Bret Thorn reports from The Bahamas on the Tavistock Restaurant Group's Top Chef semifinals.
I’m not a fan of cooking competitions.
Too bad for me, because there are a lot of them, and more and more every day.
It’s not just the drama-laden TV cooking competitions that annoy me — the Top Chefs and the Choppeds and the Hell’s Kitchens and I don’t know what else because I can’t physically watch them (the flesh starts to crawl off of my body if Gordon Ramsay appears on my TV screen). The idea of cooking competitions in general seem ridiculous to me.
Because cooking isn’t about competition. At its most basic level it’s about feeding people, and beyond that it’s about expressing goodwill, friendship or affection. It’s about celebration and art, and in restaurants in particular it’s about teamwork. Chefs don’t try to undermine each other; they collaborate to make great food.
Nonetheless, and kind of hypocritically, I do serve as a judge at a cooking competition or two every year. I’m not sure why, now that I think of it. I suppose I do it in part because it’s kind of an honor to be asked, and because if someone asks me to do something I try to be accommodating if I can.
It’s also fun about half of the time. The other half of the time it’s filling, tedious, nauseating or a combination of the three.
I was pretty sure that being a guest judge at the recent semifinals of the Tavistock Restaurant Group’s own topcompetition would be fun.
For one thing, it was held at Tavistock’s Albany resort in the Bahamas. I knew that when I accepted the invitation. What I didn’t know was that I would be staying on a private yacht of the Lewis family, which owns the Tavistock restaurants and an array of other global interests (Tavistock was the name of the club where family patriarch Joe Lewis got his first job).
I stayed on Charade, the smaller of the two Lewis family yachts. Aviva, the flagship, was docked next to a smaller craft name Privacy, which I thought was a pretty rude name for a yacht until I was told it belonged to Tiger Woods.
Six chefs were competing in the semi-finals.
There was Jason Bergeron, the burly and intense new executive chef of Blackhawk Grille in Danville, Calif. He was just transferred there from Joe’s American Bar & Grill in Peabody, Mass., one of the Back Bay Restaurant Group properties that Tavistock bought in 2011.
Next was Randy Leudders, the oldest of the competitors and executive chef of the Albany Resort, where my yacht was docked.
Then there was Taylor Boudreaux, executive chef of the Napa Valley Grille in Westwood, Calif., and, so I’m told, a popular chef on the Los Angeles TV circuit.
Those three already were in the semi-finals. Three other chefs had apparently tied for fourth place during the quarterfinals in Chicago. Picking a fourth semi-finalist was the first order of business in The Bahamas.
There was Patrick “Quack” Quakenbush, who had just been promoted to culinary director of Tavistock Restaurants’ upscale division, which included all of the restaurants that weren’t the company’s fast casual growth vehicle, Freebirds. Then there was Stephen Stromberg, who likes to participate in Iron Man competitions when he’s not working as executive chef of Sapporo in Scottsdale, Ariz.
And finally there was Cambridge, Mass., native and avid fisherman Danny Levesque, executive chef of Atlantic Fish Co., in Boston.
Masterminding the whole thing was Charlie Lewis aided by Tavistock Restaurants chief executive Bryan Lockwood and upscale division chief operating officer Bill Bartlett, as well as Steve Byrne, Tavistock’s vice president of purchasing and culinary operations — the company’s top culinary guru.
Charlie Lewis is possibly the richest person I’ve ever met (I didn’t meet Joe Lewis). It might be gauche to discuss such things, but the Lewis’s wealth, it seemed to me, was the theme of the competition. Charlie celebrated his 50th birthday during the competitions. He invited us to sing karaoke songs on the top deck of Charade with his friends to celebrate. He took us boating with his rich friends — a hedge fund guy who lived on Mallorca except for the month when he wintered in The Bahamas, a native Bahamian lawyer whose partnership was somehow important in allowing Tavistock to be headquartered in that tax haven, childhood friends from England. His parents hosted me and some of Tavistock’s favorite suppliers and their wives on their private yachts — the stewardess Susie kept our wine glasses or coffee cups (depending on the time of day) full — while the chefs stayed in a luxurious house at the resort.
The message was clear: Be a good chef and you’ll be rewarded. Indeed, the winner of the final Tavistock, top chef competition is supposed to win the vacation of a lifetime, the details of which have not been revealed.
For the tie-breaking competition among Danny Levesque, Patrick Quakenbush and Stephen Stromberg, Charlie had them cooking in the galley of Aviva, which Stephen apparently set on fire briefly, but the calmness and aplomb with which he extinguished the flames and kept cooking impressed those who witnessed it.
This is a picture of him in a calmer moment.
Steve Byrne, the boss chef, provided them with lamb ribs, celery root, ginger and chiles and instructed them to make a dish, which, unbeknownst to them, the three chefs already in the semi-finals would judge.
Danny was the first chef in the kitchen, and when I walked in to watch him cook, I could tell that Steve, being a chef, wanted everybody to succeed: Realizing that Danny’s dish would be more delicious if he had an extra five minutes to cook his lamb ribs, he added five minutes to all the chefs’ time.
This picture shows Steve encouraging Danny.
And in fact, Danny won. Stephen apparently showed genius in preparing his celery root (which makes sense, considering he eats mostly vegetables and protein supplements), but his ribs were lacking. Quack made what, by all accounts, were extraordinary ribs, but his celery root didn’t have much soul.
Danny’s dish was the most balanced.
So the two quarter-finalists were relegated to the duties of Steve Byrne’s sous chefs, which meant they didn’t have to participate in the late night impromptu fruit carving challenge — using a table knife and a soup spoon — that was sprung on the semi-finalists that evening.
So it went. The competitors competed in contests that Charlie devised and Steve orchestrated.
In one challenge, pictured here, the chefs were divided into two teams and required to “relay cook”: One chef started cooking for ten minutes, then the next chef, who was sequestered away from the proceedings, jumped in for ten minutes, then they switched again, and once again.
Here's a picture of Jason Bergeron, in the foreground, and Taylor Boudreaux, in the background, during the relay contest.
Stephen and Quack were the judges of that competition.
Then there was a tasting and bidding competition. Two chefs at a time were presented with a dish from Charade’s galley and, after a coin toss, the first chef bet how many ingredients he could name. His opponent could raise the bet or ask the chef to name those ingredients. It was fun.
After a karaoke competition that was thrown out because the machine obviously wasn’t scoring right — Taylor did an amazing Johnny Cash, but he scored very badly — the chefs rode jet skis to the beach and were instructed to make a surf and turf. Those results were judged by CEO and COO Bryan Lockwood and Bill Bartlett.
What did I judge? It turns out they didn’t need me to judge after all, except in the way I’m judging them now, which I suppose is fair: I’m a reporter, not a cook.
I did sit in on the final deliberation, mostly by Charlie Lewis, Bryan Lockwood, Bill Bartlett and Steve Byrne, although the suppliers chimed in. I sat quietly until my opinion was asked, and they didn’t care who I thought won — that would have been ridiculous since I didn’t try any of the competitors’ food. They wanted my opinion on their plan, which was that all the chefs were winners! Sure, two of them (Jason Bergeron and Taylor Boudreaux, as it turns out), would actually prepare and present the amuse-bouches that would be judged — along with the story behind the dish — at the gala fundraiser that would be the final competition, but all six chefs would get to attend and help cook. Hurray!
I was completely on board with that, because the lesson of such a decision, of course, was the one I mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry, some 1,400 words ago: Cooking isn’t about competition but about teamwork.
And of course it also would help Tavistock display the deep bench of talented, good-looking chefs it had.
The executives shared the good news with the chefs while the suppliers and I go ready for or last dinner in The Bahamas.
I should have expected the mood at the final meal to be what it was, but I was so delighted by the teamwork lesson that I forgot that, in fact, there were two winners and four losers. And the mood reflected that. Four of the chefs hadn’t won, and they were neither jovial nor cheery. The winners were appropriately low-key, because to be otherwise was to be a bad winner.
The non-finalists were fine with helping out at the fundraiser if that’s what their bosses wanted them to, but a competition’s a competition, and you either win or you don’t.
They did have fun riding the jet skis, though.
March 27 2013 update:
In case you were wondering, Taylor Boudreaux ultimately won the competition, which was determined by attendees of the Tavistock Cup fundraising gala, who tasted an amuse-bouche made by each of the chefs and cast their votes.
Taylor made corn-mascarpone agnolotti, paired with Folie à Deux Russian River Chardonnay.
Jason Bergeron made a tuna-and-beef roulade paired with Avissi Prosecco.
The press release said it was a close competition.