Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Why Jeffrey Went Home Instead of Stefan

Gail Simmons explains why Jeffrey's crime against protein was worse. CJ, Stefan, and Josie return to the kitchen. What did you think when you saw them?
Gail Simmons: Well, obviously, we knew what they were coming back to do. At first, I had some reservations. But when I saw how it played out, it actually made perfect sense, and really switched things up for the show; I thought it was smart as it totally changes the dynamic. You'll see as the show continues, what that means—not only for the chefs who are new (the 15 chefs who were cast) but also for these veteran chefs. We’ll learn if having completed before gives them that advantage or not. The three of them have changed a lot since they were last on the show, so it’s great to see them back again, and see how they interact with the other chefs. They come across, on that first day, sort of feeling superior.  But I think the Top Chef kitchen is a great equalizer—everybody’s humbled. Quickfires humble you. For the Quickfire Challenge, they had to create a dish that highlighted the local shellfish. So, the chefs choose their groups. We’re kind of seeing this side of John that’s sort of nicer; he’s really into working with Kuniko.
Gail: John seems smart. He’s strategizing.  It’s kind of funny that he was like “She’s Japanese; she must have good knife skills.” That was ridiculous, but you know what? He turned out to be right. And, that team was really strong, whether they knew it before or not. What a crazy thing having to pick teams when you’ve literally just met people. You have no idea who is who, what their strengths are, so it’s a big chance. You have to learn to trust people very quickly, but you also have to fend for yourself, because at the end of the day, only one person wins; the good news is that with this Quickfire, no one goes home. What do you think of the Carla backlash that's starting to emerge?
GS: I don’t blame them. She is who she is, she’s larger than life. I don’t doubt of talent, but she’s a big character. And big characters are great to watch, but they’re not always great to work alongside in terms of just getting along. I think there’s a way of working in the kitchen that the other chefs are used to that she defies.  She’s very loud, she’s throwing things, she’s talking non-stop.  It can be very distracting, especially when you’re trying to work. She drove me crazy by the end of the episode too! As we focus on the local seafood in this challenge, do you recall one seafood moment in Seattle that was somewhat of a revelation for you?
GS: I had so many seafood moments in Seattle! I basically stuffed myself all season long with oysters, spot prawns, crab, and salmon. We’ll get to more of that as the season unfolds. But, it really is interesting to me that you’d think in this day and age of travel and shipping, no matter what coast you’re on, no matter where you are, that there isn’t such a difference in terms of quality of ingredients. But we tasted so many things this season that you just can never get of such high quality on the East Coast. Like spot prawns, I’ve certainly had them before, but God are they good in Seattle. And we’re there in perfect season for them. Sweet, delicate prawns that basically need almost no cooking. They’re really, really special to that part of the country. So that was sort of amazing.  OK, so on to the Elimination Challenge. Well first, you were saying the three returning chefs kind of changed a lot. What were the things you noticed since the first time you saw them?
GS: Josie was on Season 2; that was SIX YEARS AGO. Everyone changes. I’ve changed a lot in six years. She’s calmer, more confident; she’s just developed her own style. That’s what happens as the years go on. You work harder, you learn about yourself, you have different experiences that shape who you are as a cook, and I think she’s just really found her place. When we met her in Season 2 she was cooking at Marlow & Sons in New York, I believe, which is a great restaurant, but she has since found what her passion really is, which is globally influenced comfort food. She comes back to it again and again throughout the season.

CJ has grown enormously. I was always a CJ fan. I always thought he was a strong cook, but again, Season 3 was five years ago, and he’s had a lot of experience since then; he’s done a lot of hard work. He went to Copenhagen, and was really inspired by cooking at Noma there. He’s become so much stronger. I believe the CJ from Season 3 and the Josie from Season 2 could not have competed so well with the chefs in this season, at this level. Not that they couldn’t have competed; I should say that they just would have had a much harder time, they were less experienced, but we all were I guess...

Stefan has changed too. Whenever he was in front of the judges this season, he actually was a lot calmer, more direct, less arrogant to us. That’s not to say he wasn’t arrogant. But he was a little more thoughtful, a little more introspective about who he is as a chef, what he expected from himself. He wasn’t just saying how great he was, he knew he had to put something behind it. He’s always been a good cook, there’s no question that he’s talented.  But…well, you’ll see... What was it like judging at the Space Needle?
GS: It was a very foggy day, unfortunately. But it was great that we were rotating, and having Ambassador/Chef Tom Douglas with us allowed us a great tour of the city from above. By the time we got up, I felt like I knew the landscape of Seattle really well. I could point at landmarks, and Tom [Douglas] took us through all the major neighborhoods and pointing them out. Seattle is really a beautiful city, filled with water ways and lakes, obviously mountains; it’s very, very green. It was a great place to start the season, because it gave us a great sense of Tom Douglas is our guest judge. Can you tell us a little bit about him?
GS: Tom Douglas for President!

Tom Douglas is basically the default mayor of Seattle. He owns something like 20 restaurants, and he’s opening up a least 20 more this year... ha! Driving around town with him, he would constantly point to a random corner, and say "I’m opening a Thai place there. Oh yeah, I’m opening a pizza place there; I’m opening a donut place there." And he’s serious! He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. We spent a lot of time with him; he showed us such a great time all season long. He really was like our private ambassador to the city. And he’s beloved by all of Seattle, not just the food community. And is restaurants are fantastic, so he certainly knows a lot about food in that part of the country. Very appropriate to have him as our first guest judge. Everyone made fish except for the Veterans, who went with the quail.  Did you think that was a poor decision? Or if they had executed it well, would they have made a good decision?
GS: It was a good decision. We had no guidelines; we just wanted them to use local ingredients—we never said, "You have to use seafood.” I think it was smart of them to differentiate themselves, it wasn’t the risk of making quail that was the issue. You just have to cook it well. Quail is very small animal. You want to eat the breast medium rare, on the pink side, or else its very tough and dry because there’s very little fat in it. Stefan probably left them on the heat just 30 seconds too long, and that’s all it takes with such tiny breasts! I guess Stefan’s not so adept at handling breasts after all! Ha! And so the winning dish was once again the Blue Team. Have you ever had anything poached in chili oil before?
GS: Sure, in Chinese cooking… I’ve certainly had tofu with chili oil in it and fish. But I thought their version was modern and really inspired, really delicious." Lingcod is a beautiful, delicate, flakey white fish, it was the first thing we tasted that day, and it was the best. It had so much flavor, and balance, the fish was beautiful. It was a very, fresh, delicate dish. Jeffrey unfortunately goes home. What was the difference between him overcooking his fish and Stefan overcooking the quail?
GS: The difference was the degree of done-ness. Overcooking slightly is one thing. Yes, Stefan's quail was overcooked and a little dry, but Jeffrey’s halibut was pummeled, unfortunately. He had put it on way too high heat, on both sides. We kept referring in the episode to how it was hard-seared on both sides—with a fish that delicate you probably could have just seared one side, turned it over and it would have been done. And he could have monitored the heat a little better. There were pieces of it that were essentially burnt. It was really too bad.

I was so sad that Jeffrey was the first to go. He’s so cute, and I barely know the guy, but I know that it was a very difficult challenge, and overall the food was all very good.  For a first episode, I would say that it’s actually the best food we’ve ever had. Of all the things we tasted that day across the six dishes, Jeffrey’s piece of fish was the most flawed element. 


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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