Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Clucked Up

Tom Colicchio doesn't understand why the chefs had such a hard time with the fried chicken challenge.

If you’re confused by what you saw tonight, you’re not alone. Me, too. This was one of the single most confusing challenges I’ve judged in my 10 seasons on this show. We asked the chefs to do one of the simplest things imaginable: make fried chicken. What did we get? Everything except fried chicken. We couldn’t believe it. We were so disappointed -- we’d all really gotten our hopes and appetites up for some good fried chicken. Sometimes you have to leave well enough alone, as was the case here, where the chefs were asked to “go simple,” but this group of chefs just can’t seem to do that -- they tend to overthink what’s asked of them. 

Some challenges ask for chefs to flex their creative muscles; others, such as the one in Episode 4, in which the chefs were asked to recreate dishes from Canlis’s original 1950s menu, ask less that they show culinary genius and more that they show culinary acumen – good, solid food knowledge and technique. This challenge fell squarely into that second camp. Just fry up some delicious fried chicken, please. A good side would be appreciated, too.

So why they didn’t just do that was mystifying to us. As was the recurrent refrain that they didn’t have enough time. Fried chicken is FAST FOOD. It doesn’t take long to make, and to make well. The idea that the chefs didn’t have time to fry up chicken… I don’t quite know what to say. OK, let’s just do this. Let me give you my recipe for fried chicken, so you can see for yourself what I’m getting at:

· Take a chicken.

· Cut said chicken up into eight pieces. Oh, and remove the skin. For crispy chicken, you must remove the skin. The chicken will never crisp up with the skin on. BUT LEAVE THE BONES. DO NOT REMOVE THE BONES.

· Soak the chicken overnight in buttermilk and a little cayenne pepper.

· The next day, take the chicken out of the buttermilk, drain it a little but not a lot.

· Season the chicken with salt and pepper.

· Dredge it in flour.

· Fry it until it’s just crispy but not brown.

· Take it out of the fryer and let it cool down, and then

· Fry it a second time.

· DONE. 

Yes, some people use half potato starch/half flour for crispier skin, some add corn starch, some fry it three times… fine. But the bottom line is that there’s nothing difficult about it, or time-consuming. And yet most of our chefs felt the need to get complex, and, in doing so, they screwed up what could have been a simple and satisfying dish. We couldn’t believe they were using boneless chicken breasts. If you hand most chefs chicken breasts and ask them to make fried chicken, they’ll turn around and tell you, “I can’t make fried chicken with this!” And they’d be right.

Lizzie almost gets a pass (note the “almost”), since she’s been in the States for the least amount of time, but Stefan? Did you hear Wolfgang mention his Austrian mother’s Sunday fried chicken, so near and dear to his heart?  Not to mention that Stefan, by his own admission, eats buckets of KFC all the time. I can’t understand why he gave us a lame rendition of chicken cordon bleu. And all I’ll say about Brooke is that she simply should have known better. 

Their thought processes baffled us, but Josie’s “I didn’t have time to put my chicken on paper towels to get the grease off before serving it to you” was neck and neck with her “my fellow contestants loved my fried chicken” comment for the wackiest thing we heard all night… and her chicken the poorest dish we tasted, by a lot. Had she not served that up, we’d have had other contenders for bottom dish, but she saved the others by serving us something far, far less appealing.So, to all of you who gave me such a hard time last week, you have finally got your wish: Josie’s been sent home. (And if you watched Last Chance Kitchen, you know that she dropped the ball, or, rather, the salmon, and overcooked it to boot, so she’s not coming back. Kristen is holding on to her chef’s coat for the second week in a row.)

On the other end of the chicken-challenge spectrum, Sheldon’s chicken was very tasty, I loved Lizzie’s peach slaw, and Josh not only had a great idea in smoking his chicken, but he actually gave us fried chicken, which, ironically, was refreshing.  Let’s see what our chefs serve us up next week…

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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