Contestants who reach the final rounds of Top Chef are usually too savvy to leave a critical element off their plates or resort to using packaged shortcuts (Edward Lee, who doomed his chances at Season 9 victory by using canned smoked oysters, was a rare exception to the rule.) So what does trip up a chef who's sailed through weeks of challenges? Unfortunately for this season's Alaskan-bound crew, the trouble is almost always seafood-related.
To determine which pitfalls the remaining chefs should most studiously avoid, we examined the exit of every chef who finished in the top five over the past five seasons. Although a few of the fatal mistakes were weirdly specific -- only Kevin Gillespie, a Southerner who got his pig tattoo back in 2006, was sent home for using too much pork -- most of the errors fell into a few broad categories.
Chefs including Amanda Baumgarten, who let her tuna tartare oxidize before the judges sampled it, struggled with time management. There were also problems with seasoning, as exemplified by Jamie Lauren's too-salty seabass, and cooking times: Both Eli Kirshtein and Carla Hall served up underdone meat in their final appearances. And it wouldn't be Top Chef if chefs didn't struggle to produce dessert: Judges cited a rosemary caramel custard, sticky toffee pudding and panna cotta when dismissing Mike Isabella, Ed Cotton and Seattle's own Robin Leventhal.
But as the numbers show, finalists are asked to pack their knives for a variety of reasons:
Yet the graph looks very different when proteins instead of methods are charted. A few chefs failed to impress with meat and eggs, such as the runny Benedict that Leah Cohen submitted. And in his first outing, Isabella - who would later return to screw up custard in the All-Star season - muffed a plate of roasted leeks and potatoes. But a full 50 percent of losers went wrong with seafood:
The list of dishes which displeased the judges reads like an cruise buffet: Rock shrimp ceviche, sauteed black seabass, coconut lobster broth, conch and coconut chowder, halibut with tomato ice, Arctic char with beet and onion compote, steelhead trout with fennel and the afore-mentioned tartare, which judge Eric Ripert labeled "offensive." While the seafood list probably runs long partly because the finales are set in scenic locations, many of which are coastal, the numbers don't bode well for Season 10 chefs trying to stay afloat.