The Telefile

Top Chef Insanity Starts Now

by Lauren Gitlin November 12, 2008 2:29 pm
<i>Top Chef</i> Insanity Starts Now The angels are singing! The new season of Top Chef kicks off tonight, and I got to chat with host/judges Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio about what to expect. Over the course of the (very) long conference call, P and T discussed their new judge, writer Toby Young, a pretty rad line-up of guest judges, their own guilty pleasures and the ingredient they're most sick of. They mentioned only one of the new contestants -- Fabio -- by name, so do with that info what you will. They also took on haters who have implied that Top Chef is an easy ticket to success for lazy chefs, and if you're so inclined you can read about what they had to say at NY Mag's Grub Street blog. Otherwise, read on for the highlights.

On shooting the new season in NYC

Tom Colicchio: Obviously, shooting in New York lent itself to a lot of just amazing things that New York has to offer -- you know, a lot of different ethnic cuisines. And that sort of worked itself into the challenges at a lot of different locations. We shot it outside of Manhattan. We didn't only shoot in Manhattan. In fact, most of it was shot in Brooklyn.

Padma Lakshmi: I was so excited for it to be in New York. I'm very proud of this show for not only going to fine restaurants like Tom's or Eric Ripert's, but also really looking at the city holistically.

On what it takes to be a good cook

TC: There's a certain amount of the technical skill you need to be a good cook. There's so much technique. I mean obviously the knife skills play a part in it. Also having a command of seasoning, knowing how to balance flavors -- how acid works with a dish and how it works with salt. I mean you can only taste four flavors on your tongue: salty, sour, sweet and bitter. So it's learning really how to take a dish and trying to hit those four senses, but then also trying to figure out which part of those four things you should amp up.

PL: To me, the definition of a good cook is someone who really has a command and mastery of their ingredients and knows how to manipulate those ingredients either, you know, by developing flavor through heat or marination, or other ways, and really elevating the sum of those ingredients into something better -- is to manipulate the combination of those ingredients and knowing how to make that dish better than just a collection of things on the plate and make that delicious.

On which Top Chef alums they're most proud of

PL: I would say Harold is doing really well. I think, you know, Harold is sort of like one of those guys who's very even keeled and, you know, I didn't -- I wasn't on the show that season so I can only speak to what he did as an observer. I've tasted his food. It's delicious. Slow and steady wins the race, you know. And he is not somebody who is going to charge headlong into something without looking, without thinking, without ruminating on it and I appreciate that about him.

On specific characteristics or X factors that might ensure success on Top Chef

PL: One thing is just to think before you just charge into the challenge. I do the Quickfires as well, and it's difficult because a lot of times you have very little time. But I think it's important to take just that few minutes to really compose an idea, look at the resources that are given to you at that given challenge and really thinking about what you're doing and thinking about not only surviving, but how can I hit this challenge out of the park. How can I do something that's really interesting or do something that's really simple but execute it to the fullest?

On trendy cooking techniques or "it" ingredients that need to be retired

TC: There's no deal breakers. In fact, I think this season we see some pretty basic but very well done food. We also look at it and say if someone is well done, if it makes sense. The ingredients that I don't like to see: truffle oil. Mostly because there's -- it's not -- there's no truffle in there at all. But really that's it. There's really no trendy stuff that we're looking for.

We look at it from a standpoint of taste but also technique. And that's why I'll constantly ask somebody what are you trying to do here or if we get a piece of meat that's medium, I'm not going to discount that and say well I like it rare so it can't be right. I'll ask them, 'How were you trying to cook this?' If they say, 'Well I was trying to cook it medium rare,' and it's cooked medium well, they made a mistake.

PL: I'm kind of with Tom. I really roll my eyes at truffle oil as well. I never used it and then when I tried it I hated it, and then now I know why, you know. I will say that I am always excited when a contestant shows me a new ingredient that I haven't used because that's teaching me something that I haven't tasted before or seen before, or touched or smelled before. And that's really cool. Now whether that ingredient works in the recipe that they're doing is another question.

On the country's hottest new food scene

TC: Portland. And just the Northwest. Years ago they called Seattle a new San Francisco and I think just from a standpoint of the ingredients, the pacific Northwest [has a lot going on.] A guy who works for me for a bunch of years is now in Portland. But it seems to be such a really tight-knit community of chefs who are doing the locavore thing but doing it because it's not trendy, doing it because they're passionate about it.

On which guest judges we can expect this season

TC: Eric Ripert comes back. We have Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters, you know, show and Martha Stewart.

PL: I mean I think the last supper was pretty incredible to sit at one table with not only, you know, Wiley Dufresne and, you know, Marcus Samuelsson, of course but really Jacques Pepin, I mean and Lidia [Bastianich]. To have all of those palates on one table was, for me, a great, great honor. And, you know, also obviously the Foo Fighters being on was pretty damn cool.

On the new judge, Toby Young

PL: Toby is somebody that I had never met before except for on the set on the first day of shooting that he came in. I didn't know what to expect, but I found him very charming, very witty, and very sweet.

TC: [As for his judging style,] What was the title of his book? How to alienate -- what was the name of his book? How to Lose Friends & Alienate People -- he lived up to that. He was brash. He was opinionated. He was very funny and witty as well. I got many chances to roll my eyes at some of the things that he said. But he's a lot of fun.

PL: Yeah. I mean I -- we certainly didn't always agree, but always, always very interested to hear his take on things.

On what they'd serve for the inauguration dinner for President Obama

TC: Well I gather he likes to eat healthy, so...

PL: He likes to eat healthy, yes so I would do some Indonesian dishes. I would do a Nasi Goreng or a Mi Goreng for him which is a rice dish or a noodle dish, either one. It's a very traditional Indonesian dish.

On their favorite snacks

TC: Beef jerky, I love beef jerky. And licorice -- I love licorice and that red stuff is not licorice. It's candy. Black -- licorice is black.

On their favorite cooking shows

PL: Somebody gave me one of the best presents I ever received which was a complete collection of all of Julia Child's cooking shows from the 50s and 60s in black and white. I love those. When I was growing up -- I know he's a pedophile but I didn't know this then and neither did anyone else -- but when I grew up on public television I would watch The Frugal Gourmet. I loved that, you know, he would pick a country and he would learn all about that country and all about its food. And I watched that program as religiously as I watched, you know, Sesame Street or The Electric Company. I also like The Galloping Gourmet -- Graham Kerr was great. I was always waiting for his (fular) to get set on fire. He seemed a bit toasted. But those -- I like those old school shows.

I have to admit I don't watch a lot of TV now. If I do, it tends to be like Flight of the Conchords or Mad Men.




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