What I Learned from Judging “Top Chef Masters”

I'm a guest judge on tonight’s episode of Top Chef Masters (Bravo, 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 9 p.m. Central). Without violating the terms of the HUGE contract I had to sign forbidding me to disclose secrets, I can tell you that it was a gas. For one thing, I got to sit next to Sugar Ray Leonard, the Olympic gold medalist and world middleweight boxing champion. Here we are.

For another thing, it was a kick to watch this incredibly complicated and intricate production and a crew that's like a bunch of Navy SEALS. They even talk SEAL: "Wheels down with Goldman," they said into their little headsets. But aside from witnessing the competence (I don't have a lot of experience, but from what I do have, I can tell you it is not like that on other shows), I learned two things: One, the competition is on the up-and-up. When they're telling you that the clock is ticking, the clock is ticking. Judges are kept separate from chefs the whole time—and they shoot for weeks—so you can't get too chummy and compromise your opinion.

The only thing that's sort of fudged are the little interstitial comments by the host, Curtis Stone, who has to be looking in the right direction and introducing the right people and so sometimes needs to do a couple of takes.

The other thing I learned is that this judging thing isn't easy. It wasn't the little bug in my ear reminding me to describe the food (everybody, even the regular judges, slips into the "it was really good" vacuity once in a while). The hard part was talking. We'd get served the food, take a few bites, and then the little bug in my ear would say, "Utensils down, please," like it was the SAT. And then one by one we each had to talk about the food. Now it's a little game I play with my friends at dinner. You should try it, it's fun: The food comes, you take a few bites, and then boom, you have to try to say something descriptive and/or intelligent. It's not easy.

I'm also one of a bunch of judges at the finale, so yes, I do know who won.