Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

To 'Infinity' and Beyond

The chefs board a cruise to Alaska.

Hello, my little butterfly hair combs. (A Titanic reference seems appropriate.)

Doesn't it feel good to dodge a bullet sometimes?

No -- it doesn't feel good.

This little exchange between Josh and Brooke at the top of the show really stuck with me for some reason, but I'm also weird, so, y'know, whatever. Speaking of dodging bullets... Josie and Kristen battled it out in Last Chance Kitchen, and Kristen won. Please -- your applause is deafening. So, Kristen has now won two weeks in a row. And CJ is still alive in our Save a Chef vote. Things are getting interesting, everyone.

Back in the television screen, Padma and Tom invade the Stew Room to tell the chefs to pack their bags -- they're heading to Alaska! On a cruise! Everyone's psyched except Brooke, who apparently hates boats. This is where I tell you that I love cruises! I'm basing this off the one cruise I took on Spring Break with my best girlfriends senior year of college, but was maybe the most relaxing time I've ever had. I had a mild flirtation with a server, Piter (no idea how he spelled his name, but that is how he pronounced it.) But Piter got sick the last night, and so I never got to properly say goodbye. Piter, if you're reading this, you left quite an impression on me! Sigh.

Anwyaaay, I've heard Alaskan cruises are beautiful, so needless to say, I'm very jealous of our chefs. But then again, I don't have to cook things on national television, so I guess it's a trade-off.

P.S. Did anyone notice Stefan's odd look of relief when Padma announced that the chefs' final destination was Alaska. We'll call it his "salmon face." Raw fish at every dock! Think of the possibilities.

Stefan is packing his camping pants. Camping pants. Camping. Pants. 

Also! We learn that Stefan's mom tricked him into joining the army, which is one of the most odd and awesome stories we've ever heard on Top Chef. Stefan's ready for another booze cruise. He's ready to put his party pants on, which I think implies no pants at all, but that's just speculation. The chefs arrive at the Celebrity Infinity. We see a lot of great shots of the boat, and I'm ready to book another trip There's a Jacuzzi! There's a Jacuzzi! Brooke, those Jacuzzis get you into trouble. Trust me.

Stefan's already too close for Brooke's comfort.

The chefs enter the boat's kitchen and see Padma and Curtis Stone (he of the dreamboat variety). I love it when a handsome man wears a thick cardigan -- call me crazy. Lizzie comments that he looks really cute, and then says slyly "I wonder what we're going to have to do." Easy, Lizzie! Let's keep it professional.

For the Quickfire Challenge, the chef have to create one-bite dishes highlighting iceberg lettuce. All the chefs are throwing iceberg lettuce some shade, and they're not entirely wrong. It's not super-flavorful and doesn't have nearly as much nutritional value as other lettuces. It's basically water. But, guess what? Give me some shredded iceberg and some queso fresco and I'm satisfied. The chefs check out their cooking space and quickly see that they're working on electric stoves and not gas. As they start to conceptualize their dishes, Stefan makes the gross comment "They're freezing upstairs. Padma should have something warm in her mouth." Shudder. This was actually the first time I thought Stefan kinda crossed the line, but I guess that's Stefan. 

Overall, the chefs did a solid job. A couple of the ladies got criticized for not creating true one-bite dishes, but nothing was inedible. Sheldon and Stefan's dishes seemed to be the most innovative with Stefan braising his lettuce and Sheldon pickling the core. Ultimately, Sheldon wins! 

Sidenote: I loved when Curtis commented that Josh walks like a chef. I honestly have no idea what he means, but yet I know exactly what he means.

After Sheldon's win, he and Lizzie take advantage of some of the amenities on the boat and go for manicures! Josh doesn't think real mean get manicures. Well, I think i can speak for a few women when I say we'd rather you get regular manicures than have either long nails or gnarly ones. During their mani, we learn that Lizzie's father passed away pretty recently. I'm sorry, Lizzie. She admits that this trip will be quite emotional for her, but hopefully she'll be able to focus.

Josh might have some focus issues as well as he hasn't spoken to his wife, and she's almost due. We'll learn later on, in scenes from next week's epsiode, that she's in labor. Yikes!That night, the chefs get to relax -- well, as much as we ever let the chefs relax on Top Chef -- and the chefs eat at Qsine. My friend just took a Celebrity cruise and told me about the atmospher and food there, so it was fun for me to see the chefs there. After quite a bit of shit-talking, Padma and The Handsome Cardigan arrive. They issue the chefs' Elimation Challenge: to reimagine surf and turf. Since Sheldon won the Quickfire, he gets to pick his proteins first. The proteins he selects are off limits to the other chefs. Sheldon jokes that he'll select canned tuna and Spam, which is pretty much what Hugh has been joking about in relation to Sheldon every week in his blog. Weiiird. Oh by the way, Sheldon worked at Disney World. Whaaat?!

The chefs select their proteins, and although Sheldon has first pick, he selects the two most traditional: beef and lobster. Alhough the other chefs are surprised by this seemingly boring choice, I look at it as an opportunity. If he can cook them in a new and exciting way, he could win. Make the judges see them in a different light, Sheldon!

Theres some tension in the kitchen between Brooke and Josh. They actually have a really interesting relationship, but I don't quite know what to make of it. Anyone have any insight they care to offer?

All the chefs are all working furiously till the end of their time. The judges are joined by several members of the Celebrity Cruises team including Executive Chef John Suley. They talk about how nice the weather is. If you're a whale. Tom is waiting to see a narwhal. This is the weirdest exchange i think we've ever had between the judges, and i love it. if this is how they are on a boat, let's film a whole season on a boat!

Let's go through the dishes, shall we?

The judges really like Brooke's frog leg dish. Her papadum was greasy, but that was the only real criticism. Spoiler alert! She wins!

Stefan serves crispy pork with beer sauce and eel/ravioli. HIs dumplings weren't unagi enough, his sauce was greasy, but the the real issue -- or rather, debate -- seemed to be his pork. I found this whole conversation around the pork fascinating and was pretty happy Curtis, someone familiar with that style, was there for it. While the American and Canadian judges seemed to be really bothered by the crispy pork, it reminded Curtis of home. When Stefan said he was making it and i saw how he scored the top, I instantly thought of the pork at Porchetta here in NYC. The method seems to be similar. So, yeah, it's a thing. Whether Stefan's pork was just inedibly hard -- unlike Porchetta's -- is another question.So, was this just a culture clash? I don't know. I think the judges would have allowed for a certain amount of crispines, but if they couldn't even bite into it, what fun is that? Whether you're familiar with a dish or not, good food is good food. And apparently Stefan's was not.

P.S. I'm always skeptical when a chef says they're making something from his/her childhood because it could be amazing and soulful or they may find out that they've been eating crap all these years. Let's just make things inspired by our childhoods, OK? Deal.

Josh shows his cards pretty quickly saying his scallop pasta -- a great idea! -- didn't set correctly, so he had to make scrambled eggs. Thankfully, the diners like it, and he's safe!

Sheldon stays pretty traditional, and his tempura is soft… again. Uh-oh. Also his ingredients aren't marrying well. They're not even dating. [Cue other weird judge convo.] On the plus side, Hugh could eat his kimchi all day. And Hugh knows his kimchi

Lizzie has some troubles with the steamer and her cabbage doesn't cook enough, but her food's good. It's just messy and hard to eat.

Ultimately, it's between Sheldon and Stefan to go home. For the first time I felt like Sheldon really tried to BS the judges. He told them he was uninspired by the ingredients... the ones he chose. Nice try, Sheldon.

Luckily for Sheldon, the judges really didn't care for Stefan's dish, and he goes home to compete against his wifey in LCK. It's a good one! Watch HERE.

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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