Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Crumpet Burger: Simplicity Gone Awry

Hugh Acheson makes the case for throwing a curve ball.

Stefan wakes up and he’s feeling older. Not wiser and sharper, just older. There’s a crick in his neck and he’s all mad about those pesky kids in his yard again. Stefan is having his birthday and thinks it’s a cursed one. He still wants you to pay attention to him; he wants that a lot, but he also feels like you should not be sentimental about it. 

The Quickfire is led by Daisley Gordon, a very nice chef who wants breakfast on a stick. They are at Pike Place Market and Padma is admonishing everyone who recognizes her, like it’s a matter of national security. Pike Place is a wonderfully busy market known for great food and that fish-tossing thing.  

John and Josh get paired up because they don’t want to be paired up together. Karma-rific. This on-a-stick thing is a curve ball, but should be challenging…. Before you jump on that “They make great chefs do silly things” bandwagon please realize, a) I don’t write these ideas, and b) You gotta throw curve balls now and again. It keeps the batters on their toes. Me, I just do what I am told. 

Lots of wrestling for panini presses that look like they would last about a minute in a commercial kitchen. Strategy is key here and there will be no tears over spilt milk. But there is spilt milk. Brooke knows Stefan and is patient with his birthday boy self. The Bart Knight runs funny. Wheee. The Belgian strength is in things like judo and tennis, and definitely not regal running. 

Eliza is a Spreadhead. I did not see this coming. Widespread Panic are from my town, and their fan base is referred to as Spreadheads. Don’t say you never learned anything reading these missives. She sold vegan sushi (Grassy Roll, LLC) in the parking lots next to that Seitan’s Little Goulash stand. 

Tesar is being very agreeable and wants this tenuous union to be for the best. Jimmy Sears may have a short fuse but he’s not about to implode because of a bad partnership. He’s in this to win it. 

Bart is falling down, but will thank you when he falls... every episode Bart becomes more like Monty Python’s Black Knight. “Alright, we’ll call it a draw.” I have no doubt Bart can cook -- we’ve seen him excel, but he is the most affably goofy chef on the planet. I think he’s great. CJ is morning tall but shrinking. He thinks I have it out for him as this episode progresses, but I don’t. I like the guy. I just don’t like bad burgers. But, alas, I am jumping ahead.  

Gotta say I would have sucked at this food-on-stick idea. I love the curve ball, but this was a knuckler. I get ornery when I have to do something I don’t think is interesting and food on a stick has nothing to keep me focused. Tesar and Josh’s breakfast taco is skewered up and gets good comments. Josie and Eliza have made cake on stick. Micah and Kristen are here to win with a waffle. Waffles are hot right now, so who knows. Looks busy. They look good as a team. Team “I am Beautiful but Look at My Skillz Not My Beauty.” 

CJ and Tyler are crepe-ing bricks, but that salmon torpedo may be good enough to win. You can taste the confidence and self-loathing in every bite. CJ reminds the judges that they really want this win, as opposed to the other challenges when he thought it was OK just to show up and look tall. Tyler on the other hand just doesn’t want to lose. Interesting. 

Look, The Bart Knight and Sir Spam-A-Lot are putting up a good fight here. Their food is looking good, thanks to Bart beating back Brooke for proper equipment at Sur La Table (Freedom Fries language for “on the table”).

Berries on stick gets good accolades for Lizzie and Danyele but the judges seem to really enjoy the birthday boy’s Croque. 

Verdict: The Bart Knight and Sir Spam-A-Lot win and get immunity. CJ thinks this sucks and shrinks to 6’10”. Sheldon says “boom” and will be contractually obliged to never say “boom” again. 

A bunch of artisan stuff appears from the market. Same teams and they each get a product that you would get in a locavore gift basket. I do love cheese curds and bitters, but some of the other products leave me a little confused as to how to incorporate them into dishes. Evidently I was not alone. 

Cooking progresses, and the teams are pained to get along with each other. John and Josh have such obvious hatred of each other, but are going to make this marriage work for the kids. Josie and Eliza are saying that they are putting their egos aside, but Josie is having trouble with that. Stefan and Brooke have rose petal jelly which makes everything it touches saccharin sweet, but Brooke is so darned nice that their team chemistry is tight. 

What would you make with salmon candy, rose petal, jelly and cardamom bitters? Sounds like a failed episode of Chopped. Well the results turn out to be less than stellar, and Tom makes the decision to confront the chefs and tell them that ain’t nobody winning the moolah in this showdown. The chefs are saddened and go back to the Olive 8 to sulk and bark at each other. Josh antagonizes Tyler because no one else will. Tyler looks confused as to why he is being attacked. Tyler is a frantic man. Dishes with my mental notes:

CJ & Tyler: Pork Crumpet Burger with Spicy Dill Pickles

Soggy bottomed burger that was a complete failure. 

Beautiful Ones! Micah & Kristen: Cheese Curds Three Ways: Bechamel, Raw & Fried

Everything tasted like cheese dip. Not very exciting, but not a loser. 

Bart Knight & Sheldon Spam-A-Lot: Candied Salmon with Sweet & Sour Salad

Weird dish but again, not weird enough for losing. Definitely the most complex of the meal. 

Lizzie & Danyele: Coconut Curry Chocolate Mousse Tart

Strange flavors, but technically quite good. Chocolate work is never easy. Not as bad as CJ thought. 

Jimmy Sears-Tesar & Josh: Pan-seared Pork Tenderloin with Truffle Popcorn Grits

Just not a smart dish. Two very accomplished chefs who made many mistakes in their dish. Grits were horrible, and the pork was tough as can be.

Eliza & Josie: Curry Cardamom Broth, Manila Clams & Seared White King Salmon

Not shabby. Probably would have won if TC hadn’t taken away that chance. 

Stefan & Brooke: Rose Petal Glazed Muscovy Duck with Braised Cabbage

Sweet sweet sweet. I have a problem with really sweet savory food and this was a glaring problem. Judges' Table was utter hilarity with CJ trying to convince us that a dish we hadn’t picked should have lost. He shrunk even more. 6’9” now. 

The losing team was Tyler and CJ. Their burger was just not good. Crumpets are tricky business in that they are designed to soak up butter, and so when ours hit the table they were a soggy mess with really basic pickles and not much else. It was losing material. 

May they succeed. Tyler, go home and relax and enjoy life. CJ, you too. 


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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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