Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Minority Report

Gail tries to answer the question, "So, who's fault was it?" How do we begin? We can start with the boys being down one number, and what you thought about the battle of the sexes overall?
Gail Simmons: 
Obviously we only have seven people left, and they’re all pretty strong. Actually, in a way, it was split well because there were strong people on both teams. I think Part 1 of Restaurant Wars really helped. It made the restaurants much stronger than they otherwise would have been—stronger in terms of concept, and delivery on that concept, than any restaurant has been in the past. It wasn’t just, “You have 24 hours—think of what you want to do and throw it together.” They still needed to throw everything together, and it was still 48 hours to get the food out, but their concepts were both well developed already. Of course it was still going to be a struggle for the boys, because they had one less person and an enormous amount of work. Kristen was concerned that she had never led a kitchen for that amount of covers.
I think it’s a huge challenge. We forget that Kristen is still quite young. She’s immensely talented, which we’ve established, but she’s still a sous chef—which means she’s the second in command in the restaurant, not the first. And there’s a huge difference. She’s usually not the one expediting, which means calling out and managing the timing of all the orders, and that’s the most critical role in service.

Also she’s a perfectionist -- she had such a clear vision and wanted to control all of it. Of course that’s the intention: you want it to be yours. But part of being a chef, too, is learning that you cannot necessarily touch every plate. It might be impossible. So what can you do as a chef to make sure the food still looks the way it should, and is tailored to your vision, but you are still empowering the chefs underneath you, to have the confidence to execute it without you guiding them every step of the way?  You need to give them clear direction, but you also need to give them responsibility. And I think she failed to do this in the end. Let’s start with the men’s winning team.
Every dish that Sheldon put out was great. There were no major flaws. Yes, the Balut could have been more Filipino in flavor, in ingredients (it was actually very French with the egg and the foie gras and the duck confit), but it was a modern interpretation, and was certainly executed beautifully by Josh, so we couldn’t really fault it. It just didn’t follow the same flavors of Filipino inspiration in terms of how it tasted, as the other dishes did.

The Kilawen was excellent, the Miki was absolutely rich and so flavorful, and the Adobo flavors were really bold. Sheldon had such beautiful clarity on how the dishes should be. It’s obvious that he has been working on this concept for a long time. I hope one day he gets to create Urbano as a real restaurant because I think America is ready for it. If you aren’t now, you will be once you taste his food. Perhaps because we had less familiarity with this cuisine, we were not as quick to find flaw, but that’s the risk you take! He took a risk in giving us food that was foreign. That in and of itself can be very difficult too, because we have no point of reference for how it’s supposed to taste. But it was all balanced, pleasing to our palates  and each dish made us want to eat it again and again.

The real issue with Urbano, and the reason that there was any debate, was hospitality. It really had to do with Stefan. If we could have sent him home, we would have. I know he was in over his head, and as he said, he is not a server—but he was in charge of something he could have handled in a million ways and he chose to handle it with arrogance, in a flippant manner, which is the last way you want to be treated in a restaurant. So much was going on: they got pummeled by guests, people weren’t leaving, there were 25 people waiting at the door at one point, which is just insane. But keep in mind that they had served the exact same amount of as at Atelier Kwan, so there had to have been a bigger issue there. They chose to do a lot of extras: cocktails, etc., but they needed to keep service moving if they wanted it to be so detailed and they couldn’t. All that aside, there was something lost in translation with Stefan. He was not gracious; he was curt. He did not explain the food very well either. There were a few moments they didn’t show in the episode that made things worse. The Balut itself was sitting on this egg-white, hardened, salty, white mass when it came, so it looked like meringue, and we all instinctively went to eat it, and we found out that it was a hard, salt, thing just there as a decoration. No one gave us any guidance. Also, we couldn’t find servers, we couldn’t find Stefan to answer questions. His staff didn’t know what wines we were drinking; they didn’t know what course we were on. Service and hospitality really went down the drain under him. But we just felt that the food was all executed so well, and the concept was so great, and there was really far less flaws in the food than at Atelier. At the end of the night, they’re chefs, they’re cooks, and this is about the food.  I don’t think anyone is going to argue with the fact that the boys won this time around. It’s just who went home that was the difficult decision. Which brings us to the ladies….
Kristen’s idea was fine-dining, French food, with a twist. If you think about at the list of dishes (bouillabaisse, charcuterie, macaron),  all of them are classic of French haute cuisine. Kristen took each one and served it in a completely new way. For the most part, the concept was very successful: we understood what she was doing. The issues we had with Atelier Kwan (Atelier is the word for workshop by the way) were not in the concept, but in the details of execution.

So, the charcuterie: I think it was clear how good this dish was. Charcuterie is usually some sort of terrine, pate, forced meat, etc, served with bread, mustard, cornichons, and a compote. We know what rabbit charcuterie is usually like in 99% of French restaurants that we go to. Well, here it was as a soup, and this was the perfect example of her concept. Those flavors were all there. But it was in a completely alternate form. This was obviously a collaboration: it was Kristen’s idea, but Lizzie really owned it and executed a beautiful, creative and smart plate of food.

Next was the bouillabaisse. We had a number of issues with it. Bouillabaisse is a very traditional fish stew with saffron, a lobster base usually, or a seafood stock. It’s rich and very layered in flavor. You usually have a saffron rouille (mayonnaise) on a toast as an accompaniment. The idea that they were deconstructing it was certainly fine, but we were missing major components. If you’re going to give us bouillabaisse, not in a traditional broth form, than we still need to taste all of the components we expect it to have, like we did with the charcuterie. Remember that we had no idea what was going on in the back of the house, but regardless, we could tell that there was a gaping hole in the dish; not to mention that the seafood was not all cooked consistently. We saw that there was some kind of sauce, because there was literally a drop on some of these plates. But it was clear that there was no real balance of components in this dish. When you set us up to taste something so familiar, you limit your creative license in a way, because we have a very clear picture of what it’s supposed to be. Again, Kristen had a great idea, but it wasn’t executed properly so it didn’t follow through.
Her Beef Bourguignon had a similar flaw, actually. It was much better cooked. The beef itself was beautiful, it was deconstructed using a delicious beef short rib. The mushrooms, the carrot, the garlic -- that all made sense. But there was no sauce! This is probably one of the most famous French dishes to Americans ever, because it’s what Julia Child made famous. We wanted that tartness, that brightness that a rich red wine sauce brings, and which cuts through the fattiness of the beef, but it wasn’t there.

The baked cheese dish that Brooke made was completely fine. I didn’t find it to be very inspired. But Brooke did such a wonderful job with the front-of-house. Despite everything that was happening in the kitchen, all the drama, she kept service going; she was so pleasant, she was so knowledgeable. You would never know that there was any stress in the kitchen. And that’s what you want to see. Because I don’t care what’s going on in the kitchen, I just want the food to be good. We didn’t even realize until afterwards how hard she was working to make sure that happened.

And then there was Kristen’s macaron which was, again, a good idea, but I didn’t think it translated into a great dessert. There were some tasty elements, but I thought the cake was a little dry and the plate was not as refined as everything else we have seen from her that day. It just didn’t seem to fit for me. Traditional French macarons are made out of almond flour but I tasted some sort of almond paste which was much stronger and not sublte at all. That’s where the similarities began and ended. You didn’t get that delicateness, that crumbly crunch, the creaminess. There wasn’t enough of a link in inspiration from the original. Just because it’s made with almond doesn’t mean it’s a macaron. Again, you’re setting us up with a macaron interpretation—we need to at least see that line of thinking. 
Of course, I am picking everything apart in detail here, but in general, it was a pretty good meal with a lot of high notes. There was nothing inedible, there was nothing bad, it was just missing a few key elements that made it imperfect. Especially because it took like 30 minutes between courses, or more, which is kind of unacceptable. Were you surprised about what was going on in the ladies’ kitchen, now that you’ve seen the episode?
Well, we knew there was something going on in the kitchen while we were there. We absolutely knew there was a problem with Josie’s dish too. You could tell; it was obvious that there was something afoot. We just didn’t know what. Was the issue that Kristen didn’t think the dish through when she explained it to Josie? Was it that they had an idea that didn’t work out? Was it that Josie wasn’t pulling her weight? In the end, we realized that it was all three of these things, which made it a very complicated elimination. Certainly to date, it was the most complicated and controversial elimination this season. It drove us all crazy. We were at Judges' Table arguing for hours. But we could only use the information we had in front of us. We know that everyone is going to watch this episode and be mad at us, because when you watch it, you see Josie not pulling her weight, Josie not following orders, not getting the stock done the day before. The bones should have been roasted on advance so they could have started the stock earlier in the morning. The stock should have been done two or three hours before service, and then they would have been able to use gelatin to thicken it properly, and they would have been able to execute it the way Kristen wanted. Kristen had a very clear vision, but Josie did not step up to the plate for her. And because of that, Kristen couldn’t rely on Josie to execute the dish. Kristen ended up needing to make a quick decision, which was to not add the gelatin, to just add the cream, and to not put a lot of sauce on our plates because she didn’t have confidence in it. But by doing that, we were then able to detect the issue.

So whose fault was it? You can certainly make an argument for both, but I guess Kristen is the chef. She didn’t give Josie the confidence and tools she needed to problem solve when issues came about. She wasn’t able to think on her feet in that moment of crisis, when the dish should have gone out. Because Kristen had so much stock in her idea, she wasn’t able to be flexible and adapt to the problem at hand. Let’s just say that judging does not need to be unanimous in a case like this; it needs to be majority. I was not in the majority.

But I understand why we sent her home. Kristen’s young and she’s stubborn. This a role she’s never taken on before. She got very frustrated, and she’s also incredibly hard on herself. An extreme perfectionist. And she was very angry with herself that she wasn’t able to do everything perfectly. But you have to learn that walking away because it wasn’t exactly the way you envisioned it is not the way to deal with issues. You need to face it, adapt, and be flexible, think on your feet. I’m sure this was a great learning experience for her. I don’t mean to sound condescending. She took on too much and could not control the outcome. 

Everyone just needs to watch LAST CHANGE KITCHEN now, root for Kristen and hope that she wins. Tonight it’s Kristen versus CJ, which is going to be crazy, because they’re both super-strong. It’ll be a battle to remember.

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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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