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What I've learned from watching TOP CHEF

Top Chef is one to few cooking programs and reality programs I enjoy. In fact I usually hate all reality tv on principle. However since the first time I saw it gained a place in my heart. I've avidly watched every season (online) I usually get so excited I get up to cook, or eat something myself. One thing I love about cooking is pushing the boundaries and making up new and interesting combinations. I've used two recipes from this show to Also it's one the few places in my life where I relish (no pun intended) a challenge. This is what I've learned for Top Chef.

*A good cook is not afraid to take risks.

*A good cook is will adapt to whatever crisis or disaster is thrown at them.

*A cook is only as good their ingredients.

*Baking is hard, and I'm not alone for sucking at it.

*Pork belly is food of the Gods.

*If you can't get the ingredient/equipment you want substitute and pray it comes out right.

*Trust your instincts.

*If you think something has gone wrong, and you know it shouldn't smell/taste/look like this, it's not right, then it has. (Luckily at home I can throw it out).

*Don't overload your dish with two many stupid ideas all crammed together.

*If you are cooking for others LISTEN to what they want, don't thumb your nose at them.

*I need a Sous Vid like yesterday.

*I need a bigger kitchen.

*If Gail Simmons is so cool then how come Food & Wine awful magazine?

*Don't cut corners

*If you can make it from scratch do it. usually that will be better.

Funny how one silly show taught me so much. I mean when I get down in my kitchen, I just kitchen the GE Monogram kitchen and bunch of cheftestants scrambling around trying to do something. Maybe a clip of some guy cheftestant going: "I got chickpease, cheerios and collards. Why did they give me the letter C *BEEP*!" And I know I can usually pull through. Also I don't have Marcel mocking me.

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  1. Depends on your appetite for truisms. I learned to tune it out. I still want to see a "Pasture to Plate" series: catch 'em, stun 'em, bleed 'em, gut 'em, cut 'em. You get the picture, right?

    6 Replies
    1. re: Kagemusha

      I might be showing how young I am but that sounds TOTALLY HARDCORE! Make the EPIC MEALTIME guys look like WIMPS.

      1. re: Kagemusha

        I'm with you. It's funny how many of the chefs get anxiety from having to butcher primal cuts of meat. I think they should each be given a choice of a live rabbit, chicken, duck, goose, or pheasant, a cast iron pan, and a campfire. Those are all animals I've killed, field-dressed, and later cleaned and butchered. (I left out giving them a live deer or grouse, I don't know where they would get those).

        As far as things I've learned from Top Chef: 1. don't do duos and; 2. don't do risotto.

          1. re: Kagemusha

            I have zero interest in actually hunting myself, but I would watch every single everloving episode of your program. Even it it went to farms-here is the cow that is about to be converted to meat. I'm a dedicated omnivore, but I also really like the idea of knowing where your food actually comes from.

            1. re: Kagemusha

              That would be interesting. I caught a show on the BBC channel awhile back. There were several series where they took young adults and put them into the behind the scenes of fashion cloths and having to work in a sweat shop in India, fast food and having to go to Indonesia to work on a rice farm and gut fish. You get the picture. They also had one where they took a group of kids and did an episode like you just described. Go to the farmer, kill the chicken, cow, pig or what ever else they encounter. Butcher and process it and then eat something made from that animal.

              I thought it was really interesting to watch. Some kids could handle it and some not.

              The electric clamp to electrocute chickens prior to cutting their juggler was interesting.

              1. I don't care about Food and Wine, but leave Gail alone, she's smoking hot. You forgot one thing, season your food.

                2 Replies
                1. re: James Cristinian

                  My daughter bought me a subscription to food and wine. I enjoy it. I don't really drink much wine, but I like the food part.

                  1. re: wyogal

                    I didn't mean anything against food and wine, as I like it. It meant as a Gail Simmons comment.

                2. Taste your food before you serve it.

                  An unwatched pot boils over.

                  5 second rule is in force in my kitchen.

                  Never let anybody into the kitchen with a camera.

                  The prime value of a good sous chef is to have somebody to blame the misses on.

                  Never wanted to try a recipie from it. But I enjoy it.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                    But the watched pot never boils;)!!

                  2. I like your list, YAYME. Sous vide has NEVER been on my radar as a home cook, but I'm also not as fancy as many other home cooks on the Home Cooking Board are.

                    I think my top 2 of what you listed are:

                    Trust your instincts.
                    If you can make it from scratch, do it. Usually that will be better.

                    :-)

                    1. Lots of great observations here!

                      My takeaway is -- I can't consider myself a serious cook unless I'm willing to get inked ;-)

                      8 Replies
                      1. re: momjamin

                        that's a good one. I guess I am always going to be second-tier in the cooking dept because I have not a single tattoo. I *do* have two holes in each of my ears-- but I don't think that's enough.

                        1. re: momjamin

                          MomJamin,
                          I got curious about that myself and did a little bit of light research during my TV watching.

                          Here is a short list of Chefs who do not seem to have any Tattoos (I am simply going by what I have NOT seen during the normal watching of TV):
                          - Thomas Keller
                          - Daniel Boulud
                          - Eric Ripert
                          - Pierre Gagnaire
                          - Joel Robuchon
                          - Guy Savoy
                          - Grant Achatz (I think)
                          - Ferran Adrià
                          - Gordon Ramsay (I think)

                          They all have at least one thing in common: a 3 star Michelin restaurant to their name.

                          I am guessing that there is a 3 Starred Michelin Chef out there with at least one tattoo on him, but, so far, I have not seen any basic evidence of it.

                          1. re: DougRisk

                            I'm willing to bet you can add Jaques Pepin to that list too!

                            1. re: Bart Hound

                              You know, I was trying to stick to 3 Starred Michelin Chefs because that recognition seems to trump all others (not my personal opinion, but I understand).

                              However, I am the absolute biggest Jacques Pepin fan. I thought his autobiography was really interesting.

                            2. re: DougRisk

                              Excellent. Maybe I should make it "serious cooks of a certain generation" ... I'm uninked (and planning to remain so) and unstarred (and expecting to remain so, since I'm not a professional) and much closer to Eric Ripert's age than Michael Voltaggio's.

                              1. re: momjamin

                                My guess is that the newest crop of 3 Star Michelin chefs, few will have much ink. Grant Achatz is just one example.

                                In my experience, those people that are obsessive enough to master all of the tiny details it takes to reach the absolute "Toppermost of the Poppermost" are unlikely t go to a Tattoo Parlor.

                              2. re: DougRisk

                                eric ripert has a fleur de lys tattoo, sorry to break it to you. perhaps his restaurant needs to lose a star!

                                1. re: soupkitten

                                  You don't have to apologize for anything. Like I said, in general, it seems like the 3 starred Michelin chefs do not have that much ink.

                                  If you told me that Gordon Ramsay had a Tattoo, I would also not be that surprised.

                                  However, with Ripert, I would bet money that he did not get any ink until AFTER he got his 3 stars and very likely did not get any until after he became friends with Bourdain.

                            3. Hey Yayme, I want to disagree with some of these things:

                              *Trust your instincts.
                              - I think that a lot of the chefs that went home were trusting their instinct. Yeah, a few listened to others and screwed up, but there were also those that ignored what they might have done, listened to others and succeeded.

                              *If you are cooking for others LISTEN to what they want, don't thumb your nose at them.
                              - Again, there have been at least a few chefs who basically ignored what the the guests asked for and made something that the judges would hopefully love.

                              *Don't cut corners
                              - On Top Chef that is often impossible. They are Pressure Cooking and Blast-Chilling all sorts of things. They often, simply, don't have the time.

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: DougRisk

                                I don't think pressure cooking and blast chilling are cutting corners. They require just as much technique as traditional cooking. What does count as cutting corners is stuff like using pre-cooked or packaged ingredients, not taking the time to properly clean or prep something, etc.

                                1. re: piccola

                                  My guess is that outside of Kentucky Frying a Chicken, few chefs use the Pressure Cooker for making Brisket. They either prefer a traditional braise or sous vide.

                                  The blast chiller reference was simply there to emphasize how little time they have (often enough) in these competitions.

                                  1. re: DougRisk

                                    I know, I'm just saying that there are negative connotations to cutting corners. Just because something's faster doesn't mean it's cutting corners.

                                2. re: DougRisk

                                  I disagree my best friend is a vegetarian and doesn't like spicy food. I don't know how NOT listening to her and making something she'd not eat would help me, I like to make my friends and family happy when I cook for them.

                                  1. re: YAYME

                                    But your friend, in this example/context, does not get to send a chef home. The judges do.

                                    That's why some chefs will basically ignore a hosts request for some really simple food with a lot of gravy (or whatever).

                                3. Good personality/likability (provided you go a certain distance) will triumph over winning Top Chef in the end. Eg. Looks like Carla Hall has done really well for herself even though Hosea won that season.

                                  9 Replies
                                  1. re: Miss Needle

                                    Speaking of Hosea, anyone know what he is doing? ;P

                                    1. re: Phaedrus

                                      http://ChefHosea.com

                                      Catering and Consulting. He also plans to open a restaurant in Denver.

                                      The dude has a Bach. of Science in Engineering Physics...good for him.

                                      1. re: DougRisk

                                        Is he still with Leah or did he cheat on her too?

                                        1. re: Phaedrus

                                          At the TC 5 reunion show they said they were not together so I suppose it would not be possible for him to cheat on her since they were never really a couple.

                                          1. re: Phaedrus

                                            I can only tell you what I read on his 'About' page on his website.

                                      2. re: Miss Needle

                                        Which leads to the corollary, winning Top Chef doesn't mean you're the top chef, or the best chef, just the last one left standing. As with American Idol, the best will do well regardless of not winning and the winner doesn't always do well after.

                                          1. re: John E.

                                            Whose schtick and smarmy fake-Eyetalian mannerisms and syntax is wearing thin. His previous attempts at "humor" in his blogs also continue to live on in infamy.

                                            1. re: huiray

                                              I never read his blogs so I was not put off by them. I don't know what you mean by 'fake-Eyetalian' because he is from Florence. My point was that, like Carla hall, Fabio Viviani has done more with his fourth place finish than others have after winning their respective seasons. I was not actually placing a qualitative factor on him or his personality.

                                        1. Know how to use a preasure cooker and don't make risotto.

                                          1. Food and Wine is currently the best food mag out there.

                                            1. Cool thread. A few more:

                                              - Always cook to your strengths. Bend the challenge to what you do well

                                              - When it comes down to it, no one really cares that seared sea scallops are a competition cliche. They're delicious

                                              - If you're worried that maybe you don't know how to make something right, you don't know how to make it right

                                              - Sometimes even when you're sure you know how to make something right, you still don't know how to make it right

                                              - Of course, 'right' is defined by the person tasting the dish

                                              - Grab all of your equipment and pantry supplies in one trip when cooking under the clock. Don't make multiple trips for things as you need em

                                              - Modernist techniques in service of flavor and texture are a good thing. Modernist techniques in service of pretty colors and the chef's perceived awesomeness are a bad thing.

                                              - It absolutely matters what you call a dish - that sets your diners' expectations. In other words, a rose by the name of 'a strawberry' would smell and taste really weird.

                                              - On a related note, if you make minor changes to a classic dish, you are leaving yourself open to a lot of criticism. If you make more drastic changes, you are being inventive and will often be praised.

                                              - When you get a REALLY great ingredient, don't hide it in the dish, don't butcher it poorly, and don't overcook it. If you do any of the above, you are an asshole.

                                              "If Gail Simmons is so cool then how come Food & Wine awful magazine?"
                                              __________
                                              Similarly, why is Saveur actually pretty decent when James Oseland is such a doucherocket?

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                                Cowboy, I am going to hijack your comments:

                                                - Always cook to your strengths. Bend the challenge to what you do well
                                                -- Absolutely. Sometimes they find success when they try something very new to them, but, in general, they do best when they go with what they know.

                                                - When it comes down to it, no one really cares that seared sea scallops are a competition cliche. They're delicious
                                                --Right. And, scallops take minutes to cook and brisket takes forever. In a timed, and limited, competition, scallops will be made more often than brisket.

                                                - If you're worried that maybe you don't know how to make something right, you don't know how to make it right
                                                -- +1

                                                - Of course, 'right' is defined by the person tasting the dish
                                                -- +1 So many "authentic" preparations of meat for various national or local cuisines include cooking that steak all the way through to medium. You better believe those judges will call you out for not making it medium rare.

                                                - Modernist techniques in service of flavor and texture are a good thing. Modernist techniques in service of pretty colors and the chef's perceived awesomeness are a bad thing.
                                                -- Slight addendum. If you are already putting out something tasty but add some modernist flare to it, that can be a bonus. It shows good taste and creativity (or technique)

                                                - It absolutely matters what you call a dish - that sets your diners' expectations. In other words, a rose by the name of 'a strawberry' would smell and taste really weird.
                                                -- I absolutely can not stand how anything flat or raw or red is a Carpaccio. Give me a break. On one of Gordon Ramsays BBC shows a talented chef made a cold yogurt based dish that was apparently tasty. But, it was called a Risotto on the menu (he was being very creative) and the diners all said the same thing. They were disappointed that they did not get a warm rice-based dish. But, it was tasty.

                                                - On a related note, if you make minor changes to a classic dish, you are leaving yourself open to a lot of criticism. If you make more drastic changes, you are being inventive and will often be praised.
                                                -- Or better yet. Do not reference the original. Just say, "Beef with Carrots" (or whatever) instead of referencing Beef Bourguignon.

                                                1. re: DougRisk

                                                  I agree with most of your insights. But one stuck out:

                                                  "Or better yet. Do not reference the original. Just say, "Beef with Carrots" (or whatever) instead of referencing Beef Bourguignon."
                                                  ________
                                                  I think there can be some advantage gained by referencing the original inspiration in some specific situations. Consider Michael Voltaggio's 'buffalo chicken wings' from season 6.
                                                  http://www.bravotv.com/foodies/recipe...
                                                  In this case, the presentation is so obviously different from standard buffalo wings that one of the pleasures of eating said dish is in discovering how all of these strange new elements evoke the flavors of the original dish. It also helps that buffalo chicken wings are the kind of thing that the judges already know no contestant would serve un-altered - they already expect the chef to take liberties.

                                                  Great chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Thomas Keller do this kind of thing all the time. The trick IMO is to carefully manage the expectations of the diner via how you name the dish and the setting and the visual presentation so that discovering the differences and similarities to the original inspiration is delightful, rather than disappointing.

                                                  1. re: cowboyardee

                                                    Fair enough.

                                                    However, it seems like the "rule" might be:
                                                    - if your dish is going to blow them away, then feel free to reference the original on which it is derived (or playing off of), otherwise, simply serve and describe your dish.

                                              2. A few other things besides those listed elsewhere...

                                                • If you cook "ethnic"# - particularly "Asian"** - more than a couple times you will be called a one-trick pony.

                                                • Almost any dish with soy sauce in it runs the risk of being called an "Asian" dish.

                                                • Western/American food is generally the way to go on a TV show targeted at a USA audience.

                                                • The TC judges do not care for traditionality or "authenticity" - and are unlikely to recognize it - in "ethnic" food.

                                                • The judges of this show, or any other cooking show, have certain biases and personal palates. Cook for the judges. Ignore any others/audience diners unless "they" also have a vote, and even then only to the extent that does not violate the judges' biases.

                                                • Not demonstrating overt emoting or not cooking stuff thought by the judges to be your "native cuisine" tends to get you labeled as "lacking soul".

                                                • It's a Reality Show for entertainment with a healthy dollop of Schadenfreude. Do not expect to learn much that is really useful in the way of actual details of cooking techniques, recipes, etc.

                                                ;-) :-D

                                                # "ethnic" - largely "non-Western"/non-White folks cuisine. Settle down, thew.
                                                ** "Asian" - huh, what is that? If you mean East/South-East Asian, why not say so?

                                                9 Replies
                                                1. re: huiray

                                                  "If you cook "ethnic"# - particularly "Asian"** - more than a couple times you will be called a one-trick pony."
                                                  _________
                                                  Yeah. But only by haters.
                                                  http://thechive.com/2010/05/27/man-ha...

                                                  "Western/American food is generally the way to go on a TV show targeted at a USA audience."
                                                  _________
                                                  That may be changing to some extent. Angelo had some real success the last two seasons, and about half of his dishes took most of their influence from East Asian cooking. Dale came off quite well last season, and his style was even more focused on East Asian cooking. And many of the best Western-style cooks (the Voltaggios, Blais, etc) have integrated some Asian influence to their dishes. That said, you still probably won't see anyone making straightforward, un-modified Asian cooking as their go-to for most of the dishes in the competition. Many of the challenges are set up to favor or explicitly require Western cooking.

                                                  "Not demonstrating overt emoting or not cooking stuff thought by the judges to be your "native cuisine" tends to get you labeled as "lacking soul""
                                                  ________
                                                  Agreed.That kind of thing annoys the crap out of me. Don't even get me started.

                                                  "It's a Reality Show for entertainment with a healthy dollop of Schadenfreude. Do not expect to learn much that is really useful in the way of actual details of cooking techniques, recipes, etc."
                                                  ___________
                                                  Not so sure i agree. Yeah, if you're a beginner cook and/or you only watch the show without looking anything up or checking out the web-based stuff, you won't pick up much of anything. But if you're able to fill in some of the blanks in the edit with educated guesswork and you look up some of the recipes online, there's a lot to learn. I've picked up quite a few little techniques from the show.

                                                  Also, I don't know if you saw it, but during season 7, M. Voltaggio was doing little videos making the winning dishes on bravo.com. They were far more instructive and insightful than any cooking show on TV right now.
                                                  http://www.bravotv.com/top-chef/top-r...

                                                  1. re: huiray

                                                    LOL! I've made TWO really good recipes from this show. One I've made like FIVE times and keeps wowing me and others. But mostly it's not the winning dishes that I make. I like the creative and interesting dishes. I think you and me are watching for different reasons. I do like the "Happyness at the misofortune of others" bit but I also like seeing all the cool food. Seriously I've made TWO recipes to great sucess from this show. And It's turned me to pork belly. (Which I'm buying tonight.).

                                                    1. re: YAYME

                                                      Which two recipies are they? I've always intended to make Ed Cotten's spicy banana fritters but since we rarely deep fry anything I have not yet done the recipe.

                                                      1. re: John E.

                                                        That's the one. Five times never let me down. They come out AWESOME and wasn't that good at deep frying. I had a deep bottomed frying pan almost a wok, but not quite. Worked just a small bottle of vegtable oil. Also Dale T's Pretzel &Potato chip chocolate and satled caramel bars.

                                                        1. re: YAYME

                                                          You just reminded me that I have my mother's old electric wok. I would not do a stir fry in the thing but years ago I did use it for a tempura meal. It does work good for frying. I think Dale winning that cookie contest was pretty good considering he had no cookie experience compared to some of the others.

                                                          1. re: John E.

                                                            It helps if you keep the bananas frozen for more then 24 hrs I've found.

                                                        2. re: John E.

                                                          I've made several things from the show myself. More often than not I just use a component or a technique rather than making a whole dish. Here are a few of my favorites:

                                                          - Like Yayme, I've made Dale's pretzel, potato chip, and caramel ganache cookies. Super easy (make em once and you don't need the recipe anymore) and a nice crowd pleaser

                                                          - I've copped Michael Votaggio's technique of cooking chicken thighs sous vide for a couple hours (about 150 F) and then refrigerating it under weights before pan frying to reheat and crisp. The chicken gets a really cool silky-yet-dense texture.

                                                          - I've made Tre's (season 3) bacon wrapped shrimp on corn and cheddar grits with chipotle, tomato and butter sauce. The dish is delicious and you can see why it won, but the sauce is especially delicious and useful, and I've made it with or without small variations for completely unrelated dishes.

                                                          - I've made Angelo's ginger/pineapple lacquered shortribs. A nice dish but even more so a really nice way to glaze individual portions of braised meat - a trick I'm sure I'll use again.

                                                          - I've made Dale's (season 3 finale) scallops, purslane, and marinated grape salad. The dish is good, but the marinated grapes were the real revelation. When you put herbs in the marinade, the grapes just seem to suck up all the herb flavor. It's weird. You hardly taste the herb in the marinade after a while, but when you bite into the grape you get this huge burst of flavor. Works really well with mint as well as the original recipe's tarragon.

                                                          Haven't tried the banana fritters yet though.

                                                        3. re: YAYME

                                                          @YM & cbyd,

                                                          Nah, I'm sure I'm also looking for the stuff you posted about. I listed "additional things".

                                                          Yes, I've seen those Michael Voltaggio demos on Season 7. It was additionally interesting that he showed how HE would make it, as it differed in various cases from either the little that was shown on the tape of the episode or in the recipes as published on the bravo website, at least when I viewed both way back when IIRC.

                                                          I *have* picked up some pointers and seen interesting stuff and "cool food" as you call it, but NOT to the extent one would have liked for an ostensible "Cooking Show/Competition". There was a lot of other stuff, including all the drahhhmaaah, that detracted badly from being able to gain useful information about cooking techniques and cuisines. Some of that found its way into my comments above.

                                                          Regarding pork belly - yes, isn't it good stuff? :-) I've been eating it in various forms since childhood (and cooking it as an adult for years), often in some kind of Chinese/Cantonese style. It's a very old cut of meat, used in many succulent preparations dating back many, many years. :-)

                                                          1. re: huiray

                                                            I watch it online so, I just pause it when I see recipe that I like and turns out well find it on the site and see if I can do it. I'm doing Dakota's bread pudding next! Also being Anglo I do like Asian/Fastfood Fusion stuff. It's great stuff and awesome for snackin'