Top Chef Season 7 has stormed the kitchens of Washington, D.C., with a new voice on the judging panel: four-time James Beard Award winner Eric Ripert. What does head judge Tom Colicchio think of the new arrival? "Having Eric judging the food has a little bit more weight than Toby [Young] judging your food," he says. Colicchio also sizes up this season's cheftestants for TVGuide.com and tells us his favorite Top Chef dishes of all time. Plus: How would he handle the dreaded dessert course if he were in competition?
TVGuide.com: As we saw in last week's elimination, dessert is really the cheftestants' Achilles' heel. If you were in the competition, what would you make?
Tom Colicchio: First off, if I were going into this competition — and you know a few weeks prior — I would commit some desserts to memory, especially easy things like a panna cotta. You need to do desserts that don't involve baking — simple things like crème brûlée, pastry creams or cream puffs. It's not that complicated. I spent time working in pastries, and it's not difficult. Every chef should have an understanding of pastries or desserts.
TVGuide.com: So how does this group compare to others?
Colicchio: Like most seasons, they get bogged down a bit and mistakes are made, but all in all, I think they did really well. I still think last season there was a lot talent, but this season definitely holds up. The chefs are a little more conventional this time, but we really had some great food.
TVGuide.com: What's it like having Eric Ripert at the judge's table?
Colicchio: For me, I like having him there. I liked working with Toby [Young], but he didn't have the most authoritative voice when it came to the food. Toby is more of a scene critic when it comes to restaurants — or at least that's my understanding of it. He did know a good amount about food though. Having Eric judging the food has a little bit more weight than Toby judging your food. But you're not going to get the one-line zingers that we got out of Toby. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: Any challenges coming up that incorporate the D.C. setting?
Colicchio: Yes. There are a lot of politicians on the show. We use a lot of landmarks for challenges. Whenever we go to a city, the city becomes almost like the 18th contestant. But it was great being in D.C., and for me it was great to be able to get home [to my wife and baby]. I was going back and forth on the train because I don't do the Quickfires and would have a full day off. It took a little less than 30 days to shoot the show, and I'd say I was home probably 10 of those days.
TVGuide.com: What were some of your favorite dishes from past seasons?
Colicchio: In the first season finale, Tiffani made an artichoke risotto with pork belly. She cut the artichoke hearts into a very, very small dice, so it was actually artichoke instead of rice in the risotto. I thought that was brilliant dish. I also liked Hung's duck dish he made in the Season 3 finale. Another dish I really enjoyed last season was Kevin's Quickfire snail dish with bacon jam. Also, Michael Voltaggio made banana-asparagus risotto for the vegetarian challenge and it was really good. It's usually the dishes I'm surprised by where I say to myself, "I don't know how that's going to work," and then the chef can pull it off.
Top Chef airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo.