You should know that under the Judges' Table, just out of sight of the cameras, are apple boxes containing various beverages. Most of the time, Padma's drinking some kind of herbal tea. But Tom and I? By the end of the day, we've got two shaker glasses filled with gin and tonics working under there. And after 16 hours of eating, evaluating, arguing over who stays and who goes? There's no skimping on the gin.
I know, I'm supposed to be a heartless, evil, snarky bastard. But actually, I'm rooting for these contestants. All of them. I like cooks. I think anybody who cooks with pride is automatically on the side of the angels. I want them to do well.
Even more so with his particular group of 18. They are, after all, the "All-Stars." The Veterans. Who've been to this rodeo before. Who've endured the slings and arrows, experienced the heartbreak of almost, almost making it -- before either choking at the penultimate moment (Richard Blais), having an inexplicable brain fart which requires you to drown scallops in butterscotch sauce (Dale Talde), become debilitatingly ill (Angelo Sosa), or falling victim to the Far-More-Evil-Than-Me Eric Ripert (Tiffany Derry).
All were mighty warriors, brought low by a strange confluence of bad luck, bad timing, bad decision making, "just-not-your-day" syndrome, tough judging, or extraterrestrial visitation that can happen at any time to the best of professionals.
In fact, one of the joys of watching Top Chef is seeing a talented cook reach the limits of their talent and experience yet somehow, dig deep, find something more -- and push through to victory.
More painful is watching an otherwise talented chef walk slowly and with eyes wide open into a haymaker for no apparent reason. These chefs are older, smarter, and presumably wiser now, which should make for a very exciting season.
No one likes their work to be mocked. Fabio in particular. And yet mock I did. I couldn't help it. I mean, look at that thing. Its supreme ugliness only reinforced and highlighted by its presentation on paper, bringing to mind immediately and inevitably, the command oft directed at a bad puppy: "Go on the paper! The paper!!"
Did it taste that bad? Did it -- and by extension -- Fabio, deserve the kind of scorn I heaped on him?
I don't know. Clearly, I hurt his feelings. And seeing that, I feel bad. Really. To the extent that you can like anyone you know only from TV, I like Fabio. And I liked how he stood up for himself and gave some back at Judges' Table. If I were an employer looking to hire a chef from the among the All Stars, I'd think very seriously about Fabio. He's smart, likable, steady, level-headed in a crisis, and hence not easily flustered -- and I'm guessing he's a much better chef than evidenced on this first day, where he was challenged to "fix" a dish he's surely had plenty of time to think about. But...look at that thing. Really! Look again. I should confess that one of the things I get predictably cranky about these days is when somebody screws up what should have been a simple, good bowl or plate of pasta. I spend a LOT of time in Italy -- and eating Italian food. And admittedly, my threshold for cranky is a little lower when something that should be right goes, for no reason that I can see, terribly wrong. Or worse, if a chef goes deliberately out of his way to complicate or ruin a pasta. It's why I can barely drive by an Olive Garden without wanting to slam on the brakes and get stabby with strangers. It's why Old Spaghetti Factories and Macaroni Grills across America have a blurry head shot of mine near the door. If I'm seen lurking anywhere near their establishments, the local constabulary is summoned and I am tasered, beaten, cuffed, and securely detained immediately. Which is probably for the best.
Challenged to remake a dish he never liked in the first place, Fabio piled mistake on top of mistake -- like a painter overworking a painting.
The same damn pasta, sauced less (a lot less), served in a bowl rather than on paper ... and without the greasy fried basil leaves -- while not something that would have gotten Fabio a win, would surely have kept him off the firing line.
Stephen Asprinio was a lucky man on Week One. His "homage" to soup dumplings and spring rolls -- whatever the f--- it was, was diabolical. A pu-pu platter from Hell. If Hell was a bad tiki bar in a Long Island strip mall. I think I asked him at Judges' Table: " Have you ever had a GOOD soup dumpling?" I can't believe for a second he ever has. As a general rule, on Top Chef it's seldom a good idea to over reach. If you don't know what you're doing. Don't do it! Try something simpler. Scale down your ambitions. I want to play bass like Bootsy Collins. That does NOT mean I should try to.
Elia Aboumrad's losing effort felt like a failure of the imagination -- and the heart. There was, as someone once said of Los Angeles, "no there there." It seemed like the All-Star of earlier appearances just hadn't bothered to show up. Once she realized she'd have to go another round with a hated dish, she froze in the headlights. The result was perfunctory. And undercooked.
Sneaky Deaky Spike Mendelsohn has probably woken up screaming from frozen scallop related nightmares many times since that infamous day in Chicago. But he faced his demons with extraordinary skill, demonstrating brilliantly the ethos of Learn From Your Mistakes.
Dale Talde also tackled a past problem with scallops with great panache. From Worst Plate EVER to something really quite good. An impressive comeback from the Apocalypse -- that also revealed, I'm guessing, a guy who's spent the intervening years thinking about what went wrong the first time -- and how he might have done things differently. In the intervening years, I have made much comedy hay of poor Dale, referring often to his original "Scallops with Butterscotch Sauce" as an experience akin to "felching Mrs. Butterworth." He not only solved his problem -- but made an excellent dish this time around.
Angelo Sosa, rested and ready, got to do what he could have/should have done had he not been freckling the bowl in Singapore. He won the day.
An exciting Episide 1.
Still. I feel bad about beating up on Fabio. Maybe I'm losing my edge. Maybe I should leave the bloodletting to my sinister French colleague, Eric Ripert. Or that English guy ... what was his name? Maybe I should confine myself to constructive criticism. To a kinder, gentler, more mentor-like approach. Wear a big fluffy f---ing sweater to Judges' Table, speak in quiet, melifluous Garrison Keilloresque tones. Maybe lay off the gin.