Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

'Chef' Shack

Danny Meyer is the perfect guest judge for the battle before Restaurant Wars.

Hello, my little matzoh balls! This is Week 1 AJ. After John that is. Not only did he get ousted from the main competition, but he fell to CJ in a very exciting Last Chance Kitchen where the two chefs had to cook anything they wanted using pots and pans purchased at a garage sale. CJ now has six wins under his belt!his sixth win! And, John isn't quite out of the competition yet -- you still have a few more hours to vote for him to stay in the competition. You can vote John or Kuniko HERE.

Back at the Top Chef house, the chefs are reflecting on John's elimination. No one's too upset except maybe Stefan, who lost his "morning friend." Older men waking up earlier than everyone else? How stereotypical! Ha. 

When the chefs enter the Top Chef kitchen for their Quickfire, Padma is joined by Wolfgang Puck. Micah doesn't call him a God like he did Emeril. Hmmm. The chefs are issued with their Canada Dry Quickfire Challenge: to create a dish highlighting real ginger. I must confess that I kind of hate ginger, but I love ginger ale, so go figure! I gave up soda almost exactly a year ago, and it's been tough, but I have snuck in a couple bourbon and ginger ales here and there. Shhh. The real catch to this Quickfire is that the chefs only have 15 minutes to cook -- a time Wolfgang thinks is too long. I thiiink he's kidding, but actually, I'm not sure. He's a tough cookie! The chefs make a lot of interesting things, many of them opting to caramelize the ginger ale. Kristen proably had the most innovative concept by infusing her fennel in a CO2 cartridge. Stefan opts to use his Eastern European charm… and lays it on thick with Wolfgang. Also, though, Wolfgang, just liked the taste of his dish. Stefan made a nice California dish, which is quite the compliment from Wolfgang. Lizzie's watermelon soup was well-balanced.  But Stefan's mistress, Brooke (I shall call her that since Kristen is his wifey), wins. Wolfgang even said Brooke's dish could be on his menu at Chinois. On the other hand, Sheldon found himself on the bottom with a "pedestrian" dish that Wolfgang could find at a cheap Chinese restaurant. Yikes. Josh's dish -- what's he word we're looking for -- underwhelmed. Double yikes! AM I the only one starting to think Wolfgang is our toughest judge?! He sure doesn't mince words. Culinary pun intended.Heading into the Elmination Challenge, the chefs are greeted by one of the most successful restaurateurs in the country -- Danny Meyer.  You can just visit his website to see all the amazing NYC eateries he owns, but I'd like to point out that he is Top Chef Master Floyd Cardoz's partner in North End Grill. And, well, he's responsible for Shake Shack and the glory that is the Shacktacular. Thank you, Danny Meyer! So, honestly, there is no better candidate for guest judge for the first half of… Restaurant Wars! [Cue the balloon drop.]

The chefs are tasked with creating a concept for a restaurant and a dish that embodies that concept. Danny's advice? To "do it from your heart. You can't fake soul." Not having enough soul has bitten a couple of our chefs in their arses in the past, so this seemed extra-ominous to me. There will be two winners, and four chefs returning as sous-chefs (Kuniko, Carla, Chrissy, Eliza.) The chefs start diving in to their concepts. Josh is set on Bistro George, a sweet ode to his father. Josie is making Cuban food to shout-out Miami. Micah is going raw and not cutting his own fish -- that's what Kuniko is for. Josh thinks it's a bad idea. Brooke is going with "Un-kosher," which she describes as Jewish food gone awry, to which Tom retorts, "It's like my mother-in-law's seder ever year." Badum-bum. I warned Tom this would be in the episode, so he could do some pre-emptive damage control with his wife, Lori. Ha! You don't want to insult a Jewish woman's holiday preparation.

Brooke's name and concept reminds me of Traif in South Williamsburg, a word based not he idea of non-kosher food. And you should all absolutely eat there because it's amazing (unless you keep Kosher, of course.) A lot of Jewish-style restaurants have popped up in the past, including Nikki Cascone's now-shuttered Octavia's Porch, which was delicious, and should never have closed. But my go-to Jewish-style place (besides traditional delis like Katz's and Ben's) is Kutscher's in Tribeca. You might not think to order the roast chicken, but you should. It's exceptional. And don't forget to save room for a rainbow cookie sundae!

But I digress!

Brooke is going with matzoh ball soup. Stefan, in an odd twist, selects Carla to work with him, and, hey, they actually get along! But Stefan is also making lollipops again. For those who remember Stefan's first turn on the show, he loves a lollipop.After the chefs are done prepping, we celebrate Sheldon's 30th birthday. Happy birthday, Sheldon! This makes me worry for him, though, as Stefan mentioned that birthday curse from his season. I'll cross my fingers for Sheldon. 

The next day, Danny Meyer reminiscences about the early days of Gramercy Tavern and first meeting Tom Colicchio. I love this stuff. Apparently the dish that won Danny over was sea urchin with crab meat and mashed potatoes, a dish that remains in Tom's arsenal. Gail's face when Tom revealed this was precious. She was fascinated! I've said it before and I'll say it again -- you can't go wrong with uni.

Tom reveals the importance of making a good showing at chef tasting events. I actually found this comment surprising because I've heard many things about similar events from chefs over the years -- many really hate doing them. But Tom explained the purpose of being "best in show." I was shocked he cared that much! But it makes sense.

The chefs start serving their food. Stefan has a blender accident all over Brian Canlis, who takes it in stride. Josh's steak isn't seasoned enough. Lizzie's is a little heavy. Danny knows exactly the spot from which her food was inspired in Italy, so it had to be perfect. I wonder if Lizzie counted on someone having such a specific point of reference.

There are three dishes I want to discuss deeper. First, is Micah's with his raw concept. You knew he was in trouble when he started sayinghe was cooking for ladies in Beverly Hills watching their figures and Tom made a face. He just served too much and not in an interesting way. I think he's right that his concept could make money, but Danny made a good point as well: why wouldn't someone just go for really good sushi? He needed more (quality, not quantity) -- like someone who looks like Jason Lewis serving his food (Sex and the City reference!)

Secondly, Brooke made a matzoh ball offensive to Gail's people, who also happen to be my people. I died at this comment. I actually had to send matzoh ball soup back at one of my favorite brunch spots a couple months ago because it was so dense and undercooked, I couldn't cut it! So, I felt the judges' pain.And finally there was Josie, who, again, wasn't ready with her dish. Once she finally served it her pork was dry. Come on, Josie! Get it together! The judges' waiting was making me physically anxious.

On the bright side, the chefs loved Kristen's fancy dish and Sheldon's sour tamarind soup. I looove tamarind, so i would love to try that. Thankfully, Filipino food is fairly trendy right now, so I will likely be able to get a chance. Kristen made a point that Gail found particularly great -- that her concept was formal, and that's how she prefers it. In an era where everything is rustic, or homey, etc. it's nice to hear someone still going for the formal side. I love a formal night out, so i appreciated this too.

The winners, Kristen and Sheldon, had to select their teams for next week's episode -- Restaurant Wars -- before they knew who would go home. It worked out that they selected men vs. women. Aaand, Micah goes home. So, it's four against three next week. Bye, Micah! Good luck in Last Chance Ktichen.

Next week's episode is outta control, so until then, Have a Nosh! And, let me know in the comments below what your restaurant concept would be and what dish you would have created to represent it.

 

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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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