Richard Blais

Chef by trade

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Chicken and Caviar

In the year 2000, (insert Conan O’Brien intro) I was working at Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan and applied for the Gilbert Le Coze James Beard Scholarship. The winner received a one year apprenticeship at a tiny little restaurant called Alain Ducasse, in Monaco. The applicants got widdled down and the finalists’ last interview was lunch at Le Bernardin, with of course Eric Ripert. Not with Eric Ripert cooking, but with him sitting right next to you dining. I was one of the two finalists. In what I’m sure will be a shock to you all, I was the runner-up.

I am, quite honestly, much more of a seafood guy than Hosea. I completed a fellowship at my alma mater, the CIA, in the fish kitchen. I’ve put to rest and cooked thousands of lobsters. I’ve filleted just as many salmon. And yes, I’ve pinned down eel, and cut everything from Opah to Shad. My first chef position was at a restaurant that had a fish tank where a poisonous blowfish resided. When that fish passed away, I cut it. Just to know I’d done it.

All of that being said, my meal that afternoon at Le Bernardin is one of, if not, THE most memorable meal of my life. And I eat a lot. I remember a raw dish of mackerel like the first time I kissed my wife. And I had the same physical reaction probably. I was just stumped. I thought it was a trick. It had to be hamachi I thought. Mackerel is strong. A bloody, stinky, pig of a fish, best left for a smokey grill. At Le Bernardin, mackerel is Miss America (who I met this weekend BTW).

The chefs get a chance to experience Le Bernardin themselves. They are all in awe, as they should be. Except for Jamie, who gives us that Top Chef cliche line, “It’s just not my kind of food.” This carries some weight when the challenge is flipping eggs at a greasy spoon or making an appetizer from a vending machine. It’s just silly when you’re at a three-Michelin star legendary restaurant.

I’m shocked again at the “I’ve nevers”..Never filleted sardines. Never used za’atar spice. Never poached in oil. The I’ve Nevers from a Top Chef cast should be: I’ve never cooked a dish start from scratch in 20 minutes, I’ve never lived in a dorm with 16 people, I’ve never had a woman as pretty as Padma that close to me, etc.

The challenge was also reminiscent of the Le Cirque challenge from Season 3. The difference being that these dishes were more challenging, with the exception of Stefan’s choice. Lobster with asparagus and hollandaise might as well be a culinary school dish. Of course, that's the shear beauty of Ripert’s cuisine. It’s so simple that it gets you mad some times. But I’d agree with Hosea. Stefan is on a tremendous run. One of, if not the best, the show has ever seen. It’s not cumulative, as we always hear, but have a little more fun, you’re a chef, there’s matsutake mushrooms over there! We are watching a diver, who has a few great scores under his belt, do a straight dive on his third attempt. A basketball player in a dunk contest doing a lay-up.

And while Stefan is taking his foot off the gas, Carla is pushing into fifth gear. She has something to prove and I love it. You can just see determination sometimes. Carla and Hosea have it. They might not be the best, but they aren’t going to quit. Leah wants to pull off the road. And while everyone is piling on her, I’ll still remind people now that this is a grueling competition. In real time, they are approaching two months in. Besides giving up in the Quickfire, there was an absolute moment of defeat from her while she was prepping at Le Bernardin. She threw her whisk down on the table. To me, that one move is the clincher. Game over.

What the contestants don’t realize is what’s about to happen. And I don’t mean in next week’s episode. After the show is airing some of them will start getting phone calls and e-mails. The offers will range from chef positions to speaking engagements. And more television work, from special guest appearances to pitching your own treatments. But not as much for those who personally presented themselves poorly. The ones who rant in the stew room or shave people's heads. The ones who disrespect the distinguished guest judges or bad-mouth the hosts in People magazine. The ones who quit and toss their equipment may not get those new opportunities.

There are two rewards you get from being on Top Chef. One is an egg. It’s a $100,000 egg. One chef gets it each season. The other is a chicken. And some of these chefs don’t realize that chickens make eggs.
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