“TOP CHEF” – RIO 2016

My wife and I really enjoy the show, Top Chef.

We enjoy it because we love watching talented individuals compete to create something amazing under difficult conditions. Every chef is talented, but the show is about overcoming the variables and completing everything on time. Chefs on Top Chef are  sometimes given all the same ingredients, and the chef that cooks the best wins immunity and may eventually be deemed “Top Chef.” Each chef that fails to execute, either through their ability to perform or failed concept (what did you just make?) is sent home.

In some cases, the judges just don’t like them.

RIO 2016

I enjoy rowing banter (my wife could care less).

I have especially enjoyed the recent debate and build up toward the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and the plans of the US Olympic/Senior National Team and the “Selection Process.” A large group of talented individuals competing to create something amazing under difficult conditions. Every athlete and coach is talented, but proper selection is about overcoming the variables and completing everything on time. (Olympic Qualifier)

For 2016, I hope that our top two “chefs” have been given the right ingredients. The pool of athletes in the United States is very large, and many have earned their pedigree over the last 4 years. They are like ripe vegetables or high quality meats that you wake up and wait in line for at the local farmer’s market. There is absolutely no reason that they should “go bad” because you bought them fresh, and you plan on preparing them shortly.

Why all the drama then?

“Quick Fire Challenge”

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On Top Chef, the chefs are initially dropped into a competition where they are a given a few ingredients, and told to make something in 30 minutes or less. It tests their quick thinking skills and ability to create a concept in a short amount time. Only recently, did Top Chef start having chefs going home after a Quickfire; at least in the first few seasons the chefs got another chance to prove themselves later in the show.

For Rio, our US athletes are working hard to get noticed, and when they are finally invited to camp, they only have a short amount of time to impress our “chefs”. Either they are either included in the recipe or tossed aside for something else (it is only 30 minutes). Deciding whether they are  worth the time or not, is up to the judgement of the coaches. US Rowing will not fund athletes that are not in the system. Athletes must re-locate on their own, find jobs, and deal with the stress of knowing or not knowing whether they are going to remain on the team.

How do we know if our “ingredients” are no good if we don’t use them?

“Elimination Challenge”

The “meat” of Top Chef is the Elimination Challenge. The chefs actually have ample time to plan a meal according to the judges’ criteria and standards. In the early seasons, the challenges were pretty straight forward – make a lot of delicious food for a lot of people. As the seasons have rolled on, the challenges have become more an more interesting:

“You need to make a 4-course meal for over 300 people using only solar-powered microwave ovens on a cloudy day. And you need to walk backwards the whole time…”

Reality shows need to continue “raising the bar” to attract viewers, but it is still about making delicious food. Many of us will never be able to cook or prepare food the way these chefs do, but they are not performing under realistic circumstances.

For Rio, the US National Team Coach Staff are put under a lot of stress, and asked by the US Rowing High Performance Staff and Board to create boats that meet the world time standards. If they are unable to produce a boat that will qualify for Rio, they may go home. I thought producing an Olympic caliber boat would be an honor and a privilege, not a career life or death situation.

Everyone knows how fast you need to go to get a gold medal. It should be pretty simple to put eight athletes in a boat, at particular training time during the year, and start the stop watch. The Men’s 8+ boat has to go at least 5:20; the Women’s 8+ at least 6:00. It should be clear who is moving the boat and who isn’t. The time trial row may be sloppy, but isn’t that what practice is for? Yet, rowing “experts” and aficionados may disagree, “It isn’t that easy to put an eight together…”

Are our judges making this selection process a little too complex?

“Judge’s Table”

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On Top Chef, the Judge’s Table is made up of a potpourri of master chefs, food critics, and a rotating group of celebrities. The stables are Tom Colicchio, Padma LakshmiEmeril Lagasse, Gail Simmons, Hugh Acheson, and Top Chef, Richard Blais.

At the beginning of each episode, it is apparent which chef is going home because they either screw up the concept or the execution.  As the season continues, the food gets better, and it becomes more difficult for the judges really to make any logical decisions. They don’t seem to let on though. To create drama, the judges will invent new standards or change things in the middle of the Elimination Challenge.  Chefs believe they are making one meal, and a judge arrives to inform that now they have to cook using one hand.

I trained through 3 Olympic cycles – 2000, 2004, and 2008.

The standards back in 2000  were pretty clear – pull this time on the ergometer, and you might get a look. Have a good college coach, that brings you to an ID camp and you might get a look. Compete and train for a top rowing club like Penn AC or Vesper and you might get a look. By 2008, US Rowing had added the National Selection Regattas (NSR)  to identify on-the-water talent early. If you didn’t perform well you still had the opportunity to compete at trials.

This did not stay consistent.

A few years ago you had to place at NSR’s to be allowed to compete at trials or the World Rowing Cup .  It required athletes to double or triple peak for completion, with no guarantees that they would make the team. As an athlete, I would believe that my mindset should be more focused on peaking for the Olympics, but our judges may have felt it important to eliminate any “flashes in the pan.”

Why change the standards each year?  

“Food Critics”

TOP CHEF -- Episode 1014 -- Pictured: (l-r) Padma Lakshmi, Emeril Lagasse, Hugh Acheson, Gail Simmons, Sean Brock -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

Photo by: David Moir/Bravo

On Top Chef, the food critics make their living tasting and writing about different restaurants and the food they serve. Initially chefs were “wowed” by their presence, but with each new season the food critics have become a part of the show. To the point, that they have become the show. The chefs and ingredients remain the same, but the food critics keep driving new “techniques and tastes.”

There is only so many ways you can make ceviche before it isn’t about the cooking anymore.

Chefs on the show struggle to come up with something new, however there aren’t any new concepts. Just because a meal does not look a certain way or taste or feel the way you wanted doesn’t mean that somebody else will not enjoy it. Maybe your palate is off.

For Rio, our judges continue to control all the variables.  Changing venues the year of the 2016 Olympic Trials is important for the long term development of the sport in the United States. However, it does not really help the coaches or athletes as they need to find transportation, lodging, and have the money to do so. Changing the selection standards each year makes for exciting racing, but preventing athletes from competing internationally because they did not meet a time standard on a choppy racecourse prevents athletes from gaining valuable international experience. It isn’t necessary to “wow” anyone. It is about winning a gold medal, and if you have the ingredients let the chef cook their food and create the best meal.

Whoever said they had to do it all by themselves?

“The Old Guard”

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The Old Guard on Top Chef is Tom Colicchio. He has been on the show since the beginning, and he is regarded as the “top” chef on the show. Colicchico is fair but firm. Lately he has been a little more unforgiving, probably to add drama, but he still tries to provide constructive criticism and advice. Emeril Lagasse is the proven, sympathic, grizzled, old veteran. Richard Blais won Top Chef: All-Stars back in 2010 . He brings a youthful style and “flavor” to the judge’s table. My wife doesn’t like him, but Colicchio may retire from the show at some point, so it must go on.

Lately, the rowing message boards are full of Old Guard who know what it takes to go fast. They did it, and they have nothing left to prove. A lot of energy is focused on talking about the old days and how they went about accomplishing things. Meanwhile, the standards for Rio are different, but not on the world stage.  On the US stage. Most of the online banter is criticism towards these fluctuating US standards, but there is a lot of criticism towards the athletes too.

“In my day, we didn’t have all these new-fangled boats, heart-rate technology, stroke analysis technology, and sunny California/Florida venues. We trained in Princeton, NJ, went to TAMPA and we liked it!”

Congratulations Old Guard, we know what you did, and I am always sure to ask for autograph. Perhaps you could be more like Tom Colicchio and actually help some of these athletes understand how to row a boat. Create a support system. In the end these “youngins” are doing their best. They want to go to Rio.  Help them go to Rio if you know how to do it. Otherwise, let them be. Rowing doesn’t have a lot of press, so when athletes read your criticism it just adds to their stress.

Coach Mike Teti told us all that we “suck”. Guess what we still do, and I am sure he will still tell us that today.

“Padma”

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Padma…the person on Top Chef that knows nothing about cooking.

Padma is very adamant about being critical about things she knows nothing about. She makes it very it clear what food she likes and what she doesn’t like. Chefs on the show are more upset if Padma spits out their food than if someone that has a trained palate critiques their cooking technique. My wife hates her because she adds no value to the show and is just there to keep the drama going.

For Rio, the complaints are also dramatic.

The latest complaint is that US Rowing does not have the budget to fund athletes. When I was training, I lived with my parents, then my in-laws, and I have a very supportive wife. It allowed me to train full time. It wasn’t ideal. I understand it is difficult to find a job and train full time, but there are real Americans that have multiple kids, work two or three jobs, and barely have time to sleep. I worked at Dunkin Donuts when I trained. The night shift. I would have done the same thing if I had to move to California or Florida. I would make it work if going to the Olympics was my goal. Was it stressful, yes? Make your choice, because you can always take the easy path.

Funding. If gofundMe.com will allow someone to seek funding to make a peanut butter sandwich,   then I am sure we can find a person or sponsor to send athletes to Rio. Maybe if the boats were selected earlier, and we could demonstrate (Time Trial anyone?) they had a shot at winning a gold medal, then maybe someone would open up their wallet or purse.

“Moral of the story”

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I failed in 2008.

I didn’t go to the Olympics. 11 other M2x competed at the US Olympic Trials that year. The M2x that won trials finished 13th in Beijing. None of us were fast enough. We can walk around and pretend that we are great or we can admit the fact that it takes a special coaching and athletes to make something special happen. As the next few months unravel, all I can do is sit and watch, and cross my fingers that the United States is successful. As an athlete, I secretly wanted my opponents to fail, but now that I am out of it I really want someone to root for at the Olympics.

The young athletes I meet remind me of me. “Chips” on their shoulders, but ready to shoulder the burden of become Olympic hopefuls. It doesn’t matter what school they rowed for or who their coaches are.

They have a dream, and if they want help I am here to help them.

I haven’t been asked. Instead I write.

On Top Chef, the chefs are trying to win money for their business, their family, their prestige, and to just inspire people. No one chef is better than the other. We all root for our favorites, and we understand the chefs eliminated were very talented. We wish them all success.

For Rio, there are a few Olympic hopefuls whose dream will end in the next few weeks.   No consolation prizes, and hopefully solace because they tried their best. If we are willing to help them, it might make sense to remind them that they will be able to move on to bigger and better things.

Their dream is over, but not their life.

That is the difference when you cook with love…

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I hate you Padma…

 

For more information on Mindset, Strength and Conditioning for rowing, rowing technique, Kettlebells, Clubbells, AthleteDISC, and the Process Communication Model® follow my blog or follow me on Facebook at RUFO OPTIMAL WORKOUTS.

 

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