Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Salmon Fishing in the United States

Everyone's full of hilarious one-liners. Maybe it's the crabs!

Hello, my little Jonah crab claws (my personal favorites!) Kristen is kicking arse and taking names in Last Chance Kitchen. Her last defeat is over her own hubby, Stefan! I'll miss Stefan, but I won't miss another awkward kiss on the mouth between these two. Back at the chefs' digs, the remaining four chefs -- Brooke, Josh, Lizzie, and Sheldon -- are talking about how good-hearted Stefan is. I know they mean it, but it sounds so insincere. Sheldon does admit that he thought Stefan was the front-runner for the win. Interesting. Josh also reveals that his wife's due date is fast-approaching, and he wants to tell his wife not to have the baby until he's back. Good luck to you, sir.

The chefs head out into the cold, and Sheldon drops this bomb on us: "I better throw on a couple extra underwear, just so I can keep the package nice and warm, y'know?" Oh, we know, Sheldon. We know. 

The chefs are greeted by Padma and Chef Sean Brock -- someone I've heard Hugh Acheson laud many a time -- at Tracey's King Crab Shack. I love, love, love crab. I'd rather have crab than lobster. Whenever I just need a quick fix in NYC, I usually go to BLT Fish Shack. Our very own Harold Dieterle also held Crab Mondays at his restaurant, Kin Shop, this past year, so hopefully he'll keep them going next year. 

Our chefs are tasked with creating a dish highlighting Alaskan Crab. Literally five seconds after I think about how I would eat all the crab in sight, Brooke echoes my thoughts: "I'm not going to have any crab to use cause I can't stop eating it," she says.

Brooke makes crab toast, deemed "easy" by Chef Brock, but I think he was going for the word "simple." Making a good compound butter is not easy. That being said, he loved the dish, despite himself. I would literally buy Dungeness crab compound butter by the boatload, so start sellin' it, Brooke! 

Josh serves succotash -- or "suckertash" as Brooke calls it -- which made Sean feel like he was at home. So, Josh thought he "nailed it. 100%." Unfortunately, Sean is a "succotash snob," and didn't care for the unnecessary bacon or broken sauce. Fair. So far, Josh has unsuccessfully served succotash to Sean Brock and grits to Hugh Acheson. Eek!

Lizzie's crab got lost with all the other flavors going on in her fritatta. Got to be careful with those capers!And so, Sheldon wins with his "miso." Aaand, Sheldon's got his groove back!

On to the Elimination Challenge: Salmon and Sourdough! I use an exclamation mark, but I actually don't enjoy hot salmon (as my loyal readers already know), and sourdough is probably my least favorite type of bread. (Geez, who invited the Debbie Downer?!) The chefs are given a 30-year-old starter and start baking in their home. 

Oh, wait! I forgot the most important part! Sheldon scares the s--- out of his competitors back at the house, and it's amazing.

Some of the chefs go traditional while others try to add other elements to it. I love when bread has little surprises in it (besides raisins!), so I'm down with the idea. Josh promises he won't use bacon. "I'm done with bacon apparently," he declares. I don't believe him.

The next morning the chefs head to get their salmon. I don't think I've ever seen salmon that color in my life, and I will probably never eat salmon that fresh... unless I visit Alaska, obviously. Fishing and cleaning fish reminds Lizzie of her father, so we see heartbreaking photos of the two of them together. I cry for maybe the first time this whole season, which is rare for me, but my heart just breaks for Lizzie. 

We learn that Josh's wife is dilating, and that Sheldon yells "Yahtzee!" a lot. Equally important, obviously.

As Tom does his walk-through, some of the chefs start to get nervous. First, there's Sheldon who doesn't understand why Tom thinks his dish idea is funny. He is less nervous after Tom explains that he's been craving pea soup. In fact, he yells "Boom!" And I giggle.

While Tom is excited that Lizzie is roasting her fish whole, he has some pause about Brooke poaching hers on-site. I actually think Brooke's nervousness was based more on Tom's tone when he asked why she was poaching her fish, rather than him necessarily thinking that was a horrible idea. But, who knows?

There are bears at the site where the judges are and Tom makes a joke about them being his fanbase. Has Tom gotten funnier, or is it me? I'd like to think that Hugh's off-beat humor might be rubbing off on Tom. Either way, I love it.Brooke serves her dish, and despite Hugh commenting that her mustard seeds were unappetizing-looking, everyone loves it. She wins.

Sheldon serves chum, which he deems "pretty cool," but is apparently what locals serve to their dogs. I don't know if we can state that fact in a negative way anymore. Have you seen what people feed their dogs?! They eat very well! But, Sean wasn't thrilled with how Sheldon handled his fish -- he kept grinding the salmon, to which Hugh hilariously demonstrated the grinding of the salmon. Also, Hugh thought his soup was like baby food. Uh-oh, Sheldon.

I interrupt this recap to present once again that beautiful story Emeril told about his chef saving his restaurant's mother dough. You can watch it again HERE.

Next up is Josh, and although his components are cooked correctly, it's a ltitle off-balance.

Finally, Lizzie offers her salmon sliders. Her bread looked delicious, but it was just too much for the salmon on it. Because she didn't marinate the salmon in her beet-citrus sauce, the flavor was lost. We'll later learn that she never tried her composed dish. Top Chef Cardinal Sin No. 1! 

Despite Josh's balance issues and Sheldon's creation of a "world of bitterness," ultimately, LIzzie heads home. And in her own words, all I say is "shucks."

Lizzie heads to Last Chance Kitchen in its penultimate episode before the Last Chance Kitchen finale. Good luck, Lizzie!

Until next week, Have a Nosh.

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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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