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Capital Chefs Hit the Capitol

Tom Colicchio has a positive outlook on the rest of the season, and talks about the range of chefs competing.

By Tom Colicchio

Charles Dickens wrote of Washington D.C.: “It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions.” OK, I know he was thinking lofty – national governance, world affairs – he clearly wasn’t thinking ahead to our new group of cheftestants. But I also know that the quote would resonate with them. This is a determined group of chefs, and they’ve converged on our nation’s capital to win. 
I myself was glad to learn that Season 7 would be in D.C. D.C. has given rise to terrific chefs such as my friend Jean-Louis Palladin, who succumbed to lung cancer in 2001, but who was a driving force behind cooking in America. It has also attracted others, such as José Andrés, Jeffrey Buben at Vidalia, and Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve. And, on a more personal note, I was also glad that D.C. is an Acela-ride away from NYC, where my new baby and new restaurant both clamored for my attention on the days we weren’t shooting the show.
The chefs hit the ground running with a high stakes Quickfire Challenge. Coupling the fact that this was their very first challenge under time pressure with the fact that twenty thousand dollars was on the line made for some shaky hands trying to wield those knives. I’m quite sure that folks could have peeled potatoes and diced onions far more quickly and neatly than they did that day were they not under a double-whammy of pressure. In fact, you saw only one of three instances in which chefs cut themselves. (As a side note: I’m constantly amazed at the chefs who show up with dull knives! It’s ridiculous – sharpen the things before you arrive, please.)  But this is the type of competition in which one benefits from being thrown right into the deep end of the pool: the sooner the chefs get used to performing under extreme pressure, the sooner they’ll start performing well under extreme pressure, cooking more closely to how they would in their own restaurant kitchens … which the four who made it to the end of the Quickfire Challenge and cooked for us all did very adeptly. When you consider that they were cooking with only basically chicken, potatoes, and onions, under a significant time constraint, on a low burner on a windy rooftop, the food was all surprisingly good. They all thought creatively on their feet and delivered good dishes. I remember thinking, “this bodes well for the season.”And it did. A great many chefs delivered interesting dishes in the Elimination Challenge (a challenge that made me think of Congress, where folks from every part of the country come together on the Hill to represent their regions. Though that’s where the similarity ends!); there were just too many dishes to feature in the time allotted in the episode. In fact, it’s interesting to note that given how the challenge was structured, each group needed to have a winner and a loser while, in fact, one of the groups was so uniformly strong that any one of the dishes in that group could have won the whole challenge. Those four just happened to be squared off in a heat against each other, so one edged out the others in that group and emerged victorious while another of those very fine dishes landed its chef in the bottom. As for Angelo’s dish, it won the Challenge because it really did have more finesse than the rest. It was made with a sure hand, and the flavors were great, down to the light bacon sauce (I know, by the way, that it was deemed a “foam,” but a foam is, in essence, a light sauce – by whipping air into a sauce, you’re lightening it up). 
That said about Angelo’s dish, and notwithstanding the fact that he won both the Quickfire and Elimination Challenges this week, I’d like to be clear that this is an evenly matched group.  Remember: I tasted all of the food. I was glad to see creativity and skill across the board, despite the range in the nature and length of experience of the chefs, from a 51-year old instructor at the Culinary Institute of America to some whom I call "cooks’ cooks” — the type of line cooks who show up at the restaurant every night, roll their sleeves up, put their heads down and deliver excellent food. While these hardworking and reliable cooks are not always the most creative, you never know when one will suddenly emerge from the pack and distinguish him- or herself in a season of Top Chef! This season’s chefs got off to a great start.  They talked a lot of trash, as I discovered when watching the edited episode — I’d had no idea how much! — but they got off to a great start. With this group cooking, with Gail and Eric trading off judging, and with some interesting politicos coming on board to judge as well, it promises to be a great season. Thank you for tuning in and logging on!

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