Trick or Retreat

Trick or Retreat

Richard Blais wasn't surprised that the chefs didn't know what was planned for them at Craftsteak.


Somewhere in a small village, a person pumps their fist in the air, wildly smirks and high fives their neighbor over the excitement of the catch. But it’s not a hunters' group from some remote, African tribe sneaking up on an unwitting prey. It’s a gathering of creatives, executives, and producers huddled in a small area that’s loaded with television monitors. A tent heavy with cables, wires, and headsets called Video Village.

Of course, I don’t know much about what happens there. I’ve seen it from a distance. Accidentally crossed its invisible border and heard tales of its legend. But it’s a bit like Oz, a mythical place. If you pull back the curtain, you won’t find a wizard pulling the strings, instead there are elves, magical ones.   

Although its probably a more fitting metaphor to compare it to the offensive coordinators’ booth at a football game. It’s where the scheming happens. It’s where the plays get called. And all season long our contestants, the defense if you follow, have been chasing a sweep to the strong side of the formation. They’ve picked up a pattern. They’re smart.  And cooking at Tom’s steakhouse is an obvious toss sweep right. Everyone can see it coming. So like any good, smart defense, they start to cheat that way. Preparing to cook meat. Envisioning what will be in the walk-in. Even communicating amongst themselves who will work with what cut. Like any good kitchen. Like any good team. But no one is watching the backside. No one is staying home. And here it comes...

In football, it’s called a reverse.

Those offensive coordinators have been setting up all game for this play. If you can imagine all of our contestants running as fast as they can, on ice, and then a whistle blows and they’re told to run in the opposite direction, you can imagine the physical scene. Some people fall hard, but get back up. Some barely maintain their balance, but still have to slow down and regain momentum. And some, slide away for good.

Mentally, that's what happened tonight.

Overpreparing, falling for routine, or trying to out-think production or yourself is a doomed game plan on Top Chef. I know all too well. Before packing my bags for Chicago, I researched all the events and celebrity chefs that were in town during our filming. I wisely deducted with absolute certainty that we would be cooking for Alice Waters at the Green City market where she was appearing a few days after our arrival. When the challenge was revealed to be at the market, I felt rather clever. I shopped while thinking about Alice, even deciding how I would introduce my dish to her. I envisioned it all.  I was confident, as I am smarter then the average elf.

Then Wylie Dufresne walked in the door. Gulp!

In football that is called a triple reverse.

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