Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Finale, Part 1

Gail gives behind-the-scenes dish on the first part of the finale.

When I first heard we were taking a multi-month break from the Top Chef shoot after filming the ninth episode, and resuming in Las Vegas for the finale, I was a little distraught. Tom, Katie and I were having a good time together, the crew was terrific and the remaining contestants were starting to cook really delicious food. I doubted the decision of our producers to stop the momentum we had built over the last several weeks and lose all of that great energy.

I often wondered what our three finalists had done to prepare for the challenges that lay ahead since I saw them last. Had they spent the last few months slaving over a hot stove, searing meat, blanching vegetables, and shocking pasta? Had they been timing themselves to see how quickly they could whip up a variety of dishes using the most exotic ingredients they could find? Had they memorized recipes for every possible occasion? What would I have done if given time to regroup before my last hurrah?

The moment they all walked into the service kitchens at the MGM Grand, I could tell they had done none of this. Instead, it was clear that they had all taken the opportunity to actually relax. Harold was all smiles, boisterous and casual. Tiffani seemed reflective and just slightly softer in her approach. Even Dave had learned some new breathing techniques and assured us that he was focused on staying calm. They also had gotten some much-needed sleep. I think they sensed they would be needing it. I now understood exactly why taking that long break before filming the finale was such a good idea: It gave them all a chance to recuperate and restore their culinary juices.

We were thrilled to have Chef Hubert Keller back at the Judges Table too. Not only was he a favorite of everyone on the set from the first episode we filmed in San Francisco, but for such an unassuming, understated chef he also happens to be a Las Vegas legend, with two excellent restaurants (Fleur de Lys and Burger Bar) and a secret talent for hitting the turntables when you least expect it (yes, he is an amazing DJ!).

The Room Service Challenge was a concept I initially loved. A hotel and casino like the MGM Grand operates not unlike a small city, with tens of thousands of people playing, working, eating and demanding everything and anything under the hot desert sun, all at once. It is also a huge maze of intricate underground pathways and long corridors that connect the cavernous kitchens to the world upstairs, making this challenge not only about meeting a client's desires, but also about transportation and efficiency.

One flaw in the execution of this challenge was that we as Judges did not have an opportunity to taste each contestant's food. On the other hand, it ensured that the people tasting the food had no preconceived notions of who was cooking. Each dish was judged on taste alone and not on its creator's personality or cooking history. It also allowed Tom, Hubert and I to experience what it might be like watching the show as a viewer and having to rely on someone else (i.e. us judges) to make the best, most educated choices without knowing first-hand what the food is really like.

I was assigned the Poker Room. The order our chefs were given was to prepare four types of snacks that could be enjoyed by a few serious players, headed by Phil Hellmuth, co-host of Celebrity Poker Showdown. Considering the time constraint of 30 minutes, I think they did a decent job. Harold went with straightforward, simple ideas like mini pizzas, fried chicken wings (out of a frozen box, no less), grilled cheese sandwiches and beer-battered onion rings. His food looked appealing, was perfect for sharing and easy to eat with one hand while the guys played poker. But besides the wings that he barely could call his own (smothered in a tangy honey-Dijon sauce), none of Harold's food stood out as especially interesting or innovative. Tiffani did the exact opposite. She made very creative dishes using ingredients a few of the players were not even familiar with, such as the Quince and Goat Cheese Napoleon and the Pancetta Wrapped Gracini. Although they thought some of it was tasty, it was far too difficult to share as a snack, let alone eat easily at the poker table. Dave's food was just right! The players totally loved his spring rolls, fried shrimp and salami panini. They even loved his chocolate covered strawberries, which I must admit I questioned when I first saw them on the cart. So Dave won my portion of the challenge. But he clearly lost the other two.

The High Rollers (ie Lee Anne, Miguel and Stephen) saw right through his peel-and-eat shrimp and we had to disqualify him from the challenge, since he only completed two dishes where three were required. Sadly, the two he did complete were cast favorites. Who knows what he could have made as a third if he had paid a little more attention when the order came in? It was bittersweet watching Dave leave. I almost had to hold back my own tears and could not believe he did not cry! I guess that is another thing about giving us time to breathe before the finale. In the end, Dave came back stronger, if not in skill, then in spirit. And maybe that is more important...

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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