How to win at Top Chef (or at least not look like a loser). Plus Ad Hoc Brownies.

by Irvin on January 31, 2011 · 35 comments

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“Oh my gosh! They had NEVER used a wok before? WHO goes on national television to compete in a cooking show based in Singapore and doesn’t AT LEAST practice using a wok?!?!” exclaimed my sister Natatia, shaking her head in frustration as we talked about the show Top Chef, while her husband Peter nodded in agreement. AJ was pretty lost in the conversation and I could barely keep up, as I had only watched the Top Chef’s Just Desserts spin off show last year (resulting in a HILARIOUS story that came from meeting Yigit, which, sadly, I cannot share with you). Both Natatia and Peter are huge fans the show, and when I told them there was a recent call for contestants for both the new Top Chef, Season 9 as well as the Top Chef Just Desserts spin off, Season 2, they did NOT suggest that I try out for it (thank you, this is why I love my sister). Instead, she started to tell me all the ways people look foolish on the show. This, of course, led to me asking my sister if she wouldn’t mind writing a guest post about that very subject and she eagerly agreed. Consider this Natatia and Peter’s Top Seven Hints and Tricks (plus one bonus one) on How to Win Top Chef, or at least not look like a totally loser when you compete. To accompany these tips and hits I’ve included a recipe for a fail safe easy dessert, the Ad Hoc Brownies, which was a huge hit at my holiday dessert party. And yes, the brownies were covered in Zac’s disco dust, but don’t hold that against them. I’ve been using gold luster dust for years.

Ad Hoc Brownies

•   •   •   •

Top Chef Logo

So the new hubby and I have been watching Top Chef for the past few seasons and have had our fair share of frustrations at both contestants and judges alike. As much as we yell at the judges for what we feel are bad decisions (really, it took you THIS LONG to kick off Jaime??), we know very well that ultimately the fate of the contestants lies in their hands, their cooking, their food. Peter and I often find ourselves yelling the Same. Exact. Things. at the contestants, season after season, episode after episode. So since the call for new entrants just came out, we figured we’d come up with Seven Top Chef Tips (plus a bonus one for Top Chef Just Desserts wannabee contestants), a list of must-do’s and please-don’t-do’s, if you will, for all you Top Chef hopefuls. This may or may not help you win, but it sure has been cathartic for us!

Top Chef contestant Jamie

1. Never cook risotto. I can’t remember a single time a contestant made a good risotto, let alone a winning risotto (please correct me if I’m wrong). Contestants have definitely been kicked off for cooking really bad risotto, or (if they’re lucky) their risotto sucked but someone else’s food sucked more.

2. Always have a dessert in your back pocket. If you manage to make it about halfway through the competition, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll have to make a dessert at some point. Saying things like “I’m not a pastry chef, I’m a CHEF” does not help you make a good dessert, or even a dessert that prevents you from being kicked off. Going to the competition with at least one good dessert recipe memorized and practiced has a greater chance of preventing your elimination than saying things that stoke your chef ego.

Johnny Iuzzini and Padma Lakshmi

3. Learn how to use a pressure cooker before you start the competition. Ok, let’s think about this guys. You’re going to compete on Top Chef. 99.99% of the challenges have a time limit (we can’t think of one that does not). There is a very good chance you will need to cook a protein that usually requires hours but, surprise!, you only have one or two. Whatchya gonna do? Waste precious time fumbling with this piece of equipment you’ve never even touched before? Yes, apparently this is the thought process of most Top Chef contestants.

4. Never let someone else decide how or what you’re cooking (unless, of course, it’s part of the challenge). Carla was infamous for going down for this. The contestants who win are the ones who find their groove and show the judges exactly who they are through their food. A very easy way to get eliminated is to not cook that food. And you’ll feel even worse if it’s because someone else made that decision instead of you.

5. Salt your food! How many times have we heard the words “he/she just needed a little more salt.” Poor Bryan Voltaggio, all he needed was a little more salt. This goes hand in hand with the next tip…

Top Chef contestant Bryan Voltaggio

6. Taste your food! It’s amazing how many times we’ve heard contestants say “I just ran out of time and didn’t get a chance to taste my dish.” Judges hate hearing that, as well they should.

7. Never try a brand-new cooking technique for the finale. You’ve never done it before and barely even know the theory behind it – what makes you think you’ll be able to pull it off under that amount of pressure and stress with a ticking clock counting down on the wall? Stick to your tried and true techniques and just pound out some really freakin’ awesome food. Isn’t that what the finale’s all about?!

Top Chef contestant Seth Caro

8. Bonus for Top Chef Just Desserts contestants. We have one additional tip – GET. A. GRIP. I can’t imagine all pastry chefs are like that, but now everyone thinks they are!

Happy cooking and good luck!

•   •   •   •

So what do you think readers? Are these tips accurate? Do you have any more tips for Top Chef wannabees? Would you want to be on the show at all? I don’t know HOW many people have told me that I should try out for Just Desserts…

And for all those wannabee chef-testants going out for Top Chef, regarding tip #2… Here’s super easy dessert basic for you all to keep in your back pocket.

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather January 31, 2011 at 3:28 am

I love this post for so many reasons. 1. I am a total top chef junkie, 2. your list is SPOT ON, come on people – STEP AWAY FROM THE ARBORIO RICE. 3. Ad-Hoc brownies to boot? Love it.


Irvin January 31, 2011 at 10:08 am

Thanks! It’s so funny, I’ve never seen the show, but now, of course, I sort of want to!


Erin January 31, 2011 at 8:18 am

Yes, Tash and Peter have hit the nail on the head! The pressure-cooker thing gets me every time – it’s not like it’s something only molecular gastronomists use. If you ever want to cook a shortrib or a brisket, know how to get the damn lid on (and off)!

Love this brownie recipe, I may be making them this week for my sister’s birthday. The butter being salted and being half melted is very interesting, but I trust Chef Keller!


Irvin January 31, 2011 at 10:07 am

Hi Erin! Just to clarify, the butter being salted is not Chef Keller, but me (he would probably be aghast at the fact that I used salted butter not unsalted).

Lately I’ve been playing with using salted butter instead of unsalted butter in baking. Though I realize it’s fairly inconsistent because each brand has a different amount of salt in it, I’m kinda liking the results. I use Trader Joe’s or Land o’ Lakes salted butter, just as an FYI. THe half melted trick is totally Chef Keller though! It’s great.


Jenni January 31, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Chiming in to include that self-rising flour, which I once was Very Scared Of, is actually quite benign and helpful–it also contains what I consider to be the perfect salt-to-flour ratio, so w/formulas calling for sr flour, I don’t add any salt. Which is weird for me, because I add salt to everything. Even sorbet base.


Irvin January 31, 2011 at 4:11 pm

You know, I actually don’t use self rising flour much , but you are not the only person I know who has told me that it’s worth using for certain recipes and quick breads. I should investigate. I didn’t know it also contained salt in it. Thanks for the info!


Jenni January 31, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I haven’t caught TC:D, yet, but as a former working pastry chef, I want to Distance Myself from all the Histrionics that I heard about over the course of the kitchen. Grow a pair. There is no crying in the kitchen. That is what the walk-in is for. 😉

Luster dust is magical.


Irvin January 31, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Luster dust IS magical, and SO much more affordable than gold leaf. I always have a couple of bottles of it in the cupboard. People get so excited when they see their desserts all glittery.

I really resisted watching ANY Top Chef show, until Just Desserts came out and so many people told me I had to watch it, I finally caved and did. It was entertaining, but some of the “challenges” were ridiculous. And there was ALWAYS one person crying or breaking down. Apparently that is not usually the case.

And all my pastry chef friends TOTALLY talk about how that show has given pastry chefs a bad name. Ha!


Jenni February 2, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Perhaps I should watch sometime so I can feel all superior! lol


Katie January 31, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Those brownies look incredible!

And the list is a good one. I admit I have not watched the regular Top Chef in ages and have only seen a few episodes. I did tune in for Top Chef Just Desserts since a good friend of mine was a contestant (which was very exciting). All I can say that I learned from him is there’s a lot going on behind the scenes we don’t know about and that they can’t discuss that causes the chefs to sometimes look dumb (like equipment that doesn’t work, pantry not fully stocked in time for filming, etc) so sometimes, the chefs are not as incompetent as they might appear. And they put those people through the wringer–it’s a gruelling schedule (doesn’t sound too fun, so I think you’re wise not to try out for the show)!


Irvin February 1, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Now I’m curious as to who your friend was! It’s always fun to root for your friends on TV. I have no friends brave (or stupid, depends on how you look at it) enough to do a reality show.

And I DEFINITELY can believe that there were stuff going on behind the scenes. The show is all about drama, not about how well you can cook/bake. If they can create more drama, the better for the audience.


Michelle January 31, 2011 at 5:06 pm

This post is hilarious! I’m a Top Chef junkie myself and I find myself yelling almost the same sort of things as you guys are at the TV screen. I mean it would take balls to go into the show without at least 2 tried and tested dessert recipes in your back pocket. I enjoyed reading this very much. I especially loved the last bonus tip. Now everyone thinks that pastry chefs are drama queens because of the show. It takes away from their genius. I hope the contestants of Just Desserts Season 2 get to show us otherwise. 🙂


Irvin February 1, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Oh, I’m SO hoping Season Two of Just Desserts show the world a more calm side of baking and making desserts. I’ll be tuning in to find out.


Robin January 31, 2011 at 9:47 pm

I love the fact that I gave copies of the first few seasons of Top Chef to my little sister and brother years ago and yet I am, by far, the least “foodie” of the three 🙂


Irvin February 1, 2011 at 11:05 pm

That’s so true! You know, I need to dig that up. I don’t know if I ever got around to watching them….


Susan January 31, 2011 at 10:34 pm

I have only watched Top Chef a few times, but that was enough to really dislike the concept and the execution of the show. I find it disturbing to see cooking turned into a competition; it is an art, and making people jump through a bunch of hoops says more about their ability to survive hazing than their ability to cook creatively. However, the show did help me realize how limiting restaurant cooking is, which is not something I had ever thought about before. When I cook at home, I find it to be a great pleasure; I revel in the smells, textures, colors, and tastes; I marvel at the beauty of the fruits and vegetables I am working with; I think about the people I hope to please with my cooking, and I find the whole process to be an act of love. Cooking, for me, is almost a sacred experience, and that is the antithesis of what I see taking place on Top Chef.


Irvin February 1, 2011 at 11:18 pm

I had the EXACT same reaction when I first starting watching the show. I found it really forced, and the format (like almost all of those reality competition shows) to be overly dramatic. The ridiculous challenges (Make a wedding cake in an hour! Make a dessert in this one pot!). The long dramatic pauses when they announce the loser (I’m sorry….your dessert just didn’t measure up!). The product placement (Hello Dawn, Hand Renewal!) and the ridiculous restrictions or challenges (No chocolate today! Make a dessert without any color!).

That said, I had a huge amount of respect for the contestant Malika who quit Just Desserts because she realized that the competition was making her lose her love of making food. The reason I love to bake so much is because I love to share my food with others. It’s also probably why I would never want to be a chef at a restaurant. Too much disconnect with the people eating my food. I want to be there, watching them eat it and conversing with them about it.

In the end, I did enjoy the show for what it is, which is entertainment. Some of the desserts, done on the fly, were pretty amazing and creative.


Liz February 1, 2011 at 6:26 am

This post is right on! Especially having a dessert in your back pocket – so many times I have seen people fail because of desserts….haven’t they watched the show?!


Irvin February 1, 2011 at 11:19 pm

I don’t understand why someone who is applying to compete on Top Chef, wouldn’t have gone and watched EVERY single episode to learn. It’s called research!


Dana February 1, 2011 at 6:36 am

As an avid viewer of all the seasons, I laughed through this entire post. Great work and I look forward to stopping by more often.


Irvin February 1, 2011 at 11:20 pm

Awww… Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad it made you laugh. My sister is great isn’t she?


Kris February 1, 2011 at 9:51 am

I think Tiffani (S1) is the only risotto exception. She made an artichoke risotto that everyone loved. She lost, but they thought it was amazing.


Irvin February 1, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Ahhh… The exception to the rule. That happened back in Season One. Don’t think it’s happened since. Good memory!


S. B. Hadley Wilson February 1, 2011 at 11:51 am

OMG, that was spot on! I haven’t watched the show in years but every tip brought back memories of the elimination judging. Well done!


Irvin February 1, 2011 at 11:28 pm

Thank you! I’ll pass the compliment on to my sister!


Mavis February 1, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Yup, that pretty much sums it up. The judges have been making TERRIBLE decisions about who should go home this season. How in the world did Jamie last that long? She only cooked once in like 4 weeks!


Irvin February 1, 2011 at 11:30 pm

LOL. That’s what my sister said to me. She never cooks anything! But the format of the show is that you don’t have necessarily have to be the best, you just have to make sure you aren’t the worst and that there is someone underneath you.

Look at Danielle in the Just Desserts season one. She was ranked in the bottom three more than any contestant on the show, but she made it to the final three. Why? Not because she didn’t suck, but rather because she didn’t suck as much as someone else!


Brian @ A Thought For Food February 1, 2011 at 6:46 pm

I have not missed an episode of Top Chef (the original series, not Just Desserts) and couldn’t agree more with your sister’s assessment. What I miss from the first season was the way the contestants used ingredients, not techniques, to make fantastic dishes. Anyone else remember Tiffany’s pumpkin lasagna from season 1? Yum! I think that, generally, they’re too caught up on technique. Just make good food and you should be good to go.

I couldn’t disagree more about this brownie recipe. This looks fantastic all on it’s own. No ice cream or caramel sauce needed (though it certainly doesn’t hurt).


Irvin February 1, 2011 at 11:33 pm

I think people get caught up in the glamor of being on TV and want a show stopping brilliant dish. But that means you fail at making good solid food.

As for the brownies, you’re right. They are fantastic all on their own. I had many people at my dessert party tell me they loved it, more than anything else I had out there!


Rita February 2, 2011 at 4:07 pm

NICE, Natatia!! I’ve never seen the show, but now I feel like an expert on it. 😀

I look forward to making these brownies . . . Yay!! Thanks, Lin siblings!!!


Irvin February 3, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Make the brownies! They are super easy and fab!

Also, I feel like I don’t have to watch the show now! Ha!


Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday February 7, 2011 at 10:51 am

I think I recall Tre making a good risotto in his original season.


Irvin February 7, 2011 at 4:15 pm

I think he did, but he tried to make it again and it was what got him kicked out! If I were competing, I would totally shy away from the Arborio rice. Too risky!


nikki March 17, 2011 at 8:36 pm

i totally did a profiling on gordon ramsay, so you could use these if you were to go onto hells kitchen 🙂
he always orders the crabcake. ALWAYS. Also, lobster tortellini, and I’ve heard him say many times “theres nothing like a good shepard’s pie”

i agree! ive been off wheat and milk and eggs and potato and corn since xmas, and I can make a pie crust out of ANYTHING, i swear. (thats why i’m stoked for the ratio rally!!)

-know how to make a cookie. totally different recipe than all the chefs, but for goodness sakes, NONE of the men have EVER made a cookie before? and you have kids? shame on you!
-know how to use a deep fryer
-know how to use liquid nitrogen. Marcel, followed by the first “just desserts”…..looks like we’ve gotta get a LITTLE molecular gastronomy under our belts.

also, know how to use a knife. cant even say how many times i see them using em WRONG, and nearly losing a finger

🙂 thanks for giving me a post to respond to… 😛


Vegan Bakerista January 2, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Thanks for posting this recipe, Irvin! I just posted a Gluten Free and Vegan version I adapted, inspired by your post. I credited you too. Check it out!

The Vegan Bakerista


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