Top Chef

Written by Roy Hall

“Dad, can you lend me $2000? I’m good for it.”

My son Ilan was a line cook in a New York restaurant called Casa Mono. He enjoyed the cook’s world: sixty-hour workweeks, minimum wages, screaming bosses, and the dangers of sharp knives and hot flames. It also came with perks: cooks and chefs getting together in the wee small hours, hanging out at restaurants closed to the public, imbibing unlimited alcohol and gorging on huge amounts of food, then returning home at dawn to sleep for a few hours, then going back to work. One day a friend told him that a new TV program, Top Chef, was having open auditions for its second season. He decided to try out, and true to form he arrived a day late. The auditions were over but one of the producers told him that they would accept a video of him cooking something.

He immediately went to Radio Shack and bought a camcorder for $500 on his/my credit card (video cameras were expensive in 2006). He took it home, asked his girlfriend to film him and as he cooked ramen noodles on the 2-burner gas range/refrigerator in his tiny New York apartment kitchen, he kibitzed with self-deprecating humor. Afterwards he returned the camera to Radio Shack. A few weeks later he received an invitation to a further audition in Los Angeles, which in fact just meant attending one or two meetings and otherwise being sequestered in a hotel room for three days. No one ever asked him to cook anything. Not long after returning to New York, he was flown back to LA for the taping of the show.

We were told that he was a contestant but were not informed where he was. We had an emergency number only and were advised not to call. In those days, Top Chef’s producers insisted on isolating the contestants so they couldn’t acquire recipes from the outside. During the weeks of taping (he told me later) Ilan was grouped with about 15 other chefs. Their access to the outside world was very limited: no tv, no walks without supervision, no phone calls, no newspapers. The only thing they were allowed was NPR. (They have subsequently relaxed these rules).

As viewers of the show know, Top Chef is a cooking competition: Ilan won the first challenge with a dish of baked escargot in the shell. His next win was in episode 5 with lobster, shrimp & mushroom paella and fried soft-shell crab dishes.

After that he started to strategize. He saw that many chefs wanted to show off but didn’t listen to the Judges. He then figured out what the judges like to eat and decided to follow their instructions and cook what was asked of the contestants. This seems simple enough but it took a while to sink in. After that he started to win or place in more episodes.

One of the contestants he met there was a man called Marcel. They both took an instant dislike to each other, like dogs that sniff each other, then bark furiously. Marcel would sometimes sabotage other contestant’s dishes to gain an advantage. Complaints were made to the judges but to no avail so some of the contestants, pissed off with Marcel’s duplicity and after drinking too much, decided it was time to teach him a lesson. Ilan and Elia (a good friend and contestant), their judgment impaired, shaved their heads and thought it a good idea to do the same to Marcel. Sensing trouble, the producers had given Ilan a hand held camera and were rewarded when Marcel was grabbed and held down in an attempt to cut his hair. He escaped and spent the night in the bathroom. Cliff, who had physically held Marcel down, was sent home. Senior judge Tom Colicchio had wanted to send all of them home but the producers, fearing an anti-climatic end to the show, let everyone else stay.

Although Top Chef swore him to silence, we knew that he was chosen to be in the finale and one day, a few months after returning from LA, he flew off to Hawaii for the contest. Judging from his request for $2000 I surmised that he had won but he was closed mouth about it and we had to wait until the show was broadcast on TV before we knew for certain. We decided to invite friends to the house to watch the broadcast finale. We had three televisions set up around the house and over 50 people showed up. One of his school’s principles and his old baby doctor arrived, as well as some journalists we know. It was a really jolly crowd and the wine and food enhanced the mood.

The climax of the show centered on the rivalry between Marcel and Ilan. The producers emphasized this animosity to get better ratings. It worked. Over four million people watched the final episode, the highest viewership Top Chef has ever had.

Ilan’s food was spectacular. This was the menu:

  • First Course: Pincho of Pan Con Tomate with AngulasOsetra Caviar & Tomatillos
  • Second Course: Macadamia Nut Gazpacho with Pan Roasted Moi
  • Third Course: Seared Squab with Foie Gras, Shrimp, Braised Leeks & Lobster Sauce
  • Fourth Course: Braised & Grilled Beef Short Rib with Mushrooms & Romesco Sauce
  • Fifth Course: Tangelo Soup with Hawaiian Fruit, Surinam Cherry Sorbet & Bay Leaf Fritter

When Ilan did win, our friends erupted in cheers. It was a flawless end to a perfect evening. Having our son win Top Chef was an experience which thrills us to this day.

Ilan’s prize was $100,000.00. He never did pay back the $2000.

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