Saturday, April 01, 2006
I Gotta Be Me
We start off with much sound and fury about chefs. Chef Tom Colicchio reels off his qualifications to be head judge. I'm not about to argue with a guy who's that good with knives. Then Chef Tom approves of Gail Simmons, a critic for Food & Wine magazine, as co-judge. If she's good enough for Chef Tom, she's good enough for me. Prizes, glory, namecalling -- let's get this party started!
Various shots of San Francisco. I keep my eyes peeled for Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. We meet our twelve contestants. In due deference to age, they are:
- Cynthia (52) -- caterer from the Hamptons. I suspect she's fundamentally capable, but she's also frazzled and foul-mouthed and fun, like a great crazy aunt.
- Lisa (45) -- cooking teacher. Mostly self-taught. She's basically a mom type, so I'm sure she's toast.
- Dave (40) -- executive chef from Manhattan Beach. He looks like he's working on an ulcer.
- Andrea (37) -- a cooking teacher who's on the healthy food bandwagon. She seems nice enough, but there's this steely core that says "religious fanatic."
- Brian (37) -- personal chef to the stars. Looks to be a teddy bear, but with strong hints of ego.
- Ken (31) -- Dublin-trained chef working in Los Angeles. Loud and obnoxious. Ireland heaves a collective sigh of resignation.
- Lee Anne (28) -- executive chef in New York. She seems like someone I might enjoy knowing in real life. I wonder what she's doing on a reality show.
- Tiffani (28) -- hotel restaurant chef in Las Vegas. At least she recognizes that "I'm not here to make friends" is a cliche. I bet she totally carries a grudge.
- Harold (28) -- restaurant chef in New York. He looks a little geeky, but more Steven Jobs than Bill Gates.
- Miguel (27) -- hotel restaurant chef in New York. He has the world's most unfortunate haircut. Other than that, he seems like a great guy.
- Stephen (24) -- sommelier at a hotel restaurant in Las Vegas. He's a leader because he sets a standard others should aspire to. As opposed to actually leading people.
- Candice (23) -- cooking student. How is a student qualified to compete for the title of Top Chef? Oh, she's a model who's getting into the food business. Well, okay then.
And off we go to our first challenge. They arrive at Fleur de Lys, a world-renowned restaurant in San Francisco. Everyone is suitably impressed, and worried about the upcoming challenge. We meet our hostess, Katie Lee Joel, and no matter how many people they have rewrite her resume, her primary qualification is being the latest wife of Billy Joel. She's joined by Chef Tom and by Hubert Keller, chef/owner of Fleur de Lys. Fortunately, he's French, because "ooh-bear" is way cooler than "hue-bert."
Today's challenge is the QuickFire Challenge, which is a fairly short test of basic skills. The winner of this challenge has immunity in the next day's Elimination Challenge. Today's QuickFire Challenge is to work the line in Chef Hubert's kitchen. We get various interviews about how hard this will be, so we can be suitably impressed. Basically, you get told to jump and you jump, and you have to jump fast enough to keep up with everybody else. If you last half an hour, you pass the test.
And the results:
- Lisa (no restaurant experience) is booted after 23 minutes for knocking food over. That was pretty good, considering.
- Miguel (8 years restaurant experience) is too nervous and lasts 3 minutes.
- Cynthia (19 years restaurant experience) isn't allowed to work because she's wearing sneakers, which aren't safe in a kitchen.
- Andrea (no restaurant experience) drops food at the 16 minute mark.
- Tiffani (6 years restaurant experience) is the first to go the full 30 minutes.
- Dave (2 years restaurant experience) also passes.
- Candice (no restaurant experience) is booted after 10 minutes for being too slow.
- Brian (5 years restaurant experience) is also too slow, lasting 19 minutes.
- Stephen (7 years restaurant experience) comes down with a case of nerves at 26 minutes (so close!).
- Harold (13 years restaurant experience) succumbs to nerves almost immediately (7 minutes).
- Lee Anne (8 years restaurant experience) lasts the full 30 minutes.
- Ken (20 years restaurant experience) starts off by tasting the sauce with his finger and gets tossed immediately.
Katie Lee, Chef Tom and Chef Hubert come out back to name the winner: for the way she got along with the other chefs on the line, Lee Anne gets the win. Katie announces the Elimination Challenge: tomorrow they will make their signature dish for some very demanding critics. Chef Hubert winds things up by saying he hopes they all learned something. Ken volunteers that he wasn't on the line long enough to learn anything. Then he asks if Chef Hubert threw out the sauce. Everybody kind of leans away from Ken so they won't get hit by lightning. Chef Tom chews him out for being disrespectful to a chef in his own restaurant, which is cool, but he does the "I bet everybody else here thinks you're being disrespectful" thing, and the contestants all look like indignant schoolchildren when they agree, so I could have done without that part.
While they're gathering around to leave, Ken nabs some scraps from a cutting board, and Tiffani chews him out. We get more "Ken is such a jerk" faces. There's a very uncomfortable ride home with Lee Anne, Tiffani and Ken smushed together on the back seat. I'm surprised they didn't strap him to the top of the SUV.
The next day, it's time to go shopping at Bryan's -- $30 and 1 hour. Chef Tom is not on hand to ride herd. I feel a pang of nostalgia for Tim Gunn and Mood. Cynthia isn't sure what she's going to do. Dave is franticallly pricing stuff out. Ken doesn't see what he wants at the butcher counter, so he goes into the back and cuts up a chicken himself -- until he gets tossed out by store management. ("Oh, sure, let the madman and the camera crew wander around our sanitary prep area.") Harold is still beating himself up for his nerves and vows to redeem himself. Stephen buys wine. (Did you know Stephen is a sommelier?) He then introduces Miguel and Lisa to the fine art of scamming free booze under the guise of "tasting." He's pleased to have been able to "educate" his peers. Just assume Stephen is pleased with himself until further notice.
Everybody carries bags of food into the giant work kitchen. Katie Lee and Chef Tom show up. Chef Tom is hauling a big butchers block holding a bunch of knives. The contestants will divide into two teams by drawing knives. Each team will have three hours to cook. The red team will cook first, and the blue team will join the judges to sample their food. Then the blue team will cook while the red team gets to critique. The judges will be looking for execution and a sense of personality. Everyone is pleased that they'll be able to size up their competition. The red team: Miguel, Candice, Andrea, Ken, Dave, Lisa. The blue team: Lee Anne, Harold, Tiffani, Stephen, Cynthia, Brian.
Candice and Dave describe their dishes. Ken starts bellowing as he sharpens knives, and the rest of the team is all, like, "We hate him." Ken, Lisa, Miguel and Andrea describe their dishes. Andrea identifies her unique contribution to this competition as "the ability to move your bowels with food." Yes, that would be what I'm looking for when I go to a restaurant. With 15 minutes to go, Chef Tom wanders through to see how people are doing. He makes the mistake of asking Ken how it's going. What he gets is a seven-minute disquisition (according to the kitchen timer) on Ken's relationship with the ocean and how he wants to give something back. I'm not sure how cooking fish accomplishes that, and there's no way in hell I'm asking Ken. Katie delivers the 5 minute warning, and we get a furious plating montage. Everybody puts a cover over their dishes and off we go to the judges' table. Chef Hubert is guest judge.
- Andrea: shrimp and broccoli stir-fry with spicy plum sauce
- Dave: braised lamb enchiladas with triple-chili sauce, a "masher" with beans and sweet corn, and chipotle crema
- Candice: chicken shitake roulade, blanched asparagus, creamy wasabi mashed potatoes
- Ken: pan-seared Alaskan halibut
- Miguel: duo of beef -- filet mignon and braised short rib
- Lisa: mushroom and shrimp risotto
Andrea, Candice and Ken are all panned. Lisa receives mild praise. Miguel and Dave get votes of confidence from their peers. Once the contestants leave, the judges confer. Only Miguel gets a nod.
The blue group starts cooking. Harold and Lee Anne describe their dishes. Stephen lectures about his dish and the importance of the wine. (Did you know Stephen was a sommelier?) Cynthia interviews that Stephen is full of himself and Lee Anne says that as a sommelier, he's a professional bull(bleep)er. Tiffani and Brian describe their dishes. Cynthia can't describe her dish because she's not sure what she's doing, and then she loses her pomegranate. We get another plating montage. Cynthia is still trying to work things out up to the last second.
- Stephen: threesome of Colorado lamb -- braised short rib, rack of lamb seared four ways, lamb sausage and fava bean soup. Oh, and some wine that I'm going to ignore now.
- Tiffani: pumpkin lasagna with orange and sage pasta baked in a little pumpkin
- Harold: steamed Thai snapper with fall squash sauce
- Lee Anne: smoked sturgeon appetizer
- Cynthia: lamb with crazy rice
- Brian: chargrilled jerk chicken, coconut mashed potatoes, "succulent" mango and papaya relish
This group doesn't have any real failures. Cynthia gets dinged for presentation, but her flavor was fine and her personality was definitely represented. After the contestants leave, the judges caucus. The top three are Harold, Stephen and Tiffani. (Miguel was also singled out for praise.) Harold has the edge on flavor; Tiffani and Stephen have the edge on presentation. Harold gets the win because his tasted the best.
The bottom three are Ken, Andrea and Candice. Ken's halibut was bland. He admits he messed up his preparation and it wasn't what he was going for. Andrea's stir fry looks like a vegetable stand exploded on the plate. Even she realizes that it's just too much. Candice's dish was ordinary and the chicken was overcooked. She accepts the criticism as deserved and hopes to do better. Ken gets the boot. The kicker line delivered by Katie: "Please pack your knives and go."
Everybody is happy to see Ken go, although they refrain from saying so to his face. Ken figures out that his attitude got him in trouble, but "that's just who [he is]." In other words, no learning experience for Ken.
Holy cow, they booted the bad boy! That's a reality twist I didn't expect. Just based on credentials, I would have expected Candice to go. Not only is she outclassed, she's kind of pedestrian. Andrea strikes me as a one-trick pony. So of the three, Ken seemed to have the most potential. But he didn't just have a confrontation with Chef Hubert, he went out of his way to provoke a confrontation with Chef Hubert. If he did it to stand out, it worked. From the comments at the tasting, his competitors would have overlooked his behavior if he turned out to be a genius in the kitchen -- but he wasn't. So they wrote him off as all hot air. Probably not that far from the truth.
Controversy: After Lee Anne wins the QuickFire Challenge, Ken asks Chef Hubert if he (really) threw out the sauce that Ken stuck his finger into. When Chef Tom tells him he's being disrespectful, Ken shrugs it off as just speaking his mind, which is bogus. Ken didn't blurt out the question when he saw Chef Hubert again; he waited until the winner had been announced. He's capable of self-restraint and he understands social contexts. He can't claim that he's just being "natural" when he's demonstrated that he understands how "unnatural" (or polite, as I like to call it) behavior works. He chose to say what he did when he did, and that's precisely what's rude about it.
Is rudeness a sufficient reason to boot a contestant? In Ken's case, it wasn't just the rudeness. He admitted himself that his halibut didn't turn out as he wanted. But looking at the bottom three, I suspect it was mostly the rudeness. If it's okay to keep people around because they're colorful, then you're admitting that behavior has a place in judging -- and that means it's just a matter of defining your standards. If you disagree with "reality show" judging, I think the decision still makes sense as "real world" judging. In the real world, a chef is absolute master of a kitchen, and Ken's behavior was clearly unprofessional.