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!


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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