It’s definitely been a fun ride, but tonight, “Top Chef” season 12 concludes with the final showdown between chefs Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet. Just like every week leading up to the finale, we here at Rewards Network will be glued to our screens while ooo-ing and ahh-ing at every dish. I’ve even been live tweeting each episode for our iDine team and chatting with many of the cheftestants themselves on Twitter.
But before the final knife drops, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on the lessons learned over the course of the season — if not all 12 seasons. It takes a lot to be a Top Chef. Here are just a few of the things you need to master to get there:
1. No matter what happens in the kitchen, own it.
It’s not just one of chef Julia Child’s most famous lines; it’s rule #1 for competing on “Top Chef.”
We’ve seen this happen over and over. Something gets left out. A beurre blanc becomes a hollandaise. The lamb is just a little too rare. The judges will invariably ask, “Did you intend for the tomatoes to retain their seeds?”
At that moment, the cheftestant always has a choice: either admit things didn’t go as planned and automatically move to the least-favorite list; or deny, deny, deny, and hope for the best. Nine times out of 10, the latter keeps them in the running.
Why? Because being a great chef means having confidence, standing behind your work, and not giving your guests a reason to doubt their enjoyment of your meal. Sure, that omelet could’ve been flipped a little more cleanly, but don’t rob your guests their chance to applaud the kitchen. Remember, they want to have a great time as much as you want to give them one.
2. Don’t ignore your gut.
This is true in life as much as it is in the kitchen. If something deeply and truly feels like the wrong thing to do, it probably is.
The nature of a lot of “Top Chef” competitions is to work collaboratively — no restaurant can run on a single kitchen worker and hope to sustain itself! However, having multiple stakeholders always means a difference of opinion.
But just because someone else is executive chef doesn’t mean you should ignore the five-alarm fire going off in your brain when they want you to handle the chocolate salmon pâté plate.
We’ve watched many cheftestants go home because they didn’t speak up when given a questionable assignment on a team challenge. Ultimately, there’s no one to blame but yourself if your gut is telling you to do one thing but your head is nodding yes to another.
Everyone has to take responsibility for their own choices, even if it means ruffling some feathers. The coq au vin will be better for it.
3. Don’t throw your colleagues under the bus.
All that said, just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you need to tell the world about it. Some things are better left in the kitchen.
Yes, “Top Chef” is a competition — and an incredibly stressful one at that — but no good has ever come of tossing a grenade at another cheftestant while standing in front of the judges’ table. It looks petty, and the judges don’t like petty.
And for good reason. Part of a chef’s job is to inspire and motivate their staff to work together, achieve success as a team, and keep the ultimate goal in mind: creating a pleasurable and memorable experience for their guests. That’s a lot harder to do if chefs are more focused on snapping at each other than working together on an exquisite meal.
Sure, there’s always going to be a little smack talk in the kitchen. It is a competition (and a kitchen), after all. But at the end of each challenge, the best “Top Chef” episodes find the cheftestants kicking back and having a drink together as friends. After all, who else knows how hard it is to do what you do?
4. If life gives you ant eggs, make the best ant egg dish you can.
The most grueling part of being on “Top Chef” is having to work miles outside your comfort zone. Imagine you’ve spent your entire career selling raincoats and, suddenly, you’ve been moved into the swimsuit division. I mean, rain and swimming pools … it’s all water, right?
Whether it’s handling the dreaded dessert course or being thrown for a loop by a strange ingredient (I didn’t even know people ate ant eggs!), you have to be ready for anything on “Top Chef.”
And it’s not enough to just make an OK geoduck dish. It needs to be the most technically flawless and delicious tasting geoduck anyone has ever encountered. Also, what’s geoduck?
See the problem?
Nevertheless, having a passion for cooking means having a passion for life and a desire to try new things all the time. There’s so much of the world to explore. Taking on the challenge as an adventure, rather than a chore, is just part of being at the top of your game.
5. Be gracious, even in defeat.
If there’s one lesson every kid needs to hear from their parent, and every adult needs to remember when faced with defeat, it’s “Don’t be a sore loser.” You can be disappointed if you don’t win, but grace and dignity in the face of a loss will carry you much further toward your next achievement than stomping your feet loudly as you leave a room will.
To the cheftestants’ credit, I can’t remember the last time anyone left Top Chef in a huff. Why is that? Probably because the caliber of professional it takes to even make it into one of those 16 spots each season is so exceptional, this lesson is all but ingrained in every cheftestant.
To be successful in life requires a cup each of talent and skill, a tablespoon of determination, two gallons of hard work — and just the right amount of humility to grease the pan. That’s the recipe we’ve seen play out this entire season, and the one that makes “Top Chef” the show that keeps us coming back for more.
Now that you’ve learned the lessons, hear what it takes to actually make it on “Top Chef” from one of the cheftestants, Ron Eyester: