Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Don't Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight

Hugh Acheson breaks down the first two groups of chefs.

The episode looked great. Texas is a big state, a big concept really, and what better way to show that than have 29 contestants quickly whittled down to the final 16 chef coats? From the first few moments of the show we know this is going to be a showdown of epic proportions. So, to paraphrase John Currence (TCM Season 2), “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” Skills are going to show through quickly: the ability to manage time, the ability to show of a couple of tricks but keep things straight forward, and the ability to keep calm under pressure -- all of these traits will be essential for the chefs to fit into one of those blue jackets.

We start with Chris Crary being caught off-guard by the beauty of Padma. Chris, if you get sucked into staring at Padma the whole season, I foreshadow a short stay on the show. Put your eyes back in their sockets there, big guy. On the other hand, those Moto guys are culinarily adorable (do they have a headband and crazy hair rule at Moto?), but I keep expecting them to make edible paper or pot roast gummi bears. They step up though and make food that looks and tastes like… food! I am sure the Molecular Cuisine will come out soon though. 

So, we have 16 spots and the chips begin to fall in a pretty logical order. Two groups are competing tonight and here we go. Pork is up first.Did anyone notice that the blackboard pig diagram had the ears listed at “Listeners.” You crafty Magical Elves.

Chicago is very represented. I think this is for many reasons, but let’s get our culinary geography right. To me, Chicago is the most important city outside of NYC for food in the last decade. I will get some hate mail on this one. Whatever. 

So the Lake Shore City has a lot of chefs vying for those jackets… Heather, Sarah, Moto dudes, Chuy… Illinois is in the house.

Chef Tyler Stone, where do I start? “Some people mistake my confidence for arrogance.” I think you got that backwards. Should you want to bring an ego bigger than the state of Texas into the arena, make sure that basic butchery skills are in your arsenal. Tom has no patience for this and before you know it Tyler is packing up his knives, but not without declaring that he will conquer the world once more! 

“Tom and Emeril made a bad decision.” Back to your zipcode, and don’t let the swingin’ cowboy bar doors hit you on the way out. 

Colin, a vegan chef from Seattle, happily gives over the butchery to Moto Chris. Finding the tenderloin of the tofu is pretty easy, but pork is a bit more nuanced. 

We have cheeks, ears, belly, loin chops (we did), small hacks of a tenderloin… this is a nose-to-tail challenge. Fergus should be very happy with the impact he has had on our cookery. 

Back to Colin. Plating comes around and he has lost his tip to the frother. Man down. Plating looked pretty rough, and he knows the end is nigh. Does it with class and I respect that. His maturity and honesty make Tyler Stone look all the more child-like. Moto Chris pulls through with his caramelized apple. Sarah gets through with skin. 14 chef coats left. Grayson and Molly get in the bubble, which is clarified as another chance to compete in Episode 2 for a treasured coat. Molly is not thrilled. She thought she had nailed those cheeks. 

Nyesha gets in with a Tex Mex ravioli. Way to play with the locality! Smart cooking and Emeril loves it. Heather wins with a “soulful” dish of grits and ribs. Smart as well. Richie, Vice President of TEAM MOTO, pushes seasoning to the edge and gets through. Simon packs up the knives. The roulade was dry. C’est la vie.  

Chicago is sunny for once.

The people with chef coats start to see their new digs. TEAM MOTO is very excited. The whole group is redecorating in a very Great Lakes theme.

Group 2. Battle Rabbit. There is a lot of talent up there in the group. 

Something is said about rabbit orgies. Focus people, focus.

Let’s cut to the chase. Whitney is in with the sugo. Looked tasty. Don’t hug Tom. Nina is out. She spaced. Timing is everything. Keith is in. He remarks that he is too big to pass out. I envision a news report about an earthquake in Texas should he fall. His story is pretty amazing. Kudos to him for forging through in life. Edward is on the bubble. They want to see him cook. He thinks, “This sucks.” Bubbly. 

It looks like Dakota cries a lot. She rocked it though with some crepinette and bulgur. Nice. She’s in like Flynn. Ty-Lor is in. I have a feeling he is going to be the beloved weirdo of this season… we’ll see how far he goes. Janine is bubble-bound. Chris C. is in with his duo of rabbit. Chuy is in with the pipian and exits with a “booyah, biatch.” I feel like it's 2004 all over again. Bubble Room laments their lack of ink. It ain’t the ink, it’s the food. It’s always the food. Trust me. 

Preview looks great for Episode 2. Cuts, and bubbles, and shrimp, and some snarky Canadian. 






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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the finale showdown between Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet.

There is always a Top Chef winner but obviously some seasons have a less experienced assemblage of chefs, while others have veritable US Olympic-caliber culinary practitioners. (Congrats to Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition by the way! Silver! Silver!)

This particular season of Top Chef could have been a contest of mediocrity, but it bloomed into something very skilled and mature, which is good for judging, but makes writing a blog with poop jokes and rap humor very difficult. I have to say, I was a little worried at the beginning that the whole chef squadron was a little shaky. But early retreats by chefs with bigger egos than culinary skillsets allowed the true talent to rise without being malevolent fools. And that talent really was there. By mid season we were eating their visions on the plate, while watching them battle it out over the food and just the food.

The two most successful chefs of the season made it to the end, and they are ready to rumble in the most respective way they know how. One will plate most of their food on the side of the plate, incorporating Korean flavors and modern technique into the vittles, while the other will weave a more classic story and put food more in the center of the plate like regular people. Should be a good show no matter what, because at the end of the day, it’s just hard not to be really enamored with both of them. They are good people.

Gregory and Mei start out on a hot air balloon ride, because that’s how I like to start every day in Mexico. The country looks beautiful to me even if you are in a basket hoisted hundreds of feet into the air by hot air. The hotel I stayed in was the Casa di Sierra Nevada, which was AWESOME, so if you are looking for a vacation, go there. It's no party town, but it is plenty fun. Great food scene. And to put safety into perspective, I felt safer wandering around St. Miguel than I do my hometown. Anyway, the balloon ride looks like fun and allows for that finale moment of almost tearful reminiscence and contemplation.

So their balloon ride lands in a vineyard, and Tom and Padma are waiting to put a halt to this sentimentality. The task is put forward and the challenge, this final culinary joust, is to create a meal that is the meal of their lives. They pick their two sous chefs per person; Gregory picks Doug and George, while Mei picks Melissa and Rebecca.

They prep their menus after a good night’s sleep. The prep I will not talk about too much, but suffice it to say that each team seems very pro and super on top of things.

Traci des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, and Donnie Masterton are dining with us, all of them amazing chefs. Like amazing amazing. The kid’s table, at which I am the head, is made up of Sean, Traci, Gavin, and Gail. It is a super table. At the table I decide to hold true to the tourist warning of not drinking the water. I thus only drink wine and the phenomenal beauty of Casa Dragones tequila, a concoction that will make me sleep soundly (but probably by dessert) on the table.

Mei hits us with an octopus that I really, really like. It resounds with flavors of coconut, avocado, and fish sauce. It is deep. The only flaw is that maybe it is a bit over done. The over cooking made it kind of crunchy and she could easily have been cooking it to that point on purpose. Second course from her is a congee, with peanuts, carnitas, egg yolk, and hot sauce. It is so f----ing delicious. Like stylized comfort food that you just want to eat all the time. Comfort food, when perfect, is perhaps the hardest food to cook, because it is by definition food you are very familiar with, resulting in people having a lot of preconceived notions about it. This congee would have silenced all critics on congee. It was that good.

Mei is gliding through this meal. She has palpable confidence, but is still a nicely soft-spoken leader. In my years of watching people lead kitchens, I have always been more taken with the allegiance that soft-spoken leaders cultivate in their staffs. Her third course is a duck course, and like the congee, she has cooked duck at least twice this season, but in entirely different ways. This duck has kimchi, braised lettuce, and huitlacoche on the plate. Huitlacoche is corn smut, a term I just yelled in a coffee shop, making everyone uncomfortable. It is a good plate, but my refrain about duck skin continues. It was a bit chewy. All in all, the dish just was texturally challenged. It needed a crunchy texture. But it was good still. Her last is her version of yogurt dippin’ dots with strawberry-lime curd, milk crumble, and stuff. It was blow-you-away amazing. Very complex, but very successful. Tom says it is the best dessert on Top Chef he has ever had, and I definitely concur, though he has tasted many more than I have. The toasted yogurt base was amazing.

Gregory steps up with a brothy octopus with cashew milk, fresh prickly pear, and also xoconostle, which is the dried version of prickly pear, kind of like a prickly pear fruit roll up. It is a strong dish, and may be the winner in the Octopus Olympiad. His second was a strange soup that was redolent with flavor until you choked with a shrimp head lodged in your gullet. Strange and a little unrefined for me, and pretty much everyone else. It was a wanted textural element, but made a rustic soup weird. The whole dish needs to be compared to the comfort food of Mei’s congee, and in that context it is no contest.

Third course from Gregory is a bass with carrot sauce, tomatillo, vegetables, and pineapple. It is a strange dish. I am worried for Gregory at this point. It is not like the dish was bad, but the dish was just not a winner winner. Well, let’s not rest on that notion, because his next and final course is a stone cold stunner. Simple short ribs in mole with sweet potato. It is purity on the plate and equal to the idea of Mei’s congee in nailing comfort food. Kudos. He’s back on track. This is a close contest.

Judges' Table comes and we deliberate. I am not going to mince words and hold off on this: It is really close, but this season’s winner is definitely Mei. Well deserved. Gregory is the consummate pro in placing second and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this restaurant world. His win versus addiction and his success in cooking shows one tough person with oodles of talent.

Mei. Mei. You rock. You are a chef’s chef. You make food that excites and makes us ponder. You are a leader and a super cool person. You are the winner and will always be a winner. Onwards.

Until next season. I loved this season. Thanks BOSTON. And thanks San Miguel di Allende. You are awesome places to work.

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