Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Last Stance Kitchen

Tom Colicchio shares his final thoughts on each finale dish.

So there you saw it -- the two chefs left standing, cooking off in a head-to-head competition, course by course. Live. Before the judges, of course, but also before the nine previous Top Chefs, in the hopes of joining their ranks before the night was out.

I can imagine that the format of this final challenge placed new pressures on our two remaining chefs that they hadn’t had to contend with before, as they cooked in front of an audience, had to juggle speaking with the judges while overseeing the preparation of their dishes, and served the audiences (including their own families and friends, come to cheer them on), the judges and the nine Top Chefs. They also had the pressure of getting feedback on each course right on the spot, which could provide a shot of endorphins after cooking a winning course and a shot of nervous adrenaline after a loss.

Because we were giving Brooke and Kristen that immediate, individual judge-by-judge feedback, we judges did not discuss the dishes among ourselves to reach a consensus…which, in turn, means that you the viewer were not let in as much on what exactly we were tasting and what our thought processes were in the judging process as you normally are. And so here is my more in-depth assessment of the dishes placed before us:

First Course

I find it interesting that they both decided to start off with salads. Both were good dishes; Brooke’s was a more interesting dish. Its big flaw was that the ears were overdone -- they were fried too much. We thought at first that CJ was erring in how he was cooking them, but it turns out that no, this was actually how Brooke wanted them cooked. Curious. At this stage of the competition, you first look at the dishes to see if they’re even good ideas, then you look to see if the dishes were executed the way the chefs wanted them to be, and were seasoned well. If so, then you look to see whether there were flaws. Was the salad overdressed? Underdressed?  Kristen’s dish was flawless, but Brooke’s pig ears were overfried. You can see that we all thought so, which is why the course was handed to Kristen.

Second Course

Scallops. The course went to Brooke, though I myself actually preferred Kristen’s scallops, and I’ll tell you why: I think that Brooke had too much going on in her dish. The scallops themselves were beautiful -- as good as they get -- and I think that a lot of what she did distracted from that great product. Kristen, on the other hand, focused on the scallop and the beauty of the scallop, which was very lightly marinated with some acid to bring out its flavor. I would have liked the opportunity to discuss this course with the other judges to hear why they were selecting Brooke’s dish over Kristen’s -- perhaps they would have convinced me. Likewise, I would have liked the opportunity to have made my point about allowing the scallop to shine. When the dishes are both very good, as they were here, making the decision between them very close, the judging can benefit from discussion.

Third Course

I honestly don’t know what Brooke was thinking here. It was anyone’s game -- each chef had one course’s win under her belt -- and she handed this course to Kristen before she even began cooking. Why, oh, why did she choose to make fried chicken? Before you get your ire up, thinking I’m being a food snob, hear me out: as evidenced by the fact that we had pig ear’s on the premises, our chefs planned their menus well in advance and the ingredients they needed were preordered for them. Brooke didn’t decide on the spot to make that fried chicken for her third course, she planned it in advance (along with the rather uninspired sides she put with it). For the title of “Top Chef” she was tasked with planning the five very best dishes she could make, not to redeem herself from a prior challenge that took place quite a bit earlier in the season. I had little doubt going into this finale that Brooke could make good fried chicken, despite how the earlier challenge went, and I didn’t need her to prove that to me. I needed her to create for us one of the very best dishes she is capable of doing. Don’t get me wrong -- I like fried chicken. I serve it at Craftbar. But if I were going head to head in competition, I would never have made the dish Brooke made -- it was a nice little dish one might find at a bistro, a corner restaurant. You cannot win Top Chef with that dish. And as you saw in the episode, all the judges had the same view of Brooke’s choice that I did. They were all a bit mystified that Brooke was serving them the dish she placed before them, and the course went unanimously to Kristen, whose velvety bone marrow dish was complex, elevated, nuanced, and really beautifully prepared.

Fourth Course

Red Snapper two ways. Again, these were two good dishes. At this stage in the competition, it’s the tiniest of errors or gradations in quality that can make the difference between a win and a loss. For the judges, it’s also a subjective feeling, when tasting dishes side by side, about which one was fresher, in which dish were the flavors brighter? If served both in a restaurant, which would compel the taster to return? Here, Brooke’s pork cheeks were a little on the dry side, and as Kristen’s dish was perfectly executed, the slightly dry pork was enough to place the win for this course squarely in Kristen’s column. 

…which gave her win, overall.  And we never got to taste their desserts.

A word about desserts, while we’re on the subject: we are often asked why we even bother with desserts, why we are judging savory chefs on their ability to make them. I’ll acknowledge that there’s a point to this argument. But here, the assignment was simply to prepare five courses -- a dessert was not required. And yet both Kristen and Brooke planned to make a dessert as their final course. I wonder if the chefs think they’ll be marked down in some way if they don’t plan on making a dessert as their final course. They wouldn’t be. Were I competing, I would make five savory courses without giving it a second thought. I’d think it a better bet to do a savory dish unless I had a dessert up my sleeve that I knew was just spectacular… though that would be unlikely, because with a busy career as a chef, there’d be little chance to have cultivated that. 

What we didn’t get to do within this week’s format (because we weren’t discussing the food in private among ourselves) was look at the courses in relation to each other, by which I mean two things: 1) We didn’t get to take into consideration whether a chef won one course by a narrow margin while the other chef won another course by a mile; and 2) We didn’t get to look at the arc of the meals planned by each of the chef, to see how one course related to and led to the next. Overall, though, I think that Brooke’s decision to make that fried chicken course made it very difficult for her to win enough courses overall to take the title (imagine your teenager leaving an entire section blank on a test and hoping to get a higher score than a classmate who filled out all the sections), and I think that would have been the case whether we filmed the show live or not, and no matter what the judging system.

And so we began the episode with two very talented chefs facing off, and ended with one very talented new Top Chef, who had doggedly cooked her way back into the competition through Last Chance Kitchen to take the big prize. Congratulations, Kristen!

In general, I was very happy with this season. I was really pleased with the decision to focus on the food and, in general, to only present drama inherent in the kitchen, as opposed to any drama that might have been unfolding in the house. I thought that where personal stories were highlighted, they were rich and meaningful, such as the interaction that transpired between Roy and Emeril at the home of the Governor of Alaska. Lots of people have been reaching out to me to say that they really liked the season and how food-focused it was. Looking forward to more of the same in Season 11! As ever, thanks for watching and reading.

Editor's Note: Tom's new documentary, A Place at the Table, tackling the issue of hunger in America, comes out in theatres, on iTunes, and on Demand March 2nd. Find out more about the film from Tom himself HERE.


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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