Top Chefs Schtick It

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There’s no business like show business. Top Chef: The Tour parked its 18-wheeler in Cincinnati last weekend for eight shows over two days. As evidenced by the hundreds of people that lined up for tickets and willing to stand in a persistent rain to hear two of the show’s star chefs anwer questions while they simultaneously went pan-to-pan in a quick fire challenge, Top Chef is a franchise cash cow for NBC and Bravo.
I was a judge at two of the eight 30-minute shows (four in Hebron Ky. on Friday May 13th; four in Hyde Park on Sunday May 15th), sitting in for the 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Sunday at the Hyde Park location. Chef Eli Kirshtein and popular All-Star Top Chef Richard Blais were the draw, facing each other off on a center stage equipped with two flat top ranges and a small prep area. Here are some highlights from the show.
  • Chefs Blais and Kirshtein are both from Atlanta. According to Blais, as a veteran of the tour (and a new father), he is able to choose which cities he’ll work. He chose Cincinnati in part because he’s a big baseball fan. He scored a side gig throwing out the first pitch of the Reds vs. Cards game on Saturday afternoon.
  • Top Chef fans choose the protein for each city via the show’s Facebook page. Cincinnati fans chose lamb, which not only surprised the chefs (they expected pork), but was a first for the tour thus far.
  • Based on the protein, each chef chooses a recipe he/she can execute in a 15-minute quick fire challenge. The same dish and challenge is performed for every show in that city.
  • Students from Midwest Culinary Institute prepped much of the food inside the 18-wheeler.
  • After the audience is seated, the emcee, Fred, introduces the judges, thanks sponsors, and pumps up the audience much like announcing the line-up for a major league game. The chefs emerge from the truck amid cheers.
  • The chefs each explain the components of their dish and introduce their “secret ingredient.” Blais chose “gentleman’s relish” (chutney), and Kirshtein white truffle oil.
  • Fred sets the timer for 15 minutes. While the chefs cook, Fred works the audience for questions. Many of the questions are similar (Hardest Top Chef challenge? Favorite ingredient?), all of which the chefs answer effortlessly with the same punch line and comic timing.
  • Replying to a question about advice for someone interested in a career as a chef, Kirshtein said, “Stand on your feet for 14 hours and do a puzzle. If you don’t like it, do something else.” Blais answered similarly with “Spin around for hours and see if you still like it.”
  • Blais likened the “stew room” on Top Chef (where chef-testants are sequestered for hours awaiting elimination) to a combination of “jury duty and college.”
  • When asked what one of his first restaurant kitchen jobs was, Blais quipped “the poissonniere [fish chef] at McDonald’s. I was avant-garde even then, removing the top bun.”
  • Fred claims not all of the chefs have the outgoing personalities and good-natured bantering that Kirshtein and Blais do. They’ve been colleagues and friends for years, including Kirshtein standing as best man for Blais at his wedding.
  • When I first arrived, the show was short a judge, leaving it to Julie Niesen Gosdin (Wine Me Dine Me Cincinnati) and me. Fred drew a member from the audience (who was knowledgeable and engaging) for the 11:30 round, while I left voice mail messages for two Jeans: Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel, and Jean-Francois Flechet (they both agreed to judge the 1 p.m. round). The Top Chef folks went crazy for Flechet’s Belgian waffle, and nearly dropped to their knees to meet de Cavel. Eli Kirshtein said it was “an honor” to meet him and called him “a legend.” It was wonderful to witness how far his reach is, and affirmed how fortunate Cincinnati is to have him here.
  • Although Eli Kirshtein’s lamb sausage with pea puree, pecorino romano, and white truffle oil was wonderful, Blais’s “fast slow-cooked” lamb (sous vide, prepped prior to the challenge) with turnip puree and pickled radishes won the challenge. Every round.
  • In honor of de Cavel and Flechet, Blais prepared an extra dish, a goat cheese ice cream from a base of dry ice. It was a very interesting process to watch, and not bad (but not great either) for ice cream on the fly.
Were you at either of the Top Chef shows? I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions.

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