So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Daily Archives: May 30, 2009

A primer for would-be “Top chef” contestants



It’s hard to go wrong with bacon.  Even with ice cream.

Never, ever tell a judge what you couldn’t put in a dish because of a screw-up unless you have to (it’s a listed ingredient). They might not miss it.

Always taste your dish right before service, especially for the presence (or lack thereof) of salt or acid.

Learn how to cook rice. Rice has been the downfall of many a cheftestant.

Never use frozen seafood or freeze seafood to get a certain effect.

Have a foolproof dessert in your pocket – one that you can make under any sort of circumstances. Try to avoid baked desserts because there are too many variables and too much precision required in measurements (unless you are drop-dead sure that you can execute it). 

Learn how to make a few Thai-influenced dishes, especially those that feature coconut milk as a primary ingredient.

Don’t proclaim that you are an expert in any particular type of cuisine, even if you think you are. It will be used against you as plot points, plus you will be teased unmercifully in forums and blogs everywhere.

It’s OK to fly under the radar for the first third of the competition. It is not OK to underperform though.

In restaurant wars, it’s better to be a team player than to be a team leader.

When planning a meal that has to be prepare at one site and transferred to another, don’t have any fried components of a dish.

Hone your knife skills (pun intended). Work on speed as well as precision.

Don’t overthink your dishes. And don’t second-guess a gut instinct.

Coming in second in quickfires in the first half of the season shouldn’t cause you distress. Just try to stay out of the bottom as much as possible and don’t worry about being “in the middle”.

Don’t “play the game” or try to game your fellow competitors to the exclusion of playing your own game.

A well-executed soup will get you far.

If you have to choose between simple and complex, choose simple. But always remember, that the simpler the dish, the more on-point you have to be with seasonings and ingredients.

When given a fellow competitor or celebrity sous-chef, remember – you are the chef, not them.

When fed a meal by the judges, pay attention to everything that’s said about the dish. Observe every facet of the dish that’s presented to you so that you can reproduce it later.

When given a challenge, listen to the challenge and pay particular attention to the rules. If in doubt as to whether you are breaking a rule, back away quickly. In the next tip, the cheftestant who did the sushi dish also screwed up the rules of the contest, plus he violated the “don’t proclaim that you’re an expert” rule. If in doubt, ask for clarification. Don’t lose the rules sheet that the production team gives you.

Pay particular attention to the people who will be served your food in a challenge and tailor your offering to them. Don’t do as one cheftestent did and serve an unconventional sushi dish to a bunch of firefighters, for example.

Learn to use a food mill instead of a blender.

Never tell a judge more than they need to know.

Every cheftestant will have a miss-fire occasionally. As long as it didn’t make you “pack your knives and go home”, move on. Ask yourself, “What’s next”?

Scallops are overused, but judges seem amazed when they are cooked correctly., so using scallops isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when they are cooked correctly, which ain’t hard unless you forget about them while you’re cooking.

Foams are soooo Season Two. What season are you in again?

On-air time is a double-edged sword, especially in the beginning of the competition. Don’t make it your goal to be the big personality of the season. As the field thins, air-time will come of its own accord.

If your ingredients total more than 7, that’s a red flag.

As the season progresses, try to maintain your own vision and try to keep your dishes distinct from everyone else. Collichio has complained that, all too often, at the midway point in the competition, “they all start feeding off each other and all the food starts to look the same. It’s kind of annoying”. He’s the last person that you want to annoy.

Ask yourself this – is the $100,000 prize worth compromising your integrity as a chef and a person?

And remember, while it might be “Top Chef” and not “Top Cook”, you need your “inner cook” in order to succeed.

If you win because of this post, I expect a good meal out of it.

Cookbook of the day – Frank Stitt’s Southern Table


Frank Stitt’s Southern Table – Recipes and Gracious Traditions From Highland Bar and Grill

by Frank Stitt, foreword by Pat Conroy

Artisan, NY

  • ISBN-10: 1579652468
  • ISBN-13: 978-1579652463
  • Frank Stitt is a celebrity chef. But not the kind that America and the world knows about because he judges Top Chef, or competes on Iron Chef, or has a restaurant in Vegas. He’s John Besh before Besh made the move to grasp for the brass ring – a chef beloved in his hometown, celebrated in his part of the country as a shining representative of his cuisine, and a successful restaurateur/chef.

    His restaurants, Highland Bar and Grill, Chef Fonfon and Bottega in Birmingham have been lauded by guests and critics as sterling examples of what a chef can do with fresh, seasonal ingredients. He has consulted with restaurants throughout the South and has trained an army of chefs, sous-chefs and line cooks that have made their own impact in the cooking tradition of the respect for seasonality and region. They carry his message to kitchens across the South, and elsewhere. Not surprisingly, he’s also a supporter of the Slow Food movement creeping its way across the nation.

    Stitt’s no johnny-come-lately. His real start was in the 70s, working for free in Alice Water’s Chez Panisse where he gained the confidence to approach the famous food writer Richard Olney, the editor of the famous Time-Life Good Cook series, who agreed to meet him in London after Waters gave Olney a letter of introduction. He talked his way into being Olney’s personal assistant for part of the year at his home in France, where he gained an appreciation for the French love of seasonality, locale and…well, a life well lived. He also spent some time that year in France with Steven Spurrier, the famous wine expert, who helped him hone a sense of the harmony of wine and food. And he makes appropriate wine and food pairings throughout the book

    In 1982, he opened Highland Bar and Grill and hasn’t stopped since.

    This book is his personal narrative and a celebration of freshness, family tradition and a sense of place. It puts the spotlight on the people who help him create great dining experiences and is loaded with the principles that he finds important when creating and presenting a dish or a meal. The recipes are logically andpassionately presented, both in text and photo. There are discussions of the purveyors that make it possible for Stitt to procure the freshest ingredients and it’s not often that a cookbook addresses the very relationship between a chef and his or her vendors.

    A substantial volume, if this book doesn’t set your culinary passions alight, then nothing well.

    And pray that he never shows up on Iron Chef.

    From, this Frank Stitt summertime dish – Shrimp Salad Portofino, a dish not in the cookbook:


    Photo credit: Monica Buck