Top Cook

Top Cook

The head judge's insight into the judging process and why he thinks Ilan deserves the Top Chef title.

I continue to be gratified and amazed at the numbers of people who write into the Top Chef website each week to share their thoughts and comments. Even when most of those comments fall into the "Tom, you're a craven and morally bankrupt hack" category. I work nights, so I've never been one to get super-involved in a TV program ("The Sopranos" notwithstanding -- I'm off on Sundays). It's been a new experience for me to see just how passionate and personally involved our viewers have been in the outcome of the show. There's plenty to say about tonight's episode, the denouement to a roller-coaster season, with both stellar and substandard food and plenty of personality clashes in between. But before I go there, I want to address a couple things about last week's episode and the show overall.

First and foremost, I want my readers to know that I DO care what happens in the kitchen. I care very deeply that the cooks in my kitchen behave with a level of professionalism and respect for one another and the food that is on a par with the guests' expectations of a world-class restaurant. And not just because it's good for business -- it's the right thing to do. And I care a lot about cheating. I think it inexcusable.

I am the father of a 13-year-old son, and a big part of my job as a parent is to teach him to make strong, ethical choices. So when Elia made claims last week that Marcel had cheated, my feeling was -- back it up, or back down. In answer to our questions (only a fraction of which made it into the episode) it became clear that Elia was alluding to Marcel's antagonistic behavior -- in typical fashion he had managed to irritate the other chefs to an extent they considered unprofessional and undermining -- but English is not Elia's first language, and she fell back on the word cheating. Her timing was spectacularly bad; it was 4 a.m., we were all exhausted, and after hours of debate and discussion we had finally made a difficult decision. So when it became clear that Elia was leveling charges of immature behavior at Marcel, not cheating, and that his actions hadn't really impacted anyone's food, I just didn't have it in me any longer to indulge what felt like petty andirrelevant harping. Thus my frustrated response, "I don't care what happens in the kitchen."

My wife gave me hell for the way that came out of my mouth. Her point -- no matter how tired I am when judging this competition, viewers care deeply about my point of view, and they have a right to take my words at face value. The excuse that editing winnows down a spirited and nuanced three-hour debate into a facile two-minute exchange is no excuse at all. So I apologize to any of our viewers who got the wrong idea about my values when it comes to behavior in the kitchen. But I can't promise that next season I'll be better at this -- I'm not the kind of guy who safely parses out his thoughts in a careful manner. I tell it like I feel it at the moment, and of course that will always lay me open to criticism. It has been an interesting week for me here in NYC -- strangers have been stopping me in the street, greeting me with a stricken look and asking some variation of, "How could you do it, man? How could you LET SAM GO?" While I understand the disappointment all the Sam fans are feeling -- he was a strong contender, an amiable guy, and clearly a favorite with the women -- I don't regret my decision.

Why? Because his food, while good, wasn't the best that night.

As judges, we've been charged with evaluating the challenge at hand. Period. And while the viewers at home are welcome to play favorites, I'm not. Everyone's food last week was good, some of it was excellent. And two dishes were outstanding -- intelligent, well conceived, and completely, utterly delicious. The creators of those two dishes deserved to win, and they did.

So many people have insisted that there must be some ulterior motive in how we make our choices -- ratings, for example. I'm stumped by this one since I fail to see how letting everyone's favorite go is actually good for ratings! But the important thing for people to realize is that this show is shot months in advance. As we move ahead with the Quickfires and Elimination Challenges in an insanely condensed four-week stretch (that precludes much sleep, let alone Machiavellian scheming) we have no idea who among the contestants will turn out to be the audience favorite or villain six months hence. The judges have no idea what the chefs are saying in their individual on-camera interviews, and no clue how any of them will come across after editing. The idea that we plot out victories and losses based on projections of popularity is nuts. Interestingly, I watched last week's episode with Sam at the CNBC studios in New Jersey as we prepared to go on Andy Cohen's Watch What Happens Web Show that night.

"Marcel's food was really good," he said, and I found myself respecting his willingness to look objectively at what must have been a crushing disappointment. The thing is -- and I could see that Sam got this when we spoke that evening -- if our job as judges was to decide based on aggregate performance, then why even have a Finale? For that matter, why bother with a Super Bowl or World Series, or any competition that caps off a competitive season, since a straight analysis of the stats-to-date could probably determine the winner. My feeling is that by the time we get to the end round, it is assumed that each competitor is among the best based on a season's performance, and now they must dig deep and bring it again, faster, brighter, stronger, better than before. There. I've said my piece.


And what about tonight?

I think Marcel and Ilan are both very strong cooks, and each has a unique point of view. Until this challenge, I feel the title could have gone to either one, but despite a very strong, flavorful, and beautifully executed first course of uni and lemon gelee, Marcel made a couple mistakes that undermined his overall meal. The first -- and it was a biggie -- was the salad course. The salad issue has come up a few times this season (see exhibit A: Carlos). Nothing against salads, but I don't think they're the best possible demonstration of a chef's vision and technical skills. Marcel's conceit of an encapsulated yuzu vinaigrette was cool, sure, but it didn't survive the day's humidity, and even if it had worked, I still feel the dish would have been just a salad with a gimmick. After we had gotten over the "wow" factor, we would have needed to puncture the capsule to flavor the dish, leaving us all with a big blob of dressing on an otherwise undressed salad.

Marcel's next dish was supposed to be Kampachi with Hearts of Palm, but unfortunately the fish was left behind in the prep kitchen. To his credit -- and to Sam's, too, who helped him rally brilliantly -- the dish they reworked out of sea beans, hearts of palm and kefir lime sauce was fantastic; Marcel deserved props for his recovery. Unfortunately, following on the heels of his underwhelming salad, a second vegetable dish seemed odd and we "missed" the protein, even though the dish was good. The course also didn't help create a natural progression towards the next, much heavier dish of Seared Beef with Spring Garlic Sauce and Taro root. Last came a dessert of Blini with Kona Coffee "Caviar." The "caviar" was formed by adding sodium alginate to coffee and dropping the mixture into a calcium chloride bath, causing it to seize up into tiny spheres. Again, another whiz-kid moment, and definitely cool to look at, but there wasn't enough of them on the plate to give the dish the nice coffee flavor Marcel was going for.

I'll take flavor over "cool"-factor any day. Ilan's first dish of angulas with sevruga and "green" caviar was his weakest. I've eaten the tiny baby eels, also known as glass eels or piballes, to the French, many times, and when fresh they are a truly special ingredient -- pearly, almost translucent, and absolutely delicious. Ilan brought a can of the eels with him, expecting to blow us away with the ingredient, but like most foods, the canned version can't compete with the fresh. Everyone at the Judges' Table had experienced the real thing at one point or another, so we all knew what we were missing. I think the canned eels would have been better as a garnish, or worked into a dish in an interesting and original way, but presented straight out of the can with caviar on garlic-rubbed toast, the dish was merely OK, not great. Luckily, from there it was all uphill.
Ilan's dish of Pan-seared Moi was a winner. Moi is a Hawaiian saltwater fish traditionally served to royalty. Ilan served it in a White Gazpacho -- substituting macadamia nuts for the almonds found in the Spanish version of that dish. It was exciting, inventive, and relevant to our locale -- and also maybe the best-tasting dish we ate all night. Next came Ilan's take on Surf & Turf -- Squab served in an intense lobster sauce with Hawaiian Blue Prawns. Squab needs to be cooked just so in order to work -- the second it goes from medium-rare to medium, the meat acquires a livery flavor. Ilan cooked his squab perfectly, and the dish was lick-the-plate good. Coming right on the heels of the Moi in White Gazpacho, we were all deeply impressed. Next came a soulful dish of braised short ribs, served with romescu -- a roasted pepper, garlic, and almond condiment -- it was good, and probably on a par with Marcel's Seared Beef. But to finish it all off, dessert was a simple and marvelous chilled tangelo soup with an intense cherry sorbet. It accomplished in one bite what all the "refresher" courses of previous episodes set out to do (and failed).

When we compared the dishes, and the overall progression of each chef's food, we had to give the win to Ilan. His meal, despite the slow start, built logically and powerfully. Overall, a fantastic meal. Marcel also did a great job, but we felt the gaps in his meal, and his ideas -- while worthy and always interesting -- weren't always backed up with the technical expertise and a mature sense of flavor. So ... Ilan was our winner. Personally, I feel he lacks some of the maturity and leadership skills it takes to really run and manage a full-scale top restaurant. That's not to say he won't get there. But I hope seeing himself up on the screen this season gave Ilan a chance to understand, as Stephen did in Season One, where he has room to grow.

I have to give Marcel some credit for having great ideas and being willing to go out on a limb, time after time, to try them. He always took swings at bat, which of course meant he had his share of strikeouts. But I admire the impulse that kept him swinging. Ilan had spent years working for a chef, Andy Nusser, under whose tutelage he gained a full grasp of Spanish cuisine. I didn't always feel Ilan's ideas were his own -- nor did I get the sense that Spanish food was some culinary expression of Ilan as an individual, whereas Marcel's quirky stabs at chemical exploration definitely were (those same quirks could be the source of the friction he seemed to generate among the other chefs). It was telling that Sam, when given the choice, preferred to team up for the final challenge with Marcel, feeling he could learn from the experience.

In thinking about this last episode, a wine analogy came to mind. Sometimes you put grapes into a barrel, and they mature quickly into a delicious young wine, drinkable almost immediately. Different grapes in another barrel may still be undrinkable -- no comparison -- but given time may prove a far superior wine. Ilan is delivering the goods, by and large, right now. He has assimilated what he's been taught, and on occasion makes it his own, with a pleasing result. Marcel is many years away from understanding the proper context for his mad scientist ideas -- he can be overcome with youthful enthusiasm and experimental zeal, often at cost to the food, and I'm not sure if he fully appreciates the subtle and elemental value of simply prepared, good food. But with some time and maturity under his belt, the mad scientist just may become someone to reckon with.

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