We’ve all been there -- six to eight episodes deep into a Top Chef-athon, shoving cold nachos into your mouth and staring blankly at Padma’s hair (how does human hair even get that shiny??), when the thought just pops into your head: Hey, I can do this!
Hate to break it to you, but no. Just nope. You can’t do that, because if you could, you wouldn’t be eating soggy takeout and watching all that Hulu. You’d be working 13-hour days in some smelly kitchen. Even professional chefs have a hard time making it through Bravo’s culinary gauntlet, almost all of them falling prey to at least one of these 17 guaranteed pack-your-knives-and-go moves.
Salty sins, warm sashimi, and attempted murder (aka, serving raw chicken) are just a few of the tell-tale signs your favorite cheftestant is doomed to face the metaphorical chopping block. Hold on to your toques, kids, we’re in for a bumpy one.
1. Making risotto
Risotto is one of those things that seems super easy but is really, really difficult to get right. A few seconds over and under and it’s completely ruined, either a mashed potato-like glue or tooth-cracking pick-up-sticks on a plate. Basically, unless you grew up in the Italian countryside, stirring up vats of the stuff before you even had the teeth to eat it, just don’t. You know who’s amazing at making risotto? Tom Colicchio, so much so that he was moved to tweet “Risotto and top chef = fail” while Season 11 was in full broadcast mode. Only a fool tries to beat a master as his own game.
2. Volunteering to captain Restaurant Wars
For Top Chef aficionados, Restaurant Wars is like the second coming of Christmas. It’s edge-of-your-seat entertainment, a car wreck of explosive egos, petty, passive aggressiveness, and extreme, unadulterated confusion, all submerged into complete chaos. And no matter who’s at the helm, if that ship goes down, the captain’s taking the blame. When season sweetheart Kristen Kish signed up to lead her RW team, every single fan cringed into their Ben and Jerry’s -- the girl was a goner. And, lo and behold, Kish took the fall for her team’s egregious mistakes -- not because she made terrible food, but because she couldn’t handle being the boss. Even the judges were sorry to see her go and the elimination round was one of the saddest in Top Chef history, on both sides. Thank goodness she won back her spot on Last Chance Kitchen, dumb advertising ploy that it is, because her culinary talent knows no bounds.
3. And/or agreeing to do FOH without FOH experience
The flipside to the captain’s perilous adventure is getting stuck with playing host for the evening. So many cheftestants treat this as a throw-away gig, inherently less important than sweating it out in the kitchen. But therein lies their mistake -- the diners, judges’ table included -- only really see the front of house in action. It shapes their entire experience, regardless of how perfect the crudo or lamb shank might be. There are a million ways to screw this one up, from spending all your time expediting out back to running around like some sort of tuxedoed tweaker. Just ask notorious pea puree thief Alex Reznik from Season 7 -- dude’s caustic, demanding attitude, corny suit, and unspeakable awkwardness almost cost him the game. Also, Padma’s face when he called that lamb chop a pork chop? Worth a screenshot for sure.
4. Leaning on your presentation
Some judges appreciate aesthetics more than others, but in order to win the competition, a chef’s food has to taste good, bottom line. If somebody’s top concern is prettifying their plate, they’re missing the point. And if the street food-loving, famously BS-adverse Tony Bourdain is on the judge’s panel, that chef’s in for a real lashing.
5. Sucking at dessert
Showing up without the slightest bit of pastry knowledge is a massive Top Chef no-no. Remember Chef Marcel’s disastrous pork-flavored ice cream on Season 2? Or Season 5’s Ariane Durate’s acrid, neon-yellow go at making lemon curd? To this day, Ms. Lakshmi considers the monstrosity one of the worst Top Chef dishes ever, calling it, “a nuclear disaster in a glass.” It’s not like you have to be a whiz at sweets to ace the show, but not bulking up on a few simple after-dinner delights is a total rookie move.
6. Under-seasoning your food
Say it with me: bland means bad. This has always been the case, from Richie Blais’ sad, sad, Season 4-ending scallops to Chef Jason’s lackluster, elimination-worthy poached trout in Season 13. Nobody wants to eat your sorry ass baby food, especially not a table of trained professionals (+ Gail). With the exception of Season 11-winner Nicholas Elmi, who blamed his consistent under-seasoning on an “extremely sensitive palate” (OK, dude, calm down), under-seasoning your food sets you up for a one-way ticket to dumpsville.
7. Doing waaaay too much
Every single year, some cocksure cook attempt to make, say, salmon 10 ways, or a pasta that incorporates every single minute aspect of his diverse heritage, or, like Dave Martin’s Season 1 finale fail, preparing three mediocre components instead of one strong one. As a rule of thumb, it’s always better to Keep It Simple Stupid. Going too big will only up your prep time and increase your chances of putting out something confusing and unfocused. If you’ve got the skills, what’s the point of muddying them up with a bunch of nonsense? Gail Simmons said it best: “This is actually fashion and food advice, but I think people want to put too much on. It's important to realize that simplifying is always the way to go.”
8. Screwing up the protein
Look, if countless hours spent glued to the tube taught me anything, it’s that cooking protein correctly is paramount to success. If Colicchio says, even for a passing second, that your meat or fish is undercooked, overcooked, too hot, too cold, improperly butchered, prepared in a way that makes doesn’t make sense, or literally anything south of “pretty good,” you’re done for. Chef Tom’s only spit out two bites during his TC tenure, and they both involved warm fish. “We were in the desert in Las Vegas, and it was about 110 degrees. We were served more than room temperature raw fish,” he told Bravo after-the-fact. “Something about it just made that gag reflex go off.” Whether you’re working with shrink-wrapped chicken thighs or a $600 cut of veal, that ish is the cornerstone of any meal, and learning how to do it right is cooking 101.
9. Deviating from the challenge
This one’s a true no-brainer, yet somehow it keeps on coming up, season after season. Everybody wants to be Picasso, to put their own spin on the thing. That’s all well and good -- cooking is an art, after all -- but don’t stray so far that the actual assignment becomes a blur in the rear view. A challenge is a challenge for a reason -- there are rules, carefully designed rules meant to test chefs on particular skills, forms of creativity, and problem solving. If there were no rules, there wouldn’t be any competition, and then none of us would get to stare at Padma week after week.
10. Overselling or inaccurately selling a dish
Marketing rules everything, food included. Trump up your dish too much and even professional polite man Eric Ripert might approach it with wary skepticism. Even worse, never call something avocado gazpacho and then hand Padma a bowl of pureed guacamole (RIP Amar from Season 13, it was a good run). You’re never doing yourself a favor by stretching the truth.
11. Using too much -- or too little -- salt
Everyone throws down for a salt, but too much of a good thing is simply too much. Take Season 9’s Chef Chris Crary, for example, whose sodium-saturated dry-rubbed ribs sent him straight down to Last Chance Kitchen. Meanwhile, over on All-Stars, munchie mastermind Dale Talde almost lost his spot over an exceedingly dry and flavorless pasta and brussels sprouts conundrum. Mastering the middle ground between under-seasoned and over-salted is key.
12. Even thinking about incorporating prepared, processed, or store-bought ingredients
Oh man, this one kills me. It’s one thing to opt for some time-saving dried pasta, but unless it’s a mandated part of the challenge, consider the frozen or canned goods aisles totally off-limits. Just last season, loveable wunderkind Kwame Onwuachi met his maker when decided to center his bite-sized chicken and waffles fast-casual concept around some tiny Eggos. Like, really though? Poor Kwame made his exit with Tom’s final, damning words ringing in everyone’s ears: “If you had made your own, then we would have had something really unique.”
13. Adding truffle oil
Top Chef’s diverse and ever-evolving group of judges doesn’t always agree on everything, except the idea that truffle oil -- especially the kind you can buy at Whole Foods without blowing an entire team’s budget -- is flat out disgusting. It doesn’t make food taste good, it doesn’t show any creativity, it’s more passé than a SnackWell's cookie, and it’s synthetic, cheap swill reserved for home cooks attempting to elevate their food. The goopy stuff even made Bourdain’s most egregious Crimes Against Food list, the explanation simply stated as, "It's not food. It's not truffles. It's lube."
14. Letting balance fall by the wayside
A great dish brings together multiple flavors and textures thoughtfully and harmoniously -- and that, of course, goes double when you’re competing for Top Chef status. During Top Chef: All-Stars, the hootie-hooing Carla Hall went down hard with a combo of a rubbery, undercooked fried pork medallion and a mushy, cloyingly sweet apple-sweet potato mash. During dinner, Gail lost her mind over a piece of “raw pork” while Monsieur Ripert quietly forked his down. It was a true mess of a plate, but add a little acid to neutralize the sugar, crisp up that pork, and sprinkle on a little crunch to even out the creaminess, and she just might have eked by.
15. Attempting to be someone you’re not
There’s definitely merit in stepping out of your comfort zone, sure, but just as writers must write what they know, cooks gotta cook what they cook... or something. Remember when Top Chef All-Star/Tammy-Taylor-look-alike Casey Thompson tried her hand at Chinese-style chicken feet? It was a total nightmare. At the judges’ table, Tom went so far as to call the sticky, sauce-covered talons “inedible.” Love you, Case, but how ‘bout we stick to New American from now on.
16. Or just doing the one thing you’re good at, over and over again
So many chefers arrive on set with a well-honed speciality -- French classics, Pan-Asian cuisine, fresh Italian pasta, Southern barbecue, molecular gastronomy (seriously, enough with the foam). That can be a huge asset for sure, but if you go around rolling up the same gnocchi every damn competition (‘sup Fabio), it won’t fly. It doesn’t matter if it’s as light and pillowy as a damn cloud, you’re playing yourself if you think it’s going to win you gold.
17. Not tasting your food
This is a rough one. There’s never enough time, and often a chef will find themselves scrambling to plate without having tasted every component in its final form. It’s a crapshoot -- if it happens to work out, the judges will never know. But if they start taking a faulty dish to task and you admit that you didn’t even sample it, you might has well strip off your chef’s coat right then and there. Best to shut up and take the heat -- nobody despises an excuse-touting belly-acher quite like than Stone Cold Padma Lakshmi.
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