I cannot believe TC2 is already here. I am still overwhelmed and delighted by the enormous support and positive feedback you all gave our first season. You can expect a lot of changes this time around -- new host, new city, new crop of cooks -- but the drama, twists and excitement aren't going anywhere.
Before I launch into my thoughts on the first challenge and new contestants, I wanted to mention how happy I was that TC1 winner Harold Dieterle helped us kick-off the new season as our first guest judge. It was so fun to spend time with him on "our side" of the Judge's Table and I am impressed by how far he has come professionally since the first time we met him. He is working hard to launch his own restaurant in New York, and not letting his fame and fortune distract him.
Having Harold join us as a judge reminded me of why he was chosen as the winner: He is a serious chef and empathetic leader who is passionate about his craft. Just this week, we were lucky enough to attend a private Bravo preview of his restaurant's potential menu and I can assure you, it does not disappoint! For me, the thought of filming season 2 brought with it a sense of calm. This time I knew exactly what I was here to do and how to do it. In addition, many of the 15 new contestants spent season 1 studying the show, so they all arrived on set on their best behavior. They acted so cool and collected, as if they knew what was in store for them and had it all figured out. How wrong we all were!
The purpose of the first episode's challenges was not only for the judges to get a feeling for each individual's knowledge and use of basic technique, but also to take the contestants out of their element and force them to think outside the box. I was quite surprised by how few of them had ever actually cooked with the mystery ingredients they were given. Not that I expect anyone to be cooking with frog legs and snails very often, but a well-rounded chef should know how to handle a broad range of proteins; none of these were so totally out of the ordinary for the culinary world.
Versatility is a skill that can never be underestimated.... As you all know, throwing contestants for a loop is what Top Chef does best. Pairing artichokes with snails and American cheese, or chicken with frog legs and peanut butter definitely woke everyone up! In my opinion, the chefs did not have to invent anything miraculous to win this challenge; the best dishes were those that made the unfamiliar, familiar again. As Tom pointed out to me between shots, the challenge did not require you to incorporate all these ingredients in equal proportion, just represent each one in some small way in the same dish.
Betty's liver and frog leg cakes, Mia's (absolutely juicy) Sunday Dinner buttermilk-fried frog legs and Elia's snails with creamy mashed potatoes were at the top of all our lists because they did not attempt to morph their food into some weird and ridiculous mess. Instead, they used ideas and techniques they were confident about and adapted them accordingly, ultimately making the exotic into a dish anyone could appreciate. They also gave us a clear snapshot of their personal cooking styles.
Carlos, Otto and Suyai's dishes, on the other hand, made no sense in either presentation or taste. Carlos positively slathered his dish with the American cheese ... nothing prepared with such a disproportionate amount of the stuff had a hope of impressing us. Otto made the common mistake of adding an extraneous ingredient, white rice, which he didn't even execute well. Learning when to eliminate a component that detracts from the plate is just as important as learning when to add one.
Poor, sweet Suyai shot herself in the foot right out of the gate. She panicked, pure and simple. She even admitted her defeat to Tom -- who made it very clear at the start of the show that he was there to judge, not to mentor the contestants. She did not have a focus or a plan and produced an equally chaotic plate -- frenetic, disconnected and unappealing. We had to let her go.
Ilan's baked snail dish was our clear winner. It was well conceived, beautiful on the plate (yes, that bizarre combo actually looked beautiful) and appetizing too! It resembled something you would find at a cozy, but sophisticated French bistro. When we ate it, we were convinced that perhaps this combination, when put together just right, was not so strange after all ... not unlike this season's motley crew of chefs, pastry chefs, line cooks, instructors, and caterers. Although they may seem like an unlikely bunch, I think you'll agree that once they start cooking, the action -- in and out of the kitchen -- will make you want another taste.