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'Top Chef' preview: Toby Young says he's not trying to be Simon Cowell

January 14, 2009 |  1:18 pm

Tobyjog_3 Last week on "Top Chef," new judge Toby Young, who some might remember as the author of "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People," came off as one eager-to-offend Brit.

Not unlike "American Idol" meanie Simon Cowell, actually. But Young, a former food critic with a resume full of food TV show appearances, says one-upping his fellow East Ender was not his aim. British people are just "rude," he says with a laugh. He fills us in on joining the cast, eating earthworms and what he misses most about food writing.

Watched your first episode last week. First question: Are you trying to be Simon Cowell?
I swear, I didn’t really go in thinking, “I’ll be the Simon Cowell” of “Top Chef.” I was just used to being a judge on British food shows where people are much more outspoken and rather rude. That’s the culture over here. I may come across as being this showboating bitch on “Top Chef,” but that was not my intention.

Oh, come now. You were pretty prepared. And it made for some memorable moments.
I honestly haven’t even seen them! I swear!

You told the Guardian: “You don't need an encyclopedic knowledge of food to make a convincing judge, so much as the ability to describe just how awful something tastes in a wide variety of different ways.”
True. But I will say that the producers went to great lengths to try and find some talented people. I will say the quality of the food wasn’t as good on Episode 7 [his first] as it was on Episode 12. But you’d expect it to get better as the series goes along. Generally, I was very impressed with just how good all the chefs on the show were.

How did you get involved with “Top Chef”?
I got the Bat signal and I was on the next plane virtually. They show it here in the U.K., so I had seen it and I was a fan.

You’ve actually appeared on a lot of food TV in the U.K. How do the U.S. shows stack up?
It’s very different doing a food show in America and doing one in Britain. I did a 20-part series for the BBC series called “Eating With the Enemy.” The budget for all 20 episodes was probably the budget for a single episode of “Top Chef.” It’s the difference between making a home movie in your backyard and going to Hollywood. “Top Chef” is a very smooth-running machine. All the people working there are incredibly professional and absolutely at the top of their game.

Which insect tasted the best?
The earthworms were surprisingly tasty. He had infused them with this tomato flavor. They were nice! I can easily imagine them catching on as an aperitif. People will be serving them at cocktail parties before you know it.

Did you get along with the other judges?
You know Padma kept hassling me for dates. It was like, “I’m married. Get off my case!” We hung out a bit at the wrap party after the 12th episode at a bar in Brooklyn, but apart from that I didn’t really see any of the other judges socially during production.

Who’s more discerning, Tom or Padma?
I think Padma actually describes herself as the show’s host. She’s very self-deprecating about that. She described herself to me as the Vanna White of “Top Chef.” But she weighs in, and she knows an impressive amount about food. She actually knows a good deal more about food than I do. And I was impressed by how authoritative Tom was. He’s like a walking encyclopedia. He really delivers his verdict like he’s on the Supreme Court. He’s Thurgood Marshall. There’s no dissenting.

Padma and former judge Ted Allen have talked about how long judging sessions can get. What was your longest?
There were several that we deliberated long and hard about. By the time I got there, there wasn’t any one contestant who was obviously weak. They were all pretty strong. So it was really hard to send anyone home. It’s not something anyone takes lightly.

Favorite guest judge?
Eric Ripert was very impressive. . . .

Everyone says him!
Well, it was great to meet him because he’s such a legend. He was really funny. I also met some other great chefs, too, but the episode we shot with him was particularly fun. You’ll see what I mean when it airs.

Do you miss being a critic?
I miss being fawned over by restaurateurs and chefs. When I was writing my column, I would almost always be recognized when I was in a restaurant, even if I was reviewing it and had booked under a fake name, so free stuff would start coming out of the kitchen on a conveyer belt, fantastic wines would be opened at my table. Now I can’t even get a reservation on the pizza joint on the corner.

But now you’re on TV. Things should start to perk up, right?
Maybe? You know, all writers are lazy. Just the idea of being paid to talk as opposed to write is very appealing for a writer. TV is a lot of fun. It’s fun interacting with the other judges and the contestants. After a while, you just relax into it and it’s a hoot.

— Denise Martin

Complete coverage of "Top Chef."

Photo credit: Benjamin Reed / Los Angeles Times