Top Chef: Season 9, Episode 14: Mentors

…And the beat goes on…

If you watched the last Last Chance Kitchen, the edit lead you to believe that Grayson was the winner, which is why it was utterly unsurprising to see Beverly return at the start of the episode. The Magical Elves seem to have a love of ham handed misdirection.

The quickfire was disappointingly insipid, even more so because it conferred the opportunity for immunity and a guaranteed spot in the Final Four. The chefs that second-guess Sarah’s decision to not take the car are only fooling themselves. At every stage of the game, the priority is to advance. Period. Plus, she got to have a relaxed day and decent night’s sleep, which at this stage of the competition is remarkably valuable.

I loved when the mentors walked in and the cooks last their collective shit (well, except for Edward.) It was one of the most honest displays of emotion I’ve seen on television, and Paul’s inability to contain himself had >me choking up while I was on the elliptical trainer, which makes staying in rhythm hard. Even for all the editing trickery that goes on with the show, the authenticness of its participants means that Top Chef taps into real human emotion unlike anything else out there.

There’s not one fan of the show who didn’t know that Edward was going down the moment he bought the smoked oysters.

Given all the grief she’s received, Beverly’s success makes for Good TV.

Paul continues to operate on a plane utterly separate from the rest of the competition. Gail’s blog post points out that the TV edit underplays the quality of Paul’s dish — she says it’s the only truly memorable plate she’d had all season, and among the tops in all seasons.

If he doesn’t win it all, it would be a huge surprise.

What Experience Design can learn from this week’s Top Chef

No spoilers for the first four paragraphs.

This week’s episode of Top Chef was likely the best of the season, and definitely featured the most inspired and, according to the judges, delicious cooking so far. Chef Tom even said it was among the best single meals ever served on nine seasons of the show.

How could that be? The cooking so far this season has been decidedly middle-of-the-pack compared to prior seasons, and then all of a sudden it gets transcendent?

Because this week we saw leadership and vision, presented quite delightfully by guest judge Charlize Theron. Capitalizing on a cheap marketing tie-in (she plays The Evil Queen in an edgy telling of Snow White, coming to theaters in summer), Padma tells them to make something “wickedly beautiful,”. And, intentionally or not, Charlize then demonstrates remarkable leadership. She inspires them (who doesn’t want to please Charlize Theron — even the women love her), she encourages them (“indulge”), and she even gives some creative direction (“think like an evil queen.” This is the first time these chefs have really been given license to go over the top, and just enough structure to have a sense of rules to play by.

And what results is what happens when you give creative people just the right amount of leadership and structure without telling them exactly what to do. Each chef produces a delicious, inspired course, utterly unique, yet, thanks to the clear vision, it comes together in a remarkable whole.

…and now time for the spoiler-ridden commentary…

Hoo-boy! The Mozart of the Palate does it again! Paul’s dish was the hardest to appreciate through the telexision, but clearly his ability to play your tongue’s taste buds like keys on a piano is in full force. I love how Grayson admits her literalness, and I’m surprised she was able to realize that vision so directly. I can’t wait for Lindsay to get booted off in a fit of utter humiliation. I’ve never liked Michelle Bernstein as a guest judge, and I really don’t care for her protégé. The editors know that we diehards pick up on certain cues, because when Chris calls his wife, and we see the photos of the family, every fan’s first thought was, “Chris is going to lose tonight.”

The only thing that bummed me was Beverly beating Nyesha in Last Chance Kitchen. That twist just clearly proved too much, and Nyesha had likely put together a much better, and more flexible, setup than Beverly. Though, according to Tom, the decision came down to a nitpick — seasoning — and I don’t think you can lay that on Beverly’s preparation. I was hoping to see Nyesha pull an Ozzy and make it back into the competition, but I suppose I’ll have to wait until the next Top Chef All Stars.

Top Chef: Season 9, Episode 10: Restaurant Wars

This episode was indicative of the season as a whole: meh. I had thought that the first episode premise of whittling 29 chefs down to 16 was going to deliver us a higher caliber of contestant. However, this crew is decidedly middling, and is providing for some uninspired television.

This week gave us every TC fan’s favorite event: Restaurant Wars. The primary difference between this season and prior ones is that instead of both teams opening on the same night, they did so on successive nights. The Boys ended up going first, and I think this proved to be a huge disadvantage, because this has been an exhausting season, and the prior BBQ challenge lead to a sleepless night. The girls had a day to rest, whereas the boys just had to keep hammering at it, and I think it contributed to their inability to execute well.

I loved that Chris referred to Restaurant Wars as Top Chef’s Kobayashi Maru (even if he supposedly mispronounced it). More pop culture geekery please!

That the women won ran contrary to what typically happens in Restaurant Wars (or any group challenge on Top Chef), because they were also clearly the more dysfunctional. The men were far more inclined to pull together, but as a group they were so off their game it didn’t matter. The women, particularly Lindsay and Sarah, were the kind of flaming bitches that typically torpedo a team’s efforts. I was literally yelling at my television when Lindsay went back into the kitchen for the umpteenth time. She was simply a disaster. It speaks to the strength of their food (and the weakness of the mens’), that there inability to actually work as a team did not sink them.

Grayson gets big props for being the only woman who had her head together and made an honest attempt to keep things moving. And what kind of delicious irony is it that the least team-capable, Beverly, won the challenge? Particularly when the Mean Girl duo could clearly not accept it, even though they put in a subpar performance.

Once again, Last Chance Kitchen proved more engaging than the main event. (Unlike on Survivor, where Redemption Island felt like a misfire from pretty much the get go). Perhaps it’s time to rename Nyesha “The Hammer,” because she once again dispatched her foe, this time using a combination of cunning (taking Tylor’s friend to be her sous) and execution. At this point, it would be quite disappointing if Nyesha doesn’t make it back into the main competition to prove her mettle.

Top Chef, Season 9 Episode 9: BBQ Pit Wars

Remember: there will be spoilers.

Oh, I did enjoy this episode. Good cooking, some drama, and another win for Paul’s Wonder Palate.

A month ago, I tweeted:

. . . and I still wanted to every time his face popped up on the television screen. Doubtless, Myhrvold is a brilliant polymath. He also comes across as a ragingly condescending jerk.

I enjoyed the Quickfire because it was a good, honest cooking challenge. I was a little surprised Ty-lor won it with his watermelon, which made me all the more want to eat it.

Beverly is a near total disaster. Her spraying Padma and Nathan with foam was just weird. What got me to laugh, and laugh out loud for a long time took place during the BBQ challenge, with her oddly calm reaction to the fire ranging on the camper stove. She didn’t seem to think a giant fire in such a confined space was problematic until the smoke detector went off. That scene (embedded here) is a master class of comic editing, with Malibu’s commentary (“She’s missing a few chapters”) as the coup de grace.

Though you do feel somewhat badly for Bev, considering she seemed to have been made a prisoner of her own home by her parents, and this is very likely why she has such trouble out in the world.

The BBQ challenge was a great one (like the chili challenge). It’s regional, it should be really tasty, and the circumstances lead to great (if loopy) TeeVee. Sadly, only one of the three teams really stepped up. Paul wins again with a combination of flavors that when you hear about it makes you scrunch up your face, but delivers on deliciousness. Grayson and Lindsay are lucky to have been on his team.

Grayson once again gets more than her fair share of screen time, first for the “sex in the mouth” comment, and then for her “Little Green Frog” song, which I’m sure made many across America pause on this frame:

grayson_frog.png

That bit of unbridled goofiness made me think she simply does not belong with the cynicism and hard-bittenness of New York, however many “bangin'”s or “true dat”s she utters. She’s simply too sweet and goofy.

Anyway, not particularly sad to see Malibu go. While he was among the more entertaining to watch, he was clearly not at the caliber of the other chefs (nor Nyesha, it turns out). And his “art” was a little off-putting.

Top Chef, Season 9, Episode 8: Tribute Dinner

Reminder: there will be spoilers.

Let’s cut to the chase: thankfully, Heather is gone. And not just because she’s a bossy, mean, bitch who got caught retweeting naughties and so had to protect her Twitter feed. But because, as she demonstrated last week in her own commentary, she’s a simple-minded chef, who says she has a “rustic style”, and who mishandled the beef in her, you know, BEEF Stroganoff. Good riddance.

Unlike the last few episodes, I liked both challenges. They’ve recognized that Quickfire challenges are just kind of puffery, so they let it be run by Twitter (I loved the ‘hand an ingredient to a chef that they’ll have to use” twist, but was disappointed at how unimaginative the chefs were with it). Paul wins with a bizarre combination of ingredients, once again proving he’s some kind of flavor-combining savant, like a Neo of the palate.

I have no idea why Patti Labelle was a guest judge — apart from being a performer, she has no connection at all to Austin. At least she was charming and even witty.

I really dug the elimination challenge. I even teared up hearing a couple of the stories (and I watch while exercising). I love challenges where there are no excuses, no real limits — just cook something great. And the connection to someone they loved finally pushed some people to go beyond safe or merely good, and try some really interesting stuff.

And some who failed. Maybe instead of calling Chris C “Malibu,” they’ll call him “Albumen” now. And Grayson. I’m actually a fan of the Wisconsin schtick, but that slab of meat just looked unappetizing. And, um, don’t say, “True ‘dat.” (Also, if you’re not the fanboy I am, you might not know that Chris C and Grayson are the leaders in the “fan favorite” poll on Bravo’s site. Chris C’s wide margin suggests Top Chef‘s audience skews female and/or gay.)

I very much want to eat Ed’s bibimbap and Sarah’s cabbage roll-stuffed-with-sausage. Maybe at the same meal!

I think Nyesha might prove herself to be the Ozzy of the Last Chance Kitchen. She’s enough of a badass that I’d like to see her wield a katana as she slices through the competition.

Top Chef, Season 9, Episode 7: Game On

I found this a resoundly disappointing episode. I’m dismayed that the chefs aren’t bringing it. They’re not goading one another to do amazing things. There aren’t enough super chefs blowing people away that everyone feels like they have to raise their game. I’m definitely pining for season 6, when the Voltaggio brothers, Kevin, and Jennifer just blew people away.

Oh well.

The quickfire was so dominated by the discussion of tequila that they pretty much for got to talk about the food. And when Tim Love grinned, it blinded my eyes with all the pearly white.

The elimination challenge was a train wreck. Heather, she of the villain edit, just digs herself deeper and deeper. It’s pretty clear that she’s at best a mediocre chef (at least in this crowd), but she clearly thinks she can do no wrong. I’ve worked with people who, when the shit starts hitting the fan, all they do is point fingers elsewhere, and refuse to accept any blame. Her belief that the reason she was picked out for elimination was because the contestants feared her after her previous win was the height of self-delusion.

And I haven’t even gotten to her bizarre treatment of Beverly throughout the episode. She clearly had so little confidence in Beverly from the start that she never got herself into a place where she could actually work with her. And Heather’s whole “I do rustic farm-to-table and all she does is Asian” smacks of incompetence–no great chef blathers on about supposed styles like this. They just cook great food.

And it doesn’t help, as I’ve mentioned before, that Bev is pretty much a tightly wound bundle of nerves. There couldn’t have been a worse pairing for a team, and it makes you wonder if it was truly random. Though, oddly enough (and it’s easy to forget in all the drama), they didn’t lose! In fact, they might have been on the top of the bottom.

Poor Grayson, paired with crazy Chris J. Poor Nyesha, paired with Dakota’s underdone venison. Grayson continues to be a crowd-pleaser (and it’s not just me, judging by the voting), and I’m happy she’s still cooking.

It’s unfortunate that I’m enjoying Last Chance Kitchen perhaps more than the main show. I like that the focus in not on the bullshit, but the food, and I love the emerging Greek chorus of ousted chefs (all dudes… until next time!). Nyesha is clearly so much more talented that the others that it wasn’t a fair fight. I expect her to win quite a few of these.

I have to say, I’m thrilled they’re getting out of the open-air pit that is Dallas, and heading to one of America’s best cities, Austin. I hope those environs coax quality performances that Dallas just couldn’t inspire.

Top Chef: Season 9, Episode 6: Higher Steaks

(remember: there will be spoilers.)

This episode didn’t excite as much response from me as last week’s.

The Quickfire was a good, basic, technique-driven exercise. I couldn’t stand guest judge Dean Fearing, and his condescending style.

I was happy to see Grayson win. She’s a dark horse, and probably won’t go super far, but she’s also one of the few cheftestants that qualify for the seasonal Reality Show Participant That Seems Relatively Normal, Possibly Interesting, And You Think You Could Enjoy A Beer with them. The others who count this season would be Paul, Edward, Chris Jones, and maybe Chris C, if only for his silly commentary.

Unlike Beverly, who seems like a psychotherapist’s wet dream, a bundle of neuroses that seem to stem from the conflicts of being part of the “model minority,” a woman, and a chef (and thus displeasing her family with her career choice.) Beverly wins the Most Like Cameron From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off award, in that you figure if you stuck a lump of coal up her ass, it would come out a diamond.

Heather, who ends up winning elimination by baking Edward’s cake recipe (!), is getting, as they say on the boards, the “villain edit.” And boy, does she seem to deserve it (particularly in the “next week” teaser of her shutting down Grayson). When I see Heather, I’m reminded of the woman who runs the shoe store in the ZZ Top video Legs, the one who eats the girl’s cake.

legs_woman.png

This is how my brain works.

The less said about those on the bottom, and Whitney ultimately leaving, the better, though I’m bummed that Whitney beat out Chuy in the Last Chance Kitchen.

Managing Experience Design Lessons from Top Chef‘s “Restaurant Wars”

OK. So I actually have two shows of which I’m an utter fanboy — BSG and Top Chef. Last night’s Top Chef was every season’s most anticipated episode, “Restaurant Wars.” The set-up is that you have two teams of 4 chefs, and they have 24 hours to come up with a restaurant concept, menu (with two options for each course), interior design, and service. It’s an intense and grueling exercise, leaving contestants spent by the end.

I couldn’t watch last night’s episode without realizing how much of it applied to experience design and management. There were three key elements that popped out at me. In order to explain, I have to reveal what transpired so…

Spoiler alert!

Communication. This arises in pretty much every team challenge on Top Chef, as it seems that chefs are terrible communicators. Early on in the service, the Sahana team, Jamie in particular, could see that Radhika, the team lead, was not focusing on the right things. Radhika should have been paying attention to front-of-house, making sure people felt attended to, and instead she kept drifting into the kitchen, where she was more comfortable. Someone, probably Jamie, should have said something to Radhika, but she didn’t. It’s as if she didn’t want to suggest that a teammate is not working up to par. Similarly, Radhika, as team lead, had almost nothing to say to her team, and they managed as little islands of activity. The Sunset Lounge team, for all their problems (and there were many) were in constant communication with each other. And they won.

The lesson: communicate. When things aren’t going well, call them out. Don’t be afraid of offending or upsetting others, particularly in group work. Yes, you have to figure out tactful means of communicating, so that your message will be received, but you can’t not communicate.

Experience matters. The judges all felt that Sahana’s team had the better food (if only by a slight margin), but they lost. Why? Because Fabio rocked the front of the house for Sunset Lounge. He made everyone feel welcome and attended to. He was gracious, even a little flirtatious. When things went wrong, like the undercooked black cod, he apologized and offered to replace it. He recognized that dining is not just about eating, and made the guests feel good about being there.

The lesson: Attend to the complete person. Make them feel good. Recognize the role that emotion plays, and don’t assume a superior product will win out self-evidently.

Finish strong. Even though the judges preferred Sahana’s food, the comment cards from the other eaters rated Sunset Lounge’s as better. I trust the judges’ palates here, so the disconnect is revealing. One reason the other eaters preferred Sunset Lounge was the experience, as explained above. More important, though, was that Sunset Lounge finished strong — even the judges said their desserts were the single best component served all night, across both restaurants. Sahana’s dessert was considered among the worst offerings from either team.

Brandon introduced me to the “peak-end rule”, wherein people judge experiences based on either the most extreme aspect (the peak) or how they ended. So, even though the Sunset Lounge’s team’s food was weaker overall, it ended so strong that eaters felt the whole experience was that much stronger.

The lesson: It’s obvious. I know if my practice, though, I have to always remind myself to finish strong, to put that extra effort in at the end.