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.

 

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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