As told to Nuzhat Naoreen.
[SPOILER ALERT: Keep reading only if you've watched Wednesday night's episode of Top Chef! Or if you don't care to be spoiled...]
Beverly is back. I mean come on, it’s amazing and we didn’t even script that. I think the [chefs] were rightly a little shocked. It was [probably] hard for them to digest that someone was coming back to begin with no matter who it was. Here they were thinking they were the final four, and now they have to take a step backwards and fight even harder. That was a huge blow. [On top of that], it was Beverly, who I think that they don’t believe is as good as they are and who I think they have some personal issues with. I think it was a hard pill to swallow — especially for Sarah and Lindsay. But the truth is, Bev clawed her way to the top, and not by acting mean and not by hitting below the belt, but by cooking her heart out on Last Kitchen. She deserves to be there as much as anyone else.
At this stage in the competition every season the chefs are at the end of their rope. They’re exhausted and they feel creatively drained. It’s been six long weeks of cooking every single day for us under very difficult conditions. They’re sleep deprived and they know that the end is just hours away. The challenge right before the finale is always a very difficult challenge and the pressure has never been higher.
We knew bringing in the mentors would inspire [the chefs] and give them the energy and the spirit and the sense of purpose that we needed them to have in order to make that challenge really great. I think it also meant so much to [the chefs] just to know that they would have someone at the table who was 100 percent behind them no matter what happened. Until then, they had been cooking for their competitors and for a table of really picky judges. There was no one who they could feel was their cheerleader.
On the one hand having the [mentors] there and knowing that they have that support is so important but [the chefs] also have that much more to prove because they don’t want to let them down. It’s kind of that double-edged sword. Also, [for Beverly and Ed], their mentors were their mentors early in their career, so there was almost that added pressure of, “You haven’t seen me cook for awhile and I need to prove now what I can do since I left you.” So, yeah it was an amazing amount of pressure but also an amazing amount of love and support in that room unlike I’d ever seen before.
I think if we were all put in [Sarah's] situation, it would be very hard to make any other decision [than to sit out the challenge]. I know that the other chefs said, “Oh I’d take the car, that way I wouldn’t feel guilt that I didn’t cook myself into the finale.” You know what? Take every advantage you can. If she could get one night off to spend with her mentor, regroup, get her head straight, that’s her decision and I don’t think you can fault her for it. You know, a car is great but she didn’t come on Top Chef to win a car. She came to win Top Chef. Let me assure you [Sarah will] have plenty of time to cook her way through the next three episodes— if she even makes it that far.
There was one major flaw for me with both [Lindsay and Ed's] dishes. In Lindsay’s, it was the addtion of cream at the base of her fish stew. There’s certainly cream in many fish stews. That’s not the issue. The issue is that the flavors she was cooking with originally were Mediterranean and with the Mediterranean you don’t think about cream. That’s much more Northern European in cooking style. So, it just didn’t blend well and in fact it dulled down the flavors. I think the dish would have been better if it had just been a simple, rich seafood stock or broth. That said, [the cream] didn’t make the dish bad, it was just questionable. It wasn’t needed. It was an extra step that she could have avoided and she should have known to avoid. There was also that issue of the dried herbs. I didn’t take as much issue with that as the other people did. The rest of her dish was really beautiful. You could still eat it and enjoy it despite those two issues.
Ed’s dish was a different story. Everything in his dish was cooked well—the meat, that beautiful crispy pig skin. The pickles were outstanding. But his addition of that creamy smoked oyster sauce changed the entire dish and in fact, made a piece of that dish, for me, inedible. All of us found it really unappealing. He had an idea for a dish and he went to the store with that idea in his brain and couldn’t get off of it even when he discovered that he couldn’t use fresh products. He compromised the integrity of his dish by using smoked canned oysters. Smoked oysters have a purpose. My uncle smokes his own oysters and cans them and they’re delicious when they’re used properly. But here they take on a very synthetic smokey flavor and that smoke flavor overpowers everything. It was just completely unnecessary and detrimental, which is really unfortunate. That doesn’t mean we don’t think Ed is fantastic and an amazing chef. We know that he is outstanding [but] this wasn’t his day. He went down a road that he couldn’t turn back from and unfortunately it cost him elimination.
[Beverly's dish] was unbelievably—and I think deceptively—challenging. We’re not talking about a stir fry that you make in your college dorm room. A wok is incredibly hot, it cooks things very, very quickly. You have to keep food moving and there’s a very precarious relationship between the temperature, the time things take to cook, the fat that needs to be in the pan and how you move the food around the pan. There’s no cooking it and letting it stay warm under a heat lamp or prepping a piece of it and plating it later. It all happens and comes together in three minutes flat right before it goes to the table and to do that for eight people simultaneously is a very difficult task. Not to mention the type of stir fry she chose to make [was difficult]. Singapore noodles have a very complex spice blend to them and the shrimp needed to be cooked perfectly and delicately. A wok is very hot so there’s a danger in overcooking it. [The dish] had a beautiful flavor. I have to say, if this didn’t prove that Bev can cook, nothing will, because not only did she cook well, but she cooked better than two other chefs she was cooking against. I’ve never been so proud of her.
There’s no point in hitting you over the head with it, but I can say with complete confidence that in all my seasons of shooting Top Chef, [Paul's dish was] pretty much the single best thing that I have ever eaten on the show. It was so unbelievably mature and creative and I don’t think that in our description of it we did it justice. It was so beautiful the way he hand-placed the vegetables, [which] he then made into tubes and stood upright in the base of this bowl. Then poured in this dashi-sunchoke soup, the flavor of which I can’t even describe. All of us took one bite and we were sold. It was a really extraordinary dish and it was one I will remember for a very long time. It wasn’t even a question who won that challenge. It was so obvious to all of us that day.
[Next week’s episode] is mind-boggling. It was the most fun I have ever been on the show and the most cold [I have ever been]. The amazing thing about shooting in Vancouver is it’s the first time in Top Chef history that we’ve shot in a snowy climate. It allowed us to do so many things that we’ve never done before.