The Return of 'Top Chef'
Last night Bravo aired the qualifying episode of Top Chef, featuring 21 chefs competing for 15 slots. Of the three D.C. chefs in the running, two succeeded and one failed—Dan O'Brien of Seasonal Pantry was asked to make an omelet for Wolfgang Puck. It wasn't pretty.
Puck began with an anecdote of personal failure. When he was 18, he, too, made an omelet for a chef and the result was disastrous. (The chef told Puck it was like he "s—t all over your own bed!") Now you'd think making an omelet is simple enough—and the Austrian judge gave his cooks 45 minutes to complete the task. And yet eggs were being overcooked and omelets were falling apart. O'Brien made one with bacon, mushrooms, and oysters. It got messy. (Puck said he would've liked it more if he didn't have to see it.)
Meanwhile head judge Tom Colicchio made his contestants work the line at his restaurant Craft and fellow judge Hugh Acheson asked his cooks to make him a salad—he seemed quite impressed by the spiny lobster salad presented by Belga Cafe's Bart Vandaele (not to be confused with Art Vandelay). Meanwhile former Marvin chef de cuisine Jeffrey Jew delivered a gazpacho that wowed judge Emeril Lagasse.
No question all 21 contestants would have done well in season one of Top Chef, which featured a few home cooks and amateurs. This was not the way to go, Colicchio once explained in a phone interview,
The first season I was concerned because there were some good chefs there but they were also casting homecooks and housewives and I remember thinking that first season, this isn’t going to fly because, number one, they can’t compete. You cannot have homecooks, unless they used to be professionals and now they’re just cooking at home, and you can’t have even a caterer who was catering in a small market—it’s really hard for them to compete, and so don’t do it because it’s not interesting. I know you think you’re making a reality TV show but a lot of people think you’re making a food show so the focus has to be on food. And the message got there. So I said, Listen, it’s not mutually exclusive. You’re going to find chefs that are interesting, have a point of view, that can cook, that’ll make TV with, but they’re not mutually exclusive. You’ve got to find talented people or it’s just not going to work.
Since then, the competition has gotten a lot more fierce. Add to this a culinary triumvirate of Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, and Tom Colicchio, and this season will be as tough as any.