Last night I got to make my big-time reality TV debut — sort of. If you watched the premiere of the 13th season of “Top Chef,” you might have spotted me. Or maybe not, if you blinked.
The thing about cooking competition shows like “Top Chef” that have always bugged me is that you can’t taste what the contestants are whipping up. On something like “Project Runway,” you can see the work they’ve created and form your own opinion, but with food you have to take the judge’s word for how it tastes. Or at least I had to until last night, when I got to be one of the people tasting that food.
As Padma Lakshmi explained to the 17 contestants, they were secretly being judged by a handful of food critics and entertainment reporters, including myself. Those scores determined which chefs ended up on the top and bottom — and faced elimination — regardless of the show’s regular judges’ opinions.
Judging all the dishes meant tasting them all, which was a challenge in and of itself — 17 dishes is a lot of food. I should’ve taken a cue from the pros, who never seemed to finish a whole portion.
The good thing for us, as Tom Colicchio noted at Judge’s Table, is that there weren’t any dishes that were total disasters. I mean, I don’t think I’m going to rush out to try anything with mung bean and bitter melon anytime soon. The name is not a coincidence. But there were some true standouts. Amar Santana’s pork belly meatball, for the record, was the best thing I ate, and I would happily take more of them. And Carl Dooley’s carrot soup was pretty awesome. Oh, and Giselle Wellman’s cauliflower soup didn’t get the attention and praise it deserved.
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As for actually making the final broadcast, a sinking feeling set in when it became clear that my comments on the merits of the various dishes had been edited out. I thought I had some interesting things to say, but apparently not.
I did at least get some quality screen time when Lakshmi and Colicchio sauntered in front of me for one of the episode’s more awkward moments — waiting for contestant Garret Fleming’s handmade noodles to be ready. Look, ma! I’m on TV! In the background, at least.
Still, it was cool to see behind the scenes and to interact with the judges. Apparently Emeril Lagasse will just randomly walk up to you and chat. And Gail Simmons looks great in person. Like, distractingly great.
The new season of “Top Chef” continues tonight on Bravo with its second episode, if you’re hungry for more. I know for a fact I’m not on that one, at least.
Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter:@nedrick