Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Totsiens, Lizzie

Gail Simmons explains her disappointment over Lizzie's elimination. So, now we’re in Alaska.
Gail Simmons: Alaska, wow. Alaska blew my mind. It was one of the most beautiful, lonely places I have ever been. I’m from Canada, so that’s saying a lot in terms of arctic tundra. Let me just say, a lot of crazy stuff went down for all of us in Alaska. We have Sean Brock as guest judge.
GS: Yes, I’m a huge Sean Brock fan. He’s such a talent. He’s a really loyal Southern boy who was brought to the most northern point of the United States.

Anyway, I loved the first challenge; we ate lunch at that crab shack there every single day. There are only a few places we could really eat in Juneau; we ate breakfast at a diner, lunch at the crab shack, and dinner at our hotel every day. The whole crew. We ate so much Alaskan King crab. And you just can’t get it in the rest of the country the way you get it there. I thought all four chefs did really outstanding job in the  Quickfire; they were creative, it was beautiful, and I’m sure it was hard for Sean to choose. Moving on to the Elimination Challenge: Salmon and Sourdough!
GS: The day before this challenge, Emeril, Hugh, Tom, and I went fishing, and it was on a salmon run and it was spawning season, but we weren’t fishing for salmon. It was this amazing river, and it really was one of the most beautiful days I’ve ever spent on Top Chef. Tom caught a lot of fish, just for the record. And the girl of the group caught almost more fish than anyone else. Apparently in fly fishing, women are better at it than men because they have a more gentle wrist because they’re not used to throwing footballs. I had a nice fish-catching day.

As for the sourdough, they had a 30-year-old starter, and I think they did a really good job  with the sourdough. It is not necessarily the most challenging bread, but making any bread is difficult because it’s dependent on the humidity and the temperature and the pan that you’re making it in. I think that they all actually did a pretty good job with their bread. This is the first time I can ever remember that we’ve asked the chefs to make bread. Besides just on the show, and it really is kind of treacherous. Making bread can be very therapeutic. Meanwhile, Josh's wife is almost ready to give birth, which made me so nervous the whole time. I can’t imagine how anxious he was and the stress he was under, and the thoughts that were racing through his mind, not being able to be with his wife. But, he was doing it for the cause. Let’s start with Josh’s dish, the Roasted Garlic Sourdough Soup with Sockeye Salmon & Black Olive Croutons.
GS: I remember thinking that the idea for the soup was perfectly wonderful, especially for the cold weather. I also have a very distinct memory of the dish being very garlic-y. If you put garlic in soup, that’s OK, but when you’re mixing it with something as fatty as salmon, it gets very aggressive and tends to overpower the rest of the dish. The black olive croutons were wonderful because they gave the dish a little texture, which balanced out the fat really nicely. It was a rustic dish, a dish to curl up with on cold nights with a fire. Josh’s cooking is very direct, which I like, but when you’re balancing soup with salmon, you need to really pull back and sort of restrain. Sheldon's bread didn't seem to work, and he got comments about the smokiness of his salmon.
GS: I really admire Sheldon for taking two ingredients that are so far from the ingredients that he usually works with and trying to infuse his own style and personality into them. Adding the matcha, too, was a valiant effort. I totally get what Sheldon was trying to do. That tea was already very tannic, and so it was too sour with the sourdough bread. I just think they didn’t really play well together. I just want to say, of all the breads, it was made very well, but the matcha wasn't a necessary choice.

We also gave Sheldon a hard time for using chum, because as we said over and over again, chum is what you feed the dog. But, you know what?! Lobster was something that they fed the dog for many, many years, until we discovered that it tastes good too. The type of salmon didn’t bother me. The smokiness really went well with the green tea and the salmon; it was really bright and fresh, and because it was warm, it felt appropriate. And the soup was so smooth and bright green and beautiful. Delightful overall. I really enjoyed eating that dish. And Brooke won with her Sockeye Salmon & Seafood Broth with Mustard Seed Caviar & Dill Sourdough.
GS: Whereas the matcha was a clash with the sourdough, using dill with the sourdough really enhanced it. I love dill and it really goes well with salmon, especially with that little hint of savoriness that the dill added. And her dish was just technically so finessed. The mustard  seed with salmon, obviously… the broth took a lot of time to reduce, and there was a lot of flavor in that broth. There were just a lot of beautiful little touches and detail in her dish, and I think she was nervous because Tom gave her a hard time. There was nothing we could say about Brooke’s dish that wasn’t complimentary because she did a really terrific job. For bread and for salmon, she nailed the challenge. And poor Lizzie went home.
GS: Lizzie! Oh, Lizzie. I think I cried three times, watching this. I have so enjoyed having her on the show with us, and she’s such a talented cook. She reminded me of Tiffany Derry or Carla Hall in that people underestimated her and she didn’t make a lot of noise with her food. Everything she cooked this season, she was never the boldest or the most outlandish or even the most creative, but her food was always so thoughtful and just the kind of food that I would be happy to eat all the time. It was delicious, it was heated well, she has clearly a lot of talent. But with this dish, she made some errors. Her bread was the best bread we ate all day, quite frankly. The problem was that the rolls were so large in proportion to the salmon that you just lost the salmon, and it just became kind of a salmon sandwich, and at the end of the game we were expecting more from her, first of all. And second of all, we didn’t get enough flavor. When she explained the dish to us, the citrus and the beets are great complements to salmon, but she glazed the salmon, and she should have marinated it to really infuse the flavors, and so it was just glazed at the end of the cook time and then put it on a very large roll that was very bready, it just sort of got lost. It was a great idea, but we just needed more flavor and more ambition. Very, very sad to see her go, and she will be missed. And to her I say Totsiens, which is Afrikaans word for "good-bye" and "see you later."


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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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