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'Top Chef' recap: Addicted to speed

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There are a number of televised sports shows to which you deliberately tune in to witness pure speed — downhill ski racing, the 100-yard dash and NASCAR come to mind. Must breakneck cooking be among those athletic endeavors?

From its earliest challenges, “Top Chef” has been infatuated with pushing its contestants to cook under time pressure. But what was once a healthy passion now has turned into a treacherous addiction, and as with anything taken to an unhealthy extreme, the show needs an intervention.

Lead judge Tom Colicchio and even a few “Top Chef” cooks have said the show’s insane time pressures aren’t so much a gimmick as they can reveal true culinary skill, forcing chefs to adapt to stressful and unexpected conditions, as would happen in any real kitchen. But if any real kitchen is obligating its line chefs to think up, prep, cook and plate a dish in less than 9 minutes, as happened in Wednesday’s show, I’m not sure I would ever want to eat there.

The Quickfire Challenge, and the following Elimination Challenge, presented some entertaining obstacles, but both felt contrived and not a real test of culinary talent. The show opened with a hagiographic tribute to Colicchio’s talents (“Tom’s a genius,” Angelo said) before he showed the remaining 13 cooks how quickly he could assemble a simple dish.

If the challenge were truly fair, Colicchio (just like the contestants) would have walked into the kitchen with no idea what (or even if) he had to cook. There’s little doubt he not only gave his dish a lot of thought beforehand but also practiced making it ahead of his trial by stopwatch. The chefs didn’t have the same material advantage, and it’s not surprising that Dale and Jamie were barely able to plate anything. Judging by the images of the dishes, “Top Chef’s” food stylists must have had half a day to make the assembled dishes look palatable for the camera, another inequitable trick.

“I think speed is important in certain contexts,” Jamie said, before turning her legitimate observation into a sexual joke. But she was on to something. “The key here is speed,” Richard said of the team’s mostly failed attempt to run a dim sum kitchen. Their work was undone not so much by their inability to conceive and cook good dishes (although Casey’s chicken legs might have been inedible on planet Krypton) but instead by a failure to crank out food as fast as wrapping candies on a conveyor belt from “I Love Lucy.”

 

Over the holidays, my wife and I had a lovely, two-hour dinner at Beast, a tiny Portland, Ore., restaurant where the kitchen staff works in full view of the diners. When we arrived, chef Naomi Pomeroy was tying together a lamb roast as if she were lacing up a 19th century corset — she wasn’t interested in speed but in making the entrée as perfectly as possible. The other diners in the restaurant weren’t eager to see her and her team chop an onion in 15 seconds; we wanted (and were paying for) patience. If everybody wanted to hurry, we’d be dining at Taco Bell.

Think about it. Do you want your pilot on United Airlines going through her pre-flight checklist as fast as she can? Feeling safe having asked your tire dealer to just throw on the new Michelins without making sure the lug nuts were tight?

I don’t mind watching Lindsey Vonn ski down a mountain as fast as possible; it’s precisely why I tune in. But when it comes to cooking, either in “Top Chef” or in a restaurant, some of the best work isn’t done at the highest speed. It’s accomplished by chefs who take time — including in their marketing — to get everything right. The only clock that should matter is how many hours after the meal you’re still talking about it.

 

— John Horn

Photo: Tom Colicchio. Credit: Barbara Nitke/Bravo.

 
Comments () | Archives (6)

So great to see someone call Top Chef out. Last night's episode was unfair and unrealistic. And why hasn't anyone pointed out that Tom Colicchio had more than 10 minutes to think up a quick fire dish and didn't have to wrestle anyone for the ingredients?

Truly an ignorant post. First, the contestants were not competing against Colicchio but against each other, so the "fairness" statement is just dumb. Each chef had the same opportunity and most accomplished it. By the way, Colicchio in his blog post says that he did NOT practice the dish or prepare it before hand. Now if Horn has proof Tom is lying, be a journalist and present it. Otherwise, he is just making things up, which is bad form even for a throw away piece by a throw away writer.

As to speed, everyone of the chefs mentioned that the demands in the kitchen were reflective of what it is like to work a busy restaurant. Dale, who actually does Dim Sum at his restaurant was ashamed of the chef's performance, even though he won. If the professionals felt the speed challenge was appropriate for that venue, why should we think Mr. Horn would know better? Certainly the experienced and disgusted diners felt it could have been done. Mr. Horn likes his expensive leisurely meals (easy to do on his expense account) but it is a fair challenge to ask experienced chefs to deal with the more common need to serve a busy lunch rush. If a cook at a diner can do it (or the regular chefs at the same dim sum place) why can't these guys and gals?

Two reasons Kenna: 1: Colicchio was NOT competing against the chefs so any advantage he may have had was irrelevant. Each of the contestants was competing under the same conditions. They did not have to beat Tom, they had to beat each other.

2. Colicchio says on his blog he did NOT practice the dish. Therefore the speculation by the writer is simply wrong. Do not believe every speculation some hack posts.

How was it unrealistic? If you keep people waiting for food, not matter how good it us and keep them hungy and waiting, they still will get mad and some will still leave to got to another place. I see really nothing wrong with speed. Serving food slowly and keeping people waiting and hungry is what makes people mad and leave the restaurant or not give it good reviews.

Not really a ridiculous challenge or impossible considering all past challenges. The name of the game is speed or else the diners go hungry, get pissed, and go home.

This challenge was similar to the roach coach challenge were 2 teams in seperate roach coaches serve a lot of hungry people. Only difference this time is that most of the contestants bombed, were too fussy about the presentation, instead of just churning food out.

If organized better and all the chefs ACTUALLY WORKED TOGETHER, instead of looking out for themselves, the service would have been better. But it was obvious all the chefs are looking out for themselves from getting eliminated so the regular diners suffer and go hungry and get pissed off during the challenge.

There were 8-10 people in the kitchen, but all of them were working and looking out for themselves instead of WORKING TOGETHER that is why the challenge did not work out, especially for the regular diners.

I won't both repeating the excellent rebuttals to this trite and shallow episode summary of Top Chef. They do an excellent job tearing apart John Horn's embarrassing post.

I am still puzzled why service was so poor in this episode. It's not as though the show has never given its contestants the task of serving hundreds of people simultaneously or in a short period of time. Each season, chefs always face an elimination challenge that involve catering a banquet or a large party with a 100+ guests. Maybe the dim sum crowd was a slightly bigger crowd but even so, it's only a difference in degree, not kind. Fundamentally, the dim sum challenge was no different than dozens of other past large-scale challenges featured on the show. I really don't understand what it was about this challenge that made it so excruciating slow.


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