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Monday, August 31, 2009

Second Helpings: 'Top Chef' - Simple vs. Contrived

In Episode 2 of "Top Chef": Las Vegas, there were a few obvious, spirited political issues included in the plot. One was whether or not a girls versus boys challenge is sexist. And of course the legalization of gay marriage.

You’ll all be glad that I’m not going to discuss those issues in this column. OK, well, for the record, I think people should be able to wed whomever they want.

But, what I felt was the biggest controversy of the episode was the comment made that the boys’ food was “contrived” and that mass appeal is as important as the judges’ opinion.

These are both issues I take pretty seriously. The former is an issue we battle every day in my kitchens.

I’ll be honest, I’m fed up with the whole “simple, easy, casual” food camp, versus the, “conceptual, creative, plated” food opponent. It’s a silly debate. And I’m willing to bet that anyone who says, “I just cook simple food and plate it simply”, is defending their lack of artistry or their experience in conceptualizing dishes. It’s an excuse.

If contrived equals beautifully presented, tight and tasty food, I’m on team contrived.

Its like the Notorious B.I.G. versus Tupac feud within our industry. With, for the most part, the West coast playing the role of the simple, unpretentious dish, and the East coast the highly designed crowd. I’d say that's accurate of the rap war as well. Biggy was more of the technical lyricist.

Regardless of your stance, the fact is, "Top Chef" is judged by highly-respected chefs and personalities, who, as they stated in the episode, have eaten thousands of versions of everything.

In order for a tuna tartar, a gazpacho or a chips and salsa to stand out, it has to be more than delicious. It must be thoughtful and inspired. It should also display artistic vision and speak to the soul of it’s creator.

I have no doubt that chicken wings and lamb chops, for instance, are delicious. But they’re common. And common equals average. Which equals middle of the road (at best) on "Top Chef".

And that inevitably takes us to the rationalization that the viewers heard in this episode. And that we hear every season. That, well... the guests enjoyed it. So take that Tom! Harrumph!

The guests should enjoy it, duh. Could you imagine a designer on a fashion competition show saying to a judge... “well, the model said it was comfortable” !?!

Old Navy won’t win, place, or show you on "Top Chef".

It is this type of thinking that breeds mediocrity in our industry. That food only has to be good enough. It’s the attitude that perpetuates the appearance of the ubiquitous chicken entree. The burger at a non-burger restaurant. Soup du jour. And even bread service. Really, think about it. Why bread to start the meal in 95% of fine dining restaurants? Do you start your meals at home with a selection of breads and butter?

Of course, in the real world of business there's a balance. And sometimes compromise is a grilled shrimp or crab cake. I don’t suggest neighborhood chefs to all storm into their owners’ office and proclaim its me or the artichoke dip. But for Top Chef, I would suggest caring about presentation. And cooking for the judges.

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