Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Gail Simmons: Kristen Has "That Magic"

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Default image

Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

Make Melissa's Mom's Egg Custard

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Make Mei's Inspired Duck a l'Orange

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

Gail Simmons: Kristen Has "That Magic"

The judge breaks down each course. What did you think of the finale format?
Gail Simmons: I still can’t believe it’s already the Season 10 finale! It’s more intense than it’s ever been. We decided to completely change the way we do things and this time we’re in front of 300 people, and half of them are actually eating along with us. Usually, our chefs cook for a table of anywhere from eight to 20, but this year they were cooking for 160, an enormous task. Just to be clear, the challenge was to make the best of five dishes, head-to-head. The only qualifications were that the second dish needed to be scallop and the fourth needed to be snapper, so that there was a little bit of consistency in terms of how we were judging, but there did not need to be trajectory of the courses. I believe they didn’t even have to do dessert, if they didn’t want to, but in this case both chefs chose to, even though neither was plated and served. They could have done five appetizers if they wanted, they could have done five desserts if they wanted. We just asked them to bring us their five best dishes possible. I hope it was liberating for them to just cook their hearts out. I guess sometimes that can also paralyze you too.

I just want to say up front that I could not be more pleased with the final two chefs. I was devastated to see Sheldon go, since he really was a favorite of mine throughout the season and of all TC seasons combined; I think he’s so smart and so kind, a great chef with a lovely spirit. But, I believe Brooke and Kristen are truly exemplary as TC contestants. They have very different styles, but they both have such strong foundations, distinct points of view and super strong cooking skills. I was really excited for this final meal. Let's go through the dishes.
GS: All of the courses we ate from them were strong. There were very few major gaping flaws with any of their dishes, but we needed to choose which one we preferred, and that’s based on a combination of technical finesse, as well as flavor combination, presentation, creativity—these are all the things that go through my mind. I am not just judging arbitrarily on which one tastes better, although of course, that’s part of the equation too. We started with Kristen’s liver mousse and Brooke’s crispy pig ear salad. The chicken liver mousse that Kristen made was technically faultless. The mousse felt silky and velvety, although it was quite a big scoop… the presentation of Kristen’s was the only thing that I felt was slightly strange. The mousse was underneath all the frisee, so when I went to look for it, I couldn’t find the mousse, I had to dig through the lettuce for it a bit. But the flavor of hazelnut and prunes and chicken liver to me was sublime. Rich, with that nutty-toastiness from the hazelnuts, and the sweetness that cut through the fat from the prunes, and then that bright, dressed frisee just gave it a bit of freshness and bit of crunch. It was delicious.

Brooke’s dish was equally appealing. That six-minute egg was the most perfect it could possibly be; it was just set. The yolk wasn’t too runny, but it was loose enough to still create a little bit of a sauce. The chicory was so well-seasoned and so bright, and the pigs' ears were a fun, smart  and tasty addition. Mine weren’t as burnt as other people’s, but Emeril’s and Tom’s were significantly burnt, to the point where you could not overlook it. My issue with that plate was that the candied kumquat and apricot jam were with the egg, and the crispy pig ear and chicory were together in the salad, so the egg was totally separate from the pig ear on the plate. They just weren’t talking to each other as much as I wanted them to; they looked like two separately plated dishes. They ate well, so it’s not that it was wrong to separate them, but I didn’t know why she needed to do that. Why not place the egg right on top of the pig ears; so that when you cut through it, it dripped into the salad? Isn’t that’s what she wanted you to do anyway? I think when I asked her, she might have said it was do-it-yourself a little, but I don’t want it to be left up to me, I want it to be a fully-composed thought, orchestrated and controlled by the chef who made it. I was looking for a little more of a point of view. That’s why, for me, Kristen took the first course.

Second dish… both were incredible. But for me, Brooke absolutely won the scallop course. The scallops they were given were so pristine and fresh, they actually came in their shells, so part of the task was opening, cleaning, and preparing them, before you even could cook them, which was an enormous task, and both chefs did very, very well. But it did add a lot to the use of their time and their sous-chefs. The dishes were both brilliant, and I would be right at home in any of the finest restaurants in the country, I mean that truly. Kristen served hers raw, just slightly cured, with citrus and lavender, and she made a Meyer lemon and apple garnish. The contrast of its tartness with the sweetness of the scallop was really outstanding. Her preparation showcased the raw scallop’s beautiful texture. I really appreciated that she held back, and didn’t feel like she wasn’t doing enough by keeping it raw and clean. She presented us with flavors that were so fresh, bright and clean. For me though, there was something about Brooke's dish that proved why she is such an excellent chef. In the same way that she impressed us when she combined squid and sausage in the Anna Faris and Chris Pratt episode, or mussels and frogs legs on the ship -- Brooke can take very disparate ingredients and work with them in such a way that you can’t believe you’ve never eaten them in that combination before. That to me is just exceptional, and this scallop dish was another example of it. The scallop and salt-cod were a great combination. But then she added speck a healthy dose of mustard seed. Somehow they didn’t overpower anything, but instead balanced it all out.  The mustard gave her dish a tang which really elevated the richness of the salt-cod and contrasted with the sweetness of the scallop, and then she added romanesco – a cauliflower hybrid, that was just slightly charred, and served in perfect bites. Everything else on her dish was very soft in texture, and very muted in color, but the romanesco brought it all together. It was an unusual dish and the flavors really worked! it inspired me, it was like nothing I’ve ever seen or tasted before. Whereas I couldn’t help but feel with Kristen’s dish that, although beautiful, I’ve eaten it in some combination or variation Brooke said she made sort of a fatal error by going with the chicken wings for her third course. Do you think it was a mistake?
GS: I hate to say this, but I do think it was a mistake. Let me assure you that chicken wings are my number one favorite food of all time, and I’m not exaggerating. I love a chicken wing any form; even better if it’s a spicy, Asian-inflected chicken wing. And this probably was the best chicken wing I’ve ever eaten. However, as much as it was delicious, served simply with yoghurt tahini and pickled kohlrabi salad, it was still just a chicken wing. In one of our previous challenges it may very well have won, but for the finale.... I know she wanted redemption, I know she wanted to do it to prove herself with chicken from our fried-chicken challenge in Seattle, but she’s already redeemed herself! She’s in the finale! This is just not the place to settle old scores. We wanted to see her stretch; we wanted to see her put all of those challenges behind her and just bring us her best possible food, which she did with the scallop. Yes, it was an amazing chicken wing, but this wasn’t a little chicken wing challenge! We expected something more complex, more original more from her. Perhaps it would have won if Kristen’s was not as good as it was, but Kristen’s bone marrow with celery root was outstanding. Judging them side-by-side, Kristen’s was much more layered, much more imaginative, and was technically flawless. The fact is, Brooke made that dish to compete against herself, not to compete against Kristen. I think she simply lost track of who she was competing against, and that is where she lost us. Both chefs seemed to have made their fourth dishes before and felt really confident in them.
GS: And you know what’s interesting? I liked both of the dishes, and again, if Brooke’s hadn’t been right beside Kristen’s, if I had been served only Brooke’s at a restaurant, I would have been very, very happy. You don't get to hear it, but I actually said when I was critiquing this course that both Brooke and Kristen made the same mistake: they both served their greens in a long stringy fashion, which I found difficult to eat! Brooke had a collared green slaw; the strips of the collared green were very long and covered and saucy, so when I ate it, it slapped against my chin and was messy. But Kristen did the same thing with her leeks – a very long and stringy vegetable. And yes, Hugh, I know you can use a knife, but actually, leeks are often hard to cut, because they are so stringy and filmy, like an onion is, so I found that to be an issue with both dishes equally! 

I loved the pomegranate with Brooke’s red snapper; I loved the pork cheek which was so tender and flavorful, but Kristen’s addition of uni and charred little gem lettuces just made the dish feel more whole, more connected, more cohesive to me. And so, I enjoyed the flavors as they all melded together just a little bit more. It was such a narrow margin, but that is why Kristen took the fourth course as well. And by doing so she won Top Chef!What an extraordinary, historic win. Kristen literally battled her way back from elimination and took it all, which is why Last Chance Kitchen was made: to give people that final chance. It’s unconventional I know, but like any challenge we need to change and grow. Starting in our ninth season, we wanted to do something new, and I am so proud of the result. Not only did I think we got better food than ever because of it, but also because I think Kristen truly deserved it. I believed it back when we eliminated her from Restaurant Wars, and I believe it now more than ever. I have no doubt that Brooke, Sheldon, Lizzie, Josh, CJ, Kuniko, Stefan and the rest, will all go on to do great things, and I expect great things from all of them, I’m so proud of all of them, especially Brooke. In a way, Brooke accomplished something beyond just competing through the finale: Brooke conquered an enormous amount of challenges and fear this season. That really can’t be overlooked or underestimated. Planes, trains, boats, automobiles, helicopters, Brooke has proven that she is one of the strongest chefs I have ever met, and I mean that truly. 

But Kristen, she just awes me. I think she is such a strong cook and such a strong leader. I know when she is ready she will go from being Barbara Lynch’s protégé to becoming a great woman-leader, and a great chef regardless of her gender, in this country. She has that magic. She understands food, how people want to eat, she has patience, grace and undeniable focus. I think that is what makes her so special.  

Congrats to them both! And hooray for a second woman Top Chef winner! Now we have two of 10, or 20%, which I will say is probably higher than the restaurant industry average. After 10 seasons, I think we have a pretty great overall track record for talent. Something to savor indeed. 



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: