By Ezra Klein
The Web site for season — I don’t know, 12? 19? — of Top Chef is up. The big surprise is that there’s a new judge: Eric Ripert, who’ll replace the loathsome Toby Young. But as much as I like Ripert, there’s a better choice.
I should start out by saying that anyone — or, in fact, nobody — would be better than Young. It’s bad enough to be overwritten in print (believe me, I know). It’s inexcusable, however, to be overwritten in conversation. But Jay Rayner, the British food critic who judges Top Chef Masters, offers the combination of qualities people are looking for in Young: British wit with some basic level of interest and knowledge about food. Ripert is a decorated chef and a handsome guy, but in comparison, I fear he’s going to be a bit bland.
To make my case for Rayner, I wanted to offer some of his more memorable quotes from the show. But it turns out they’re not all that memorable. At the least, I don’t remember them (though I do remember liking them). But watching him on the show got me following him in print, which has been a pleasure.
The easiest arena for rhetorical achievement in restaurant criticism is the savage review, and Rayner does not disappoint. “There was no cutlery on our table,” he said about the Corinthian, “I looked for waiting staff, but the room was so big they were probably obscured by the curvature of the earth. Eventually we got up and nicked knives and forks off a table a kilometre away. It was a bit of a pity we did, because it meant we could eat.” Or on the Cecconi: “The service is like herpes: absent for a long stretches, and then suddenly impossible to get rid of.”
Rayner’s essays are also a good read. Just picking the most recent from my RSS feed, his look at the British soccer team’s tour pantry — which includes peri-peri sauce, Tabasco, wasabi paste, and sweet chili sauce — brings this smart paragraph:
The rest speaks of a very modern Englishness, of the high street food culture that the empire gifted us. We have historically always been far more open to other culinary traditions because of all the wonderful countries that we invaded and subjugated. That, combined with a rather weak indigenous food culture, has meant that average young English men – and for all their seven figure salaries, the squad are still that – have probably eaten far more widely than their counterparts elsewhere. They are used to Japanese and Thai food, to the likes of Nandos or Yo Sushi or Ping Pong. They live in fear of blandness. And so as they prepare to set off on the long trek south it makes sense that they should be stocking up on this stuff.
All that said, I should also admit that Rayner really endeared himself to me with this epic smackdown of Toby Young. Tiring of Young’s self-pitying commentary, Rayner wrote, “I can happily report there is no baying mob at the door, dressed like extras out of American Gothic, wielding burning stakes and pitchforks. … Perhaps Americans don’t hate people being British. Perhaps they just hate you.”
Ripert, I fear, has not weighed in with the same clarity on this most-crucial of Top Chef questions.
Photo credit: Gourmet Traveler’s interview with Rayner.