Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Gail: "I Am Going to Get So Much S--- for this Episode"

Gail Simmons explains that none of the judges were rooting for CJ and Tyler's losing burger. So this week we start at Pike Place Market—do you want to tell us a little about the market?
Gail Simmons Pike Place is sort of the most iconic, food-related place in Seattle.  The Pike Place Market is the first place I go every time I’m in Seattle, for lunch, for snacks – there are so many great products. It’s just a really unique, historic market, that’s unlike anything else. Right on the water, beautiful views. There are some sort of hokey touristy things there, but there’s also some really great food, really amazing vendors that have been there for years and year. The very first Sur la Table, which we featured in the episode… that’s the original store. There are so many lunch counters: everything from Chinese strong cheese to Greek food stalls, and obviously, amazing fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, and seafood. 

You spend all this time living in a hotel, and you have a little kitchen, and I would go there every few days to get beautiful flowers to make my hotel feel more like a home. The flowers there are so cheap!  I couldn’t believe it, coming from New York. You can get an incredibly bouquet of peonies and dahlias for like ten bucks! And they last forever -- they’re just beautiful.  And of course fresh cherries and peaches and berries and vegetables and meats. It’s just a really unique place. I went there for lunch all the time. Do you have any favorite vendors that people should check out?
GS: Yes, I love Chukar Cherries, actually, you can see them in the background, in the episode. They’re a cherry farm.  They do all these beautiful things with cherry and berry products. They have amazing chocolate-covered berries and fried cherries, all natural, really delicious. I don’t know the names of a lot of the farmers’ stalls, and fish and vegetable stalls. There’s a great restaurant called Matt’s on the Market; there’s a great lunch place where I went to for a sandwich a few times, which was this old-school lunch counter called Three Girls Bakery. There’s a great crumpet shop that unfortunately our losers used for a really mediocre pork burger, but otherwise the crumpets are really great. For the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs are tasked with making breakfast for these vendors, but it has to be on a stick. What did you think of that?
GS: It makes it a little bit harder, make it more of a challenge.  Or then, it would just be kind of, too obvious. So, putting it on a stick makes it easy to eat because there was nowhere to sit, and you want it to be fast for all of the vendors who are working in the market. I actually thought that they did a really creative job -- some of them. You know, Lizzie and Danyele’s QF was lame, but I thought that there were a couple successful ones—that Green Forest breakfast that Bart and Sheldon made looked great. I thought that Eliza and Josie’s looked good… the Croque Monsieur -- they were all really good ideas.  So I was impressed from Were you surprised to see, at least for the QF, that John and Joshua were getting along?
GS: I never knew from shooting that they weren’t getting along. I only knew when I watched the episode. I thought it was interesting how contentious that relationship was. And it’s too bad, because they’re strong personalities, and this happens when you are competing against each other as well. It makes for a good storyline, to see how they fare together, and we’ll get to that even more in the elimination. On to the Elimination Challenge: the chefs have to use an artisanal ingredient that they pull randomly. 
GS: And a couple of the ingredients were hard, for sure.  And a lot of people had great ideas, but something happened in this challenge: this is the fourth or fifth official challenge in Seattle, and it fell apart somehow. Everyone fell apart somehow; I think they were all exhausted. They got up very, very early that morning; they were cooking at around 4 o’clock in the morning., 5 o’clock in the morning.  So I think they were just starting to wear a little thin and didn’t have their wits about them completely.  But there was not a SINGLE dish that was excellent. Which, I have to say, was not the case until this challenge; people were really impressing us. And this challenge let us down for two reasons: one, because the food wasn’t great, and I don’t think that they used the skills that we know they have, at the level that they’re able to cook at. And, at the same time we had a room full of people that made these products, so double stress. And we were really disappointed, and we feel responsible when our chefs don’t have a good showing. Here were these very generous purveyors who gave us their products and were excited to see people do something with them, and they really didn’t follow through. Bart and Sheldon had immunity, and it seemed like their dish had the least flaws.
GS: If we had to pick a winner, it would have been them. We didn’t reward them, because it wasn’t AS amazing, but it certainly was my favorite of the day; I just wish they had incorporated the candy a little bit more.  It was creative, and it looked very beautiful, so it was Going back to John and Joshua, they could have gone home; were you surprised to see how much they just gave in to each other, so as to not rock the boat?
GS: Oh, it was apparent. And that’s was we saw there in the dish. It just had so little effort put into it; there was no garnish, there was no finesse at all. It was just sort of like someone took a big spoon and slopped those grits on to the plate, cafeteria-style, and then put this very unappealing piece of pork tenderloin on top of it. And threw some gravy over it. And it was just beige, and boring, and didn’t have great flavor in it. It had a little bit of that truffle popcorn flavor in it, but not enough to really highlight the ingredient, which is too bad; it’s yummy popcorn. And it just looked very apparent that they couldn’t agree, so they just gave in and compromised. 

Josh really shouldn’t have cooked the meat that way; he knew it, but he didn’t stand up for himself. I don’t know why. I understand that you’re trying to not ruffle feathers because you want to get along with each other, but if you’re cooking, it’s your name on the line. Well, you don’t see it till you watch the episode, but we see Josh picking a bone with Tyler, back at the house.
GS: I don’t understand why Josh cares so much. Let Tyler give up -- one less person to worry about! I think Josh was just disappointed and angry because he didn’t want to give up himself. People might be surprised that Eliza and Josie didn’t end up on the bottom, with the rocks…
GS: Well, that just shows you how bad some of the food was that day! I mean, I had a little pebble in my broth! And those clams weren’t cleaned that well. It was a very lovely idea, the cardamom curry broth; there was a lot more creativity, and it delivered a lot more than the other dishes. On the scale of what you’d want to eat again, I would rather eat a little sand than have to eat that burger one more time. It’s true! Well, the vote did come down to you!
GS: I am going to get so much s--- for this episode. It was interesting that we did all have really different points of view, and this was an example of a challenge where we did not agree, the four of us. We did not come to a unanimous decision, but, you know, we agreed—it wasn’t as if Tom or Padma were really rooting for the burger.  We all disliked all the dishes. It was unanimous that those dishes were on the bottom, that’s for sure. It was just the nuances of who you sent home, and in the end, I just thought that if you look at the three dishes we put on the bottom, the duck dish with the rose pepper jelly, the pork tenderloin, the burger… out of the three, that burger, not only wasn’t a delicious burger, but it used almost no creativity, and also incorporated its ingredient the least. And so on all counts to me, it failed.

And CJ kept saying, “I just heard Tom in my head saying, ‘If you make a great burger, perfectly executed, what’s wrong with that?’ “ Yes! He’s totally right! IF the burger was perfectly executed. But this burger was so far from perfectly executed. The burger itself was dry, the crumpet was completely soggy, and the pickles weren’t mixed in—they were just a fry to put inside, which actually made it more dry. Why didn’t you put the fry pickles on the side? And then make a relish? Fold them into the actual burger? If you were going to make a burger, you wanted to taste that burger, you needed to taste that burger, and you just didn’t. What did you think of CJ kind of turning around and saying that the girls’ torte was worse?
GS: I’m sure he was frustrated. It’s interesting because you have to have perspective; you look at other people and you see their flaws, and he was right! That was NOT a good torte. Interestingly, here’s another weird thing that happened that day: I really disliked the tart as well -- I thought it was way too sweet. It already had this coconut curry BASE, so they put in the orange zest, and the extra milk chocolate, and it was just sort of overkill in every way. But at least they used the chocolate in a really interesting way, and a lot of people really liked it, including – if I can remember correctly -- Tom, and Padma. I think it was Padma’s favorite dish, which is why it wasn’t on the bottom. We can’t put it on the bottom if someone else REALLY likes it. I didn’t like that torte, but it wasn’t as bad as the burger.

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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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