Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

My Idol Has a Last Name -- It's M-E-Y-E-R

Hugh Acheson lauds this week's guest judge, Danny Meyer.

The tall man is still a champion in Last Chance Kitchen. If you don’t watch LCK, you should. It’s a fun 12 minutes or so. 

John Tesar is gone but not easily forgotten. He is now carefully tending to his favorite flat-bottomed risotto pot, plotting a burger chain, and building a nefarious weapon that will make all the pickles in the world his and only his. 

Not everyone is always happy to see John go though. Stefan misses his morning smoking buddy, but everyone else is ebullient. Josie is all excited about all Asians this morning. It’s either headbands, football, or Asians -- the days just revolve around the topics with that one. 

Wolfgang Puck is in the house. 

Ginger QF. They are cooking redheads. Stefan tells us the basics of ginger, and it really does sound like he’s reading from the Finnish/German translation of the Wikipedia page. Canada Dry ginger ale is stacked high in this challenge, but I don’t think you have to use it. Ginger is pretty versatile in the kitchen, but this challenge is a new one for me. They could make anything. I would probably make a shaved beef salad with ginger/citrus vinaigrette, pickled ginger, and crisp rice. Or a bourbon and ginger to drink and just quietly nestle under the table and hope that no one would notice. I do that sometimes. 

Meanwhile, Micah is being a p---y about the time constraint. The real test to whether you are a p---y is starting off the chat with,“I am not a p---y, BUT….” It’s like losing a swim race and sayin’, “I am not a sore loser, but is this a Olympic-approved pool? Cause I can only race well in those.”

This is a speedy showdown, so remember what I’ve told you in the past: finding your bearings and getting a plan, 5 mins; cooking, at least ten minutes; two minutes to plate up. See, already you’re out of time. Sheldon is swearing at his Chinese fast food because he saw that once at the food court at the mall. He’s also feeling the pressure of Josie making this a race-related day.  Meanwhile Josie and Josh are trying to procreate by bumping into each other. In nine months there will be an awkward celebration with everyone in headbands that say Chef Daddy, Chef Mommy, Chef Baby.

Josh has made a white chocolate thing, Josie a busy scallop, and Brooke squid with caramel. Lizzie has made a watermelon soup with Canada Dry. Micah has artfully arranged a shrimp salad with plums. Kristen has made a Thai-inspired ginger salad with brie. Weird. Sheldon has made No. 14 on the left side of all takeout Chinese joints. Stefan has appealed to Puck with a California tuna plate. He and Wolfgang converse in the language of love, German. 

Bottoms are Sheldon and Josh. “Now Josh, what is the opposite of overwhelmed?” Wolfgang is making up for the soft mittens approach he had in the first episode and just slaying these chefs. 

Tops are Brooke, Stefan, and Lizzie. Micah is lost in the middle again. Brooke wins with her squid deliciousness. 

Out comes Danny Meyer. Danny owns all of the fine dining restaurants in the world that Wolfgang doesn’t, plus the Dubai-headquartered Shake Shack (Sheik Shack LLC). I digress from shenanigans to say that I look at these two restaurateurs as awe-inspiring mentors who have taught the world so much about hospitality and authenticity in restaurants. One day when I am looking for a dishwashing job at Spago or Gramercy Tavern I hope they remember the kind words. 

Josh does correctly say that Danny is probably not coming out to OKC anytime soon, so this may be his only the time to make an impression. I dunno, Mr. Meyer likes him some BBQ and has been known to wander in Texas looking for it; who knows-- maybe his compass will point North to OKC one of these days. But if this season is any indication of the Josh’s porcine skillset, Danny has a one in four chance of enjoying great pork on the visit. 

It’s a quasi Restaurant Wars, but it’s a little different from normal, as it's in two parts. Each person is doing a dish from their on-the-fly restaurant concept. There will be two winners and then Part 2 of Restaurant Wars will be the next episode. They get to shopping and Sheldon is in heaven, because heaven is a suburban Asian foods super-store. He and I feel the same way because I think I saw god at the Super H mart in Suwanee, GA. Micah is finding his raw food niche, making damn sure you know he lives in L.A. Kristen recounts how she’s really lived through a crazy couple of years and she deserves to be here.

The booted cheftestants are the sous-chefs for this challenge, including crazy Carla. Stefan welcomes her with a comment about her a--. Stefan doesn’t really play the closet sexist… he wears it with pride. Josie bowls over Kuniko with enthusiasm. Lizzie is dumping all her dumpling work on Eliza.

Tom does his walk-around, and finds that Brooke wants to show the world some Jewish sensibility while still serving very un-kosher food. He visits Kristen, and they realize Kristen is now officially rich from the show. Tom tells her to invest in old guitars and everything will be fine. The rest of them wrap up Josie in plastic wrap and hope for the best. 

Back at the Olive 8, Sheldon is 30! He calls his daughters. Great picture of his kids. Awesome. I mean that.

They are set up in some outdoor Ikea furniture lot. But it’s inside! Crazy! It’s Bite of Seattle! If I had jobs to dole out I would not let Carla handle the liquid nitrogen. She’s disposed of bodies this way back in the day. You freeze them solid and then they just shatter. I have just written an episode of Dexter in my head. 

Kuniko thinks this is a good day for Micah. Maybe this is opposite day? 

Pictures of when Tom had hair. Stefan celebrated this moment by spreading the joy of hot bisque on everyone in a ten-meter vicinity. 

The food goes on. Josh has steak, Lizzie has a Northern Italian/German dumpling thing.  Danny is a very serious man. I want him to make a fart joke, but he won’t. He just won’t. Sheldon has made a Filipino soup and Stefan has made a coconut milk soup and a frozen pop thing. Padma seems to think that Stefan has made that frozen pop thing before… for them…  on Top Chef. The pitfalls of coming on this show multiple times are numerous. They love Sheldon’s soup and kind of like Stefan’s. 

Micah’s raw sensory perception is busy. Kristen’s Onsen egg is delightful. As fancy as that sounds, it’s just a slow-cooked egg at a prescribed temperature. I like 63 C. Danny asks her, with his “Let’s get crazy!” zeal, “What will be the style of the restaurant, in terms of formality?” This type of calm and focused demeanor is why he wins, and I continue to refer to myself as an idiot. Must get more serious. Must get more serious. Stefan practices his sexism on Kristen, but I get the feeling she’s playing him much more than he’s thinking he’s playing her. She has outcooked him again and that has to weigh on the relationship. 

Josie has channeled all of the berry farm memories and is playing bad chef at the demo table again. She gets nervous with laughter when she gets in the weeds. It’s a tell. Not a good one. 

Brooke takes a really long time explaining her UnKosher dish but it looks cool. Josie staggers and talks about Miami, 2LiveCrew, area codes,and everything except for food. Sadly the matzoh is leaden and offends Gail’s whole tribe, but there is a shining light for Brooke, as Josie’s pork is way too done, no matter the amount of Magik sauce you apply.

The judges talk restaurant and there is some good wisdom in there. I could listen to Tom and Danny talk about restaurants all day long. 

Tops are Sheldon, Josh, and Kristen. The concepts from all three came through. Josh seems to have calmed down in this episode and is not so angry and whiny. He cooks better when rested and happy; we all do. 

Sheldon wins for his homage to his Filipino ancestry and Kristen wins for her egg. They will be the bosses for the next half of Restaurant Wars. They are charged with picking the teams for the next challenge. But the trick is that they will be splitting the folks up before the loser is called out for this part of the competition, meaning one team is going to be one person light. There’s a minivan in this for the winner. 

Kristen misses the chance to pick Stefan for her team. Ouch. Stefan is busy writing her one of those grade 4 notes, “Do you like me?” It just happens that it gets all split down gender lines. Should be exciting. But we still have someone to send home now and Micah, Josie, and Lizzie line up in front of the firing squad. All three have some big flaws. Is Lizzie all pissy? She seems a little mad that she wasn’t allowed to fully explain her dumpling. We do glean a poem by Danny though:

“The minute I tried to
Put my fork into that pork
And the pork fought back
I said, This is gonna be a problem.”

Micah goes home. He is sad but thankful. I thought he was a good competitor in all of this and wish him well. Godspeed.


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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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