As told to Archana Ram.
I think last night’s challenge came at the perfect time. The dim sum challenge knocked everyone down a notch, which is normal. The contestants all get a little exhausted at this point in the competition. They needed something to be excited about, and I think sending them fishing for the day did just that. It was a beautiful day in August, it re-energized them and got them really excited about cooking again.
August is the peak of the best season for fresh local ingredients, and the contestants stopped at a farm stand in the Hamptons, which overflowed with beautiful produce. I think when we have that luxury of fresh produce, that’s how chefs should cook. Look at what’s available, what looks the best, and get inspired. That’s the best way to eat. As far as the judging, I wanted to point out that Kerry Heffernan was one of the best guest judges we’ve had before. We’ve had so many people come to the tables – famous chefs, movie stars, TV personalities – I’ve known Kerry for a long time, and he’s a really talented chef. But I never worked with him on television before and didn’t know what kind of experience he had. But he just owned it. We were all so impressed. It was almost like he had been at the judges’ table with us for years. From a behind-the-scenes standpoint, he slipped right into that chair and talked in perfect sound bites. He was like a producer’s dream. We all said, “Wow! Kerry needs to get a television show!” He’s one hell of a good fisherman, too. That’s also why they brought him on. He and Tom fish together every summer. They both spend a lot of time out in Montauk. That was the inspiration because he’s a great fisherman and knows a lot about the sea, not to mention the fact that Tom is an avid, avid fisherman.
We all wanted Antonia to be in the top, but it was a team challenge. We wanted them to take responsibility as a team and justify their dishes. This is where things get tricky on Top Chef because we want them to work together. As a chef, you need to do that, but at the same time, it’s a competition and everyone needs to be out for themselves. Antonia could’ve helped Jamie and Tiffani if she had wanted to give them advice on how to cook their dishes. That being said, that was her decision to make. Maybe she knew that those dishes weren’t good and didn’t want to be a team player because she knew she had a good dish and needed to save herself first. That’s totally valid. Are they team members or are they competitors? It’s a fine line.
There was a lot of talk about the fish Antonia used. Porgies are small, very bony fish with a strong flavor. People don’t gravitate to them, especially in home cooking because they’re labor intensive to cook properly with the bones. But Antonia, Jamie, and Tiffani caught a lot of them, and I appreciate that Antonia approached it like she’d take this on as a challenge and use a fish most people wouldn’t think of because that was the hand that she was dealt, and she’d figure out how can she make that taste really good. She created a way to do that – she deep-fried the fish really well. It was really good fresh, moist fish, but it had a lot of other flavor components and textures, so it was a smart move. It was so delicious. It really was one of my favorite dishes of the night.
With Dale and Carla’s dishes, I have to admit, the episode was taped several months ago and I watched it over the weekend and when the judges’ table scene came up, I couldn’t remember who won. I could’ve sworn Dale won. And then Carla won, and I said, “Wait a second!” Not that this was wrong because I was obviously there for the decision, but I couldn’t remember between the two of them who ended up winning. In the end we gave it to Carla for one main reason: There are a lot of elements we judge on and there are no set guidelines of five points for taste, five points for creativity. It’s about feeling and talking through the dish. The conversation we had at the judges’ table was that Dale’s dish was amazing. The fish was great as were the fresh vegetables. It was equal in execution and in flavor to Carla’s, so it was really a toss-up.
In the end, though, Carla showed us something really different. She put a spin on it that was really creative. As much as Dale’s was great, we’ve all had a fresh, simple fish taco before. Carla not only used a blue fish – another one of those fishes people shy away from because it’s quite a pungent, oily fish – and showed us something really delicious. It was smart. She gave it this New York spin – the idea of the pumpernickel and horseradish, the schmear and the bagel, and the smoked fish. It just felt so right and so smart. Obviously, Dale’s felt right too – middle of the summer with fish tacos on the beach – but Carla’s gave us a sense of place that we were so excited about. For that reason, we felt we needed to give her the credit she deserved.
When Richard, Fabio and Marcel presented one dish, we thought it was silly of them to do just one. They did it because they thought, “If we all do it and work on it equally, how will they be able to kick one of us off? It’ll make it complicated for them, and we can just make something really great.” There was nothing in the rules that said they couldn’t do that. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the dish they made suffered from too many hands – and it showed. The fish, which was supposed to be the star, got lost in the process. If they had taken two things off that dish, it would’ve been great. The problem with three chefs with really big personalities all working on one dish together is they all want their own mark to be left on it. What ends up happening is it’s just too much. They weren’t able to hold back and that’s why the dish ultimately didn’t do very well.
With the jamon foam in particular, foam is now not a new thing. It went through a period of being very overplayed because it is the innovative technique that uses a siphon. When it came into the mainstream 8 to 10 years ago, everyone and their mother wanted to do foam. It’s fine and has a purpose. You get the essence and the really bold flavor without the heaviness of the ingredient itself. It’s a puff of that flavor. Our problem was the dish itself in its plating was so soulful. It was a succotash. It was rustic. The fish and succotash combo made a lot of sense together. We just couldn’t figure out where that jamon foam fit in. It didn’t seem to have a place, not just because the flavor seemed extraneous, but also because the foam seemed extraneous. It didn’t match the technique used in the rest of the dish. It felt completely like the odd man out, like one of these things is not like the other. Why did they bother? We also like to tease Richard and Marcel about that because those are the two guys who are always doing the foam. It’s like they can’t help themselves, as I said in the episode. Again, it’s a question of restraint.
Their strategy definitely made things a little more difficult, but we’re up for a challenge, too. We realized very quickly that Fabio had very little to do with the conception of the dish. So do we fault the idea because it was conceived poorly, in that there were too many components that ended up drowning the dish? Or do we fault the minutia of technique and fault the people responsible for the pieces? We found a way to break down the dish that made sense to us for judging purposes. Is a poorly planned idea worse than poor execution? That’s a constant question we deal with every single episode on Top Chef. There are two components to creating great food. There’s the conception: Is it a good idea? Will those flavors work together? And then there’s the execution: Did you cook the fish properly? Were the vegetables cooked consistently? Did you use the right technique so your idea is well executed? Those two sides, I think, are 50-50 in a great dish. A dish can be a great idea but fall completely flat if it’s not made well. Or a dish can be a bad idea, but the technique is so excellent that it can be slightly saved. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. You need them both in harmony to create good food.
But in the end, we thought the mistakes as a whole were just not as great as Tiffani and Jamie’s. We were pretty clear about Jamie’s dish. She just wasn’t smart about the way she put the dish together. There was too much broth – watermelon, cucumber, radish, red onion. There’s so much water in all of those things. And then there was this piece of fish swimming in watered down liquid. It didn’t have any personality at all. It felt drowned in weak, tepid water. We wanted it to be bright, fresh, pop and quench for us. I know she had that intention, but she didn’t follow through, and compared to the others, she really fell short. This was the perfect example of great conception, poor execution. Watermelon, cucumber, dill, radish, striped bass – those things should all go together, but they needed to go together in a different way. You know what could’ve worked really well with this dish? I hate to say it: foam. Then we would’ve gotten that pop of watermelon or cucumber. If she just wanted that fresh aroma, here would be a place. But it just felt like it was swimming. We had taken it out of the water; we didn’t want to put it back in!
We weren’t really surprised to see Jamie go. We all are clear that it was her time to go, unfortunately. She’s a great chef and a hard worker despite what her fellow contestants think right now. She didn’t have a great run the last few episodes, but I think she was exhausted mentally, as well. Tiffani is such a strong contender. She narrowly lost to Harold in her season and then came back and won our holiday challenge. She’s been cooking well all season. Tiffani is often right on top of things, but you have one bad day and that’s all it takes.
What did you guys think? Did Jamie and Tiffani deserve to go home? And are you happy Carla won the Elimination?