Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Holy Matrimony, Batman

Tom Colicchio on what marriage has tought him and where Stephen failed.

I am happily married to one of my favorite people on earth. Here's two things marriage has taught me:

How to communicate.

When to shut up.

Here's something else I've learned: Get enough sleep.

I didn't learn that from marriage. I've learned that from experience. Our contestants really screwed this week's challenge up. Why? No sleep. This week's Quickfire and Elimination Challenge were part and parcel of the same task -- design and execute a wedding reception for 100 guests in a short span of time.

Now 100 guests sounds like a large crowd to a home cook, but to a professional, it's a manageable number. And sixteen hours in which to do it, in my opinion, should have been plenty of time.

Lee Anne won the Quickfire with her imaginative and visual presentation - the Scotts were charmed and excited and, given their choice of an Asian-themed meal, they seemed reassured by Lee Anne's Asian background.

But Lee Anne quickly turned nervous as she realized that her triumph could easily morph into a liability. Sure enough, the other chefs blasted Lee Anne for her ambitious menu. Hello? How about Stephen's convoluted mushimono, yakimono, mimono dish? Or Tiffani's 100 mini-cakes of love and luck? Let's be honest...the real issue was the curveball the chefs were thrown...the wedding was the next day.

So they freaked out. Bad idea.

The first thing a Top Chef needs to do is keep a cool head, to enable careful planning and organized action. Right off the bat, our chefs allowed themselves to get into a panicked headspace and it interfered with their effectiveness from that moment onward. Their solution? To work all night. Second bad idea. Frankly, with five talented, capable people on board, and a smart, focused leader like Lee Anne, they should have divvied up the shopping and then returned to the kitchen that night to remove food from their packages, prep vegetables, clean fish and meat, etc. In other words get everything set up and ready to go.

Then they should have broken out the cake mix and made the cake, wrapping the individual layers tightly to maintain freshness. And then they should have gone home and slept for 5 hours. The next morning, they could have started early prepared and rested. This would have enabled them to cook things a la minute, rather than way ahead of time, which makes for flavorless, tepid food. They could have assembled and frosted the cake, then decorated it imaginatively moments before wheeling it out. They would have been tired, but not depleted, and thus capable of making trigger-quick decisions, and paying careful attention to detail. They would have been able to focus on technique and execution, and even add the subtle flourishes that raise a dish from rote to remarkable.

They did none of this.

Harold was rightly pissed off that flavorful, wild salmon was only available frozen (freezing depletes flavor and texture). The only fresh salmon was the farmed stuff - bland and uninspiring - but he bought it, opting for fresh over frozen. But why didn't he and Lee Anne cruise the fishmonger and choose something both fresh and flavorful, and then rewrite the dish? I am sure that the Scotts would have been OK with a change in the menu, if it made for a superior dish. In the end, Harold's farmed salmon - already bland to begin with - was pre-cooked (due to time panic) and didn't integrate with his green papaya salad. A solution as simple as poaching the fish in a nage of green-papaya vinaigrette would have taken the same amount of time, would have imbued the fish with some additional flavor, and allowed it to stay moist.

Stephen was painstakingly slow in making the dumplings, thus becoming useless to the rest of the team. This illustrates an important point - It's getting it done perfectly, consistently, in the allotted time that takes talent. Frankly, I think Stephen lacks the experience to be both excellent and fast, and tells himself his attention to detail is evidence of higher standards. Worst of all, Stephen designated himself the Service Director for the evening, and wasn't even around to put out his own dish.

As for the cake mix... Initially I was surprised to see boxes of the stuff, but frankly, it didn't trouble me. None of the chefs are bakers and white cake is white cake. A mix allowed them to turn out a decent product in a short amount of time. I wouldn't advocate this in other areas - say, substituting prepared food from a deli case for freshly made - but in this case I thought it made sense, since they still had to create fondant, buttercream, etc. to flavor and decorate the cake - and this is where the real skill lies.

Tiffani and Harold knuckled down on their dishes. Dave did the same, but he also jumped around the kitchen lending a hand wherever it was needed. This has been Dave's M.O. since day one - and is one of the reasons he is well loved by his teammates, if not necessarily respected as a cook. And when the team discovered the cocktail hour would go roughly twice as long as anticipated (thus requiring double the number of canapes) Dave was able to jump in and improvise to create more. For me the moment of truth came when I asked Scott (or was it Scott?) which part of the meal he loved and he couldn't answer. In other words, the meal was just a string of mediocre dishes. Interviews with guests led to the same conclusion - everyone was under whelmed. I felt personally let down - even embarrassed - because I had traversed the room promising a great meal, and the chefs didn't deliver. I held every one of them responsible. So when it was time to judge, I wanted to hear from the chefs themselves what had gone wrong. And to a one, they pointed to Stephen. Yet again, his grandstanding in the dining room cost the team a needed set of hands. Stephen saw himself as the crucial liaison between the kitchen and the guests, but a more experienced banquet director at the very least would have anticipated the wedding toasts and held off on firing the next course.

Marcy Blum, our guest Judge, was impressed by the waiters 'sweeping the room' (serving in unison) but truthfully - the waiters only 'swept' the head table, which looked good on camera but did little to enhance everyone's experience. And by jumping in to orchestrate service, Stephen left the hotel's Banquet Captain with nothing to do - a poor use of resources, and evidence that he lacks the confidence to delegate. Stephen truly believes that he will single-handedly "raise the bar" for the rest of us. And indeed he may - to heights of culinary and oenophilic rapture that mere people can't hope to appreciate. And when that happens, there may be diners somewhere who will happily pay to be hectored, lectured, and reminded of their inferior knowledge. But if those guests are out there, in twenty-five years on the job, I haven't met them.

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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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