Top Chef: Episode 4.1 What the Professional Chef Thinks
Even viewers who consider themselves foodies might get caught up in the personalities and the drama on Top Chef 4, and lose sight of what the judges are focusing on: the individual cheftestant's ability to put delicious food on the plate.

Of all the networks, Bravo does the best job, in my opinion, at keeping their competitions focused on the subject matter rather than the ancillary drama. Nevertheless, in order to keep the widest possible audience engaged and interested, sometimes the editing of the show might focus on something other than the pure cooking process and results.

A professional chef, though, will be able to catch more nuance and detail from what is included than the average home viewer can. So we've asked a professional chef – and admitted Top Chef addict – for her insight into how the cheftestants are doing and also for some tips for the home cook who might be inspired to try some of the Top Chef dishes at home.

Our food professional is Dana Cree, pastry chef at Veil restaurant here in BuddyTV's hometown of Seattle. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently highlighted Dana as a chef to watch; she's studied the savory as well as sweet side of cooking, and has completed internships with The Fat Duck and WD-50, the restaurant of Wylie Dufresne (who will, incidentally, be making an appearance as a guest judge on the next episode of Top Chef 4).

So what was Dana's take on the first episode? She was pretty impressed by the caliber of the chefs in this season, saying Richard in particular has some strong experience, having studied with Thomas Keller, and a good reputation for his own restaurant in Atlanta.

Dana explained one of the reasons why the experience of working for a well-respected chef can give a cheftestant a leg up in the competition. Not only do those big-name chefs have creativity and talent, but they are also usually experts in their cuisine. Exposure to that wealth and depth of knowledge can make it easier for a cheftestant to quickly conceptualize a dish that will ultimately be successful. Chefs with less hands-on experience might have great palates or great ideas, but without that base of pragmatic knowledge, their concepts might not as consistently work out in practice.

That said, Dana also notes that the judges usually reward the delicious, even when a dish might not exactly conceptually fit the goal of the challenge (for example, she pointed out Elia's mushroom soup in the avant-garde twist on traditional Thanksgiving challenge). So a less-experienced cheftestant who might not be able to rely on the same broad base of knowledge could still potentially go far if they prioritize the basic pleasures of the dish, even if it's not necessarily the most creative solution to the challenge.

Dana did find a couple of choices the chefs made interesting. She says that mayonnaise is simple enough to prepare that she was surprised that Richard bought it and that Andrew even momentarily hesitated in making his own for their crab cake head-to-head. She also thought it was surprising that Jennifer opted for store-bought pasta for her lasagna. Dana says “fresh pasta makes all the difference in the world in lasagna,” and the Top Chef judges would appear to agree, with Nikki's fresh pasta being praised and her dish winning that round.

If watching Top Chef has inspired you to try your own hand at some dishes in the kitchen, Dana also offers up a few tips and a simple mayo recipe for you to try.

For homemade mayo, Dana says, “Put one yolk in the blender cup and add 1 tsp Dijon mustard and 1 tsp of an acidic liquid like vinegar or lemon juice. Turn the blender on and pour 1 cup of canola oil in, holding a steady stream. It should take about a minute. Then you can add any spices you want. To make a smoked mayonnaise like Richard did, you can simply add a Spanish smoked paprika.”

If you are feeling particularly ambitious and want to see what all the fuss is about that soufflé that so stumped Erik and Zoi, Dana recommends going to Julia Child, the uber-expert of home cook French cuisine instruction, for your recipe. She also notes that if you plan to make a soufflé, it's best eaten immediately, so plan your meal accordingly. Dana also recommends Julia's recipe for hollandaise sauce, the sauce used in the classic Eggs Benedict dish done by  Lisa and Spike.

If you want to see for yourself how fresh pasta improves a lasagna, Dana says that Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is a great starting resource for the home cook, with good pasta dough and sauce recipes.

Dana's graciously agreed to speak with us on an ongoing basis throughout the season, so we'll have more food pro insight and home cooking tips during the rest of Top Chef 4! In the meantime, if you want to read Dana's perspective on working in the restaurant industry, check out her blog at

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist
(Image courtesy of BravoTV)