Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

American Beauty

Gail Simmons sheds lights on the greater significance of the Ellis Island challenge. What have you been up to?
Gail Simmons: I'm just back from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival where I spent three days eating burgers on the beach and other delights. That's also why I had no time for anything. I'm just happy to be home for a short period before I leave again. i am heading to Napa for another event in a week. With the Quickfire Challenge, the five remaining chefs were brought on a boat with Dan Barber, of all people, judging a concession challenge. What did you think about Dan Barber judging this challenge?
GS: Poor Dan Barber. I can only imagine what he thought! But it was kind of a fun challenge, and really stressful for all of them. It was interesting to watch what they came up with. I thought at first that they'd all come up with the exact same thing, but they ended up coming up with very different dishes. Some of it was sort of pedestrian, like Tiffany's nachos, but then there was Richard's really creative use of hot dogs. It was nice that Carla won. Dan Barber liked the one thing that was natural and fresh, which he got in Carla's dish. Would you have eaten Mike's bread soup?
GS: I mean it looked disgusting, but that's my job, so yes. I don't have a choice in the matter, so I would have tasted it if I had to. It looked horrendous though. For the Elimination Challenge, everyone got a  portfolio on his or her family history at Ellis Island. What did you think of that and the revelation that Mike and Antonia are related?  
GS: I remember the next day when we went to the dinner and they told us they were cousins. I was just blown away. I think it's sort of extraordinary, and it speaks to the fact that we all really have more in common than you assume, no matter where we're from, no matter where we're raised, or what are roots are. It really is a small world after all. It's amazing really, and so much about what America is, people who immigrated here from all over the world for very different reasons, but who all share a common dream of a better life. I think finding out where they are all from, whether it be Louisiana, Italy, or Ireland, and seeing such diversity in their backgrounds, proves there's no such thing as a purebred. We're all sort of mutts. I think that is why we're all unique and special and why this country has the energy and spirit that it does, because we all bring so much from our heritage to it. I think that it was really powerful to see that and see how food is so intrinsically woven into everyone's culture. When you think of all of these different places – the South, Italy, and Ireland -- you have such strong food associations because of this link between food and history. The only other time you ate with the contestants' family members was Season 6. What was it like this time at the table with all the mothers and spouses?
GS: It was really poignant. The whole episode had this air of nostalgia to it, and having them there was really great for the chefs. It just re-energized them at the end of this very long race they've been running. They were exhausted, they'd been beaten down, and they knew that the end was close. They needed something to get them over that final hump, and having their families there really gave them the support and "juice" they needed to keep going. It was wonderful. We learned so much about them from their families. They're all really lucky that they come from families that really value and love them, and they were all able to find inspiration in that. Obviously we had to be on our best behavior because we weren't going to give it away if there was a dish we didn't like. But to be honest there wasn't really anything to worry about, because we loved everything and everyone did such a great job. It was an emotional, wonderful meal to be at and to share with the people that they loved the most. What were the highlights?
GS: There were highlights from all of the dishes. They all really did incredible jobs. The dishes were so diverse, even Antonia and Mike, who both chose to make Italian food, took really different routes in doing so. Michael's gnocchi was perfect; it really had a rustic feel about it. His grandmother's recipe obviously had incredible significance to him, because he was so close to her and he hadn't cooked Italian food since she passed away. It was like a rebirth for him. Antonia's risotto was just fantastic. It was loose and light and really captured the flavor of the fava beans and rapini. That veal osso bucco was also delicious. Tiffany's southern food told us so much about where she came from. Clearly her mom was a great cook and fed her all of this food that she was able to reinvent. She showcased her mother's flavors, but in a modern way. The okra was just awesome, and her short rib was flavorful. I was obsessed with Carla's cheddar biscuits. She did such a great job with the them, also the pork shoulder and that fried grits cake were so interesting. I had never seen it cooked that way before. The challenge is always going to be to give us flavors that taste good and have soul, especially for a challenge like this, but that also shows us their individual creativity. Richard's dish epitomized Richard to me -- it had classic flavors from England and Ireland, meat and potatoes with bone marrow and a taste of America in that corn puree, but he presented them in a way that only Richard can do, finishing the dish with the glassworts. I've never heard them called glassworts before. I used to work with them when I cooked at Vong in the '90s and we called them sea beans. You have to blanche them so that they're just lightly cooked and they're salty -- they're briny, they're like a seaweed. They have a great crunch, which really added to the dish and came as a surprise, tied it all together. And what about Richard at Judges' Table?
GS: It looked like he was about to pass out. He literally was about to say, "How could you do that to me?" You could tell he was barely holding on, the poor guy. He needs a Xanax and a two-hour massage!

There were two things I noticed across all of the chefs' dishes. First off, every single one of them did some sort of braised meat. Mike did the braised pork, Antonia did the braised veal, Carla did braised pork shoulder, Tiffany did short ribs, and also Richard did short ribs. It begs the question why? I think there is a security and hominess to this type of cooking which offered them all comfort. When you think of your heritage and the way your ancestors cooked, this was a very typical way to prepare and preserve food. It also gives the dish soul, by braising you have the ability of infusing a lot of flavor, sauce, softness, spices, and powerful complexity. It's a very flexible way to cook too, because it's forgiving, and it adds rusticity to because it's an older way of cooking. It's not like cooking sous-vide, or searing, or frying, it's just old school. Secondly, I loved the familial touches they put into their dishes, like Carla passing her biscuits around the table and the way they all presented their dishes. You could tell they were really touched by the challenge. It made them all think about food in a way that they aren't used to doing. It became very personal. I found myself quite affected by it as well, because that's what food does. When it's cooked for the right reasons and you cook with love and dedication, it really does stir people's emotions. It's all about sense memory.

We were really happy that Antonia won and we were thrilled that, after much begging and pleading with our producers, we were able to convince them to let us bring all five of them to the Bahamas with us. At first when Antonia's mother asked if we could bring five chefs we laughed it off, but when we sat down at that Judges' Table, we realized they all were really deserving.

But rest assured, the Bahamas is where the madness ensues. As you can see in the preview, there's good food and bad food, there's bad hair, there are fires, there's drama – basically everything you could ask for from a finale and more... but only one of them will make it to the very end. That I can promise.

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Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Richard Blais explains why Mei Lin won, and why we'll definitely be hearing from Gregory Gourdet soon.

The finale of Top Chef is the one absolute every season. Make the best meal of your life, in a multi-course tasting format for a room of the "who's who" in the culinary industry.

If you get to the finals, it's the type of thing you can prepare for. Every finalist should have a few four to five course menus floating around their heads, including a dessert, and all complete with options and Plan B's transcribed to their moleskins. And although the knowledge of what's coming is helpful, the format does not play to every chef's strengths.

There aren't too many restaurants committed to such meal services. Which means less chefs experienced with how to "write" and execute them. A progressive meal has to have a certain flow about it. And even the stereotypical versions of the "menu degustation" could force a contestant into cooking a dish that's not in their wheelhouse, for instance a straight forward fish course because "it belongs there."

Tonight, Mei Lin has a slight advantage. She cooks in a restaurant every day that showcases a tasting menu. Her food has been the epitome of a modern tasting menu all season. Many previous times, to a fault. Mei's food is small and precise. Beautiful to look at, and intellectually stimulating to discuss. Cold sometimes, every once in a while a shaved radish plated with tweezers heavy. It's not for everyone. It's not for everyday. But it's the type of food that when done well, can win Top Chef. Win James Beard Award noms. Win Best New Chef honors. Win Michelin stars.

Her future could indeed be bright.

What struck me most about Mei's food tonight however, wasn't technique. Technique and presentation often can get in the way of flavor. But tonight Mei delivered a few courses that were deeply satisfying. Soulful, delicious food that also was presented at a high level and cooked with surgeon's precision. That congee though...combined with a simple dessert that took yogurt and granola to another planet, won her the day. Her other two courses were fine, but suffered from the strains of modernity. Overly plated (the duck) and technically overwrought (the fried octopus).

Gregory on the other hand, it's just not his finest work. You can hear it in his voice as he's explaining his food. He's cooking improv, an ode to Mexico. The problem is, this isn't a jam session at a local cantina. This is a studio session where the chefs should be cooking practiced and refined pieces.

His octopus was a highlight and featured the unusual combination of passion fruit and avocado. It was an explosive start. The following two courses unraveled a bit, with the soup being good, but way too unrefined for the moment and technically problematic (the crispy shrimp heads), and the fish course bordering on dessert with the sugary carrot purée.

The mole was authentic and delicious, the rib cooked perfectly, but the dish felt a little incomplete. I believe Gregory had the better ideas, but just needed to think them through a bit more.

His sadness after the fact, I can attest, is profound. Tearful. Absolute emptiness. Close to the feeling of the sudden loss of a loved one. This may shock some of you, because it is indeed just a game. The mere thought of feeling that way over such silliness is well, silly. But not for us. This isn't the Super Bowl where an athlete loses and they can shake it off. Jump in their Bentley and start thinking about next season. There is no next season. There is no guaranteed pay day for the runner-up. The ten wins you had before don't matter. It just ends. Suddenly. And it's rather sad.

The good thing is, this is certainly, 100%, not the last time you will hear from Gregory. I waxed last week about Doug's professionalism, all of which is very true. But Gregory... Gregory is a special talent. His food (and I can say HIS type of food, because it's unique to him), is a study in refined, exotic comfort. What the man can do with a one-pot meal of braised anything, some chilies, sugar, vinegar, herbs, and spices is beyond impressive. Rarely do I taste food that makes me jealous as a cook. Rarely do I taste food that makes me start thinking about a new restaurant concept. The word inspiring in cooking competitions is sort of like the word "love," when it gets used too much, it loses it luster. Gregory's food however. I love it. It is inspiring.

Congrats to Mei and Gregory! Tom was right, I can't wait to one day say I saw you two way back when, in Mexico, in a little kitchen, before the bright lights, fancy kitchens, and big stages that lay ahead for both of you.

See you next season. I hope!

Richard Blais
@RichardBlais - Twitter and Instagram

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