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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

'Top Chef' Second Helpings: Pressure cooker

Watch what happens. Closely. And you’ll see that at this point of our Las Vegas competition, fatigue becomes a factor.

Tightly cropped haircuts grow past their next usual appointment. Beards and bellies expand. Eyes droop. Attitudes alter. And real world dilemmas present themselves in this unreal world. Like getting sick. What has only been a couple of viewing hours to us at home has been a non-stop, every day, three week grind for the cast up to this point.

Boo-hoo. Chefs work long hours. Right?

Not like this.

"Top Chef" combines two labor intensive industries, television production and cooking. Both are notorious for 12 to14 hour work days. Throw them together and you get a grueling, high-stress 17 to 20 hour day.

When our chefs aren’t cooking, they’re still on the clock. Whether it’s dictated isolation and quiet time, or sitting in the proverbial crock pot called the stew room, it is some of the most demanding work of the participants’ lives.  It creates compelling stories, interesting cooking and usually some drama.

And the physical toll doesn’t even compare to the mental strain.

For the most part, our type of cooking is done in controlled environments. We plan and prepare elements of our food, sometimes days in advance. In the same kitchen, with a familiar staff, and a timed schedule that stays the same every day. Cooking becomes an orchestrated routine.

We show up at 11 a.m. We prep till 3p.m. We organize and tidy our stations until 4:30. We inhale some family meal at 4:45. We open the doors at 5:30. We cook, and sweat and plate until 10:30 p.m. Clean until midnight. Rinse and repeat...

So, at certain points, the game of competitive cooking becomes, who's the best chef who can think and react like a caterer? Who’s the best musician, not in a studio, but live in a jam session? Who’s the best comedian at improv?

It’s, disturbingly, fun.

You learn just how much you can complete in a short amount of time. Strangely enough, the unreal circumstances impart a few lessons that can come in handy in the future. I know from my experience, just like Michael Voltaggio does now, that an immersion circulator plus one handheld appliance shorts most home electrical circuits. And that my digital pressure cooker, the same one that blew up on Eli, doesn’t exactly travel well.

Our routines get broken. Exhaustion and confusion lead to inspiration. And under pressure, even though at the moment we may not like it, we become better chefs.

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