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…

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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