There’s a reason the contestants on “Top Chef” are given beer — or in the case of series spin-off “Top Chef Masters,” wine or liquor — while they await their fate at Judges Table.
After a long day of dreaming up and jamming out dishes for nitpicking judges, the chefs are driven to a top-secret location in downtown L.A. where “Top Chef Masters” is filmed, lined up and ordered to make like a statue while facing their critics so the cameras can get those dramatic, swooping shots of the staring showdown that kicks off final judgment.
The silence lasts several long minutes, and the chefs need something take the edge off. On TV, this exchange looks intense. In reality, the contestants are beat. The back and forth that follows is boiled down to a couple of minutes, but the conversations last hours in real life.
In December, The Times was invited to go behind the scenes of the elimination challenge taped for Wednesday’s “Top Chef Masters,” a special episode featuring former contestants from Season 1 selected for a second chance to compete. We reveal the moments that didn’t make it into Wednesday night’s episode (viewers who don’t want to know in advance, read no further) such as a rare confession from hotheaded French chef Ludo Lefebvre, who not only admits a screw-up — he apologizes for it.
It made me cringe last season while watching some of the world’s most renowned chefs be ordered to pack their knives and go. Among the more painful eliminations were molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne, who devolved into a panicked scatterbrain under the time crunch, and famed seafood chef Rick Moonen, who didn’t manage to serve any food during his Quickfire challenge; and Lefebvre, who failed to execute the humblest of meals: a cheesy quesadilla. For Season 2, the show’s producers decided to give the fallen chefs — alongside fellow alumni Graham Elliot Bowles, Mark Peel and Jonathan Waxman — a shot at redemption.
On one particularly windy December afternoon, things were getting rowdy inside the tight confines of Irish pub Tom Bergin’s Tavern on Fairfax Avenue. A few feet down from a gaggle of well-cast local Irishmen who’d be weighing in on the food, sat host Kelly Choi and the judges: “Top Chef” regular Gail Simmons and food critics Gael Greene and Jay Rayner.
The chefs were already hard at work in a kitchen only slightly bigger than the one in my tiny apartment. Wednesday’s episode will make it appear as though all six chefs were firing all at the same time, but in fact their times were staggered so no more than two were cooking at the same time.
That doesn’t mean the kitchen wasn’t jammed with people: There were a dishwasher cleaning up, a pair of photographers from Bravo, two cameramen and a producer, whose job it is to prod the chefs with questions while they’re racing to get their food prepared. “How much time do you have left, Mark?” “Hey Rick, what do you think of Ludo?” (Lefebvre and Moonen came to near-blows a couple times during the episode, but Moonen just chuckled and said, “Ludo is my good-luck leprechaun.”)
Much of the drama could not all be crammed into the show. While Peel paced, frustrated that his attempted Yorkshire pudding for his Toad in the Hole was being thwarted by a malfunctioning oven — “I kill myself. That’s it,” he said — Moonen offered to help. But Peel’s needs were impossible: “Can you make the oven hotter?” he asked. The resulting undercooked batter won over no one, though I thought his homemade seafood sausage was tender and delicious.
Viewers see only the sound bites, but the judges waxed on about every dish, picking apart even those they enjoyed. Simmons loved Waxman’s shepherd’s pie — indeed, a hearty, belly-warming wonder — but critiqued the mashed potatoes for being too pureed. “It’s like a soupy stick of butter,” she said. Greene and Choi disagreed, praising the spuds for being luscious and velvety.
It was, however, Lefebvre’s experiment that provoked the most chatter among the judges, and not for all the right reasons. It was an artfully designed but puzzling plate: A piece of meat, some cubed fruit and vegetables, some raw, some cooked, sitting in a light broth. Simmons appreciated “the pains he takes to make his vegetables so pretty,” but mostly, the judges all found it strange.
A few hours later at Judges Table, Lefebvre had a revelation: Maybe he did screw up the challenge. After standing in the lineup, and having had time to process, he conceded that “Maybe I went too far.” He even chuckled when Greene likened the components of his dish to a “dysfunctional family picnic.”
In the episode, the scoldings are mostly gentle. But what you won’t see are the more discerning criticisms, best left to the pros: Dufresne shouldn’t have removed the casings from his sausage because it dried out the meat, Moonen should have sliced his chips thinner so they‘d be less unwieldy. And Rayner and Greene really took Bowles to task for his obvious disdain for kidneys, masking their presence with other flavors.
“I think most pub food is based on a dare,” Bowles answered back. Everyone laughed. Greene said, “My sadness for you is you’ve never had a great kidney dish.” Bowles tried to arrange a date. “You and I need to go out. Hook me up, Gael.”
Not everyone received the redemption they were hoping for, but the booze enabled those who had to pack up their knives to go with grace.