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Field Trip

Tom Colicchio was surprised at the difficulties the chefs had in the Elimination Challenge.

By Tom Colicchio

Hello from Australia. I know a lot of you are experiencing record-breaking heat and humidity Stateside. Not to rub it in or anything, but it’s outright cold here. And beautiful. As I mentioned last week, though, I have less time than usual and have to be brief in my comments here.
If you know anything about my work as a chef and about my restaurants – or even if you’ve just read blogs from seasons past – you’ll know that I’m one of the original proponents of the slow-food, a.k.a. farm-to-table movement and a huge champion of the small farmer. So I was really looking forward to this week’s Elimination Challenge at Ayrshire Farm. Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, VA, is a historic farm dedicated to raising rare livestock humanely and heirloom produce organically and sustainably. They practice both crop and grazing rotation, and they plant in ways that intentionally create habitats that support beneficial insects and other wildlife while confusing and deterring undesirable ones, rendering pesticides redundant and unnecessary. Needless to say, the proteins and produce selections for the Elimination Challenge were gorgeous.   
Our chefs were not told in advance what would greet them in the way of ingredients when they arrived at Ayrshire Farms. I don’t believe this to be the whopping challenge they made it out to be. As I’ve written about more than once, I visit my local Farmers’ Market throughout the week and determine dishes for that evening on the spot, based upon the produce and proteins that most call out to me as I pass through the market. The chefs at my various restaurants in other cities do the same and call me to discuss ideas based on what they’re finding. Our chefs knew that they’d be at a farm for this Elimination Challenge – I’m sure that they could well imagine the variety of proteins they’d be facing, and even, based on the season and region, which produce they might be given. And they could be confident that whatever they chose would pair well together, since “if it grows together, it goes together.” 
Which is why I was surprised that Tim presented a dish that seemed to suggest a total lack of inspiration. It was neither here nor there. He seemed not to know what he wanted to create, and so he gave us a “non-dish.” You can’t go through the motions of cooking without a firm direction and believe that the outcome will be a dish. Rather, you must take the ingredients you’ve decided to use and must have in your mind’s eye a concept for a dish you wish to turn them into. The dish should honor the ingredients, feature them, and help them to shine. But it is by having just such a concept that you accomplish this. Tim gave us bland turnips and asparagus. The lack of vision outweighed the errors Amanda made with her soup and the poor choice of presentation Stephen made with his salad – at least each had a strong vision and committed her/himself to it.Andrea’s pork loin was really well made, and paired beautifully with Kelly’s apples and beets.  And please all note for the record that Kelly was praised for her dessert, not sent home for it!  Finally, accidents are sometimes happy – I’m glad Kevin lost the cauliflower he was going to use for his couscous, because the one he made was the perfect complement to Kenny’s standout hot and sour curried eggplant. 
All in all, the chefs did quite well, and, in general, they seemed to respond with enthusiasm to the ingredients before them and to being right out on the farm from which those ingredients were drawn. Now let’s see what happens when we get them back into the city….

How to Watch

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

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