I'm an admitted Top Chef addict, but with one major reservation: I can't taste the food. The "cheftestants" dazzle us with technique and presentation and Padma's satisfied mmms, but we, the loyal viewers, don't get a bite. And as a serious eater, I have to wonder: Is the food any good?
Earlier this month, I had a chance to find out. Marcel Vigneron, the spiky-haired molecular gastronome of season two, put on a tasting dinner at the Astor Center in New York City, where he served three courses and two cocktails to a heavily female crowd.
No sooner did Vigneron take the stage than Hung Huynh—season three champion—sauntered in, taking a seat in the audience. The tension was palpable: the two Culinary Institute–trained, technique-focused, oft-maligned gastronomes in one room. The runner-up cooking for the crowned champion? It boggled the mind.
But Vigneron didn't disappoint, with three beautifully crafted and wholly original courses. While Huynh winced at the blood orange–hibiscus cocktail—shoving aside his glass and taking a swig of water—he later nodded sagely at Vigneron's advice ("It's all about improvisation. Use what you have, use what's good") and openly applauded his uni in a lemon-vanilla gelée.
Gelatin may be the new foam—Vigneron spent much of the class espousing the virtues and varieties of hydrocolloids—but it worked seamlessly in each of the courses, from a fresh melon jelly with gazpacho espuma (old habits die hard) to the dish of my science-class dreams. Whipping eggs and peanut butter into a froth, Vigneron poured them into a plastic cup and popped them into a microwave—where they set into a puffy, tender, almost nonexistent fluff. The method, from gastronomic mecca El Bulli, is called a vauquelin, and Vigneron's gave the faintest puff of peanuty flavor to the raw kona kampachi it accompanied.
A Little Q&A
What would your last meal on Earth be? Something huge! Then I can't die until I finish. I'd be like "No, man, I'm still eating!" Seriously, a huge bowl of fresh orecchiette. Good olive oil, broccoli rabe, red pepper, really spicy. The basics. Real Mediterranean food—that's why I started cooking to begin with.
And the most memorable meal of your life? I mean, there are too many to really say. But the first "Oh my God, my life just changed" one was the first time I ate at the French Laundry, about five years ago—a 17-course tasting menu. It was transformative. But others are just as important. The mamma in the Italian kitchen, putting sea salt on her tomatoes, pomodori still warm from the sun—it's different, it's simple, but it's just as memorable.
Has your technique developed at all since the show? Well, I like to think I'm getting back to the basics. I used to be Mr. "Hey, let's put foam on top of caviar—on top of foam!" and just go for anything that looked cool. I mean, I still do that. But then I asked myself, does this taste any good? That is the point of cooking, after all.
Are you still in touch with the other contestants? Yeah! Ilan and I, we talk, on the phone, every night! [Vigneron laughs nervously about his season two rival.] "And Betty? Christmas cards, every year. Nothing but lovey-dovey in that crowd.
Any recent favorite food spots? Hawaii! I've spent a lot of time in Hawaii—back at the restaurant, actually, where they filmed the [Top Chef] finale. Kona kampachi is about my favorite thing on the planet.
When was the last time you ate fast food? I never ... No! I do! In-N-Out, last week. Double-Double, Animal-Style. And a Neapolitan shake. They'll put all three flavors in one cup. Not everyone knows that.
Your technique is pretty extreme. Do you have any tips for the slightly more amateur chef? Seasonality. What grows together goes together, you know? My melons and tomatoes, they're great together, they like to party together. Classic flavor profile. Go with what works.
Any gastronomist who orders his In-N-Out Animal-Style is all right with me.
Top Chef classes continue all summer at the Astor Center.