Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Endless Breadsticks for Marilyn, Chris, and Anna

Hugh Acheson goes crazy for Chris Pratt and Anna Faris.

 

There are a dozen chefs left, not a baker's dozen. This grouping of 12 meet Marilyn Hagerty and I am very hopeful for an endless bread stick competition. Marilyn explains virality and her lesser known role as the wood chipper fixer in Fargo. It’s been a hoot, Marilyn. 

I am not on this episode but you’ll be seeing more of me soon. More than you probably want. 

The Quickfire Challenge is to create a sweet and savory dish based on your family lineage. Hagerty wants a dried beef ball, Cool Whip, and ham pickles… North Dakota has some strange food traditions. I wish I could make this stuff up. Truvia baking blend in the house. Marilyn is concerned about your holiday waistlines and figures that the best way to control the portion size is to give the chefs only one knife to use. Ridonkulousness ensues. The knife may end up in someone’s back. Danyele is trying to replicate her mother. Cloning in the Top Chef kitchen will not be tolerated. 

Stefan is making his Jewish ex-wife’s latkes. Wow, this is a lineage stretch but it was pretty vaguely defined. Eliza is recreating a String Cheese Incident/Phish/Widespread Panic acid trip of a dish from years back. It’s a foggy dish that she can’t really remember, but it involves hush puppies and a chunky child. 

The Belgian is making a waffle and then muttering expletives in Flemish. He is so affable. Disliking him is very difficult. 

So Josh made a Johnnycake. Marilyn she likey. Danyele made a bread pudding and Marilyn likey that too. Lizzie made a Bobotie with lamb. Kind of looks like Shepherd’s pie. Marilyn she likey this too. I am getting the impression that Marilyn is no Pete Wells in the criticism department and is really only prone to the positive. Sheldon has made a Lumpia with Truvia. Oompa Loompas suddenly appear but only Eliza can see them. Micah has made an untraditional tamale to further confound the Dakotan, furthering his feelings that Marilyn is a country bumpkin who won’t know what a regular tamale is. Sadly he’s spot-on with his foodie radar, and Marilyn confesses to not knowing what the heck a tamale is. Guess the Miliken/Feniger PBS show never made it to North Dakota. When your “border grill” is the Tim Horton’s on the road to Winnipeg your foodie culture may be a little limited. 

Bart’s waffle is chicken ‘n’ waffles for the Brussels set. Brooke’s apple crostata with cheddar is deemed homey, which may or may not be a compliment in Grand Forks. Stefan has been married to the same woman twice, strange but true. His dish looks pretty good. Josie is on the tamale truck too, but her example may be understood more clearly than Micah’s big city nonsense. Tesar is adopted, but more importantly is wearing glasses in the regular way. He has made a bondino that he usually feeds to children as they consume alcohol. Marilyn is all for this totally European Bacchanalian ritual. Eliza has made hushpuppies and clarifies that a family that gets fried together stays together (legal only in Washington and California; some rules and restrictions may apply). Gonna call this as I see it, but those looked pretty delicious. I’d eat that. 

Bart and Micah are bottoms. Marilyn does call Micah’s dish a taco. Take that you Blaxican! Josh, Stefan, and Brooke are tops with Brooke winning this thing. Homey is a positive in some Red States. Brooke is immune.

The EC is brought forward by Anna Faris and Chris Pratt. They are having a baby. I am so excited because they are my T.V. friends, who I have never met (I wasn’t around this episode remember?) And they are funny. I now am officially a crazy person. 

It’s a David Mamet moment and the winner gets a Prius C. Loser gets fired. Google that. 

Anna and Chris want game and stuff. Bring it. But before you do let’s have a Toyotour. Prius gang. Then condo time at the Olive 8. Josh calls Stefan “douchy” but he likes him. Ouch. But true.Kristen, beautifully but not-paid-attention to in this episode, is making pasta. She can cook. Her boss is friggin’ Babs Lynch who will probably put me in a headlock for calling her Babs, but oh well. 

They cook. Tesar is going to make an ocean dish harkening back to his time with Rick Moonen. Rick is oddly enough about to be judging this circus, and that’s going to put Tesar’s panties in a wad. Danyele realizes that her boar is a shoe and confides this to Josh who, as any good friend would, wishes her good luck with that failure. Guests come in to the party time. 

Rick arrives and Tesar is edgy, which is pretty much the norm. 

Meat-tastical Menu:

Bart Vandaele

Loin of Elk with Cherry Beer Sauce & Mushroom Couscous

Micah Fields

Braised Pork Ribs with Celery Root Puree, Grilled Apples & Celery Leaf Salad

Kristen Kish

Delice de Bourgogne Tortelloni

Sheldon Simeon

Braised Okinawan Pork Belly with Seared Scallop & Rice Congee

Lizzie Binder

Crusted King Salmon with Radish & Beet Salad

Danyele McPherson

Pan-Roasted Wild Boar, Hoppin' John & Tomato-Bacon Marmalade

John Tesar

Seafood Chowder with Cockles, Manila Clams, Crab, Mussles & Sockeye Salmon

Joshua Valentine

Roasted Pork Shoulder & Grilled Corn Puree with Succotash & Fennel Apple Salad

Eliza Gavin

Elk Ribeye with Elk Sausage Polenta, Spiced Carrots & Huckleberry Port Sauce

Josie Smith-Malave

Malbec Braised Short Ribs, Pork Belly, Polenta with Cippolini Onions & Figs

Stefan Richter

German Gulasch with Marjoram Bread Dumplings & Sour Cream

Brooke Williamson

Lamb-Stuffed Squid on Black Rice with Coconut Milk

The tasters seem to be loving it all. Brooke’s squid is killing it. Love it when people don’t recoil with immunity. Sheldon is doing good too. That boy has great palate understanding. He knows when things need lift from acid and when they need balance with oil or whatnot. Bart’s elk looks good and Rick likes it. Stefan’s dish gets pretty OK reviews, but maybe needed seasoning. Micah’s food has too much cream, but then again that rises to the top sometimes. Lizzie’s salmon is self-described as horrible. Eliza’s carrots are dragging the elk down like a .375 cartridge on the tundra. 

Chris Pratt is a very funny guy. Loved the Bachelorette thing. 

Danyele’s boar is not the favorite. Josh’s big boy delight is not seasoned well. 

Josie’s dish lacked contrast. So far this quartet is out of tune. But then Tesar’s chowder kills it. It’s revered and held on high. 

Overall everything seemed so much better than the last challenge. SO MUCH BETTER. 

Off to the judging table. John, Kristen, Brooke and Sheldon are first and they are obviously tops. Winner is Brooke with an impeccable squid stuffed with lamb, a dish people really were still talking about the next day. It was apparently amazeballs good. It’s a good day for her with twin wins. 

Bottoms are Eliza, Josh, Stefan, and Danyele for not-so-good dishes. Padma skools Josh on self-promotion. You want to be known as the “good pork” guy, not the “can’t cook pork” guy. Gail wants to analyze Danyele. Gail Simmons, therapist of reality TV. Tom joins in on this advisory counsel. You’ll be fine, Danyele. 

Eliza is outta here. With class too. You go Southern girl. We’ll catch a WSP show sometime soon. 

 

 

 

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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