Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Organic Brussels Sprouts from the Soundgarden

Hugh Acheson elaborates on the salads his group created in the season premiere.

And so we begin, in the kitchens of Tom, Emeril, Wolfgang, and some strange displaced Canadian with one eyebrow. Talk about wondering whether you have what it takes to be on a team. Aw well, those are my insecurities and I really only talk about that stuff on Twitter. Follow me and you will be privy to my most angst-ridden thoughts. 

You can see from the frenetic teasers at the beginning of this episode that we are about to judge a large group of people. About 21 if my math serves me right. The vista after this first culling will be Seattle and some of these fine chefs are not getting those tickets to eat salmon, drink coffee, wear flannel, listen to Mudhoney and whine about the loss of the Sonics. I for one, would enjoy doing that daily. No joke. You know, me, Detlef Schrempf and Gary Payton chatting about what went wrong over a nice cortado when Shawn Kemp interrupts us asking if we know where he can pawn a gold tooth. 

John Tesar’s reputation has resulted in some pretty bombastic articles about his exploits. Frankly, he’s known as an assh---. I don’t know John from Adam and I am hoping he’s just terribly misunderstood. There is a dire need for the formation of a self-help group for egomaniacal chefs though. Or maybe just a new rung of hell where they can do endless amounts of dishes for eternity. The dirties would be a never-ending stream of copper pots that have an inch of burnt caramel in the bottoms.  We have our villain though! That was quick. 

As is customary, someone says something flirtatious about Tom or Padma. This time it’s Lizzie about Tom. These crushes last an Usain minute and then the gravity of the situation sets in and they realize that they have signed up for a degustation menu of stress and anxiety. The amorous feelings quickly evaporate into fretful prep lists. 

So this is the challenge. It’s a proper culling. We, as the chef judges, are dividing the group up into fourths and having them pass a simple test in our kitchens. Tom is having them do a panoply of things from making pasta, to butchery, to working the line. Emeril is having them make a soup of their choice. Wolfgang is going all French on them and is having them make omelets. I am having them make a salad.  I like people to be strident and confident, but you have to be prepared for it to bite you in the backside, and the first episode may not be the place to pee on your territory. Micah comes out of the gate saying that he’s going to smash everyone in his path. Now he’s no standard chef… oh wait -- he is. He’s the chef at the Standard Hotel. 

The Craft L.A. kitchen is about 20 times as big as mine. I remind myself that it’s not size that counts, but how you use it. This makes me feel a bit better. Lizzie begins the walk of the Craft kitchen by making tortellinis, with good skills. Anthony is wandering through the kitchen but wondering whether anyone will notice that he’s there. Apparently he is not being very strident at all. It’s a fine line between showing up with gusto and not showing up at all. He’s given ducks and pulls out his paring knife. Tom thinks the knife choice is ridiculous. Anthony’s inner voice says, “It’s not size that counts but how you use it.” I have a strange déjà vu. For the record, and this is completely innuendo-free, I also butcher with a small paring knife, but it’s really sharp. Simple tools for clean, pristine results. 

John Tesar is “Yes, Chef” all the way and is making a good case for being “misunderstood.” He wants to show his new nice-guy side to the world. Micah is hacking the bass. Not the prettiest work ever. Micah went from being a dishwasher to being an executive chef in one week. No stops in between. This is not recommended. Maybe it was his stridency. 

Meanwhile, the chef from the Rocky Mountain butchery restaurant is flailing on, well, butchery. Jorel says he butchers blindfolded but doesn’t tell us that the blind results are horrible. I picture a hanging chicken, stuffed like a piñata, and Jorel swinging a dull machete at it, like a Richard Rodriguez scene that never made the cut. Love the moustache though. Very hipster. He would be loved in Seattle but yearn for Portland. Then he gets strike two on a salt-laden buerre montee. Jorel is on the fence. 

Emeril has his troop make soup. He seems to have gotten the beautiful chefs club. Josh is freaking out. Simple but complicated this soup challenge is. They rush the Table 10 stoves as Emeril wanders around making them really uncomfortable, but in the nicest way that a chef ever could. I will go on record right here and now: I like Emeril a lot. He’s just a sincerely honest man who has made our lives as chefs easier in every way. When I opened up my first restaurant in 2000 the path had been paved by years of Emeril. He, amongst others, had taught America about ingredients and techniques in a way that made it stick. He is an ebullient jester of food who instead of letting his ego run amok, has only become completely modest, compassionate, and more genuine as he ages. Now I get to pick his brain and learn about how he does all he does, and I am very thankful for that. OK, back to bombastic reviewing.

The soups begin to take shape: 

Jeffrey - Busy busy gazpacho. Winner winner chicken dinner

Josh - Roasted corn soup with mussels

Stephanie - Good job with lobster, cauliflower

Tina - Seafood and chorizo soup. Garlicky. Balanced.

Kristen - Pea soup with lemon, tendrils

Stephanie and Tina are cut. Never easy words to hear, but two chefs cannot fit into one blue jacket. Emeril was very impressed with Jeffrey, the winner, and Kristen and Josh push on through as well. Back to Tom’s kitchen where Lizzie is working into the service hour. John is doing fine and keeping his dark side hidden well. Tom will not let bad food out of the kitchen, and they all know that. It’s quality or you’re gone. John Tesar, reputation aside, can cook some halibut and gets a Blue Angel jacket. He is now in the Grunge club. 

On to Wolfgang’s omelet challenge. Carla looks a little crazy and may be on the wrong show. She seems to be wearing a touch of mascara and looks like she’s been crying a lot through life. It’s quickly very evident that she is really bats--t crazy and the most frenetic person in the world of food. Oh, this will be good. 

If Wolfgang wants steak, a very excited Eliza will put a whole ribeye plop down on that tender omelet for him. Steak and eggs is good, but an omelet seems like the wrong rendition of eggs for a good pairing. Eliza also hacks up her eggs but weirdly recycles the filling. So much for a delicate treatment. It really is very apparent that casting has found, as difficult as it seems, a group of chefs who all of whom suck at making a simple omelet.  

Tom seems to have got a pretty skilled grouping. Emeril too. Wolfie really has somehow amassed the insane posse of the socially and uovo-challenged. After a hard hour or so we see who has egg on their faces. 

Tyler: Leek, asparagus, and bacon omelet with a crispy potato salad. WP likes it.

Kuniko: Comme ci comme ca. I would hate to hear the line “Technique is almost there” directed at me. Her choice of chamomile and morels is pretty interesting

Daniel: Everything sounded very classic and then you gotta go add something sompletely out there. In this case, Oyster Nage? Who pairs oysters with an omelet? Wolfgang says that if he would eat it in the dark, perhaps it would be good. Aim high. 

Chrissy: Filipino risk-taking omelet with lobster and potatoes. Heritage speaks volumes in food, and Wolfgang likes it but it needs salt.

Eliza: Big boy meal omelet. Steak, fennel, tomatoes, asparagus, and a kitchen sink. 

Carla: Medi omelet with arugula salad. Wolfgang remarks “It looks like a woman with a lot of makeup on.” Wow, Wolfie, you are a ballsy one. Welcome to the table.

Daniel packs up his small whisk and non-stick pan. He ‘s not taking this well. Daniel, me brother…. The rest somehow make it through. Daniel caps it off by coining this immortal phrase, “It’s like, what the f---?” He also misses the Omelet 101 class by Wolfgang. 

My group arrives and they are an eclectic group as well. I truly believe that salads are crappy 90% of the time. They lack balance and complexity or worthy ingredients. If I see another wilty lettuce with overly sweet vinaigrette I will pull out my hair. They were given a ton of stuff to work with and 45 minutes to get it done.  

“I am a ferocious tiger,” says the one who will not proceed. Danyele is torn. She wants to talk to me but then again she doesn’t. She takes this frustration out on a tomato by dousing it with gasoline and walking out of the kitchen. 

THEY WERE SO MESSY. Like crazy messy. It’s so hard to work in a messy environment. The knight needs to tighten his blender cap. Danyele is like my sarcastic muse. 

Sheldon’s dish was really strong. Interesting and worldly and fun. Clean. 

The Bart Knight’s was crazy complex. But well-executed.

Brooke’s salad rocked. Totally perfect balance. Blue Angel jacket. 

Gina’s was subpar. Overcooked veg. Just not really good. I applaud her aplomb, but it just wasn’t very good. 

Danyele’s big flame Texas watermelon-tomato salad was actually good in spite of her trying to burn the place down.  

Bye-bye Gina. I wish you well. 

Back at Craft, Tesar has the blue coat already and then the other advancers are Micah and Lizzie. Jorel and Anthony fail to make the cut. 

It’s going to be a fun season in the Seattle world, home of the Space Needle. Keep on watching!

Follow me on Twitter @hughacheson!

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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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