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. 

 

 

 

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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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