Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hugh Acheson: We Are All Chefs

The judge explains why we shouldn't dwell on the finalists' gender.

 

I ain’t gonna lie and say this was easy… for anyone. It was a slog. Kristen battled through umpteen Last Chance Kitchen’s slaying dragons and giants (literally), and Brooke had to endure hours of ukulele and having to make up songs with Sheldon. To Sheldon, making up songs is easy as long as they rhyme with "munchies." Brooke also flew in helis, mushed dogs, voyaged on large boats not named Triumph, and generally had to endure her own customized version of Dante’s purgatory. Down to the wire it went, and on the semi-finale they both poured their hearts and souls into dishes and came to the finale. Sheldon poured the heart and soul of some guy named Henri into his food and disappeared into his own “Where’s Sheldon” line of postcards. He’ll be laughing first when he owns his own Relais Chateaux hotel on the North Shore with the finest medicinal pot shop in the island world. Chez Menehune, a chill resort. 

So this live finale thing was completely different and wild when we first stepped into it. Wacky. It felt like a culinary Olympiad, which actually just happened about a month ago and the USA did a pretty darned fine job. Proud of Chef Rosendale and all he accomplished. Plus it was the most fun I had ever had live tweeting from a L.A. hotel room as the sun came up. I was beat for days… tweeting culinary commentary that is humorous in 12 languages is exhausting. 

Kristen has a potty mouth. Swearing like a sailor. They have picked teams and Brooke has CJ, Kuniko, and Stefan. Kristen picks Josh, Sheldon, and Lizzie. They have to use scallops in the second round and snapper in the third. Some sadist was called for advice on both, and that guy suggested scallops be live and in their shells. He has been described as a youthful Canadian with one eyebrow. If you see him, give him a hug, but one of those hugs where you don’t actually touch the other person. Air hug?  

At first glance, I think that Team L.A. looks pretty strong. Kuniko is quietly very talented and left too soon, Stefan is an old master in dealing with the duress of competition after being on for 103 episodes over 45 seasons of the show, and CJ is tall enough to see into the bottoms of all the pots… WITHOUT BENDING OVER. This must give them favored status. 

Then again Kristen’s team has two chefs who have worked really well together all season: Sheldon and Josh. If they are making Filipino breakfast then this thing is OVER. Plus they have the one chef who actually wanted to leave the show about eight weeks ago, but kept on hanging on: Lizzie. She’s very talented and looks like she got some needed rest in the break. Kristen has picked them over her T.V. husband and the other two because of their lack of egos. OK, I can see the egos in CJ (hipster glasses) and Stefan (copious amounts of Drakkar Noir), but Kuniko? Has she secretly been calling the other chefs “useless ding dongs that I could mop the floor with” in Japanese? If so, this all makes sense. 

ASIDE: Kuniko and her fine mentor chef David Myers have opened a very hot new restaurant in Century City called Hinoko and the Bird… you should go when you are in the area. Cause they both rock. 

OK, I’m back. Stuff is being cooked. Kristen has brought two sheets of torn paper that she is calling a “menu.” This worries all of America. We then get to meet the whole grouping of all Top Chef winners. The very loud whooper is Ilan. Watch his new show on G4/Esquire… coming soon to your local cable provider. 

Kristen makes chicken liver in her sleep. This involves a blender, a stove, and a fry pan, so I am pretty impressed. Can she make a toasted rye sandwich with chicken liver mousse, pickle shallots, and fleur de sel in her sleep? I doubt that, big-game talker. As that thought floats away, CJ is caught burning the pig ears, even though he has the highest perch in the show. LOOK DOWN, CJ. LOOK DOWN. In his defense my ears were pretty tasty. But you riled up the old guys, CJ. You know better… once you get them started they won’t back down. In this episode I did feel like Sam the Eagle, looking down from my opera box on the show at hand. Sam and I have a lot in common. He’s a regal bird. My problem is the lights are making me look less than regal and all crazy in my grey suiting. It was a long day, a very long day. 

Dish One comes out:

Kristen's 

Chicken Liver Mousse with Frisee, Mustard, Prune, Hazelnuts & Pumpernickel

Brooke's 

Crispy Pig Ear & Chicory Salad, Six-Minute Egg, Apricot Jam & Candied Kumquats

Judgment gets passed and winner winner chicken mousse dinner goes to Kristen. I really did love Brooke’s salad, and my ears were a good CJ batch, but Kristen’s was a showstopper. Ilan goes nuts. When you need an ally in a cheering contest, consult Ilan. You will not be disappointed. 

The scallops are getting to Kuniko. I know, I am evil, but those scallops were phenomenally fresh. Total beauties. CJ gets cheered for something -- I am not sure what. Sheldon is making a cure for all that ails everyone. We flashback to Brooke in the kitchen on the first episode, and then we go through the very long list of her fears. She has really come a long way through all this. She a veritable badass and is making her family proud.

Back to the cooking. Brooke’s family is into it but the little guy is falling asleep. Scallops are being plated and we have minutes to go. Ilan is very excited. Kristen calls out Brooke’s dish for being too complicated for such a beautiful ingredient. Come on now -- let’s let the food speak. 

Second Dish:

Brooke's 

Seared Scallop with Salt Cod Puree, Speck, Black Currant & Mustard Seed Vinaigrette

Kristen's 

Citrus & Lavender Cured Scallop with Bitter Orange, Meyer Lemon & Apple

Though Brooke can’t list all her stuff and Hosea has an overcooked scallop, my dish was bangin’. Crazy part was so was Kristen’s. Kristen’s had such utter simplicity when it came to the scallop that it was hard not to revel in it. So simple, yet so good. But, Brooke wins round two in a tight scorecard. That romanesco stole the show and just make a complex dish that much more refined and earthier. Wonderful cooking by both. Lizzie is tasked to pick parsley for a marrow dish and Brooke wants redemption from her fried chicken debacle earlier in the season. Kristen is going for super-unami and Sheldon totally understands. Josh wants another set of eyes for the marrow, but that man can only create new eyes every nine months. 

We look through the past of Stephanie (on the first episode) and Kristen, friends, co-workers, roommates, and NOT LESBIANS. Good to know. Kristen’s inauspicious exit is documented and then her rise to the top of LCK. She crushed it. And here she is in the finale. With the money she is going to Korea. Love the beauty of that. 

Gail does the family table visit. Nice peeps. You gotta love supportive fathers in our industry. I have one and it meant the world to me, still does. 

Chicken wings and marrow are going down on plates. Let’s get eating.

Round Three

Brooke's 

Vadouvan Fried Chicken with Sumac Yogurt-Tahini & PIckled Kohlrabi Fattoush

Kristen's 

Celery Root Puree with Bone Marrow, Mushrooms, Bitter Greens & Radishes

 

I have to admit that the choice of wings was interesting. I love wings. I just didn’t expect them to take center stage here. They were great. Really bright, refreshing, and truly ballsy. Contrary to TC, I got the salad. It was the refresher. It worked. Kristen’s marrow plate was awesome. The marrow sung with crispiness, and the puree was rich and the mushrooms beauteous. I loves it. Mine was hot. Padma breathes cold air a lot, so you have to make her food extra hot. Lizzie yells support from the shadows. Three votes to Kristen and she gets the win. Brooke yells to Jesus as she returns to her stove. Snapper cometh. Beautiful. Ilan has positive affirmation. Paul giggles. Michael says nothing. Blais molecularizes a thought, but not in a language we know. 

On Brooke’s side nothing is over yet. Cheek is on the horizon to pair with the fish. If Josh decides to make breakfast, Brooke may have a chance. 

We run through the accolades of some of the previous winners. Ilan is still looking for his heart, which is over there, somewhere. 17 restaurants between them. Awesome. 

This chatter about another female Top Chef winner is nice and all, but they are all CHEFS. The only thing different about it that I can sit with my daughters, point to the screen and say, “See, you can be like that. Nothing stands in your way.” The cooking world has come so far. Chefs like Elizabeth Faulkner, April Bloomfield, Traci DesJardins, Naomi Pomeroy, Jenn Louis, Mary Sue Milliken, and many others, kick ass not because they’re women but because they are great chefs who cook circles around most everybody else in the industry, men and women alike.

Round Four

Brooke's 

Braised Pork Cheek & Red Snapper with Collard Green Slaw & Sorrel Puree

Kristen's 

Red Snapper with Leeks, Little Gem Lettuce, Tarragon, Uni & Shellfish Nage

I loved both and my vote didn’t matter. Brooke’s dish rocked with perfectly-cooked fish and a great collard slaw. Kristen’s was bright: beautiful fish with uni, cooked lettuce, and a flavorful nage. I would have been torn, but probably would have gone to Brooke if I had been given a chance. 

Dessert, we will never know. 

Kristen wins. Godspeed to both of them. They both were amazingly inspiring this season and I personally took away a lot from watching them cook through the episodes. Much success.  

 

 

 

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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