Top Chef has returned to Bravo. Hopefully it will push aside those crazy gals from New Jersey (we get it Danielle, you hate the Manzo family). Meanwhile Top Chef puts its cheftestants through the paces to find out who are just okay, good, and very good. I have decided to repost my rules for Top Chef. It is basically a set of rules the cheftestants ought to consider before serving any dish and derived from watching the show over the past few years. So here it is. The rules are in no particular order and new additions are noted.
1. Going to culinary school goes far on Top Chef
It is a fact that on Top Chef that those who go to culinary school usually do much better than those who do not. The reason is that most cooking schools, especially the well known ones, teach a lot of important techniques that being self-taught you might miss out on. A self taught chef can produce good food but is at a serious disadvantage to someone who has mastered the art and cooks like it is served in a fine upscale restaurant.
2. Never Over Salt! Ever!
Perhaps one of the biggest hits on a dish is to make it too salty. In most cases, it is a death sentence for the chef who prepared it. Usually they ask if you knew it was too salty. If you answer no, they question your palate. If you answer yes, they question why you sent out the dish in the first place. Either way it is bad and puts you on the top of the list to be eliminated.
3. Light touch on seasoning fine; Under seasoning bad.
If too much salt is bad, under seasoning a dish is just as bad. The result is bland tasting food that just needs that extra dash of something to zing it up. It is not as bad as oversalting a dish but if it is combined with lackluster presentation and food that ought to have been better, your now on the list to be eliminated.
4. Do not make something you have never done before.
One thing that sinks aspiring cheftestants is deciding to cook something they have never done before. Unless you are familiar with the ingredients, it is best you stick with what you know. Otherwise expect the judges to be very tough in making you defend the dish if it turns out wrong.
5. Taste Your Food!
This would seem obvious but many cheftestants forget this basic rule and end up on the bottom. It is your last chance to correct something amiss before it ends up before a judge.
6. Check your food for doneness.
Serving raw seafood (unless sushi or a cerviche), raw poultry, or too rare a meat will get you a fast ticket to the bottom. Likewise overcooking will end you at the bottom as well. Never assume it is cooked right by merely looking at it.
7. Avoid complicated dishes unless you tie it all together.
All the components of a dish must go together. Do not, repeat do not, just throw things together and hope for the best. Judges will zing you hard for this and worse if it tastes bad.
8. Never put something on the plate unless it relates to the other components.
One thing that trips up a cheftestant is putting something on the plate that simply does not belong there. Slices of cheese or fruit ought to complement not stick out like a sore thumb.
9. Avoid funky or strange combinations UNLESS you know how to make it work right.
Butterscotch, peanut butter, strong cheeses have been the death knell for a dish and the chef who prepared it. Even if you know how to do it perhaps it would be best to let it pass on this show. Judges are finicky and picky about what they like and dislike. Certain sweet and peanut dishes are good dishes in their homeland but not necessarily in the Top Chef dining room.
10. The Classics Trap: Your dish must recall the original.
Top Chef often asks its cheftestants to take a classic dish and make it something new. What this requires is ingenuity and skill to remake or update it. Remember though it has to hearken back to the classic dish. This is especially true if you have to deconstruct it. All the components of your dish must line up with the original in some way.
11. Crispy good, soggy bad.
This has been the doom of many a meal on Top Chef. When the dish, like a corn dog, has to sealed up and taken elsewhere to be served the risks of it going soggy are high. Steaming occurs while it is enclosed making your once crispy food soggy. Failing to understand this bit of food science will put you high on the list to be sent home.
12. Make sure the dish you serve is as advertised.
A few seasons back one of the cheftestants cooked Coq au Vin. The judges all loved it but there was a problem: it was not Coq au Vin. The dish requires a rooster not just a regular chicken to be served. And since many of the judges were classically trained French chefs and knew what the dish was, they had to give the win to another cheftestant. Likewise one cheftestant called his salad “Waldorf” but the judges pointed out it was not even close to the classic (and not very good either).
13. Overconfidence and arrogance is a dangerous combination.
It seems almost a Top Chef axiom: those that are overconfident and arrogant end up tripping up along the way.
14. Be sanitary.
Thankfully (as far as we know) this has not been a large issue. However it goes without saying that if the judges see you being unsanitary in food preparation or serving they will zing you for it.
15. When cooking food that is a local specialty, make it fresh.
Chicago is known for its sausage. So if you are going to wow the judges and others, you have better make some delicious sausage of your own. Relying on store bought varieties, while safe, will not impress the judges who expected something more.
16. Never serve under rested meat.
The proper resting of meat and poultry is important to insure that flavor does not run out when you cut into it. There is perhaps nothing more sad than to see a perfectly good piece of meat ruined by not properly resting it. There is also a corollary to this: always slice your meats with the proper knife and make sure you do it evenly.
17. Never butcher an already tender cut of meat.
Taking a tender lamb, for instance, and then butchering and cooking it wrong will infuriate the judges and send you home for wasting a perfectly good piece of meat.
18. If not sure, omit the drink
If not required to have either wine or alcohol as part of your dish, skip it. Sometimes it can work in your favor or add little to the dish. Worse is when the drink is so bad that even if the dish was good it sends you to Judge’s Table where they examine you for sanity.
19. Do not try to fool the judges by mixing cooked with undercooked!
Simply put, you are an idiot for trying this. If you think that mixing undercooked potatoes with fully cooked mashed potatoes will not be noticed, you deserve to go home for such a bonehead move.
20. “The oven was not working right” and other excuses.
Most professional chefs have had kitchen equipment go down on them. When it happens, they improvise around it. If your food was over or undercooked due to bad ovens, burners or anything but a genuine power outage it will not cut you much slack with the judges. They can all recite experiences of their own and how they got around it in a pinch (and served the meal to the delight of everyone).
21. Never say that you do not understand what you did wrong at Judges Table.
It will simply convince them you do not belong on Top Chef and send you home.
22. In Restaurant Wars the winners usually produce high quality food because they organize themselves and make sure food is done right. The losers usually are poorly organized and there is no quality check.
23. Be sure whoever is front of the house in Restaurant Wars is comfortable in the roll of seating people, answering their questions, and handling problems. Or you will regret it later at Judges Table.
24. Fresh fish good, frozen bad.
When cooking for an upscale crowd, avoid using frozen seafood in entrees.
25. The Dessert Trap.
Never cook a dessert you are not familiar with. And never make it so sweet that the essential component is lost. Do not rely on store bought components (like pastries, ice cream, or other prepared items) as a part of your dish.