Top Chef returns for its 16th season this week, and while it’s easy to make fun of Top Chef (and fun!), it’s still the best food competition show on television. Dare I say, it’s the best competition show on television, period. Whereas the world can only bear so many iterations of “The Voice,” we have restaurants on every corner. This is America, we can always eat more food. I have to think that’s part of the reason the format still hasn’t gotten stale for me. That and the absence of Adam Levine. That’s also important.
In any case, I’ve seen every episode, and it never ceases to amaze me how many cheftestants seem to arrive on the show with either no prior knowledge of how to play the game or a conviction that they’re the one who’s going to undo 16 years of competition show precedent. I yell at the television more during Top Chef than I do watching sports. STORE-BOUGHT PASTA, ARE YOU INSANE?!
Maybe the chefs were too busy working 70-hour weeks to soak in every previous episode, but for any aspiring winner, you avoid research at your peril. Take it from me, the couch potato. Here, I share my vast and abiding knowledge of Top Chef lore for the benefit of all this season’s cheftestants (I suspect Andy Cohen came up with this word).
The 10 keys for how to get kicked off early:
1. Use truffle oil
Ten years ago, truffle oil was the hot new ingredient, a way to add that expensive truffle taste with a few cents worth of flavored olive oil. Chefs went overboard, and the backlash was swift. These days, TV chefs rail against truffle oil like it murdered their parents. Frankly it smacks of overcompensation. Anyway, I’m sure there’s a place for truffle oil, especially if you’re a clever chef, but that ain’t the hill you want to die on.
2. Make risotto
A little higher on the reward/risk ratio than truffle oil, is risotto. Countless contestants have been sacrificed to the Gods of arborio rice. Risotto is the perfect storm of finicky and labor intensive to cook, and inspiring of rigidly provincial serving guidelines the way only Italian dishes truly can be (has to be loose! it should spread out on the plate! it has to be al dente! it can’t be mushy!). Also, it’s rarely a knock-your-socks-off dish, even when done perfectly.
3. Break out the molecular gastronomy kit (make a powder, make a gel, make a suspension…)
Do the judges ever like molecular stuff? Someone reaching for the soy lecithin is usually a good sign that that person’s getting canned at the end of the episode. An even surer sign is anyone making a dust, a powder, a sand, etc. Frankly, this should be intuitive. Oooh, you turned this delicious oil/velvety sauce into fine powder that I can accidentally inhale when I try to eat? What a neat trick! Next, can you give me the taste of a taco in the shape of a briar patch?