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.  

 

 

 

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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