Virginia Sherwood/Bravo
Hugh Acheson
November 10, 2011 AT 07:00 AM EST

As told to Nuzhat Naoreen

[As a contender on Top Chef Masters], I was on the other side for awhile, but you know judging is definitely a lot easier. It doesn’t have the stress of actually cooking. Time constraints aren’t my problem anymore. Before this, I guest judged on Top Chef: Just Desserts, so I was familiar with the format. There’s not much hazing on Top Chef. Tom runs you around naked through Hollywood, but that’s about it.

There are a lot of people, so figuring out who’s who and what’s about to come up has been a challenge. Also, sometimes there are pretty good dishes out there that you want to get through, but there are only 16 coats to give out.

In the first episode, you saw a lot of very different dishes with the rabbit and the pork. But in last night’s first qualifying round, if you picked veal osso bucco or short ribs and then lifted the cloche to see your time, it was pretty stressful.

If you have a pretty good skill set, 20 minutes is enough time to break down trout and grill it like Paul did. For risotto, it was 40 minutes, which should have been enough time. Risotto starts and finishes in about 20 minutes, but then you have also to prepare and assemble everything.

Risotto is this trap door for Top Chef contestants. It’s hilarious. When I was on Top Chef Masters, John Currence went out with risotto. It’s just amazingly tricky, and yet such a simple dish to put forward really well. I don’t know if Chaz just misread his time, but that must be what happened, because it looked to me like he could really get it done. I caught somebody telling him he had a minute left. The risotto was still in the pot at that point and then he transferred it to a sheet and then it never made it. Also, the other thing was: Why on earth did he make so much risotto for three judges? It was enough to feed an army. We didn’t get to taste the risotto. If it doesn’t make it to the plate, we don’t taste it.

[As for last night’s show], octopus, short ribs, and veal osso bucco take the longest to cook. Those were definitely the high pressure items.

I felt for Beverly. She cooks with octopus a lot, but a lot of the octopus served in the industry is built around stuff that’s already cooked when it arrives to you. Octopus can take a really long time to tenderize. We often slow cook it and that’s an overnight process. I thought Berenice’s short ribs were a pretty challenging thing to have, but she left with such class. The oxtails… poor Ashley. You know if she had really brought that dish to the table in the way that I think she could have, it would have been pretty spectacular. It was almost too homey in a lot of ways, there was a lot of cartilage and underdone oxtail. It was hard not to give her the door unfortunately.

You can immediately see the people who have a lot of poise, the people with dishes they’re really confident with. What we haven’t really seen are people leaving who are totally dismayed with the result. Most of the people who left in this episode were understanding of their plight.

What I’m looking for is clean, straightforward, and meaningful food, and I think that the two people who really shined in delivering that were Paul and Lindsay. Paul’s trout was just so clean and so smartly done. He was so efficient. Lindsay’s veal was unanimously a home run. It was homey in that it was very clean and comforting, but it wasn’t just comfort food. It was smart and very forward.

Edward had a pretty bad cut. He was trying to get the wrapping off a bottle and just took off the whole top with his knife and really cut himself. It was a bleeder, and that’s not easy to deal with. Edward was not shy about making sure he was going to get through in some way or another. He dealt with it really well. You don’t often get to see the medics, but you saw them this time, and they played a major role. There are always going to be cuts and bruises, but the clock goes on. It doesn’t stop in our kitchen.

The chefs on the bubble were just kept aside in a room until everything passed, and then it was their turn to go on. I think to be told you have [to cook again for a spot in the top 16] is a pretty heavy bonus. Andrew was excited to be doing it again, and he said he would cook all day long if need be. Other people, however, put their heart and soul into their first dishes and maybe didn’t feel like they wanted to be up there on that stage again.

Part of the reason most people did seafood in the second round is probably because shrimp cooks quickly. But if you open it up, a lot of the chefs are relatively coastal, so fish is going to be what they cook on a regular basis. Also, fish is easy to doll up in an inordinate amount of ways.

I thought Edward was pretty savvy and smart to look around and see what everybody else was doing and do something to differentiate himself a little bit. It was either that or Edward was going to kill everybody, if you remember. I thought Edward’s dish was really, really good and very interesting. It showed off the dynamic background he has in food. Molly’s shrimp was overcooked, so I didn’t really enjoy it that much. Andrew did two things – one of which was awesome and the other of which didn’t make sense. He had these beautiful mussels and that was great. He should have figured out how to make that dish more substantive and interesting with less of the strangeness he had on the side. Janine’s seared scallop was really good. That was a tough call in the end, contrasting it with Grayson’s dish, because they both did a nice job. Grayson’s was just a little more composed and thought-through and the flavors married well. Janine’s was great, but it just had this watermelon aspect that was not integrated perfectly into the dish.

Being competitive in nature is part of the show. It’s sometimes to your benefit to make sure you’ve got some people to rely on who can help you out. The more you help out others, the more they’re going to help you out, and, trust me, there’s going to come a time when you’re going to need to find something and that person you’ve helped out in the past is going to be more than eager to help you. If you’ve never helped anybody out, nobody’s going to help you.

In this episode, Ashley was having trouble with the pressure cooker, and there was kind of a long drawn-out silence when she asked for help. Lindsay was kind enough to offer assistance, and, at the end of the day, I think Lindsay will prove to be a very nice contender.

A lot happens in the next few episodes. Texas is a beautiful state, but it was a pretty brutal summer and there’s some brutality that ensues in the upcoming episodes. There’s some definite in-fighting that’s going to start sometime soon.

Read more:

‘Top Chef’ recap: Revenge of the Bubble People

Gail Simmons blogs ‘Top Chef: Texas’ season premiere


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