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Top Chef: Tradition, Grudges And The Loss Of Honor

What made Top Chef so exciting this week was not the set of rules but the introduction of honor as a competing interest as well.

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Top Chef, Bravo’s reality show in which chefs compete against each other in culinary challenges, remains a Hemingway house favorite. One reason it succeeds critically in a land of Kardashian and Bachelor “reality” shows is that the contestants are people whose life’s work really is in the kitchen. They’re competing for the title of “Top Chef” and a huge cash prize, but also for the respect of one of the few remaining meritocratic communities. In a world of crony capitalists and teacher unions, bureaucratic bloat and wonkblogs, it’s nice to see a vocation remains where one’s actual work counts for something.

“Top Chef: New Orleans” has been good, but somewhat uneventful. The only sustained clash between chefs involves Nicholas Elmi’s disdain for Carlos Gaytan. According to what the show’s producers want us to believe, things went south when Gaytan claimed Elmi took his oven in a tough contest at a college cafeteria. Then Gaytan failed to clean Elmi’s knife after using it. What makes Elmi interesting, in addition to his exquisite technique and attention to detail, is his sense of honor. We’re supposed to side with him over Gaytan because Gaytan has put winning contests above good behavior. For my part, Elmi’s seeming obsession with how poorly he’s been treated has gone overboard, but it’s nice to see people concerned about proper behavior. Elmi has previously been quite virtuous in his dealings with other chefs, however, including helping a shellfish-allergic chef in a shellfish challenge.

Which brings us to this week’s show. The fantastic Jacques Pépin shows the cheftestants how to make Dover Sole with Artichokes and Asparagus. Pépin’s book “La Technique” is still used in culinary schools to teach the fundamentals of French cooking and he has taught American home cooks through his television shows, including “The Complete Pépin,” “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home with Julia Child,” and “Jacques Pépin: Fast Food My Way.”

The first challenge, which gives the winner immunity for the week, is to replicate Pépin’s dish in 25 minutes. The chefs quickly and quietly get down to work, with the two French-trained chefs being the clear favorites: Nicholas and Shirley Chung. The chefs had to skin the fish in one fell swoop, handmake cherry tomatoes by pressing a whole tomato and jujitsu a butter rose, among other things. Nicholas comes out on top and he has immunity for that week’s challenge, which will pit two teams against each other. We also learn that Elmi used to be executive chef of a “huge fine dining restaurant” until new management came in and offered every single staff member their job back … except for him. He says he’s “cooked pissed off” for the last year.

The premise of the larger elimination challenge is that New Orleans’ deep culinary roots come from Spanish and French cuisine. They use the same ingredients but use them differently. So each team has to make five dishes that highlight, in turn, olives, almonds, mussels, chicken and chocolate. Team French is coached by Dominique Crenn while Team Spanish is led by Julian Serrano. Crenn directs her team toward noveau cuisine. Serrano is so traditional that he makes one of his cheftestants make an old-fashioned potato salad with olives.

This tradition vs. modernity battle continues to shape up as the teams purchase ingredients for their meals. Serrano is precise, meticulous, slightly befuddled. Crenn is brash, bold, quick-changing — if an ingredient she hoped for isn’t there, she simply grabs something else.

The “Baltimore Sun” describes the two teams’ courses:

Course One: The French team made a snapper ceviche with an olive oil ice cream. The Spanish team put out a potato salad with green olives. (A dish Nina is convinced is too simple and will send her home) Course Two: The French team served up pickled and poached mussels. The Spanish team served an Ajo Blanco with crab, almond and cherry. Course Three: For the French team, a chicken liver mousse and consommé. The Spanish team made mejillones a la Romesco with leeks. Course Four: The French team created a Cornish game hen, spiced chocolate and that darn corn silk nest. For the Spanish team, chicken and saffron rice. Fifth Course: The final French course is a Marcona almond flan. The Spanish dessert is a chocolate flan.

“That darn corn silk nest” is what it sounds like. A supposedly edible nest made from corn silks. It looks, according to head judge Tom Colicchio, like what one might remove from the drain of their shower. Serrano is so offended by the dish that he refuses to even try it, which prompts a fascinating discussion with Crenn about how disrespectful he’s being. Or as she puts it, “We can like or not like a dish, but I think it’s important to embrace what everyone is doing here, and not be so one dimensional.”

On the basis of Elmi’s corn hair and flawed dessert dish, his team loses. It turns out that the judges loved what his teammates had made. But remember, he has immunity.

When they bring the team out to discuss all this, Pépin’s disrespect for Elmi’s dish is palpable. He asks him if he’d serve his mother this dish. And then one of the more exciting moments on reality television this year: “Do you think your team should be penalized for you, or do you think you should resign?”

I gasped. The rules were clear! Elmi had won immunity. To even ask him to resign is un-American. There was an unbearably long pause as everyone waited for Nick’s decision. He responds, finally, that he thinks his work in the first challenge should protect him. They leave so the judges can make a decision. One of the chef’s on the chopping block says she can’t even look at him. The other says she hopes he will do the right thing. It’s somewhat complicated by the fact that defeated contestants have another opportunity to win their way back into the show. Colicchio says he hopes that Nicholas will fall on his sword so that he won’t have to cut a different chef.

In the end, they choose to cut Stephanie, a surprisingly compelling and sardonic chef from Seattle.

Back to this unheard of request for resignation. We can sum up the views of most Americans in this comment from Ann Maloney, a New Orleans Times-Picayune journalist:

And, for me, there was a whiff of sexism in this as well. Chef Pepin asked Nicholas if he would resign as though as a man this would be the honorable thing to do. Please. It's 2014 people.

I guess the whiff was there for Maloney because Nicholas is a dude and the two chefs who suffered because of his poor showing are women. But there was no actual mention of chivalry in the show or any indication that the request for resignation had to do with sex. Further, both female chefs suggested they would have resigned if placed in a similar position. It is funny, though, that honor is “out” in 2014, particularly for men.

Let’s get this out of the way: Top Chef is a show about rules. The producers are fairly rigorous in the enforcement of these rules. You must finish work when the time is up, or you are disqualified from competing. In a team competition, the losing team will lose a member. The worst dish of the competition, even if it comes from the most routinely high-performing chef, is grounds for elimination. It’s what keeps things exciting and allows for surprises. Elmi had every right to decline to resign and it should not be held against him as the competition continues. I’ll go further: Elmi, knowing he had immunity, was pushing himself and taking risks he wouldn’t have taken otherwise. He was following the expressed wishes of his coach and there is no indication that he did anything other than push for his team’s ultimate victory. Under these circumstances, it’s particularly defensible for him not to resign.

What made the show so exciting, though, was not the set of rules but the introduction of honor as a competing interest as well. The precise scenario of a chef winning immunity and then hurting his team in the following competition has happened repeatedly before. What made this week different was the questioning by Pépin: the question about serving one’s mother a flawed dish, the question about whether others should suffer for your flaws, that the questions were posed by someone so respected. Culinary competitions are exciting. But navigating a world of honor all the more so and much more thrilling. Our culture holds a diminishing but still-strong regard for operating by rule of law. Particularly in a society with no common morality, this high regard is to be esteemed. But in the Top Chef competition, however flawed, one could hear the echo of Publilius Syrus: “What is left when honor is lost?” (I’m pretty sure the answer can be found on the remainder of Bravo’s TV programming — Courtney Loves Dallas, Shahs of Sunset, The Millionaire Matchmaker, The Real Housewives of Atlanta/Beverly Hills/Miami, New York City, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List, etc.)

The drama of this week’s show raises another interesting contrast. Elmi loathes Gaytan for perceived slights of kitchen etiquette. It’s somewhat difficult to tell what actually happened and how egregious the problems were, given the vagaries of editing, but Elmi has been nursing a feud with the untrained Gaytan. It’s a good reminder for all of us that we are as quick to judge others for disrespect or other failures as we are to forgive ourselves for the same problems.