I finally did it. I finally got around to watching Top Chef. And believe it or not, I actually kind of liked it. No wonder everybody and their cat has been asking me if I've seen it. To those who have asked: Yes, I finally saw it. To their cats: Meow.
Last night my wife was watching Kathy Griffin on Bravo. We both really like her show, but we just kind of leave it on in the background a lot. When Top Chef came on afterwards, I didn't really even notice for the first ten or fifteen minutes. Fortunately, that TiVo kind of thing hooked up to our TV already had the beginning of the show cached, so I hit record and started over from scratch.
There are a few things that I think we need to talk about, that some of the contestants seemed to know, and some didn't. First of all, let's talk about the amuse bouche. Roughly translated, it means "happy in the mouth". It is basically a plated hors d'oeuvre, meaning just one or two bites, which is served as sort of a pre-appetizer. A lot of really nice restaurants will have one already sitting at your place when you sit down, and some will wait until just after you sit down to serve them, occassionally presenting them as "a gift from the chef".
If you present your amuse on a fork, or on a spoon (I especially like the Oriental soup spoons for this), that's okay, so long as that fork or spoon is on a plate. If you just present it alone on a plate, that's okay too. It can be hot, it can be cold. It should be flavorful, but not too strongly so. If you would like to use bleu cheese, that's fine. But try and find a roquefort or a gorgonzola (both a little milder), rather than a stilton or a Maytag (both a little harsher). And go easy on it. If your amuse requires more flatware interaction than as a transportation device from your plate to your mouth, then you need to rethink it. Serving a salad inside an apple might be okay if you can pull it off with a crab apple. Guess who wasn't surprised when the guy trying to use a whole apple to make an amuse bouche was sent home at the end of the show.
I can't even tell you how sick I am of hearing the phrase "surf and turf". For the uninitiated, it means part seafood (surf) and part land animal (turf). Cute, huh? As the judge said, this dish is something that chefs use to show off. I strongly believe that this is true, because that is the only possible purpose that it could even remotely serve. It's a buzzword, used by chefs trying to prove themselves against who knows what. A good chef can easily pull off a proper surf and turf, but a good chef does not need to do so to prove himself.
That said, let's talk about the "surprise" judge. Everytime I hear the phrase "Top Chef", I think about all of my friends who have asked, "hey, did you see Anthony Bourdain on Top Chef last night?" I believe he's an obvious choice for such a position because he's famously rude, daring, opinionated and brutally honest. He's a good chef, but he would probably be the first to tell you that it was his writing, and his eventual television career that has been turning him into a household name, not necessarily his food.
If you're going to appear on a show such as Top Chef, you need to do your homework. Not just about the food, but about potential judges. If you've done your homework on the judges, you would know to expect somebody like Anthony Bourdain. And if you've done your homework on Bourdain, there are a few things that you would know, both from his books and from his shows.
If something has happened in the kitchen that would make you watch to call the health inspector, or even the police, then Bourdain has seen it happen. He has openly told stories of his young, criminal mind. That said, I don't know that you will ever meet a more honest chef. He will do the job that he has been hired to do, and he will do it well. He will tell his cooks if they need to shape up, possibly spending the entire night yelling at them, and at the end of the night will be sitting next to them at the bar. This is because he knows that it's just work, nothing to get your feelings hurt about, and he hasn't deluded himself into thinking otherwise.
Bourdain also likes good, honest food. If your mom makes a good meatloaf, he won't tell you it's crap just because you won't find it at the French Laundry. He would tell you that it's a good meatloaf, because he knows that it's a good meatloaf. But if you make crap and try to pass it off as anything else, he's like a shark that's just smelled blood in the water.
If you've read A Cook's Tour, then you know why Bourdain has become famous for eating questionable food. I don't think he wakes up in the morning and thinks, "I'm going to have an omelet with monkfish scales and ants." He started visiting all of those places and eating all of that weird food because he thought it would score him a book deal and make him a lot of money. Trying to make a dish to please Anthony Bourdain just by merit of being weird will not win him over. If you can make a dish taste good, he will pay attention. If you can make a weird ingredient taste good, he will be impressed. If you use a weird ingredient just because it's weird, you're dead.
As I suspected, Top Chef is just like Shear Genius. Or more correctly, Shear Genius is just like Top Chef. Unfortunately, this season of the Next Food Network Star is also exactly like Top Chef. This is disappointing to me on so many levels. Food Network is the authority on cooking shows. To see them abandon their previous format in favor of just copying anybody else is disappointing. It makes me wonder if they're losing the culinary authority that they have worked so hard to establish. I hope that The Network That Emeril Built (TM) doesn't turn into The Network That Bravo Destroyed.