Hello all, and welcome to Season 2 of Top Chef. I was happy to see Gail Simmons' familiar face day one on our Downtown L.A. set. Gail is from Food & Wine magazine, highly regarded and appreciated throughout our industry for her editorial insight and smarts. I like her because she is genuinely knowledgeable and passionate about food (and also a lot of fun). Joining us was Top Chef's new host Padma Lakshmi. Padma brings an international perspective to the show and a great mix of East and West -- she grew up in India and spent years in Italy. She has traveled the world as a cookbook author, actress and television host. She swears she can make a ten course low-fat Indian dinner (sign me up). And while most people know her as a supermodel, let me tell you ...this is one model that eats.
During the off-season I met with the Top Chef producers to discuss what I've come to call the "Tim Gunn effect." Tim, mentor to the competing designers on Project Runway, has become a beloved figure to both viewers and contestants for his kind manner and helpful suggestions in the work room. Last season, during my strolls through the kitchen, I found myself often wanting to help our chefs or give them a tip (like pointing out the ice cream maker to Harold as the poor guy made it by hand,) but the decision had been made early on to draw a clear line between mentor and judge. The two roles could easily conflict -- what if a contestant hadn't listened to my advice? Would that subconsciously affect my feelings about his or her dish? Would I be biased towards dishes I had somehow helped along? I also questioned whether a kitchen would really be conducive to a Gunn-like mentor: Having spent a lifetime juggling hot saute pans and simmering sauces, I know how hard it is to turn away from the stove for even a brief chat. The "window" in which to get something right is far shorter in cooking than in sewing, and once begun, I think it's harder to change course when presented with new ideas, no matter how helpful.
For those reasons we decided to keep my role as judge distinct and clearly defined. I'm sure I'll get my share of heat (pardon the pun) for not being more helpful, but I genuinely think its better for the chefs and for the show. So there we were on day one, in our set/kitchen, facing fifteen hopeful, ambitious, calculating, talented individuals. First off, with three more chefs than last year, the sheer number of personalities seemed overwhelming. And after observing the chefs for a few days, I detected a slight "coolness," a certain reserve among them (almost as if they all want to channel Harold's personality from Season 1) as part of their overall competitive strategy. Speaking of Harold, his fans will be pleased to hear that he is in the process of opening his new restaurant, Perilla. It's fun to walk the streets of New York with the guy and see folks calling out to him (New Yorkers aren't shy). Harold Dieterle has become a star in his own right, and I can understand why our new group of chefs want to get to where he stands today. But on to the challenge: The Mystery Box presented each of the chefs with a bunch of straightforward ingredients and one "wild card" item. For half the chefs, the wild card was processed American cheese -- a food (I use the term loosely) that bears little resemblance to cheese as I know it. In the second box, the wild card was peanut butter. (For the record, the peanuts in the first box didn't qualify as a wild card -- most chefs would embrace peanuts, but balk at peanut butter.)
Each box also had one ingredient that would have posed a challenge to an inexperienced cook -- escargot in #1, frogs legs in #2 -- but should definitely be in the repertoire of any professional chef. The challenge was to use all the ingredients in two hours to create a dish that displayed technique and imagination. Most importantly, it needed to convey a sense of their identity as a cook. Two hours, in restaurant terms, should have been plenty of time to conceptualize a dish and then execute it. But the time constraint plunged some of the chefs into a state of jittery distraction, causing them to dart about: To the pantry! Back to the stove! Back to the pantry! Others took their time to think, and then got busy. Can you guess which group had a better result? Mia did a great job with her dish -- she knows Southern cooking, and immediately applied that vernacular to the frogs' legs by battering and frying them up as she would chicken. Her dish made sense because it incorporated all the elements in her box around a coherent central theme. The chefs who got the American cheese were grumbling, but I think the key to getting around this less-than-ideal ingredient was to do what Ilan did -- he used just enough in his potato puree to stick with the rules, but focused the dish elsewhere. His dish of escargot layered in the shell with potato puree and artichokes showed good technique, and a cogent vision. Most importantly, it tasted great.
I was less impressed with some of the other contestants. Carlo's potato pancake was raw in the center, and Otto's featured overcooked brown rice, which mystified me. Brown rice was not in the box, so it was an extra element he'd grabbed from the pantry. It failed to knit the ingredients together in any meaningful way, and then was poorly cooked to boot. But Suyai's dish was the one that failed on all accounts. I could tell she was trying to go for a stew-like ragu with her braised potatoes in red wine with escargot, but the ingredients never came together, the cooking was sloppy, and the final dish just didn't work. I didn't really get to know Suyai in the short time she was with us, but in her audition interview, she mentioned that she had taken up cooking as a way of overcoming an eating disorder -- a choice which clearly required a healthy dose of character and courage. If only her cooking skills had been as strong, Suyai would still be part of the running as we move into week two.