Toby Young is the Ted Allen of British reality television, having appeared as a judge on a wide range of food-focused programs with punchy names like “Eating with the Enemy” and “Kitchen Criminals.” He has also competed in a televised battle royale of his own, winning a season of “Come Dine with Me,” a home-dining competition that had celebs throw dinner parties for each other. Young secured victory with a tomato tart, beef fillet 1-2 punch.
So it’s fair to say that when the author and London Evening Standard critic joins the “Top Chef” judges' table on Jan. 7, he’ll be well equipped to send the toques packing. Previews have hinted that Young will be harsh, unapologetic and, well, British. Previews can lie— remember how cool we thought Alex Eusebio was after the season premiere? Remember Alex Eusebio? We reached out to Young for the straight story.
How did you connect with Bravo?
One of the producers of “Top Chef” e-mailed me out of the blue to see if I’d be interested in being a judge in the second half of the season. They wanted someone who would bring a food critic’s perspective to the judging panel. I’m not a chef, so I don’t know much about the technical aspects of cooking, but I do know how stuff is supposed to taste.
Describe the experience of taping an episode—without stringing you up with Andy Cohen’s $1 million non-disclosure noose.
As you know, “Top Chef” is rigidly formatted, so there are half-a-dozen segments we have to film for each episode. During the downtime, the judges have the option of eating the food that’s laid out for the crew—which, predictably enough, is pretty basic: mac-and-cheese, potato chips, candy bars. So you have the rather bizarre sight of some of America’s biggest food snobs chowing down on stuff that even Homer Simpson might think twice about.
How lovely is Padma? How lovely is her palate?
When I first set eyes on Padma, I had to look away—her beauty is so dazzling. It’s as though she’s accompanied by her own lighting system. Her palate is much more delicate than mine. I like strong, bold, simple flavors, but she prefers more subtle, sophisticated dishes.
Did you butt heads with any of the cast/hosts? You are being pegged in promos as sorta a hardass.
I think I was probably a little harder on the contestants than they’re used to, primarily because I’m British. Contrary to the cultural stereotype, British food critics tend to be much more direct and plainspoken than their American counterparts. If Tom or Padma didn’t like something, they’d try and spare the feelings of the contestants, whereas I would just give it to them straight.
At the end of one episode, I went back to meet the remaining contestants, both to congratulate them for getting as far as they had and to apologize for saying anything that might have upset them. I was expecting a couple of them to take a swing at me, but we ended up in a group hug. Unfortunately, I don't think that moment was captured on camera.
You lived in New York from 1995–2000. List your favorite spots…
Peter Luger’s. I’m a big fan of steak houses and Peter Luger’s is still the best. You can get meat as good as this in a handful of other steak houses—Old Homestead, for instance—but the atmosphere is unbeatable.
Raoul's. When I lived in New York I was a bachelor and this was my favorite date restaurant. There’s something about the louche, slightly decadent atmosphere that’s guaranteed to get a girl in the mood.
Les Deux Gamins. A great place to have lunch on a Sunday. Well-cooked steak frites served by surly French waitresses in miniskirts. What more could a boy ask for?
Piadina. A hole in the wall just off Fifth Avenue. The food is nothing special, but the staff is great at accommodating large parties of drunken partygoers. I once saw David Blaine dining in the back. He made a lot of food disappear that night, lemme tell ya.
And the most overrated NYC restaurant is...
Indochine. When the girl at the front desk keeps you waiting for 15 minutes because she’s on the phone to her stylist, you know a restaurant is too fashionable for its own good.
Toby Young’s 2002 memoir “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People” is a sort of modern day retelling of “Bright Lights, Big City”—along the way he exposes the sausage factory that is the glossy magazine editorial office (“Vanity Fair” in this case) and the blood-soaked butcher running the joint (Young’s overlord, Graydon Carter). You can read Young’s latest restaurant reviews at tobyyoung.co.uk