Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Our Swords

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

Make Melissa's Mom's Egg Custard

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Make Mei's Inspired Duck a l'Orange

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

Our Swords

Hugh Acheson applauds Micah Fields' knife skills.

 

The Battle of the Redwoods happened on Last Chance Kitchen, and CJ was left standing in a chicken breast battle. The Bart Knight is gone, but not forgotten. CJ is kickin’ ass and taking names. I still feel bad for his lower back though. There is no table at the right height for that chef. 

Good morning, Seattle. Everyone is still riled up from roller derby fun and tree bark wars. 

Sheldon welcomes us with morning ritual. Some people drink Dew wearing shades (Josh), some people rub strange white lotion all over their hairless bodies (Stefan), and some people sharpen knives (Sheldon). This ritual is what separates, as Sheldon tells us, “good chefs from great chefs.” He then talks about how he is a small pygmy warrior who likes to battle. Sir Spam-A-Lot from Lahaina is back in the house. 

Skillset challenges are always awesome. In my tenure on Masters, we had the silly senses challenge which took its place, but I nailed that. Just saying. I do love watching people succeed at brunoise, or totally fail at something that should be commonplace, like breaking down a chicken or making a basic stock. Those bright lights and cameras can make even the most prolific chef wince, and it comes down to being calm and, well, carrying on. 

So the Quickfire has Bob Kramer in the house with his heavyweight knives. Bob can make a mean knife and has been a leader in the new artisan knife movement, which has made many beard-sporting, selvedge apron-wearing dudes in flannel shirts very happy. Now you can buy stunning blades made by hand from metalsmiths near you, provided that you have about $600 to $4000 to part with and really want to whack some ropes to pieces. I have never been that enamored with spending huge sums on knives and find myself with a collection of random Japanese knives that work fine for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t get excited when I look at those fancy Black Cherry Burl wood handles, the hand-hammered steel, and the razor sharp blades, but I also have a mortgage to pay and little mouths to feed. Padma says the knives cost $500 an inch. I am ordering a one-inch long knife for myself for my next birthday. It’s not how long it is, but rather how you use it. I will make tiny food that will bring you to tears of joy. Bob shows off his knife and rope-cutting skills which bring up all sorts of 50 Shades of Grey ideas. Sheldon is in love, having found the first person on the mainland who actually understands him.  

So the challenge is a trifecta of sorts: 1) sharpen a dull knife to have the ability to cut through paper cleanly 2) tourne 50 potatoes like the fastidious French culinary instructor named Albert had you do in that culinary school you paid too much to attend (much like algebra, a skill learned that you will never use again) and 3) butcher down some bunnies with your knife. If you so much as draw a dram of blood from a mishap, you are out. I don’t cut myself much in the kitchen, but I do when doing basic things, like sharpening knives, or getting a knife out of a knife bag. While cutting, I am usually fine though. My most recent cut was just the other day during a photo shoot for a big national cooking magazine. Hugh grabs new mandolin. Mandolin attacks Hugh’s thumb while slicing radishes. It’s not the blood that bothered me, it was the fact that I had to wear bandaids for the rest of the day; that really puts a damper on effective tweeting.

Stefan is complaining that all he has won in this season is a key to Kristen’s chastity belt, which most people agree is way cooler than a Prius. We have some sad chefs too: Jimmy Sears is getting ornery sharpening his knife and commanding his team, and Brooke is having troublemaking the dull knife come to life. 

It whittles down to the Red Team with two players, John and Kristen, versus the Light Blue Team of Sheldon, Micah, and Josh. Micah has kind words for Tesar, calling him the Ol' Dirty Bastard of cooking. If I was a Wu-Tang chef I would want to be the RZA, but in his Bobby Digital guise. 

I do love tourneing vegetables. It’s like a therapeutic way to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Josie cuts herself to get out of this competition. The Periwinkles are tops in potato tourneing and Micah is the reason -- the other two are like having two left thumbs. 

Bunny time and frenching a rack of rabbit with a knife that big is a pain in the ass. Micah is a machine and wins this showdown of core skillz. Sheldon was close, but butchering Spam is so much easier, though requires the chef knife of middle America, also called the electric can opener. Micah will feed his daughters good food and raise them right. You go, Micah.  The EC is an ode to the most sensational moments in Top Chef history. Kindle Fires are involved. The winning dish will inspire a Healthy Choice meal. $15 G are on the line. 

“Get that money, God, keep your sword sharp (Eastside, Westside)

Get that money, God, keep your sword sharp (Eastside, Westside)

Get that money, God, keep your sword sharp (Eastside, Westside)

Get that money, God, keep your sword sharp (Eastside, Westside)

Get that money, God, keep your sword sharp (1-2-3-4)”

Wu-Tang Clan, Tar Pit

I can’t document everything that is going down here. It’s busy and I, brutal moment of honesty, have not actually seen every season. This sometimes comes up when I meet former contestants who I have no idea were on the show. Respect and apologies… I went through a four-year period of basically being a Luddite and just working. But the point remains, “I am not your bitch, bitch.”

Lizzie worked for Traci Des Jardins. TDJ is awesome. Love her. Like, complete reverence. 

Has anyone seen my pea puree? 

We learn that little Wolverine, Marcel, was quite the rabble-rouser, that Howie plays Bourdain like a symphony conductor,  and that M. Voltaggio likes braising the belly. This segues to the public outing of Jimmy Sears by Sears himself. 

Josie points out how food is a lifestyle, and if you want to grow yourself into the strongest tree in the woods, you have to eat a lot of healthy stuff. Micah meanwhile is trying to find a way to emulsify Heather and Bev together from Season 9. This is like planning peace in Peshawar, but at least he has duck. Duck is one of those ingredients that you can really make shine if you know what you are doing. Just make sure you render off that fat side to make that sin crispy as can be. 

Wylie, Chris, Jonathan, and Wolfgang and are in the house as eaters, with Wolfgang playing double duty as a judge. Tesar is having risotto failure premonitions. Risotto is just not something you should cook on Top Chef. It’s too risky. 

Josie is excited. She has made chicken. Stefan has made soup and sandwich. Tesar has an umami risotto. Waxman calls Josie’s chicken B-O-R-I-N-G. Go and have chicken at Barbuto in NYC. Not boring at all, and 1/4 of the price of other nomadic birds, though rumor has it they are stellar as well and serve two. The lunch special that Stefan has prepared gets half and half reviews… soup good, sandwich is a oily gut bomb. Tesar’s risotto is kind of ho-hum right out of the gate, and he is blaming the pot. Josh is trying to find a chinois and getting all up in arms about it. Lizzie is having a bad scallop experience that I can relate to. They serve. Sheldon has made beef carpaccio, Lizzie has cooked scallops that suck, Josh has cooked pork. The judges finally like Josh’s pork. Sheldon’s carpaccio is a messy mess. Lizzie’s scallops are dubious, as Wolfgang says. Lizzie ain’t happy. 

Next trio: Brooke has a salmon plate with forbidden rice, Kristen has a pot pie all modernized, Micah has a duck plate with polenta. Micah excelled except the marriage of miso and polenta is not a cross-cultural winner in any of the judges' minds. Kristen is kicking butt. Even Waxman is loving it, but OMG Cosentino’s plate is incomplete. Brooke can make a salmon plate with pea puree. They likey. 

So the tops are Josh, John, Kristen, Lizzie and Brooke. Josh, Kristen, and Brooke served the best food of the day and the other two the worst. Kristen continues her run and makes the $15,000. She will also be appearing in every freezer aisle from coast to coast. 

John is still defensive about his risotto. That pan is killing this guy. Josh takes the knife handle and twists. Lizzie hated those scallops and they hated her. Not a happy dish. She is very unhappy with this and wants to be somewhere else. 

Hook is that they will now compete head-to-head to fix the memorable moment from this season, the one where I got to skewer CJ for his burger. Here we go. 

The burger battle is 45 minutes long and they get right to cooking. Tesar threatens to steal all the pickles, but even he can’t stoop that low. 

They both make pretty great burgers, but John Tesar/Jimmy Sears goes home. They both look tired. Onwards. Lizzie, keep on with your badass self. Tesar, it’s been a hoot. You’re a great chef. Cheer up.

 

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

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