Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hog Hell

Tom Colicchio elaborates on why Stefan's dish was the worst.

I like crispy pork.  

I can imagine viewers watching this episode and thinking that Stefan was sent home because "Tom just must not care for crispy pork." This couldn’t be further from the truth. I like -- and like to make -- crispy pork, but that’s not what Stefan gave us. What Stefan made was beyond crispy; it was hard. And it was hard because it was improperly prepared.

The problem was this: if you’re making suckling pig and the skin isn’t so thick, you can leave it on, and it will get crispy. But if you’re preparing pork belly from a bigger animal (and you can tell from the thickness of the belly that it’s an older animal), you need to do one of two things. Either you remove the skin and let the underlying layer get crispy, or, if you want to leave the skin on, you do the following: while you’re first braising it, you need to make sure the entire pork is submerged in the braising liquid so that the skin gets moist. Then, when you reheat it, leave just the top surface above the liquid, and that top surface will get crispy.

I saw that Stefan was in trouble during my kitchen walk-through. He was braising the pork, but way too much of it was exposed, all of which dried out and grew hard -- not crispy, but hard. This was so far past crispy that I really did fear, as you heard me say, that I was going to break a tooth on it. And this was due to a technique issue, plain and simple. It was not the only lapse in technique of the evening, but of all the errors evident in the dishes we were given in this challenge, it was the worst. The greasiness of the dish was an additional headache, but the hard skin was enough, in and of itself, to get Stefan sent home.

As a general note, the pairing of the proteins to create a surf 'n' turf dish was not the difficult part of this challenge. Many cultures have traditional meals with such pairings -- think paella, or Portugese chorizo and clams. I’ve had dishes on my menus over the years pairing clams and pork, seared scallops with oxtail, lobster with foie gras and artichokes, and more.   What I think was the most challenging aspect of the challenge was actually the plating. The whimsical vessels at the chefs’ disposal all had five-to-seven smaller sub-vessels. This is out of the ordinary (unless you work at Qsine or another restaurant where such vessels are used), which means not only that the chefs had to account for the vessels in conceptualizing their dishes, but also that that they had to put extra thought into what they were doing when plating everything. Hence the difficulty you saw Brooke having as the clock wound down  Had I been making a dish in this challenge, I probably would have braised a piece of pork with clams together, which would have been in the biggest vessel, and then I would have put cold garnishes around it that I had prepped in advance (as Sheldon did with his kimchi -- smart!).

Sheldon’s kimchi, by the way, was really, really good, as was his beef. The good parts of his dish soared, which helped outweigh his poorer tempura, whereas Stefan’s whole dish was poor.

Though Lizzie’s dish fell apart because of the cabbage, and she left the ribs in, her flavors were all good, and hers was an interesting dish, so she, too, still beat out Stefan. Brooke’s dish was terrific, despite the papadum. And Josh was lucky that he was able to salvage his dish. The pasta he was trying to make can -- and has -- been done successfully, albeit using techniques Josh didn’t use in this challenge. One way to do it would have been to use “meat glue”: You thinly cut all the scallops, lay them out on a piece of plastic wrap, glue them together, roll them in plastic wrap, and thinly slice them lengthwise into “pasta.” Another way would be to create a puree using agar agar (a gelatin substitute produced from a form of seaweed) instead of gelatin, so that it would set up like gelatin but wouldn’t melt with heat. You could then fashion the “pasta” from that. Ferran Adrià did this a decade ago, to the amazement of all, who wondered how his “pasta” didn’t melt. But Josh didn’t do either of those, and he’s very, very lucky that he found a way to turn what would have been a disaster into something he was able to work with.   

And so it’s Stefan who disembarks. He had not one but two good runs on Top Chef. Can he best Kristen in Last Chance Kitchen and get back into the race to take that title he’s been after for so long…?And speaking of kitchens, a word about kitchens on cruise ships. Lizzie and co. complained about the difficulty of cooking in a ship’s kitchen, and someone tweeted something to me about the Top Chef cruise and not expecting much in the way of the food because it would be prepared in induction ovens and on electric stoves. Nonsense. At the end of the day, you the chef have to control heat, and of course you can do that with induction ovens and electric ranges. I used to cook my TTD Tuesday night tasting menu dinners on an electric range. It was not a problem. Cruise ships have beautiful kitchens, and I had no reason to expect less than excellence from the chefs in this challenge. In fact, as we near the end of this competition, I have every reason to expect more and more from those who remain...

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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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