As told to Archana Ram.
The Elimination challenge was brutal. In a lot of ways, even at its strangest and most gimmicky, Top Chef mimics the real world in the sense that, when you run a restaurant, on a Saturday night, you don’t know who your customers are going to be and what’s going to go wrong. You might have to improvise. It was certainly a tough challenge. Plus it was 3 in the morning. The exhaustion factor with these guys was big.
I don’t know whether making soup was a strategy, but the chefs were desperate. They were in a limited situation. They were insecure with their environment, unfamiliar with the tools. They really had to wing it. I think they were playing it safe with soup. But I think the fact that a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup won tells you something. That was obviously a smart way to go. That wasn’t the time to start doing really complex food. Overcomplicating and overreaching is often a lethal strategy. I would’ve played it safe and tried to do the best I could to not go home. I wouldn’t have made this as my day to go home with the big money. But I never would’ve made it to the finals of Top Chef on my culinary skills alone. I was a journeyman chef of middling ability. Generally speaking the chefs on the show, most of them are better cooks than I am, though maybe not as experienced or as well or widely eaten.
That said, I don’t think it would be arrogant of me to say that I think I could have actually won the Rao’s challenge. I sure as hell could’ve done a hell of a lot better than three guys on a pasta course, which is still inexplicable to me. As for Antonia’s mussels, I understand the surprise and outrage that something so seemingly simple won, but it was by far the most delicious dish that day. Every single person at that table — judges and guests — all thought that dish was the most enjoyable. Antonia is a very smart chef and contender. She always identifies who she’s cooking for, what their expectations are, and gives people what they want. She’s very smart about not overreaching. The really talented cooks often get overly ambitious and end up doing something silly that doesn’t work. Antonia identifies the sweet spot, the emotional component of what makes people happy, and combined with very good cooking skills and her maturity, she’s played the game very well so far. I would’ve made spaghetti pomodoro — a classic spaghetti in a good red sauce like Scott Conant makes at Scarpetta. I would’ve stolen his recipe and it would’ve taken me about 35 minutes, and it would’ve made people at the table very happy. That was a challenge that if someone made a good bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, they would’ve won the day.
When it came time to eat at 3 a.m., the actual time didn’t really matter. I eat for a living and change time zones every few days, so as long as I get my sleep, I’m fine. We went right over to Judges’ Table from Target at about 7 or 8 a.m., so it was a long day. I slept on the floor of a trailer for an hour under a scratchy blanket. It was not gracious living. This Judges’ Table wasn’t long, but sometimes they’re really long. It irritates me when you see conspiracy theorists online saying that producers come in and it’s their master plan. All the times I’ve been on Top Chef, I’ve never seen the producers come in to influence the vote. Often I wish they would because we’ve spent hours at that table arguing the merits of who should win and who should go home. It’s often bitterly contested.
Richard’s arepas were a perfectly good, even very good, dish. Arepas don’t have to be beautiful. It was just less tasty and less welcome in this particular circumstance, and only by a hair. Richard is a monster talent. He’s a very, very strong contender. If Richard’s food wasn’t so good, if he wasn’t so talented, then [his frequent use of nitrogen oxide] would be an unforgivable and deranged exercise. But Blais’ food is generally really good. If he’s using some technique, even one that I don’t generally like, it usually seems to work. That’s a guy who’s used, for lack of a better word, restraint in the world of molecular gastronomy and usually to a better effect. Watching him compete is fun, too. He’s aware of his weakness, his tendency to over-think. In a lot of ways, the drama of Richard fighting his own demons is fascinating from the point of view of a chef and a guy who loves food. Even if I was never on the show, I’d be watching and particularly interested in his progress.
I really admire that Antonia did eggs. That was a ballsy, dangerous thing to do. As I’ve said many times, I’m a notorious egg slut. I have a personal soft spot for eggs. Mike’s soup didn’t make much of an impression on me, but between Angelo and Tiffany, Angelo’s dish made a big impression me — a bad impression. We could eat Tiffany’s dish. It wasn’t awful. There were unpleasant notes, but Angelo’s dish was just bad. It tasted bad when you ate it and literally left a bad taste in your mouth. It was over-salted, over onion-y, had an acrid aftertaste. It was a collapse. That was a shocking loss to me because Angelo is a really talented guy. It’s the flip side of when you see somebody win with something really simple. When you see a guy who’s really talented drop the ball with something so simple, basically a dish that’s a tweaked version of something that Applebee’s does, you feel for the guy, feel for a talented cook who just had a bad day, as sometimes happens. It’s like seeing a good baseball team at the playoffs that played great all year and may even be the better team, but it just happens that everything goes wrong for them. We see it again and again in sports, and it happens on Top Chef. I feel sorry for the guy, but it’s been well established that he’s capable of much, much, much better. Any other day, it could’ve been him with the win.
All the people who jump on Tom every time we send somebody home that they feel should’ve stayed should never forget and be reminded that Tom Colicchio is a giant of the industry. He changed the world of cooking. He keeps that show honest. Do not doubt it. He’s the moral center of the show. He’s a one man Rushmore.
Dale hit the flavor sweet spot. It was both delicious and clever. He used an iron, which showed us something special. He embraced the challenge and made something that was delicious, creative and smart. He did everything right. Dale has grown as a cook and as a person — and seems to have dealt with his anger issues almost entirely successfully. A good cook with a good palate, smart, creative — all god’s gifts. There have been wins where the winner simply sucked the least. But in this case, Dale’s dish was a tasty and clever dish that was right for the moment and challenge. Ultimately and most importantly, his dish made the judges happy, which is what cooking is about. When chefs lose sight of that — when they think it’s about their genius or impressing people with their technique or their advanced experience — that’s often a fatal impulse. Dale has made the judges happy with his food again and again, like during the bodega Restaurant Wars challenge. He really identified a theme that his audience would likely respond to and executed it smoothly. He didn’t overreach, and his was the best tasting dish.
At the end of the day, I do Top Chef because I’m a fan boy. I like hanging out with Tom and my chef cronies. You show up at 3 a.m. at Target or you bump into Eric Ripert and José Andrés — it’s fun. I’d watch the show even if I wasn’t on it. But I don’t feel any pressure [to say certain things]. It ain’t my show. It sure as hell ain’t the money, let’s put it that way. I think I get a fruit basket and tube socks for each appearance. There’s zero pressure. If I got nothing to say, I won’t say it. I just enjoy it. I’m a food nerd. It’s what I do. I enjoy finding myself getting angry over a botched pasta course just as much as I enjoy singing praises hyperbolically of somebody who did something really clever, unexpected and just right.
What did you guys think of the episode. Were you surprised to see Angelo get the boot?
Photo: David Giesbrecht/Bravo