline performing same-sex marriages; gay couples can either find clergy willing to officiate or can be wed in a civil setting. The idea that religious leaders are continuing to shape state law is just wrong. The institution of marriage should be available to all. The idea that you can have a life-long partner and not make decisions for them in a hospital, not share in insurance benefits, not automatically have parental rights unless you are the birth parent, is just flat-out wrong.

As for whether that means that the Top Chef challenge should not have been centered around a wedding theme, as Ashley implied, however … I disagree. We’ve had two wedding ceremonies on Top Chef to date, one of them a gay wedding in San Francisco in Season 1, the other in Chicago in Season 4. And we’ve hosted a bridal shower before, in Season 5 in New York. It’s logical that we’d broach a wedding theme here in Vegas; it’s known for being a wedding town (Side note: I don’t believe the couple we cooked for were later married by an Elvis.) I understand how Ashley felt, but by logical extension, does this mean that she would never attend a friend’s wedding or prepare something for that wedding ceremony as a gift? If a couple came to her restaurant wanting to host their reception there, would she turn them away?

Having the men cook for the bachelorette party and the women for the bachelor party was done purely for fun and expedience; it made sense to structure the challenge that way, since entertainment at a bachelor party is usually provided by women and vice versa. There was no intent to make a statement about whether one gender can cook better than the other – I agree with Jen’s comment that it just didn’t matter. In past blogs, I’ve discussed gender differences in the kitchen, so I don’t need to get into that today. Any points I make below about “the men” or “the women” are referring to the teams in this challenge; I’m not making larger generalizations about male or female chefs.

The women remarked (with confidence and self-satisfaction) that the men seemed to be down to the wire as time was running out, and, indeed they were, but it was because their food was more intricate, with more thought put into it. While typically women tend to work better together (OK, one gender generalization), in this particular case the men did. For example, I truly believe that had the men seen the shiso leaf that Preeti was using, one of them would have said, point blank, “That looks terrible, lose it,” and it would’ve gone. The women here were trying to be more supportive and kind to one another, but in so doing they actually undid themselves as a team. Yes, they were ultimately cooking against each other, but first they had to overcome the team component and be the better team, so that none of them would wind up in the bottom four … and possibly going home.

Bryan clearly deserved the win. His dish was an example of how to take an old favorite and revise it freshly, originally, and delightfully. He was clearly thinking, “People drink tequila with chips and guacamole … how I can I make that dish more modern and more delicious in a single bite?” If you had given every one of our chefs the simple challenge of reconceiving chips and guacamole, I guarantee you that not one of the others would have done what Bryan did.  And the dish was not only creative, it was well seasoned and beautifully executed. His brother’s dish followed in that vein: he took all the fresh ingredients in the shot – the apple, the ginger, etc. – and reworked them deftly and delectably. Kevin’s dish also meets the criteria of being both conceptually creative and adroit in its execution. As a team, they were thinking way past the first and second step, as in a chess game, and then they had the chops to pull it all off. The flip side of that, using Preeti as an example once more, was her failure to realize that the salt in her marinade would cook her fish overnight. So while she had a concept, she couldn’t execute it. Eve cooked shrimp without seasoning it … at which point it was obviously too late to even try, though, amazingly, try she did. 

In general, though, the second episode confirms for me that we have here a group of very, very talented chefs. In the last couple of seasons, it almost seemed as though some of the chefs put their best feet forward at first and then slipped from there. This time, however, there are no one-trick ponies. It seems these chefs are going to continue to perform strongly from here forward.

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