After a holiday hiatus that almost made us forget it existed, Top Chef rang in the New Year by eliminating two of its lesser cheftestants last night. After an eyeroll-inducing Quickfire that forced the poor souls to make a sweet treat without sugar, it was time for a blind tasting in which the chefs were free to express themselves and cook whatever they wanted. Unfortunately, Eugene Villiatora and Melissa Harrison clashed with culinary imagination — he had too much; she had too little. We spoke to both of them this morning to dish on new judge Toby Young and the importance of salt and pepper.
Having watched last night’s episode, do you agree with the judges’ criticism of your dish?
Would I do things over again? Probably not. A lot of people were playing it a bit safe and I just wanted to go out there and take chances. And I did that, but unfortunately I got sent home.
You describe yourself several times throughout the season as the most imaginative contestant. Was that your downfall?
Part of being a chef, you have to be creative. My colleagues said maybe my skill level needs to catch up, but as far as last night goes with the dish [red snapper with daikon fettucini], I’ve done it before. Mainstream daikon is mainly used for sushi and served cold. But in Korea and other Asian countries, they serve it hot. You have to get used to it and acquire the taste of eating daikon warm.
Did you like the new judge, Toby Young?
Totally Simon Cowell. I was very touched by his reaction. First impression of body language alone, I didn’t think he liked me that much. But it was very surprising to hear what he said at the judges’ table. I was very thankful for that.
He seemed to disagree with the other judges a lot.
He’s a good fit for the show. Unbalanced a little bit, maybe. You know how people like to see conflicts with the chefs on the show … maybe people would like to see conflicts between the judges as well.
Is Top Chef more about good television than good cooking?
I’m split on that, 50-50. Controversy makes good television, we all know that. But Top Chef is based on skills. We’re there to cook.
In this episode, you got to sit with the judges and see their thought process and reactions. What did you learn from that?
I picked up a lot of tips of what they do, what they look for. When I was sitting at the table tasting the food, I was starstruck more than anything. I was sitting right across from Padma, and Jean-Christophe was there, and Tom and Toby Young.
What were some of the things you noticed?
With Tom, when you go to his restaurants, you order a chicken and you get a chicken. He’s not a big fan of a lot of things happening on the plate. Being a chef, I guess you lose track of the basic things that got you to be a chef — just basic salt and pepper. And you stick to that. Everybody should stick to that, but some people forget it along the way.
What’s your takeaway from being on the show?
Don’t forget the salt and pepper.
How was watching the episode last night?
I actually watched it with Hosea. It brings back memories that happened a while ago. If you’re strong enough to do Top Chef, you’re strong enough to watch it.
Toby called your dish “cat food.” Was that the worst insult you’ve ever heard?
He’s pretty harsh. It’s the worst insult I’ve ever heard. When he explained people’s food, he used a simple description instead of telling us what he didn’t like about something. He just ripped us all a new one. It kind of felt like a knife, watching him say that. Toby’s the harshest judge I’ve ever had to deal with, including culinary writers. I’ve never experienced anything like him.
He disagreed with other judges at times. Is he a good fit for the show?
He’s a judge and a food critic. I respect his honesty because that’s what he was hired to do. He wasn’t hired to hold our hands and tell us our food was okay. He was hired to be dramatic and he definitely filled that role.
Do you think the fact that he’s British sets him apart as a judge?
I think he has a totally different palate than I have. I don’t think I’m the kind of chef he likes. I think he looks for old-school. All the food he enjoyed that day had old-school techniques. I create food that is different from what he enjoys.
What did you learn from dining with the judges?
I wish we’d had that experience at the beginning, because we really saw what they were looking for. They’re looking for simple flavors cooked well. Obviously the goal is to be creative and original, but they’re also looking for dishes to be cooked perfectly, seasoned perfectly.
Was it fair to be criticized for a lack of imagination in creating fish tacos?
Not at all. I think I did something different. I used a soy vinaigrette and wonton taco shells. People are always telling me how creative I am, that I think outside the box. It was a big shock for me to be told that how I’m doing things is not creative or imaginative.
Do you think you should have been eliminated?
Eating that food, I don’t think mine was worse than anything else. I don’t think we shined in that challenge, none of us.
What did you learn?
I learned to deal with stress far better than I ever imagined. I think I’m a better chef now. I’ve always been a perfectionist, but my perfection level has gone up. Before the show, I think I was floating through my job. Now I have more of a focus and direction in my career.
And where will that direction take you?
I really want to travel and work in different restaurants around the world and continue to educate myself on food and cuisine and different cultures.
Any advice for future contestants?
Be yourself, heavily salt your food, and never apologize for what you do.