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October 25, 2014

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The Jet Stream: The three stages of chefdom

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BravoTV / Trae Patton

Jennifer talks Excalibur with Tom Colicchio. Maybe he could put a Craftsteak there? No?

With Robin finally eliminated, I think it's time to reflect on the ones that didn't make it and size up the remaining competitors.

Now, we are into the final five, and it's a strong group. Each of them has their strengths and weaknesses. Robin represents a lot of folks that have not been formally trained nor have worked enough fine dining or high volume/high exposure kitchens. It's hard to explain, but there is that magic something that either going to culinary school or truly working your way up through a proper brigade brings to the table. It's an X factor that can't really be quantified, but has a major impact in becoming a proper chef. I applaud self-taught chefs, but "Top Chef" is judged by and produced by those who come from a formalized culinary background.

Top Chef: For the love of 5th Street

Michael's winning dish: boneless chicken wings, with hot sauce, celery puree, and frozen blue cheese dressing. Launch slideshow »

Cooks have a funky evolution that most people don't think about. Lemme explain: Think about the cook-to-chef evolution kind of like the evolution of mankind:

The young cook that is pre- and post-culinary school is like the Homo habilis cook, literally the handy man! Young, full of piss and vinegar but lacking a lot of knowledge and refinement. This is the kid that goes to culinary school, then does a full shift, then goes out and gets pissed drunk every night and never tires. This is this person you need for early prep cook and entry-level line guy — totally breathes and eats the kitchen life and every other word is sous vide, Lord Thomas Keller and tries to collect kitchen burns on his forearms.

As one matures, he becomes the Homo erectus cook. You know, larger brain cavity, starts to walk up right, can't party all night and work a full shift without paying for it. This cook starts to develop a style and to learn the softer skills. This is the chef de partie/sous chef working his/her way though the brigade. The Homo erectus cook is now mature enough to understand that one not only needs to be a great cook, but also has to touch tables, control food cost and motivate others. I also dub this the Eli phase. The possible negative about this phase is the pitfall of arrogance. I know we all have a little arrogance as chefs, but this cook can fall into the young-manager syndrome and exude the "I know everything" vibe. It's a tough place to be and a lot of budding chefs find themselves stuck in this mode. This is where I find the Ash, Eli, Mike I, and Preeti's of the world when they can't find their way to the next level. You don't really know why you aren't an executive chef yet, and you're stuck wondering what is missing from your arsenal. This is where maturity and a little inward meditation will bring you to the next level.

Once you've survived the growing pains of the last two phases, which really have a lot of mini phases (too many to mention for fear of putting you all to sleep), and you've done your time mediating under the bodhi tree and shedding your earthly bounds and desires, you reach the first stage of chef Nirvana! You are finally Homo sapien chef! You now culinarily care for the injured, bury your dead and begin moral reasoning (well, sometimes anyway). This is where we finally find my fantasy "TC" picks Jennifer, V bros and Kevin. There is no surprise that they are in the top five. They possess all that is necessary to not only win this competition, but run a restaurant like they all do.

So, what's the twist? Throw in a little good or bad luck, "Top Chef" producers having a hand in the challenges and sheer flight or fight instincts. From here on, my friends, we've weeded out the less-evolved contestants and it's a real fight, because the playing field is level.

Here's my advice for each of the final five:

Eli: overconfidence can kill as much as underconfidence.

Mike V: the culinary world does not revolve around molecular and trick cooking. There are more comfort diners than hipster diners.

Bryan V: remain calm and think about your diners. Don't let your brother into your head too much!

Kevin: don't get too lost in saving-the-earth cooking, at least not during the competition.

Jennifer: your nerves are your worst enemy. Control them and you can actually win this competition!

OK enough with my Yoda impressions, now it starts to really get good!

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