Buenos Aires – I hesitate to even post on the subject of Bravo’s new “reality show” Top Chef. Having no real history with watching reality shows, other than occasionally having caught part of an episode of that round the world race one, I’m not sure where to begin. We can start with, no surprise, that there’s not a lot of reality in it. There’s no level playing field – professional chefs with years of restaurant experience are up against home cooks, part-time caterers, a techie turned cook, a sommelier, a cooking school student… not to say that an amateur or beginner might not come up with some great food, but given the microscope and pressure they’re under, they notedly cave-in very quickly.
For those who haven’t seen the show, a dozen “chefs” from around the U.S. were selected to compete against each other for the title of Top Chef, $100,000, a new kitchen, and various venues to showcase their talents, not the least of which is the show itself. The producers clearly not only picked a mix of skill levels and backgrounds, but could it be any more obvious than that they intentionally picked a wide mix of personalities, having to have gone out of their way to get some truly slimy and abrasive ones? The judges are Tom Colicchio, a chef whom I worked for back in his first New York City restaurant, Mondrian, who has risen to fame with restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, and his series of Craft and Craft-related restaurants; Gail Simmons, of Food & Wine magazine; and weekly guest judges. The contestants are appraised on a whole lot of things, not the least of which is their likability – it’s not all about the food – and that’s a good thing!
There have been four episodes so far, one person being eliminated each time. There are two parts to each episode – the first is something called the Quickfire Challenge – a very fast paced task, the winner of which gets immunity for the rest of the episode from being eliminated (a big plus in one case where the judges unanimously wanted to eliminate the immune challenger, but couldn’t – and told her so); and the second, primary cooking task. What has surprised me the most, especially from some of the so-called professionals, has been the lack of basic kitchen skills and etiquette. I’m not talking about the ability to chop an onion, but simple things like tasting your sauces to make sure you remembered to adjust their seasoning; plating things not only for visual appeal, but practicality; not messing with another person’s ingredients or product (even if this is an elimination challenge); and even just basic courtesy. A huge amount of not taking responsibility for mistakes and a lot of finger-pointing takes place on a regular basis, it’s like watching a bunch of young teenagers who got caught doing something wrong.
In episode 1, Who Deserves to be Here?, the quickfire is a 30-minute stint in the kitchen of star chef Hubert Keller, the episode’s guest judge. Understandably nervous, most of the competitors performed poorly and lasted no more than a few minutes at most; some never got to start – basic things like inappropriate attire or sticking fingers in sauces to taste them. Following that, their main challenge was to prepare a personal “signature” dish. Now, only one of these folk is the head chef at a restaurant, so it’s unlikely that any has a signature dish they are known for. But still, each and every one of them seemed completely mystified by the concept – heading out to the market try to come up with some sort of idea. Did it never occur to one of them before the show that they might be asked to cook something special from their personal repertoire? Apparently not. The eliminee turned out to be the least likable person, and the one who got thrown out of the kitchen for sticking his fingers in the sauce – followed up with by his rude and blatant challenge to chef Keller over his perception that he’d been slighted.
Episode 2, Food of Love, launches with a task of preparing a fruit plate from a basket of fruit. It was first of all surprising how many of them seemed to feel that they needed to use every piece and part of every fruit (several displays of inedible pineapple crowns) on their plates; more surprising the amazing lack of creativity – most of them just did different arrangements of fruit, only a few actually did something interesting – either cooking or chopping or saucing their fruit. The main challenge, following on the theme of presentation, was to prepare a sexy dessert and serve it to a group of invitees at a latex and leather fetish party, the hostess of which was the guest judge. The general attitude seemed to be “this would never happen in the real world” and the efforts were for the most part half-hearted and not at all sexy. Clearly none of these folk have worked in a restaurant that gets catering requests. Strangely, the caterers seemed just as non-plussed. The loser for the evening was the natural foods afficionado, who insisted on “sticking with her guns” and trying to prepare a healthy snack for the party revelers rather than the assigned task of a sexy dessert.
In episode 3, Nasty Delights, it was all about “how to take an unappetizing ingredient and make it appealing”. To whit, the quickfire portion started with a whole octopus each and a simple task of preparing a dish from it. Once again an amazing lack of talent and knowledge showed itself – I was fascinated by one of the caterers being the only one of the remaining ten who knew that putting a cork or two in the water or braising liquid helps keep an octopus tender – that’s Mollusk Cooking 101 in any professional kitchen. The elimination challenge was to take a monkfish and turn it into something that would appeal to a group of children. The immediate reaction from almost every contestant, and especially the remaining “pros”, was that it was a stupid assignment, not to be taken seriously, because as professionals, their food would never be sampled by and judged by children. Do they think only adults are showing up in their restaurants? Their attitude carried over into their work with their team-mates – because the group was split into two teams; and also into the way they interacted with their guests, the children; in fact it was that attitude that had the judges tell the immune contestant at the end that if it wasn’t for her immunity, she’d be on her way home. The professional caterer walked out on the show due to family problems (more in a moment), and the natural foods enthusiast was brought back and given another chance. The one eliminated, the member of the losing team who did the most finger pointing at his co-workers, despite that most of the criticism (by the children, this episode’s guest judges) of his team’s food was levelled at the dish he’d personally prepared.
Episode 4, Food on the Fly, which I’ve just finished watching, is a test of “thinking on your feet”, or improvisation. The quickfire challenge, to take ingredients available at a gas station convenience store and turn them into something far more interesting. Most of the contestants did little more than mix a bunch of things together and hope for the best. The winner actually got creative and totally impressed guest chef (and a bit obnoxious himself) Jefferson Hill, from Niemann-Marcus’ Rotunda restaurant. Again, attitude showed up – sure, it’s unlikely any chef is going to be faced with having to prepare dinner from convenience store food in their restaurant – but that wasn’t the challenge – it was, what can you do when presented with a challenge to innovate, given non-optimal circumstances. The same carried over into the main challenge, where they were allowed to come up with a dish of their choosing, but it had to be served after a night of refrigeration, followed by reheating in a microwave. The guest judges, the ladies of the local Junior League. Attitude continued – and at times was particularly condescending to the guests – who seemed to be perceived as women who didn’t have a clue. Clearly none of these “chefs” knows that the Junior League produces some of America’s most used cookbooks, that many of these woman are working professionals who also manage to prepare tasty and nutritious dinners for their families, and that they’re quite intelligent. An anti-microwave sentiment reared its ugly head – several of the contestants claiming to have never actually encountered one before. Yeah, right. The one who went home? Surprisingly, almost the home cooking mom, who seemed to have just thrown her dish together with little thought. Hate to be her kids. But in the end, the cooking student was sent packing.
Hmmm… as long as I’m ranting on, I may as well do a quick run down on the twelve contestants…
Stephen Aspirinio – the prissy, arrogant, smart-ass sommelier – the type of sommelier who most of us in the industry just want to smack and have his certification pulled. If his attitude towards his co-contestants and the judges, especially the guest judges, is any indication, and I’d bet it is, I feel sorry for his customers. Oh wait, he doesn’t have any, he no longer has his job as sommelier at Nob Hill in Las Vegas… wonder why… His food? All style and show over substance, flavor, and harmony, something that has been pointed out to him more than once, and clearly something he doesn’t understand – it probably didn’t help that in episode 2, where presentation was key, he won immunity from elimination with his admittedly creative, if marginally edible, fruit plate. He also more than once has violated “the rules” and then claimed he misunderstood.
Andrea Beaman – a nutrition and holistic healing counselor, who thinks of and uses food as a healing agent. She’s likable, if a bit over the top pushy about her viewpoint, but that’s not unusual within her circle. Her cooking ability? Pretty much nil – lots of substance, in terms of nutritional components, but no sense of flavor, harmony, or presentation. She’s the one who got booted in the second episode but allowed to come back in the third.
Harold Dieterle is the former sous chef at The Harrison, in New York, a restaurant I have liked quite a bit on the few visits I’ve made there. He clearly has the most professional poise of any of the contestants, but he also has a nearly complete detachment and emotionless personality. His cooking seems to be generally pretty solid, and moderately creative, though clearly limited to “what he knows” with no willingness to go out on a limb. He’s the kind of guy you want as a sous chef, keeping things moving steadily, and executing someone else’s, the chef’s, ideas. He also needs to be more aware of his environment – simple things like the day he made ice cream by hand because it was his “only option” while an ice cream maker sat on a shelf ten feet away from him.
Tiffani Faison also has some solid professional credentials, though given her age, 28, she thinks way too much of herself for her own good. She’s incredibly condescending to the other contestants, and the non-professional judges even more so – something she seems to think demonstrates how intensively professional she is, rather than that she’s just arrogant and bitchy. It’s interesting that she’s currently working as a waitress “gaining front of house experience” – she’s either completely different with her customers, or Tao restaurant in Las Vegas’ Venetian hotel has awfully high tolerance for lack of customer care. She’s the one who got told that her attitude would have had her booted if it wasn’t for her immunity. I would note that she toned it down quite a bit in the last episode – maybe she got the hint.
Brian Hill, self-proclaimed personal chef to the stars, clearly has some solid cooking background going for him. Though it’s not restaurant based, one would think he’d understand catering to the whims and needs of picky clientele. Instead he repeatedly pushed ideas that had no relevance to the task at hand. He was a consummate finger-pointer, with something to say about virtually everyone else and their lack of ability. Interestingly, his lack of understanding his clientele, followed by blaming his teammates for the mistakes he himself made, on camera, led to his packing his knives at the end of the third episode.
Candice Kumai, the model turned culinary student clearly came to the show with the biggest disadvantage. Not only no professional experience cooking, but based on her own admissions, little more cooking experience on her own than snack food. I applaud her wanting to turn an interest in food into a career, wish her well at culinary school and in the future, but she clearly wasn’t ready to compete, on any level, and if it hadn’t been for the overwhelming attitudes of the three who were eliminated before her, she’d have probably been the first to go, just based on ability.
Ken Lee – the “loose cannon” of the bunch, has a history of being fired from jobs for his temper and attitude. By his own proclamation, that’s irrelevant, he likes his personality and could care less if anyone else does. That included the guest chef Hubert Keller, one of the stars of the San Francisco food scene for many years, at whom he threw a raving tantrum. His blatant contempt for “American” chefs is evident. His food on the first episode clearly didn’t back up any kind of professional skill, so it’s probably not just his temper that got him fired all those times. It also got him booted on day one.
Dave Martin is the techie turned cook. A dot-com success followed by failure left him with nothing. He’d always enjoyed entertaining, decided to go to culinary school, launch a catering company, and take on being chef at a local wine bar. He’s clearly passionate about what he does. He’s also clearly overly sensitive about just about everything, and spends most of the show looking like he’s ready to burst into tears. His credentials are pretty solid, he just needs a spine. He has bordered on being kicked off the show – and it fits – he plays everything very safe, takes no chances, and shows no flare. He’s also forgetful – often forgetting things as simple as seasoning a dish, or remembering to use all his components. Given his resumé that seems odd.
Miguel Morales is a tournant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York. For those who don’t know, a tournant (also called a roundsman) is the person who gets stuck filling in any vacant position when someone needs help or someone doesn’t show up in the kitchen. It’s the position I actually had working with Tom Colicchio at Mondrian. It’s a way to learn an incredible amount, if you’re quick to learn, and it requires you to think on your feet, because every day you find yourself doing something totally different. Given that, Miguel, who’s a bit of a misogynistic twit (I could have sworn he was gay in the first episode, but he quickly showed himself to be shallow womanizer), doesn’t seem to think on his feet all that well. He does decently, and even “won” the team challenge, but I’d bet down the line his lack of focus is going to start being more and more obvious.
Lisa Parks is a mom, former lawyer, and cooking afficionado who dreams of being a chef, and teaches cooking classes (at home? at the community center? it’s not been established). She clearly had a lot of enthusiasm, but with no professional experience she floundered completely out of her depth. Surprisingly, the episode that did her in was the last, the one where she had to prepare a home style meal that could be refrigerated and then reheated in the microwave, something she claimed to do often enough at home. Her entry was a disaster, and when nearly sending her home the judges made it clear that given that this challenge was especially geared towards her talents, that cost her more than it would have in other circumstances.
Cynthia Sestito is one of those middle aged women who I just want to really like – she’s a bit of a ditz, she’s swears like a storm trooper, and she’s willing to give anything a shot. But in short order I found I couldn’t like her, and not because of anything related to her bizarre cooking or style. Very simply, she’d found out the day before heading to the show that her father had been admitted to the hospital with terminal cancer, likely had very little time to live. She claimed that she had to agonize over the decision of whether to come to the show or not. Over what did she have to agonize? She’s either lying about giving a damn about her father and her family, who were repeatedly requesting she be there with him, or she was lying about the whole thing and using it as a way out when she found she couldn’t hack the show. She walked out in the middle of the third episode, giving Andrea, above, a chance to come back and take her place.
Lee Anne Wong is my personal favorite. She’s the executive chef of event operations at the French Culinary Institute, she has obviously solid cooking skills, and an even keel, no nonsense, but friendly and cheerful personality. She’s one of the few on the show who has taken a moment out here and there to help out a competitor when needed, and her food is creative and interesting without being over the top. She’s one of two, along with Harold, who seems to have a solid grasp of cooking fundamentals.