Top Chef & The Long Road Paved with Poorly Cut Vegetables

By jim berman, Sep 4, 2013 | | |

  1. The Oberod Estate is not tucked, nestled or otherwise hidden from the sight from the road. Rather, it is a castle-like stone manse on top of a manicured, green field, stretching to a forest’s edge. It is an unabashed take on imperial living. The approach is a black topped, asphalt cut-out that climbs through the field, with the luxury car commercial-style ‘S’ curves, complete with a summit view. This is no ordinary house, as the painted white signs at the flagstone entry direct “visitors” and “deliveries” to opposite ends of the gray palace. I parked my unassuming Jeep next to the kitchen entry as the organizer for the weekend’s event arrived with the guest chef. As Lee Anne Wong bounded across the stone parking area, I actually drew in a giddy breath as I was getting to meet a culinary rock star.

    I was contacted a few weeks’ back to assist with a quiet dinner that was wo n at an auction to benefit Meals on Wheels. The take-home was a dinner for ten guests prepared by Top Chef finalist, Lee Anne Wong. The first season on the show brought to light the cooking program’s heightened intensity of culinary aptitude and made reality television maybe just a bit more credible. With veteran chef/restaurateur Tom Colicchio at the helm of judges, the food was no joke. And Colicchio is no slouch; he held the bar high for the competitors and would often let loose fiery spittle of culinary fury over careless mistakes, missteps and miscalculations. Early on, it was obvious that this was not going to be a Hell’s Kitchen, that stage for the drama-hungry audience, rather a showplace for the truly hungry. So, the opportunity to work alongside one of the final four from the premier season would not go wasted.


    The premise for the catered event is simple: a meal of some passed appetizers, salad, fish course, entrée, dessert and some choice wines for the winning bidders. The setting is picturesque that defines, well, picturesque.The dining room, majestically flanked by floor to ceiling windows trimmed in darkened wood, is flooded with natural light as the sun sets across the tops of the pines on the far end of the acreage. The enduring grandeur of painted wallpaper panels look over the diners from the entryway through the far end of this conservative hall. I know nothing of the menu, other than Lee Anne Wong is doing all the legwork, schlepping all the goods and needs a few sets of working hands to make it all come together.

    Realization #1: Knife skills are never good enough. Sometimes, not even good at all.

     

    I am fairly certain after committing academic Hari-kira at the University of Pittsburgh, I was reborn with a 10” French knife in my left hand. And, apparently, it wasn’t sharp enough. I was put to task at bias cutting scallions to paper-thin consistency for inclusion in the berry-scallion tempura. Fail. My product was tossed and redone by the Chef. Mind you, I was working shoulder-to-shoulder with students and they were front row for my crash and burn. Conversely, Chef Wong bounced her knives with grace, efficiency and most importantly, surgical precision. Paper-thin radishes. Transparent slices of garlic. And those damn scallions. Short of running a pairing knife directly through my optical nerve, the impression could not have been much more profound.

    Realization #2: Engage brain. Then speak.

    We were gathering the dishes prior to the plate-up. Stacks here and there. Designating plates and bowls, large and small, for their respective courses. Plates for the hot courses were loaded into the oven. The chargers, those infrequently used non-dish dishes were brought into the kitchen, their decorative element being incorporated as underliners- decorative saucers, if you will.

    “Chef, would you like these in the oven with the others?

    Blank stare.

    “These. Right here. Want them in the oven, Chef?”

    “                       .”

    “Oh, yeah, I’ll just leave them right here.”

    In my defense, I was flustered. There were people scurrying about. Radishes flying. Fish guts oozing. I was ruffled. And chargers never go in the oven.

    Realization #3: The basics, idiot. Remember those basics.
    The garnish for the Almond Tofu with Marinated Fruit was a tuille-like sesame and rum cookie and it was my responsibility. Melted butter. Flour. Sugar. Black sesame seeds. Dark rum. Easy. Melt the butter; combine with dry ingredients. Chef bolted across the room as I was melting my butter, the whole block… in one, heaping pile. She nearly leapt into the pan to take a spoon to the block. It needs to be much smaller to melt in a reasonable amount of time as well as to prevent the already melted goodness from taking on a tan, then beige, then almond, then coal color. Where, oh where, was my head? Not a tragic disaster, but when Chef has to fix, alter or otherwise tweak your performance, it is not the warmest of feelings.

    Realization #4: “The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

    As we descended that twisty road away from Oberod, I began to focus on the metaphor of meandering paths. Throughout the weekend, I wa s riddled with self-doubt, shaken confidence and, quite honestly, besieged with more questions than answers. Were my skills failing me? Had I failed to practice enough to make myself a viable member of this industry? When is anybody good at what they do? Like, did Lee Anne feel some kind of way about fourth place rather than third, second or first? Learning is not at all the light at the end of the tunnel, I am a firm believer; I am smart enough to know that learning is the tunnel itself. Where does that drive come from when, say, the twisty road behind is longer than the one in front? True, true, that you are only competing with yourself, but it doesn’t feel so good to not be as good as you want to be. It isn’t inspiring nor energizing. It is realistic. And sometimes reality is a cold, hard slap with an improperly cut scallion.

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  1. jim berman
    Haha! I am not sure if that is a good thing or not. I will confess, though, since that weekend, I have been VERY reflective on my professional practice; I am examining everything, including whether or not this field is still where I need to be.
  2. iceman
    WOW. Over-the-top cool. Stories like yours are probably the reason that I never get picked to be in places that provide for stories like yours.
  3. jim berman
    Thank you for your feedback. I appreciate the insight.
    Nicko, I guess it is just a personal struggle/reflection with wondering where this path is going. Is it time for a change? Or is it merely the usual course of self-doubt in the hope of getting better?
  4. nicko
    JIm! No need to question your skills everyone gets stage fright from time to time. Like you I tend to doubt myself when I reason I am in the presence of someone with more skills rather than trust my own ability. To be honest I don't agree on the butter I thought that was being a little picky. You have melted a block of butter a thousand times like most chefs and you have the experience to melt it slowly (so no color) or quickly to make a brown roux etc. This chef did not trust you.
     
    As for the chargers how would you know? Why were they there anyways? Chargers are typically set down before the dish arrives not sent out. This was not your miss at all.
     
    Great article and I think the improvement of skills needs to take place for the life of a chef it never stops. 
  5. kaiquekuisine
    I read this article maybe 3 times. 
    Really enjoyable , informative , and well true.
    Loved your metaphors and ending proverb
     
    Then  again Jim most of your articles and reviews are great XD