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Two Birds with One Challenge

Tom Colicchio elaborates on why Dale and Stephen were the ones to go home, and on which decision he got outvoted.

By Tom Colicchio

Before I write about this week’s Elimination Challenge, a word about last week’s elimination of Jen: Jamie and Jen were paired up to work on the dish that ultimately got Jen sent home. Jamie injured herself and a medic told her she needed stitches. We cannot send people home for being injured. It doesn’t matter whether someone else might have stayed and cooked; it was legitimate for Jamie to seek medical attention. Jen herself stated that Jamie’s absence did not negatively impact the outcome of the dish, and, in fact, at the end of the day, Jen made poor decisions that were ultimately what led to the spongeyness of the bacon and the blandness of the eggs. As for Antonia and Tiffany’s eggs being raw: they weren’t raw. No one was in danger of contracting salmonella at the museum that morning. Had they been, we would have reached a different conclusion. I had two eggs, and each was cooked perfectly, as were both Padma’s and Gail’s. Katie Lee’s might have been undercooked, but she herself felt that Jen’s execution of her dish was far worse than Antonia and Tiffany’s execution of theirs. It was a unanimous decision. It doesn’t matter that Jen is a stronger chef than some of those who remained. What matters is that she underperformed on that particular day, and in being consistent in our judging, objective, fair, and true to the competition, we had to send her home. I was upset to see Jen go –- I thought she would have stayed a lot longer. But if we’d kept her for that reason, we would have been guilty of skewing the judging.
This week’s was a very interesting Elimination Challenge. Unlike the challenge in Season 5, when we asked our chefs to recreate dishes from Le Bernardin, nobody was being asked here to recreate the dishes they’d eaten the night before at one of the four exciting New York restaurants featured in this week’s program. They were asked, rather, to create a dish inspired by the food they’d eaten.
It’s always fun to work with my colleagues on this show; this week was four times the fun, especially as we had the pleasure of seeing our cheftestants make their own marks on our four guest chefs’ signature styles. These four chefs have utterly different styles, yet they’re all here on this little 23-mile island, playing in the same sandbox, so to speak, and all accepted and appreciated for their unique contributions. That, to me, is one of the things that’s so exciting about this town, and one of the reasons that this was such a great challenge for our chefs to undertake here.  Known for his whimsy, David Burke of Townhouse enjoys taking his food “out there” and over-the-top. But do not let the fun-factor cloud fool you: his food is also always exceptionally good … and very difficult to do. Michael White of Marea, on the other hand, is more straightforward with his Italian fare. And yet, as with David, one should not be fooled by the genre. Michael’s food has layers of flavor –- it is far more complex than standard Italian fare, with combinations not normally found in straight-up Italian meals. David Chang has several restaurants in his Momofuku Group –- our chefs ate at Ma Peche, where executive chef/co-owner Tien Ho presides over a French/Vietnamese menu. Ma Peche was a good choice for this challenge, as I think Ho’s food was probably the easiest from among David’s restaurants for our chefs to understand and work with.  Wylie Dufresne’s avante-garde food at wd~50 was certainly the most difficult to parse and apply to the challenge. Wylie invents all the techniques he uses; he purposely does not use those of other chefs doing similar work. His work is quite cerebral and all based squarely in science. I don’t cook in that style, and I enjoy talking with Wylie about what he’s doing, but I admit that sometimes the chemistry behind it goes right over my head.  That said, though, you’ll notice that Tiffani, who attempted to use Wylie’s techniques, wound up in the bottom four (partly because of presentation, by the way –- her plating could have been a lot more refined. She had a good idea, but executed it poorly.), whereas Dale T., who allowed himself to be sincerely inspired by Wylie’s work, but who then stayed true to his own method of cooking, actually won the Elimination Challenge. Dale said to himself, “I don’t use this bag of tricks. I do things differently.” But he completely understood and was excited by Wylie’s philosophy about cooking. Wylie always starts with an idea and then thinks, “How can I push this…?” He makes an egg yolk that isn’t actually an egg yolk –- it’s a mango. He plays with the diner’s perceptions, as though they’re facing a mirage … except that the result is always not only surprising, but satisfyingly so. The food is always really fine. Dale understood the take-away message of Wylie’s food and employed the playfulness, while utilizing his own techniques. And Wylie appreciated the message behind Dale’s result. We never asked the contestants to cook with the methods of the chefs they were cooking for, only to cook food the chefs would consider worthy of a place on their menus. In other words, to be inspired by the food and then cook their own hearts out. Frankly, any one of those chefs could have made any sort of great food and have woven a great story about how it was inspired by the food s/he’d eaten the night before … and we would have had to simply buy into what s/he said. Anything goes, when the challenge involves “inspiration."

How to Watch

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

Frankly, this is why I was disappointed that Fabio kept kvetching about how he knows nothing about Southeast Asian food. At the end of the day, a chef is inspired by everything around him/her. I don’t necessarily cook Southeast Asian food, but after returning from a trip to the region, a dish took shape in my mind that was inspired by the flavors I’d encountered while there: cuttlefish, with a spicy tomato syrup and a salad of cucumber, fennel, dill, basil, and then slivers of an Asian pork jerky. I’d never done anything like it in my life, but shortly after I got back, I created it for one of my “Tom: Tuesday Dinner” tasting menus, and it’s now on the menu at Colicchio and Sons. No one was telling the chefs to do an exact replica of what they’d eaten, just to find inspiration in it and then do their own cooking. Fabio could have eaten dinner at Ma Peche and then started playing with ideas: He could have said, for example, “Rice noodles … OK, I like spaghetti carbonara. Hmmm … I could use pork belly instead of pancetta. I can cook with Asian flavors, maybe using fish sauce instead of cream….” He could have taken what’s familiar to him and rearranged it with the ingredients he was seeing in that kitchen. He could have said, “I’m a good cook –- I can do this!” and have had a marvelous time being playful with what he found. But by repeating like a mantra “that’s not what I do, that’s not what I do, that’s not what I do…” Fabio seemed to have thrown his hands up from the beginning. He seemed closed to the challenge.
At Marea, Blais put a great dish together. I liked it better than Tre’s, actually, but I was outvoted. Spike’s dish was OK, not great, but it was clear that the poorest dish among them was Stephen’s. As I stated in my blog after the first episode, Stephen has a solid knowledge of food. But cooking is something you have to practice. Repetition is key. You don’t forget how to do it, just as you don’t forget how to ride a bicycle, but you have to ride that bike a lot to win the race. Stephen might have all the knowledge in the world, but he didn’t have the chops to pull off his dish. Plus, I found his choice to cook salmon a curious one, as salmon is not a Mediterranean fish. I was surprised that he struck so dissonant a chord between the salmon and the Mediterranean flavors he was trying to pair it with.And Dale’s whole dish was bizarre. He basically gave us french toast topped with veal and popcorn. French toast, vea,l and popcorn. It’s one thing to be whimsical, to give us a lamb crown roast with octopus coming out of the top of it, as David Burke has done. But that dish, as with all of David’s dishes, starts from a place regarding food that’s very solid and comes from a simple thought. David then keeps working on it and trying different things, arriving at a whimsical endpoint, but there’s always a purpose behind what he’s doing that is about the crafting of an excellent dish. Dale, on the other hand, seemed to be pursuing whimsy for its own sake, without the culinary underpinnings, and without a talent for whimsy. It was akin to a person without a sense of humor delivering a joke: no sense of timing.
It’s ironic, by the way, that Marcel wound up in the group cooking at wd~50, given the incident in the past in which he was accused of having tried to pass off one of Wylie’s dishes as his own invention. It’s one thing for chefs to like a dish created by another chef and recreate the dish in their own restaurants –- that happens all the time, but the chefs give credit where it’s due. It’s another thing altogether to adopt a technique for a dish invented by another chef and present it as one’s own. It’s also funny that Marcel is the person who put the phrase “molecular gastronomy” into the mainstream during his first season of Top Chef, as he was still just dabbling in that technique at the time –- he still didn’t know much about it at all. He knows more now, and it must have been quite an experience for him to be cooking in Wylie’s kitchen. From the results, which were OK, but a bit timid, it seems he was a little cowed.
I thought that it was a very, very good challenge, and, overall, that we were presented with creative and interesting responses from our chefs.  The challenge shows that a chef who is cooking in today’s America should have a diverse palate, an up-to-date bag of tricks, good versatility (and flexibility!), and a depth and breadth of food knowledge.  Stay warm.

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