Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Pressure Cooker

Tom Colicchio dishes on Ted Allen's book party.

A big part of being a chef is handling pressure. Whether it's the pressure of coordinating meals perfectly for hundreds of diners each evening, pulling off an intimate dinner-party, or designing and opening a new restaurant. At the end of the day, the pressure is really about exceeding people's expectations. Always. Some cooks thrive on this, drawing fuel from a dynamic, high-stakes environment. Others fold like a beaten egg white. Or crack like a....ok, I'll stop.

Tonight's tasks were designed to see how our chefs operate under extreme pressure. The Quickfire challenge required our chefs to create a $3.00 appetizer in less than 20 minutes, from a wide array of ingredients. The pressure was on to make interesting choices and then follow through with ideas and execution. And under those circumstances, the usual candidates were the ones who shone: Stephen, Harold, Lee Anne and Tiffani.

Off-camera, I strolled through the kitchen and had a taste. Lee Anne's deep-fried oysters with lemon cream were delicious. Ditto for Harold's trevisano with gorgonzola brulee. Absolutely fantastic. Miguel's antipasto was unimpressive. Tiffani's oyster trio was simple, elegant and flavorful. Andrea's B.M.-inducing slaw wasn't anything to write home about, despite its worthy medicinal qualities. Dave's food looked like something from Bennigan's -- chicken skewers with a dipping sauce...ho hum.

And then there was Stephen... As I watch him work, I can see that he is mimicking the pioneers of avant-garde cooking; Like Pierre Gagnier - a genius who wrote the book on atypical plating - his dishes are filled with shocks of food, playful squiggles of sauce, and beautiful use of white space. Or Wylie Dufresne, who has made his name experimenting with texture and far-out flavor combinations on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Stephen isn't reinventing the wheel here; he's copying some of the greats. And in doing so, he's certainly separating himself from the pack, which is important in a competition. Ted Allen was clearly impressed by Stephen's daring presentation, and awarded him immunity. But to my thinking, while an avant-garde presentation can be cool, without mind-blowing flavor, it leaves me cold. I felt that Stephen's morsels of baby manila clams with sea beans were tasty enough, but not Delicious (Capital D). The presentation would have worked at Ferran Andria's famous El Bulli, in the hills north of Barcelona, where a typical 20-course tasting menu demands that each course be just that - a taste. But as a stand-alone appetizer...it wasn't my cup of tea.

That said, giving Stephen immunity did make for an interesting situation in our Elimination Challenge, which had our chefs prepare a multi-course dinner party in honor of Ted's upcoming book release. Tiffani wisely suggested that Stephen take responsibility for dessert because all of the chefs feel weakest in pastry, and he had the least to lose. I guess my presence in the kitchen was the inspiration Stephen needed to agree. He looked like a deer caught in the headlights, but he went ahead with it and acted like a team player. A bit of history: I met Ted Allen about four years ago at my own book party, so it was a thrill to help him with the debut of his own new book, The Food You Want to Eat. And despite my disagreement with his choice of Stephen in the Immunity Challenge, I'm a fan of him and his show. (OK...I've never watched his show. My wife made me write that.) But he was a fun and engaging guy, and it was great to have him on the panel with us.

But let's get back to the show's theme - pressure. I've been asked to prepare many dinners for guests' landmark events - marriage proposals, anniversaries, etc. It's flattering, but unnerving -- you aren't just making a meal...you're creating a memory. If anything goes wrong, the guest of honor will never just chalk it up to an 'off night.' Since professional chefs face that kind of pressure daily, we wanted our chefs to experience it for themselves. All the chefs were responsible for the ingredients of 'their' dish, and you could see their excitement at finally getting a chance to shine in their area of strength - even Stephen, who committed fully to his chocolate course.

Of course, the knife block changed all that.

When the chefs learned they would be preparing someone else's dish, you could feel the hostility and dismay coming off them in waves. I understood why - they had invested so much of themselves in the planning of their dishes. But I also feel that this was a real opportunity to assess the caliber of our players - talented chefs grow more creative in the face of adversity, not less. And while a real chef may not be happy about being thrown a curveball, they sure as hell can't have a meltdown because an entire kitchen is looking to them to figure it out.

Enter Miguel. He was reassigned Lee Anne's cheese course of fourme d'ambert, a creamy, dense cow's milk blue cheese, with a bright counterpoint of beet sorbet. In the bustle of his station, he accidentally dumped salt in the beet puree instead of sugar. Oops. First of all, this mistake tells me he must have picked up a cup of salt and dumped it into the saucepan, rather than using his hands. To an experienced cook, the difference between the feel of salt and the feel of sugar is palpable. Everyone has grabbed salt accidentally for sugar at one point or another, but if you're using all your senses, including touch, it's easy to stop yourself in time. (And before people start demanding I bring back Ken - it is appropriate, essential even, to use your hands during the cooking process. But hand to mouth and back again - not ok.) Faced with this mishap, Miguel started to unravel. He lacked the ability to regroup and assess.

Andrea, characteristically, stepped in to help, but Miguel's disorganized thinking and panicked response showed him to be a potential liability one day in his own kitchen. I was also underwhelmed by Miguel's inability to learn the name of his cheese - it was the central ingredient in the dish! Nerves or no nerves, I feel a Chef should be knowledgeable about the food he is serving.

Despite her kindness, I also had a problem with Andrea's performance. She complained that latkes "aren't my scene" because she likes to make healthy food - but what is inherently unhealthy about potatoes, smoked scallops and caviar? If frying pancakes was her issue, Andrea could have found a way to interpret the ingredients according to her own taste and inclination. For example, she could have cooked the potatoes with a small amount of broth or water, sea salt and fresh herbs to make a chunky soup - a modern take on vicchysois - folded in the scallops and finished the dish with a dollop of creme fraiche and caviar, for a healthy twist on the ingredients she inherited. Instead, resigned to Miguel's vision, she served a lackluster dish of cold potato latkes piled with scallops and caviar.

Dave's John Dory poached in Court Bouillon (a classic fish poaching broth made from water, vegetables and vinegar) wasn't terrible but it tasted as though all the components had been cooked separately -- they never coalesced into a real dish.

Ted felt Dave was so preoccupied with respecting Andrea's original vision that he failed to inject any of himself into his work. This is characteristic of Dave's caring nature, but his lack of solid technique and his emotional wobbliness could definitely undercut his chance at winning. I've yet to meet the guests willing to pay good money to help a chef through his personal issues. Sorry, Dave...it really is about the food.

The chefs with the most experience handled the challenge calmly and found a way to make it their own. Lee Anne was a case in point: She took Tiffani's concept of duck, gnocchi and figs and ran with it: She roasted the breast, made a confit of the leg (confit is the French term for 'preserve' - here a duck leg is cured in a combination of salt and duck fat) and served them with fig compote-stuffed gnocchi. The dish was decadent but nicely balanced. Even though Tiffani's concept wasn't really Lee Anne's style, she had the technique and versatility to pull it off.

Tiffani also put her unique, confident stamp on Harold's beef dish by introducing flavorful fois gras fat into the bordelaise sauce rather than the typical bone marrow. The dish, "Beef a la Harold" was delicious and well executed.

I was impressed with Stephen's decision to team up with Harold on their two dishes. Since he had immunity, and Harold poses a real threat to him winning, Stephen could have left Harold to struggle alone through the complicated dessert course. But Stephen's own pride wouldn't allow him to abandon his idea, so the two worked together and emerged with not one, but two great dishes. Gail felt that Harold's chocolate creme was too rich, but I was impressed that he tackled a dish with a high degree of difficulty, despite a lack of dessert training, rather than opting to create a less-risky chocolate preparation.

The dinner party came off well and Ted was pleased. But it was clear to us that certain dishes were inspired - excellent even. Others weren't. And we caught a whiff of the dynamics in the kitchen. When it came time to judge, Ted took Andrea to task for letting her philosophy of food override her ability to wow people, which is what a chef needs to do. And we came down hard on Miguel for letting his nerves get a hold of him; his lack of composure could have potentially derailed the entire meal.

Part of being a chef is accepting that sometimes you have to fire people, often for the greater good of the organization. Is it more important to be liked or to be great? We all try for both, but it isn't always possible. That's why I put the question of who should go home to Tiffani, Lee Anne, and Stephen - I wanted to see how they would decide if this meal had come from their own kitchen. Lee Anne tried to stick up for Miguel (while not denying his meltdown). Tiffani was clear that he should go - but there's been some bad blood between them for a while. Stephen made the point that Miguel may have messed this challenge up, but overall he is stronger than some others in the group.

At the end of the day we made our decision not according to kitchen heroics or hysterics, but by the food. Despite Miguel's panic, he turned out a decent, if uninspired, dish. Andrea, on the other hand, failed to execute hers well and lacked the ideas and technique to turn it into something special. In short, she had 'checked out' and it showed. When the cameras were off, Andrea confessed that she hadn't come to Top Chef to win, but rather to make an impact on how people eat. My answer to her was: if you hadn't won an immunity challenge and stepped up your game to get to this point, how much of an impact could you have ultimately hoped to make? Winning - ambition - isn't such a bad thing when you have a message to convey. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe she's just too darn nice, but Andrea just didn't want it badly enough.

And for the record - I ran into Miguel recently here in New York City and guess what? He remembered the name of the cheese.

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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