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Cooking at "the Company"

Tom Colicchio takes you behind-the-scenes at the CIA.

By Tom Colicchio

OK, so everyone finally got what they want: Alex is gone. But he didn’t go home for alleged cheating, he didn’t go home for not pulling his weight. The reason he’s gone is the reason everyone goes: he made the worst dish of the episode. More on that, below.   And for folks still upset about Kenny’s departure last week: This is a single-tournament style competition. It’s not the World Cup, where you can lose a match but still progress. It’s not a cumulative competition, for a host of solid reasons that all serve the quality of the show, not the least of which is that if it were, it would render the weekly guest judges irrelevant. If you lose a game, you’re out. It’s always been that way. Our cheftestants are talented chefs, and our viewers develop their favorites, and only one of the group will never find him/herself eliminated at some point along the road for giving us the weakest dish in the challenge at hand. A bad day can cost a strong contestant the whole competition. As I say all the time, it’s all about that day’s food.     But before we get into the food, let’s talk about CIA Headquarters in Langley, in McLean, VA, a few miles west of DC, along the Potomac. It was so interesting to shoot an episode there. Security was incredibly tight, as you can imagine. Getting into the building was a process. But once you’d passed the spy museum on the ground floor, the rest of the building looked like any other office building. And yet you knew you weren’t in an ordinary building. We didn’t just have to turn off our cell phones, we had to turn them in. Those of us working on the show could not use our normal means of communicating during production. They make the shoot run smoothly, so that aspect of production was more challenging, but in a fun way. And once we were on the premises, we had to stay in our small areas.  If anyone strayed, however inadvertently, some official type would appear at your elbow to put you back where you belonged. It really makes you wonder just what’s going on in that building. But they couldn’t have been nicer. They loaded us up on the way out with all sorts of CIA goodies, such as cufflinks, sticky notes, and attaché cases for our computers. I can keep feeling like a spy for a long time to come … as long as my seventeen year old doesn’t abscond with absolutely everything I brought home.   Most interesting to me is that Leon Panetta is a real foodie! I’d actually met him once before at a food event in Monterey –- it was the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Leadership Conference, and he was attending one of the parties. He is quite knowledgeable about food. In fact, all of the CIA folks at the table at Langley were selected because they really loved food and/or they really loved the show, which meant that we had the pleasure of receiving really insightful feedback from them about what they were sampling.   So the challenge here was to “disguise” a well-known dish  This was an opportunity for chefs to get really creative and playful, to have a great time showing us their skills. Two of the chefs who wound up on the bottom failed in the creativity department: Amanda turned a soup into … a soup.  nd Angelo seemed to have phoned it in, presenting us with what was seemingly Beef Wellington in Groucho Marx glasses. In addition, the dishes were not executed particularly well. As you saw, the marmalade in Amanda’s dish rendered the whole dish excessively sweet, and Angelo’s beef was tough. Unfortunately for Alex, however, his dish failed by going too far in the other direction. While he tried very hard to disguise his dish, Wylie was correct in stating that the disguise was ultimately simply its bad execution. Stunningly bad. Chefs have gone home for overreaching –- here, Alex tried to do things he’d never done before, and every single component of the dish was disastrous. I didn’t mean to be harsh for harshness’s sake when I said that the meat was tough, I’ve had better fried mozzarella at a state fair and better tortelloni out of a box. Sadly, that was just straight-up honest and true.     As for the three top dishes in the challenge –- the chefs met the criteria for the challenge and executed terrific dishes. Kelly’s broth was flavorful and her “disguise” a true re-conceptualization of the original dish. Ed executed a complex array of components beautifully, and Tiffany presented a wonderfully creative “disguise” of a gyro that was simply delicious. Really delicious. Some of our contestants started strong and have been losing ground. Tiffany, however, has been bringing it on as the pressure’s mounted.   We’re down to six and closing in on the finale. As is true for those fine Americans working for the CIA, and as Alex himself said in his exit interview, there will be absolutely no room for error from here on out.

How to Watch

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

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