Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hugh Gets Mushy

Hugh Acheson loves hearing fellow chefs share their culinary stories.

They wake up and talk about running, which is much easier than actually running. I find I talk about working out much more than I actually do it. Josh jokes that he signed up for the 5K but the season has evolved into a marathon. I saw Josh this past week and he looks like a new man with a super sweet and angelic baby girl in tow. Since that porcine-loving chef sat on that Juneau loveseat with the Mehenune, he has lost about 35 pounds.

In the episode at hand that cutie was still in the “on-the-way” stage, or at least for half of the episode she was… midway through, baby Georgia decided to make her debut. Sometimes TV just makes itself.  

Camry time to the highway helipad. Brooke has many fears but most of those fears pale in comparison to helicopters. Bravely, she’s going to face that fear as well. She straps into her seatbelt and clings onto Sheldon and Josh for dear life. They are her floaties. 

Golly, what a view. Unbelievable. Alaska really is bucket list material. 

Sheldon sees dogs and tundra and obviously wants to smoke a huge blunt. I think Sheldon has three degrees of separation from weed. I do not know the medicinal laws in Alaska but I would not recommend hampering advancement by getting a possession charge so close to the finale. 

They jump on the sleds pulled by some beautiful huskies and end up in front of Tom and Padma on a glacier. It’s a training camp for the Iditarod and the chefs will have to cook for the staff of the camp. They trudge through the snow and end up cooking in a tent. Halibut is happening for Brooke and Sheldon and obviously Josh is making breakfast, but he is concerned about time and scrambles the eggs instead of frying them. When problems arise, Josh scrambles. We saw that with the scallops on the big boat. Brooke makes a pan-roasted halibut with panzanella, beet vinaigrette, and red currant. When Brooke thinks up a dish, beet is usually involved, a decidedly Californian reaction to menu writing. She seems to have had some issues with the stoves and the heat really wasn’t enough to give that halibut a nice golden sear. It looks pretty good though, for dog camp vittles. 

Josh has Waffle Housed a cornmeal cake with scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and bacon, because nothing is ever complete without bacon. Arugula and stuff is on the plate as well. Tom seems to have an unidentified issue with the scrambled eggs but fails to explain his disdain. The staff does like the “big, hearty camp food” and confess to knowing absolutely nothing about fancy food not served under the natural glory of the Aurora Borealis, companioned by stunning huskies while sitting on a glacier. Hell, a PB&J sandwich would taste good with that backdrop. 

Sheldon whips up a peppery halibut with tomato sauce, sesame bok choy, and some radish. Tom likes the halibut cookery but says his sauce is too salty. Jeremiah, musher No. 4, loves this dish and does his best Jeff Spicoli impression. He and Sheldon disappear for 10 minutes to evaluate their chronic problems. Jeremiah is a winner of the Junior Iditarod which means he can pretty much do anything he wants to, cause that’s completely badass. 

In Quickfire deliberation, Tom clarifies that Josh’s scrambled eggs were pretty lousy and not whisked enough to blend the whites and the yolks. Tom does love Sheldon’s halibut, but the whole plate was not very exciting, and the win goes to Brooke, who impresses everyone with her crunchy crouton panzanella. I adore panzanella and you should too. It is so easy to make and makes for an awesome staple to in your culinary arsenal. Just make sure that vinaigrette is made with good red wine vinegar and that the bread is top-quality stuff, stunningly toasted. The recipe in the original Rogers and Gray Italian Country Cooking is probably the best primer on the whole idea of panzanella. That’s a fantastic book that everyone should own. 

Brooke is on a role. Babies are being born. Padma is going to heli-ride with the chefs to a Toyota rendezvous and then take the wheel herself to chauffeur the chefs to their lair of isolation. Padma driving makes Sheldon nervous. I would be freaking out. They get to the Al Jourgensen Inn, a ministry-inspired resort. 

Roy Choi and Emeril are cooking vittles for lunchtime. This should happen every day. I should walk up to a Kogi truck and Emeril should be making my lunch. Make it so, Roy. I went to A-Frame recently in L.A., and it was so great. Totally chill place that is very sure of what it’s doing. Fun was had. Roy handles rice with palpable reverence and respect. At the same time that I enjoy making fun of food and my industry I also adore people like Roy who speak so beautifully and authentically about their craft and what food means to them.  I can’t think of a more interesting meal than Emeril and Roy cooking up comfort food for lunch and then talking about their life experiences. Roy lets loose and shows how food really saved him. I can listen endlessly to the stories of chefs' lives, their businesses, their philosophy, their worries, and fears. I think listening to a multitude of chefs' stories has taught me a lot about life and empathy. It is a beautiful thing to me to hear how much Emeril has meant to so many chefs. The man is a legend. 

Short ribs and sugar-free cornbread are the menu for the lunch. I’d eat that. We learn that Sheldon moved up from dishwasher, just like myself, and countless others. You see it all when you start in the dish pit, and that vantage is so critical to understanding the entirety of the industry. 

The Elimination Challenge is clarified: they have to make a dish that represents the moment they decided to be chefs. The meal will be at the Governor’s Mansion with the big G and the First Lady in the house! From the top floor of the mansion you can see Russia and other looming threats to Alaskan security, like otters and Canada. 

Josh’s wife is having that baby whether he is there or not. Obviously he is pretty scattered. Brooke, who is not having a baby right now, is also scattered and can’t decide what to do. Snapper, foie, and many other things flash through the prep kitchen. Tom wanders through and interrogates the chefs, while taking credit for all foie gras recipes ever created. 

We see pictures of baby Georgia on Skype. Awesome. Very cute. Congrats, Josh. 

Sheldon is hearing voices in his head whispering about fish cookery. This is usually the first sign of going completely insane, or being near the end of a Top Chef season. The stress kind of gets to you. The Guv welcomes the whole gang and Tom cracks self-deprecating bald eagle jokes. I am not concerned as to why I am the only judge not there. Will not take this personally. I am crying on the inside. 

Sheldon makes a salty spot prawn and rockfish bowl. It is an ode to Sam Choi, but also an ode to the salty sea, and Sheldon knows he’s flubbed it. In a brief interlude, Wolfgang and Tom become guidance counselors and explain how they became titans of the industry through either listening to or ignoring their father’s advice. 

Brooke has made a duo of fowl: chicken and quail. It’s a comfortable dish which is really what Brooke specialize in. Wolfgang is making a move on Brooke’s mom through this dish. Roy likes the prodigal chicken plate from Brooke.Josh is making foie, because these things have yet to be outlawed in Alaska. Yo, Elves, what is this Russian disco music in the background during Josh’s explanation? The trio is pretty well-received, but the Guv wants something to chew on. He’s a tough-as-nails politician and wants some rawhide, you know? Grrr. 

Deliberation is interesting, with Josh telling the world that he is going “balls to the walls.' You go. Roy agrees. They all seem to like the foie plate overall, but it’s busy and Tom takes offense at this torchon-in-an-hour thing. Torchon of foie gras is named after the term for a kitchen towel in France. Used to be that they would clean the foie of the veins, shape the foie in a towel by twisting the ends until a cylinder is formed, and then you would cure the foie in salt for about a day, and then poach it very briefly to finish. It’s a three-day process. It’s yummy, but what Josh made is some distant cousin you pretend is not part of the family. 

Brooke confesses to having no idea what she was doing today. She says she was lost in the poultry aisle, passed out, and woke up with a bunch of birds in her pockets. These types of things happen in Juneau. The funny thing is that a Brooke with no plan is probably the strongest chef here, mostly when Sheldon stumbles. 

Sheldon gets lauded for cooking the fish and prawn perfectly and then gets whacked for making the salt lick broth that made the whole dish wallow. You have to taste your food before you serve i,t but more important than that, you need to taste it early enough to where you have time to do something about it! Luckily everyone seems to be in happy places and the judges take it easy on them. Brooke wins. 

Josh goes back to be united with baby Georgia and the rest of his growing family. Josh is a hardworking chef who has learned a lot in this season. He’ll be a better chef for it, and I wish him the best in all things. Godspeed to the Breakfast Master. 

You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet

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

Read more about:

You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet