As many people, myself included, have noted about a gazillion times, the main challenge of assessing anyone’s strengths and weaknesses on Top Chef is, of course, that we can’t taste the food the cheftestants create. In fact, in last week’s conference call, Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio were pretty adamant that the thing we really do get to become familiar with – the chefs’ personalities – are not considered at the judges’ table unless it somehow influenced the dish itself. Ultimately, week to week, we only have the second-hand opinions of the judges.
And prior to the show, we have even less to go on. Unlike, say, Project Runway, we don’t have even any kind of product to take a look at before the season to get a sense of what the chefs might have to offer. We can, however, take a look at their work history and how they present themselves in the video and Bravo bio. It’s not a lot to work with, but I’m going to make some initial predictions based on the two. Prepare for some wild guessing!
Or maybe not so wild. I am actually basing my assessments on at least a couple criteria.
For one thing: names. Not the contestant’s names, but the names dropped in the Top Chef 4 bio. Can a chef be a genius without working in a major restaurant or for a famous chef? Of course. Can working at an established – and potentially full-of-itself – famous eatery actually potentially hinder the creative juices of a young chef? Absolutely.
Nevertheless, chefs can’t exactly carry around an edible business card that is a perfect sample of the tastes and experiences they create. In my experience being on the fringes of the food world (I also work at a cooking school), I’ve seen that connections to well-respected food authorities are the currency of status in cooking just like they can be in other careers. Dogs sniff each others’ behinds; chefs trade names of restaurants they’ve worked at and the chefs they’ve worked under.
Another thing I’m rating folks on is how they seem in their videos. This is a little more hocus-pocus and subjective, but my sense is that when people have faith that they have developed the skills through experience to be great, and have a true laser-like focus on what they want in their career, there is generally a kind of serious groundedness in their manner. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are particularly serious in personality; they might still be light-hearted or cocky. It’s more ineffable than just the surface presentation.
Maybe it does come down to simple confidence. When people do have it, it shows, and when they don’t, they sometimes come off as unfocused or overcompensating. Sometimes the confidence is unwarranted, or something the skills they believe in fail them, but I think that strong sense of self will help any chef have the focus to make it through.
So with those two things in mind, here are my picks for the chefs who might land in the bottom eight. I was going to attempt to rank them to see if I could match the impressive success I had with ranking Project Runway pre-season (had the top three in my top five! No, I’m not going to stop bragging about it! Stop asking!), but we really just don’t have enough data for that. So instead, I’m just going to split the bottom eight once into lowest and highest of the bottom.
I will, of course, give my usual caveat that this is all based on very little, so I could end up having my expectations completely overturned, and in some cases, I wouldn’t mind that one bit.
Possible First Four to Go
Mark: For what I saw of Mark, this is a case where I wouldn’t mind being wrong. I really don’t want to put Mark in the bottom. Mark is from New Zealand, grew up on a sheep farm, and started working in the food industry as a dish washer he traveled around Australia because he needed to pay his way. Also: he is adorable. I am worried for him; he seemed a little befuddled in his video, and his seems – at least in what he offers up as his experience – to not have the same depth of training and fine dining experience. I am hoping he does well because he came across as very sweet, but, as Tim Gunn would say: I have grave concerns.
Nimma: Nimma’s background looked a little light from an experience perspective, and her video seemed slightly unfocused when she talked about her culinary passions. Again: I’m looking for laser-like and I just wasn’t seeing it. She said what she liked about cooking was the lack of a need to be precise (as contrasted to being a pastry chef, she noted) and while there is truth to that, I wonder if that’s an attitude the judges will respond well to.
Andrew: Um, mainly because he used the unfortunate phrase that food can make you “regurgitate” memories. It’s a matter of taste, but I prefer to keep the concepts of “regurgitation” and “lovely dining experience” fairly far apart. Andrew also seemed a little unfocused, and seemed to be possibly overcompensating for not having a depth of experience by emphasizing the breadth of his self-study. It’s also emphasized in his bio that he spends a lot of reading cookbooks and learning about the cuisines of various famous chefs. This is in no way to say that’s not an important activity for a chef, but the fact that is what was emphasized makes me wonder if there wasn’t a lot of other experience in his background to also include.
Valerie: I hate to keep coming back to this word, but again, she seemed somewhat unfocused in the interview (granted, who knows what kind of reality craziness was happening behind the scenes!), and she is currently working as a personal chef. While other personal chefs have gone far (like Chris Jacobsen of Top Chef 3), one wonders if choosing to leave the occasional total chaos of the restaurant kitchen might indicate a lack of desire to suffer through the sorts of extreme conditions she might be working under on Top Chef. Her bio also notes that she’s “worked her way around popular Chicago restaurants for the past nine years” and the vagueness and lack of name-dropping gives me pause as well.
Possible Next Four to Go
The names included in this section were a little bit harder to choose, because it’s not so much for any glaring omission or oddball persona in the video, more just that there wasn’t a whole lot to grab onto to put them higher. Someone like a Casey Thompson could be lurking in this group; someone without a ton of big flashy indicators of skill, but whose talent more than compensates for a less-obvious resume or personal presentation. Nevertheless, I have to make some choices, so here we go:
Lisa, Stephanie, Nikki and Zoi are all in this section for the vaguest of reasons. In terms of how they came across in the bio, they did have a serious focus that I thought could stand them in good stead.
However, Lisa just quit a restaurant job and Stephanie just sold her restaurant so she could travel, so I guess it’s also my own personal background in recruiting and years of reading work histories with a very critical eye that makes me put those not currently employed towards the bottom of the pile.
Zoi and Nikki also have the same possible thing working against them, at least enough to put them in this ranking. Zoi is currently working as a chef/restaurant consultant, and Nikki is chef/co-owner of a New York eatery, and also has front-of-house experience and skills as a sommelier. On the one hand, their broader career focus might help them multi-task better and accomplish the quick turnaround needed for the challenges. On the other, I think of Stephen Asprino, who was pulled between being a chef and a restaurateur or front-of-house guy, and so put Zoi and Nikki in this spot mainly for that precedence.
That’s our list for today! Tomorrow, the potential top eight in the competition on Top Chef 4!
– Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist
(Image courtesy of Bravo)
Staff Columnist, BuddyTV