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My Top 10 "Top Chef" Guest Judges
Guest judges add flavor and spice
I've been watching "Top Chef" on Bravo more or less religiously since it debuted in spring 2006. I'm not generally big on reality TV, but I like shows that focus on talent and skill in a targeted area-- "Project Runway" is another fave--and show us how different folks respond to pressure.
It you haven't seen "Top Chef," it follows a consistent format, with a superfast "quickfire challenge" (convert vending-machine junk into a tasty hors d'oeuvre, make a perfect egg dish with one hand...you get the idea) followed by a longer "elimination challenge" that ends in a losing contestant being chopped from the competition. Surprises are built in through the specifics of each challenge and a parade of guest judges.
Most of the guest judges are, appropriately, well-known professional chefs. Others are food-loving celebs, which adds a dash of excitement without (in my opinion) detracting from the show's focus. Here, in no particular order, my favorite guest judges so far from "Top Chef" and its spinoff show, Top Chef Masters.
Guest Judge: Eric Ripert
You don't often hear "French chef" and "stud" in the same sentence ;) -- but here goes: This French chef is a stud. He seems like a perfect blend of skills, character, and a dash of movie-star charisma.
As a repeat "Top Chef" guest judge, Eric Ripert has been the epitome of class each time--critiquing when needed, but never in a harsh or cheap way.
Before kids and mortgage and orthodontia, the hubby and I ate once at Ripert's NYC seafood temple, Le Bernardin. The food hype is all true, and it's a beautiful place, too--albeit crazy-pricey. We may never get back there, but I can still taste (honestly) the sauce that came with my fish that night. So maybe that's enough.
My favorite Ripert TV moment might actually be from a different show, Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations." After years as a food writer and TV host, Bourdain challenges himself in one episode ("Into the Fire") to return to the kitchen as a line cook, at NYC's bustling Les Halles--and brings Ripert along for the ride. By his own admission, Bourdain is ready to keel over about 20 minutes into the dinner service, while Ripert has a blast, blithely joking around as he manages 25 steak orders at once. Like I said--the guy's a stud.
Guest Judge: Anthony Bourdain
My first intro to Anthony Bourdain was maybe 10 years ago, when my brother gave me Kitchen Confidential for Christmas. I enjoyed the book's insider look at the down-and-dirty world of pro cooking, as well as its practical tips--e.g., don't order fish on Sunday. But its macho vibe struck me as a bit over the top. I think I like Bourdain better on the Travel Channel's "No Reservations," where self-deprecating humor and moments of joy balance out his barbs and cynicism. [ "Bittersweet" is one of my favorite flavors ;) ]
When Bourdain sits down at the "Top Chef" judges' table, you know you're in for a good time. He's fair but tough and pulls no punches. Like all the best judges, he's not overly impressed by fancy food and will give top marks for a simple dish done well. And you can count on at least half his comments to be hilarious. I like those odds.
Guest Judge: Rick Bayless
As a Chicago gal, I oozed with pride when Rick Bayless won "Top Chef Masters" last summer. Now the world knows more about this amazing chef and his 20-year tribute to the complex & delicious regional cuisine of Mexico. The only negative is that now the wait for a seat at Frontera Grill (mmmmmmm) is even longer, which I wouldn't have thought possible.
From his parents' BBQ place in Oklahoma to his acclaimed Chicago restaurants, Bayless has spent his life in the kitchen--and still seems utterly passionate about cooking. He brought that same passion to his guest gig as a "Top Chef" judge and mixed it with empathy and respect for the contestants' efforts. As a contestant, later, on "Top Chef Masters" he touched more than once on how tough it was to be on the other side of the table.
Guest Judge: Gale Gand
Gale Gand makes my list not so much because of her performance on "Top Chef"--she did a fine job judging a wedding-cake challenge--but mostly due to a soft spot my better half & I have for her and her fellow chef/partner restaurateur/ex-husband (...okay, it's a little complicated) Rick Tramonto. Like Bayless, they're in Chicago. We met them very briefly on a couple special occasions at a wonderful but now-defunct :( place called Trio, where they cooked together years ago. They were nice.
More importantly, every dessert of hers I've tasted has rocked. Not an expert on this, but among other accomplishments, I think she may have pioneered the idea of combining high-brow technique with homespun and humorous touches. The concept isn't unusual now, but 15 years ago it was a welcome surprise to get a homemade rootbeer float at an upscale restaurant, or a fancy take on rhubarb crisp served on a Peter Rabbit plate.
Guest Judge: Wylie Dufresne
For a cutting-edge chef (best known for the--sadly--soon closing wd-50 on NYC's Lower East Side), Wylie Dufresne is refreshingly down to earth when he stops by to judge "Top Chef," which he's done more than once. What I enjoyed even more was his funny, friendly rivarly with fellow "molecular gastronomist" Graham Elliot Bowles on "Top Chef Masters." And watching Dufresne first succumb to pressure in a "Masters" quickfire challenge and then overcome it for the elmination round was a nice lesson in stress management.
for a food show to look forward to on Wed. nights."Top Chef" helps me through the midweek homework grind. I can dine vicariously. And someone else does the dishes :D
Guest Judge: Neil Patrick Harris
Yep, Doogie Howser is a foodie. Who also loves magic. So it makes sense that he guest-judged a July "Top Chef Masters" dinner at L.A.'s Magic Castle, where the contestants were asked to create dishes that depicted "surprise," "spectacle," "mystery," or "illusion." For a comic actor, Neil Patrick Harris was a surprisingly--to me anyway--serious critic. But still fun to watch.
Guest Judge: Zooey Deschanel
When this film star, pop singer (she's the "She" in indie duo She & Him), and now TV darling walked into the "Top Chef Masters" kitchen, contestants were charmed--then challenged. As a gluten-allergic vegan, Zooey Deschanel was the ultimate difficult diner for a group used to having to their way with all manner of meat, dairy, and wheat products. It was fun to see what they came up with--some of it actually looked really tasty--and also to watch Deschanel relish the meal with her family and friends.
Guest Judge: The Foo Fighters
The coolest thing about this band's appearance on a Thanksgiving-themed "Top Chef" episode was just hearing them say they're huge fans of the show. I mean, when Linday Lohan turns up on "Project Runway," you might be a little irritated (I know I was), but you're not surprised. Foo Fighters + Top Chef = an unexpected flavor combo. And the band came through with some tasty comments--from a hearty "Bleep yeah!" for a bacon-filled dish to "Somebody spit on my food!" in reaction to a vanilla "foam" atop banana s'mores.
Guest Judge(s): Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof
Okay, so these aren't exactly household names. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof are the producers of ABC's amazing "Lost"--and presided over one of my all-time fave "Top Chef" elimination rounds. Contestants had to make a meal centered around ingredients the stranded-on-an-island characters of "Lost" would have access to, like wild boar and leftover canned goods from the mysterious Dharma Initiative.
Guest Judge: Natasha Richardson
When Natasha Richardson died suddenly after a skiing accident in March of this year, all I could think of was how impressed I'd been three months before when she guest-judged "Top Chef" for a seasonal cocktail benefit (pictured at right) to support AIDS research organization amfAR. She was warm, intelligent, glamorous, vibrant. Rest in peace, gracious lady.
I don't have the heart to knock anyone out of my top 10, but if I did, I'd add Charlize Theron in a heartbeat. She was awesome as guest judge in season 9, as was the episode that featured her. Watch it if you can!
~~A "Top Chef" Thanksgiving~~
People magazine collected tips and recipes for a "Top Chef Thanksgiving" feature in 2008. Check it out here.
for a great food critic? Funny, empathic, blunt? Or would you make the best guest judge for "Top Chef"? ;)