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'Top Chef' recap: Addicted to speed

January 6, 2011 | 10:45 am

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.