Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

So Happy Together

Gail Simmons' behind-the-scenes take on Ted Allen's party.

Having Ted Allen as the guest judge this week definitely upped the ante for our contestants. Ted is an accomplished cook, and as we all know he has a great sense of style. He was also the first judge on the show who was not a professional restaurant chef. In some ways his dinner party Elimination Challenge forced everyone to work harder than they had before in order to impress him. I think they viewed Ted more as a discriminating critic than a teacher. And he brought with him a room full of San Francisco's most opinionated foodies, armed and ready to give their two cents as well! This was the challenge many of our chefs had been waiting for - a sophisticated, multi-course meal for a group of serious diners.

The twist of switching who cooked which course at the last minute was only one of the tests they faced as they entered the kitchen at Frisson. This challenge also required them to work as one cohesive unit for the first time in an upscale restaurant setting. They were forced to play off each other's strengths and weaknesses, share space and also share one single menu. Constructing a well-balanced meal of seven courses is no easy task, especially when each person is vying for his or her course to stand out from the rest. Overall, I thought they all did an excellent job, beginning when Stephen agreed to put his pretensions aside and act as pastry chef, since he could not be eliminated no matter how dessert turned out. Even though in the end it became Harold's responsibility, I was impressed with how well the two of them worked together. In fact, what stood out most for me through the entire meal was just that: the striking contrasts between our contestants, yet how unified they became.

Harold and Stephen could not be more contrary in their individual approaches to food. While Harold focuses on depth of flavor and simple, seasonal combinations, Stephen preaches style and sensationalism, cutting-edge creativity and fusion. To me, they are obvious products of their culinary backgrounds - New York vs. Vegas. And both have their place in the world of haute cuisine. The same can be said of Miguel and Andrea, a.k.a. Junk Food Champion vs. Health Food Guru. They may come from opposite schools of thought, but they ended up working together very well. Although in the past two episodes their partnership cost them both bottom seats at the Judges' Table, I was touched by their mutual respect and admiration. Last week, Andrea was willing to give up her immunity for Miguel. This week, when Andrea was eliminated, Miguel made a point of telling her how much he appreciated her friendship and was sad to see her go. Lee Anne and Tiffani have been at each other's throats since day one. Perhaps because they are both determined, talented female cooks in an industry still dominated by men. No doubt, they have both encountered their share of chauvinism and have had to push themselves harder than their male counterparts in order to get ahead.

I know I did when I worked in professional kitchens. We have all witnessed their claws come out in the past, but on this episode they were able to put it all aside. Lee Anne's winning course of Fig-stuffed Gnocchi with Duck Confit and Seared Duck Breast was exceptional. Even more so was hearing her credit Tiffani for its clever conception. And then there's Dave. Bundle of nerves, heart-on-his-sleeve, and totally volatile, Dave has become a sort of mascot to the group. Behind the scenes everyone commented on how eager he always is to jump in and help. He may have had the jitters in front of our diners, but backstage he was a positive team player, even if his fish course was forgettable. So what exactly is happening here? Why at the climax of competition is everyone getting along? (OK, almost everyone - Tiffani and Miguel are far from bosom buddies.) I believe the contestants are starting to learn that working together elevates them all. Just like in a "real" high-pressure kitchen where line cooks and sous chefs alike are often asked to take over each other's stations at the last minute, and they're also fighting to be noticed by the Executive Chef and get ahead.

At Frisson, the contestants seemed to realize that when service begins there is no room to think about sabotage. What matters is getting the work done to the best of your ability. Winning dishes will always speak for themselves. Of course, losing dishes stand out just as clearly. In each case this week the bottom three failed because their creators did not take the time to master them, and it showed. This was especially true regarding Miguel and Andrea. What bothered me most about Miguel was not his lack of concentration or calm in the kitchen, but that he was lazy in learning his ingredients. Chef jackets are actually designed for this type of situation! Those small pockets on the sleeve are made for holding pens and markers. All he had to do was use one. Write it down! I would much rather someone read correctly from a piece of paper than present their dish not knowing what it is.

Andrea put aside her usual conviction and copped out as well. Instead of owning her dish, she took a deliberate back seat, giving up on the challenge entirely. Why didn't she come up with a healthier alternative if she felt out of her league with fried latkes? She could have baked or roasted the potatoes and we would have been none the wiser. I was sad to see her leave. She is a kind, brave and very smart woman, but we all agreed it was her time. To quote our friend Ted, her dish was just not "Whiz-Bang-Decadent-Wow" -- and at this point in the competition, that is exactly how each dish should be!

You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet

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

Read more about:

You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet