Of the many reported Top Chef judge sightings in Seattle, none featured new cast member Wolfgang Puck. That's because his shooting schedule involved very little Seattle time, he revealed on a conference call this morning.
"I went one night, we went to see Nathan Myhrvold, and that's about as much as we went out there," Puck said, adding he'd like to revisit Seattle in the future.
"I think the whole Pacific Northwest is becoming totally alive now," he said. "I think it's really amazing. It's because there are so many young chefs out there."
According to Puck, the region's only hobbled by diners' reluctance to splurge on restaurant meals. Unlike chefs in New York, "where people go out and drop hundreds of dollars, it's like nothing," Seattle chefs are forced to contend with frugality at the table. Not surprisingly, that's a quality that doesn't impress a chef who's spent almost 40 years in Hollywood.
But if Puck didn't have much to say about Seattle, he had plenty to say about eggs. He hinted the first episode will feature some sort of omelet challenge, perhaps one in which chefs were presented with three eggs - most of which ended up on their faces, in Puck's estimation.
"Some of them have big talk and come in like a bullfighter in an arena, and then I give them three eggs and say 'make me an omelet,' and most of them can't do it right," Puck said. "One of the omelets the guy made in the first segment, I didn't want to eat it. It looked like it came off the floor."
(For more on the difficulties of omelet-making, check out Francis Lam's seminal piece from the late Gourmet, which quotes Daniel Boulud: "To understand the omelet, you have to understand what the omelet represents. You have to understand what the omelet means." Seattle eaters can approach understanding at Marche, where Daisley Gordon nightly proves he knows what to do with three eggs. According to the Pike Place restaurant's online menu, it's now served with salmon, but that's an extraneous affectation.)
When viewers watch the first episode, Puck said, "you'll know why" he can't stop fretting about young chefs' grasp of cooking fundamentals.
"I see a lot of times when contestants work in one or two very good restaurants, they can do one or two dishes," he said. "You can tell them 'make me a tuna sashimi, or God knows what, but if you ask for an egg, they get nervous."
In Europe, Puck maintains, chefs are forced to master the basics before taking the reins of a restaurant. He was shocked by how many Top Chef contestants apparently didn't taste their food before presenting it to the judges. While he conceded he could "close an eye" to a minor overcooking mistake, he won't forgive seasoning errors such as undersalting.
"It's like going to school and you forgot your pants," he says. "How do you do that?"
Puck said he was also surprised by how many strong contestants would unexpectedly slip up on challenges.
"It's like everyone expected the Detroit guy to win last night in baseball," Puck said, referring to Justin Verlander's atrocious World Series outing. "And all of a sudden, he couldn't perform. It's the same with cooking."
Top Chef starts on Nov. 7.