Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

May the Best Chef Win

Hugh Acheson was impressed with Brooke's food for how deep in the weeds she got.

Our semifinal episode begins in Alaska, whose state bird is the Willow Ptarmigan. Two chefs remain, and they have mushed, cooked, flown, boated, and smoked their way into this near-end of the competition. Josh has left the state to join his family and his newly-minted daughter, Georgia. 

Juneau at sundown and Sheldon and Brooke are dancing and jamming on the ukulele. Brooke is not entering a freestyle rap competition anytime soon. Sheldon, powered by Pre-98 Bubba Kush, is just coming up with hooks and lines left and right. 

Hold up -- we are fast-forwarding to a future time in some island nation. It’s like Lost with Sheldon. I am hoping that he is allowed to bring Ben Linus on as a sous and that they will cook on the wreckage of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815. Alas, he is back at his restaurant in training and has been stage-ing at the Dharma Initiative in his free time, learning how to handle tweezers, Xanthum gum, and anti-griddles. Back at his noodle joint, he does seem like a very calm leader as his legion of cooks crumbles under the bright lights of fame. Spoons are dropped, tostadas and buns are made, signatures are signed, shirts are sold. Off to a family BBQ with his family of super-cute Hawaiians. Vittles and brews beachside. Keepin’ the Menehune spirit going. 

To L.A. where Brooke is homesteading Cali’-style. She is raising a family and their robots, plus she’s a chef and restaurateur. She pays the bills and gets the pig ear salad prepped, cooked, and socially-documented. She hints to the cameras that pig ears for the finale would be handy. When would pig ears not be handy? Brooke narrowly averted a lawsuit by marrying her sous chef. They decide to celebrate life with Sang Yoon and Roy Choi at A-Frame, Roy’s kickass restaurant in Culver City. Y’all should go there. Great food. It’s a Toyota ride to Craft, L.A. In attendance are Tom, Emeril, Padma, and some guy who is dressed like he won the Masters… oh, that’s me. Sheldon and Brooke line up and wait for the arrival of the Last Chance Kitchen winner. We hear many shrieks and learn the following:

1. Carla is crazy, calls a squab “that bitch,” and butchers like she’s blind. 

2. Kuniko swallows live butterflies and keeps them alive in her stomach.

3. CJ’s burger still isn’t any good, and he has nightmares about crumpets.

4. Tyler is still my favorite enunciator. “OK, Freako.”

5. Tall people, short people, beautiful people, anyone can win in LCK.

6. Josie is still looking for her niche, and her salmon is on the floor. I picture the whole salmon wearing a headband, cause that’s how I roll.

7. Stefan grows on us daily. That is meant as a compliment, not like it’s a case of shingles. 

8. Kristen reigns supreme and comes back from her strange departure on Restaurant Wars. Reminder: I wasn’t a judge on Restaruant Wars. 

So the three-headed hydra of finales has been born. It’s a Shelbrookrist, genetically represented by Hawaii, East L.A., and Southie, Boston. 

The challenge is to cook a three-course meal at Craft with Tom expediting. Sheldon mentions that he is pretty on edge cooking at Tom’s house, like Tom has a bunkbed in the Craft L.A. kitchen where he lives throughout the year. The Menehune then threatens to set the place on fire. Tom tells the chefs that his customers expect a lot and not to let them down. This is called “foreshadowing.” Their menus are set and they get cooking. Sheldon changes hats and this is a curveball we are all trying to figure out. Brooke says she’s happy to see Kristen back, but her therapist is saying otherwise. Sheldon brings in da sexism and wants the best "man" to win. He is installing a glass ceiling in the kitchen. 

They pick proteins and Sheldon counts spot prawns, a popular skit on Sesame Street in Hawaii. I check on Brooke and she seems frantic and really, really happy to see me. We chat about sweetbreads, something I revel in cooking and I give sage advice on cleaning them. Blah blah blah. Brooke really has excelled this season and to now get as weeded as she is about to get is odd. The rest time before finale has left her a bit rusty. 

Tom checks on Kristen’s French, non-boring menu, which finishes with a chocolate "thing." She is desperate not to overthink the next few hours. Emeril checks on Sheldon and his Sheldon is feeling quail tonight. 

The Craft kitchen is a beauty, but to find a sheet pan you must make up a song, and then the sheet pans appear. Brooke burns nuts and is behind on her prep. She is flummoxed. Sheldon decides this is the perfect time to bother her. Dessert apparently is an afterthought for all of them, save for Brooke who is so weeded it don’t matter. 

We start eating. Tom mans his station. Martin Yan and John Besh have joined Padma, Emeril, and I for dinner. The tickets start pouring in. Tom is calmer with these chefs than he would normally be. 

Sheldon’s spot prawn is beautiful but underseasoned. Kristen’s veloute with duck rillettes needs acid but is overall a nice dish. Brooke’s sweetbreads is pretty darned fine in the modern American vernacular. The sweetbreads have a bit of sinew still though, contrary to my sage advice. Tom is now getting on the chefs and demanding more and more. They are barely keeping up. 

Kristen’s tuna and veal with lemon curd was interesting but needed more synergy. If it’s a play on Vitello Tonnato, I want more veal… I want something to bring it together. Kristen says she peed in her pants a little while Tom was expediting. TMI, but she is one of the only people who can say that and make it sound sexy. 

Brooke’s ribs are good, real good. If this is how she cooks when weeded than she has even more skills than I thought. It’s a fine plate of food. Sheldon’s quail, the smallest main course ever, is just anti-Sheldon. It’s like Sheldon was kidnapped by a Michelin chef with fancy tweezers. I wanted his flavors to shine, but they were muted, like a pine nut puree that can’t tell a story. 

Desserts are a mixed bag of melancholy. Sheldon’s weird fennel and white chocolate thing had no reference to Robin Thicke and was just odd. Kristen’s chocolate pot de curry crème was just not very inventive or skilled. Brooke had the best dessert but Tom found it wasn’t restaurant-worthy…. I thought it was pretty awesome. 

In the end you need to cook with the flavors and power that got you to this point. You need to cook with panache and zeal and intensity. We loved the old Sheldon with his ode to Hawaii and to the Philippines. It was food from the heart, not food from the latest Art Culinaire. 

That said, Sheldon rocks. He is a fresh voice for food in this country and brought such a warm and nice personality to the show and to the cooking. Godspeed. 

Best of luck to both Kristen and Brooke next week. May the best chef win.   

 

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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