In our continuing effort to spin out the Grand Unified Theory of Top Chef, let’s re-state, clarify, and augment our original (and since-amended) list of rules. In order to avoid confusion, we will enumerate the rules by letters of the alphabet.
Rule A: Never make a salad or dessert. These dishes don’t get any respect, unless they are truly wonderful (even then, it’s almost impossible to win with them). In the case of dessert, you are quite likely to screw it up. Especially ice cream.
Rule B: Play it safe. This is not Top Chef. This is Top Scallop. You can win this competition by cooking menu items from your restaurant week after week (just ask Ilan). Never make something you’ve never made before and just assume it will turn out OK. As timid and pathetic as it sounds, it really is better to be in the middle of the pack until the very end.
Corollary B.1: Don’t get cute. Don’t ever “cleverly” name your dish a “risotto” or “coq au vin” unless you are prepared to really truly execute the classic dish (and, face it, you’re probably not).
(Perhaps we should recognize here an underlying Principle to this Rule, which is that the cheftestants should assume, per Jim Pryor, that the Judges (especially the Guest Judges) are lazy, stupid, and mean. They’re lazy, so they don’t want to have to work to understand your dish; they’re stupid, so they want to eat something that satisfies their preconceptions; and they’re mean, so they’re going to be eager to find some way to criticize you (the simpler and the more obvious the better). With respect to Corollary B.1, the Judges will always be happy to ignore any playful intentions and point out that your twist on a classic dish was made the “wrong” way.)
Corollary B.2: Never be the team leader. The team leader is always the first to go. Even if you’ve got a bottom-feeder on your team undermining you, the Judges are going to ask,”Wouldn’t a real leader find a way to solve the problem?”
Rule C: Respect your proteins. Nothing will get you kicked off Top Chef faster than an over-cooked piece of meat. And a well-cooked piece of meat will always win over even the best vegetarian dish.
Rule D: Be prepared to change your plan. How many times have we watched a cheftestant complacently coast to elimination because he chose to go ahead and stick with the original plan even though he couldn’t get the best quality ingredients or something in the kitchen wasn’t working right or it turned out he had to cook everything with a box of matches and a mirror? Quick thinking is probably the signal virtue of the successful cheftestant. If the plan goes South, change the plan.
Rule E: Be prepared to defend your dish at Judges’ Table. This is really important and not widely appreciated. If your dish didn’t work, you cannot bluff the Judges. Tell them why it didn’t work and what you’d do differently and maybe they’ll take pity on you.
Rule F: It’s business, not personal. If you’ve got a Marcel, a Dale, a Lisa, or a Stefan on your team, you’re going to have to suck it up and deal with it. Sometimes these people are talented and can make a real contribution to your team, if you don’t go into a passive aggressive tailspin. Successful cheftestants accommodate themselves to strong personalities and persevere.
That’s it. Good luck, cheftestants. Please be so kind as to fail in only the above-mentioned ways.
Prediction: Just for kicks, let me glance over the list of contestants… Eli Kirshtein is the youngest (25) and is not from a Big Restaurant Town (Atlanta), but he’s a Richard Blais protégé and that has to count for something. Kevin Gillespie is also young, also from Atlanta, and doesn’t have a culinary degree. That’s our guy. Kevin will be the first to go.