Padma Lakshmi blogs 'Top Chef': Charlize Theron inspires some wicked dishes

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Image Credit: Scott McDermott/Bravo

As told to Nuzhat Naoreen.

I was [looking forward to this challenge], because I think out of all of the challenges, this one really allowed the chefs’ own personal creativity and identity to shine through, and I was very happy about that. I thought that they took the challenge and ran with it. This was a glorious dinner, it was so much fun to eat and to be there. All of the food was striking, not only for how it tasted and felt on the palate and the textures and different temperatures, but also the way it looked. They really did a great job visually of creating something that told a narrative, that told a story about each of these chefs. Their stories and backgrounds are so different that it made for a glorious meal. This was one of the best dinners we’ve ever had at work, in any season. I mean, it was one of the best dinners I’ve ever sat down to on Top Chef.

It was wonderful [working with Charlize Theron]. I had met Charlize years ago because she’s always been a fan of the show and I just ran into her – I can’t remember now, how – but she’s very funny and obviously very beautiful and very talented. She actually does an impression of me, which I never thought I was that interesting to do an impression of, but it’s funny. [Guests] usually tell us what they want to eat and what they don’t want to eat. Charlize was certainly game for anything. Natalie Portman is not, because she’s a vegan. We design the challenge around [the guest]. But they volunteer to come on the show, we don’t go and scout people.

Each challenge has its own parameters – if they’re cooking for a quinceanera, they’re talking to the birthday girl, but in this case, [the chefs were on] their own. I can’t remember now if they had an hour or a half hour to menu plan, but this was a challenge where they just worked with their own imagination and made beautiful food. I mean, it was great because you finally got to see them use their technical skills and their palate to create something. It’s wonderful when a person working so hard and so passionately on their craft crosses that threshold and goes from just being an artisan to an actual artist. And there’s layers and layers of storytelling and layers of taste and layers of effort and it all comes together.

I think they all, in their own way, took great risks. I think Paul took a big risk in giving us that big bloody hand-print. It was just fantastic to see that kind of confidence and it was beautiful. We were really inspired by [Charlize's new movie] Snow White and the Huntsman, and the fairy tale quality that the movie has, and the visual aspect of it. It was almost like if Tim Burton or Martin Scorsese were cooking these meals.

There was some debate about [whether Paul's dish was the best]. I thought it was very original, Tom thought it was very reminiscent of Michel Bras and what he does. I had just been to Noma in Copenhagen and I thought it was kind of [like] what René Redzepi was doing there. Everything comes from something else, but it doesn’t mean it’s not inspired or unoriginal. It was a combination of visuals and taste and execution and story, [that helped Paul win].

[Grayson's dish] was fantastic. It was so visual. I was really proud of all of the chefs, that they, in spite of being tired and sequestered and all that, really pulled out of their hearts and souls [for this challenge].

I think that [Sarah's] risotto with the lamb heart was pretty intense. It was just this lamb heart sizzling, quivering there. I don’t think it was even cooked, I think it was seared and sliced. It also brought together all the storybook and mythical things we think about: a lamb being so innocent and you have this open heart of a lamb, on a plate. That was just kind of chilling.

I thought that given the parameters of the challenge, [Chris' apple] was a very interesting take. We wanted them to do something that was pushing the envelope, we wanted them to be very imaginative. We were telling a story, we were pushing the boundaries. We wanted fairy tales.

I don’t think anything we tasted was bad, and I don’t think anything we tasted was something we’d send back if we were in a restaurant environment. I just think if you’re comparing six chefs, there’s always going to be a hierarchy. There’s going to be the best, and there’s going to be the worst. Now, the worst may be the best thing that we’ve had compared to all the restaurants in New York City, but it wasn’t as good as the [the dishes from the] four [other contestants] competing that day. And that day is a very important part of that sentence.

We’re grading on a curve, so [Beverly's] dish could have been fabulous. Her dish could have been a dish that we would all craved and went back to a restaurant [for] twice a week. It’s just that we’re always comparing it to what else is on the table.

I wasn’t really privy to [whether the other chefs were happy to see Beverly go]. What most people don’t realize is that we don’t get to see any of that. We can hear about it if they bring it up at judges table, but we’re not told and we don’t see the footage. We’re just judging the [contestants] on the food. When you go to your favorite restaurant, you don’t care that the cook is cheating on his wife with the dishwasher. It’s irrelevant; it’s a professional cooking competition.

It was really hard to send someone home for that meal. And it’s always hard! It’s never easy. I just came back from finale and it was very difficult to make that decision, more so than it’s ever been, I would say. You also get to know these chefs, you see how hard they’re working, you’re with them elbow-to-elbow in the kitchen, day in and day out. I have so much admiration for these people.

Every day we just want to build on what we’ve done the day before. You can’t not compare it, so you’re always trying to make it bigger and better and that’s where my producers come in, and they’re very talented at doing that, and they have a very tough job. It’s always going to be, cook these ingredients in this amount of time with this amount of restrictions, for these many people. But how do you repackage that so it’s inspiring for the chefs, and it pulls out this creativity like at this Charlize dinner, and is also interesting to the viewer? There are some things that are very interesting to us, as food professionals, but don’t necessarily make for interesting TV, because you guys aren’t there—you can’t smell it, you can’t taste it, you can’t feel it in your mouth.

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