Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Wherein Stefan Finds a Horse’s Head in his Waterbed

Hugh Acheson weighs in on Stefan's sexist comments.


I have to be honest with you about the chefs and sleep: they don’t get much of it. This has never been the industry for enjoying ten hours a night, but at this point in the competition you are making friends, grating on enemies, working really long days, and tipping a martini glass upside down when you should be slumbering. 

So sleeplessly the chefs rumble in to be greeted by Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine and a mover and shaker in the world of restaurants. This is going to be a worldly dumpling challenge, which should be very interesting. How hard can a disc of flour and water with some filling be? Well, we are about to find out. 

Dana claims to have eaten her weight in dumplings, which is actually not much more than a couple of happy meals. She ain’t tipping the scales to hefty.  

So on to the challenge. They get outfitted with Kindle Fires to do this research, but Carla? She’s more of a classic book girl. They pick their countries and Micah doesn’t think Kazahkstan is real, but if it is, he is putting it into his “Middle Eastern file.” Sure, it’s a mostly Islamic state, but it ain’t in the Middle East. Even with this geographic illiteracy I am still hoping for an “Arab Spring” dumpling which oozes freedom from its crisp shell. Carla’s hand is “kind of useless” which will further hurdle her chances of success, as she has to make the fufu dumpling, kind of like a massive plantain-flour gnocchi.  

Josie explains the dumpling as “love in an envelope.” I am temporarily enjoying her TV company. Brooke has no flour. Carla is freakin’ out. Stefan was born with a silver dumpling nestled in his Germanic palm. Pictures are shown when he had hair, before the accident we never talk about. He is exuding confidence. 

Less confident is Kuniko. You can be an awesome chef who will not excel in the reality environment. It’s happened before. For right now, she’s having her ups and downs. Comme ci comme ca. 

The timer gets to her this time and she has no dumpling when it comes Padma’s feeding time. The other chefs do put up product with varying results. Stefan kills it with a German dumpling. Lizzie rocks a Hungarian dessert dumpling. Carla has just decided to wing it. CJ has a nice pierogi and I friggin’ love pierogies. The dumplings fling on by, with Bart making regal fried hair dumplings and Kristen making Nepalese momos. Tesar makes something unpronounceable that my kids keep repeating in a potty humor marathon: “Kroppkaka. Kroppkaka.” This word should not get into the hands of a third-grade class in the USA, as all cultural understanding will be lost and be replaced with fart jokes. Nudie or Gnudi dumpling from Brooke, named by Dana. Alas, Brooke has no wrapper. I have no filter. All good. Micah went all out and is very confident again. He is consistently confident. 

Josie wins with her Korean Mandu dumpling. I could eat that. Immunity is granted from the immediate further proceedings. 

Turkey day meal for charity. Gray team vs. Red Team. Emeril and Tom are going to be leading the teams and guiding them on their versions of the holiday spread. For Tom that means Italian fresh, and for Emeril that means Nawlins’ delights. Padma quotes Arnold and everyone is giddy. 

Carla tells about struggles with sexism in the kitchen and Stefan classily responds with, “That’s why I left Europe… European women.” He insinuates that Carla’s ex is a mafiaso, and naturally a national T.V. show is the most anonymous place to do this.

The judges help the teams out for a while cooking and planning, and then the teams pack up for the meal leaving their judges to dress in civilian garb to pass judgment. 

Gumbo, dressings, raviolis, whipped potatoes, spicy turkey, Bam powder, and desserts abound. Stefan is on a landgrab mission and doing his thing. He’s aggressive until you actually defend, and then he recoils.  

Josie’s turkey gets all burnt, up but it’s like a blackened turkey, pink and raw in the center. Yummy. Kuniko is running behind, and we hear about Tyler’s battle with alcoholism. In all seriousness, I wish him the best of luck and strength in that battle. It’s a malaise in our industry and has taken out many a great chef. I had a soft spot for him before cause he just speaks his mind, but now I find myself holding pompoms and cheering whenever he comes on-screen. 

Tom and Emeril come in and conduct a turkey inspection. Tom spits out the gumbo. Emeril does the spice dance. DO NOT TASTE CARLA’S SOUP. She’s a little defensive and tries to attack Stefan’s hairless head. 


The dinner starts up and Thierry is in the house. The hat is on. Love the FareStart charity involvement. Timers go off and its time to eat. 

Gray Team first. That turkey does not look great. Sashimi of seasoned gobbler. Dressings are great. Kristen’s veg is good, but has a crème fraiche addition that is deemed unnecessary. Tyler’s gumbo is not terrific, and Kuniko’s pave is undercooked. Potato pave and gratin is another classic failure dish on Top Chef and took out Whitney Otawka last year. Sheldon’s greens are a little underdone, which is not good for the Southern style. Biscuits rule by Brooke, and desserts are judges to be quite stellar, yet a touch grainy. 

Carla has a strange way of delivering a really good point about sexism in the kitchen. It’s rampant and needs to be stamped out. Stefan is not helping to remove that glass ceiling from fine kitchens. He actually is building a stronger roof of machismo. 

Red Team brings the Tom thunder. Stefan takes the reigns in the German prince role that he revels in. CJ’s turkey looks great with it’s traditional stuffing of Italian foie gras. Carla’s soup is killer. Bart’s greens look fresh and light and enjoyable to me, but Padma wants some refinement. Josh’s raviolis are a little off. Thick outer dough makes them tough. Brussels need salt. Whipped potatoes rule. Thanks, Joel Robuchon. Desserts are sweetly contested, but are a letdown in the end. 

Tom’s Red Team wins. Someone on Twitter is chalking that up to socialism. 

Tyler, Kuniko, Josie, and Sheldon in the bottom tier. Kuniko is done. 

Kuniko has no regrets and is well-loved by the fellow chefs. That’s the nicest way of leaving the show you can ever hope for. Just to keep it real, Tesar rips her good reputation as the door closes. Classy John, classy. Maybe there will be a Last Chance Kitchen and Kuniko will make amends. Happy Thanksgiving to all. 

Follow me on Twitter  @hughacheson


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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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