I was watching Top Chef just to “hang out” with my daughter (she’s 13, so you grab those opportunities when you can), and it turned out to be an unexpectedly great learning experience. What’s more, it was my daughter who pointed out this particular life lesson.
This was the season finale episode, and it was down to three finalists to compete for the title of Top Chef: Stefan, Josea and Carla. I gathered from the commentary that Carla had been the underdog, having surprised the judges and surpassed their expectations week after week with her inspired catalogue of unique dishes with splendid sauces.
Carla was different from the rest of the field, being the only African American, quirky in a homespun way, and prone to sliding into meditative states and yoga postures at various times during the day “to get centered”. She was also one of a modest number of women and extremely likeable. The judges couldn’t wait to see what she and the others would come up with, and the producers must have had at least a fleeting thought that it would make for a more interesting cap to the season for such a charming “dark horse” to win.
As with every final “cook off”, each competitor was given a sous-chef who was a finalist from a previous season, therefore highly qualified in the kitchen. And off they went to cook their three course meals armed with professional sous-chef support.
As it turned out, Carla completely bombed out of the competition with a major element of her dessert not even making it onto the plate. Josea won in a tight race with Stefan. We were all disappointed at Carla’s apparent “own goal”. So, what happened?
As my daughter observed, Carla did not stay true to herself. She let her sous-chef’s suggestions sway her, which was the fatal error. When Carla started with a vision of grilled steak and mash as the main course, we all shouted “no” at the television set when she caved to her sous-chef’s suggestion that she use a cooking method that she had never tried before: sous-vide, which involves slow cooking the meat in a bag (the judges commented that they didn’t like the texture of the steak, although the sauce was excellent).
When Carla wanted to make a dessert quiche, we groaned when she acquiesced to her sous-chef’s idea of a soufflé in its place (the soufflé fell and could not be served). It was like watching an old episode of “I Love Lucy” where you know the heroine is headed for trouble and nothing you do or say from your comfy chair can stop her.
Basically, Carla forgot that what got her there was her “special sauce” (literally and figuratively): her signature Carla-ness. In fact, her only dish that received accolades that night was her appetizer, which was Carla’s own idea from start to finish.
As for the winner Josea, he creatively decided to make an appetizer and two main courses rather than the traditional dessert course because he is “not a dessert guy” (strange though that may sound to the rest of us dessert fans). The judges applauded the fact that he stayed true to himself and made two imaginative and delicious main courses, and crowned him Top Chef.
It is good to know that at the age of 13, my daughter already recognizes the importance of staying true to yourself. On the other hand, maybe this is one of those important life lessons that we know instinctively as children, but becomes hazy as we “grow up”.