Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Staying Well While Eating Well

Tom's had enough of the chefs' excuses.

I liked this week’s challenge: asking the contestants to make healthy dishes inspired by dishes from the prior nine seasons was a great way to both push the chefs creatively and to acknowledge this tenth-season milestone that Top Chef has reached. This was a great challenge: moving beyond snarky soundbytes that might make for dramatic moments here and there, the challenge asked this season's chefs to focus on the food from seasons past, which is where I believe the strength of this show lies. At the end of the day, I am proud of what the show has brought out in the chefs season after season, and I would like to think that the show’s longevity is due to the food it has inspired. I know that this is what the challenge intended to capture, so I would prefer to keep the focus on the dishes, not the drama.

Along those lines, I am sorry to see that people still believe that Alex stole Ed's pea puree he used in Season 7. We clarified in that season’s reunion episode that he had made his own pea puree. There were six cameras running in that kitchen that day, I was there doing my typical rounds, and producers abounded. Not only was it impossible for Alex to have swiped the pea puree, but it’s clear from footage that he did, in fact, make it. I hope that this week’s episode did not perpetuate the fallacy that he didn't. Alex was wrongly defamed by his co-contestants in Season 7 -- his integrity should not be further maligned now.

Looking at what came out of this week’s challenge, there was a lot to be pleased with. I can’t say enough about Kristen’s winning dish -- it was beautiful. I’m always excited to see a young chef conceptualizing food in new ways. Most people faced with making a healthier pot pie would stay stuck in the notion that they had to make a pot pie with a crust. Kristen said, “I don’t need crust,” and yet she managed to make a dish that hearkened without question to chicken pot pie. Her chicken was cooked perfectly, her sauces were seasoned nicely, and, when taken as a whole, the dish delivered on its promise -- it was a healthier dish inspired by the pot pie from Season 8. This type of approach separates the chefs who rise to the top from those who don’t. They are willing to think about food differently… and they have the chops to execute their vision.As for the bottom dishes, you might think it’s unfair that Lizzie was on the bottom when she’d been assigned a scallop dish but was sold inferior scallops. You might say that she had no choice and did the best with what she had. You might even ask what she might have done differently. Here’s what: any number of things.  

Lizzie’s first mistake was made at the market. She needed to check her scallops before purchasing them. If they weren’t good, she could have gone to a producer and said, “I have to make a scallop dish, but the scallops today aren’t OK to purchase.” And if the producers couldn’t -- or wouldn’t -- find her better scallops, she could have gotten creative without them. She could have made scalloped potatoes, for example, endeavoring to make the very best (and healthiest) scalloped potatoes in her power, and then explained to us why she had chosen to do them. Maybe she’d make win-worthy scalloped potatoes, and maybe not. But she certainly would not have landed in the bottom two. Lizzie had no idea that there was a problem with the scallops she’d bought until she got into the kitchen, and she should have known. So she landed herself in the bottom fair and square.  

As did John. Yes, as a general rule, good equipment’s important, and if the pans have aluminum in them, they can get bowed. But a flat bottom is more important when you’re searing or roasting something than when making risotto. With risotto, you’re constantly moving the rice, so it shouldn’t matter if the bottom is slightly bowed. So .I just don’t buy John’s excuse.  [And, for the record, never in all the past seasons of Top Chef did I say that the contestants should not make risotto, as one of the diners in this episode said. If they screw it up, they screw it up. I think risotto can be tricky because it should be eaten right away, which creates a timing issue. But that’s not a reason not to make risotto. It’s just a factor to consider, so that the chef can get it right.]

I also don’t buy John’s gripe that he should not have had to do a cook-off with Lizzie, since her bad scallops were clearly worse than his uneven risotto.  What he failed to realize was that he and Lizzie were not doing a cook-off because we just couldn’t figure out which dish was worse. Rather, the cook-off between the bottom two dishes was built into this challenge from the get-go.  Remember Padma waving a Kindle when they were first handed out and saying that Season 10’s memorable moment would make an appearance later in the challenge? No matter how close or far apart the bottom two dishes were, the chefs who made them were going to find themselves facing off to make a healthy dish based on CJ’s burger.One last thing John said that I don’t buy: his claim that he was being magnanimous by sharing the pickles with Lizzie. This was a pickle-and-burger challenge. It’s tacit that we expected them to share the pickles, so no, he could not have put the extra jar of pickles under his arm and won by keeping them from Lizzie. That’s just silly. John mentioned that he’s seen all the seasons. He, more than any of the other contestants, seemed to be thinking that he was supposed to be engaged in some sort of gamesmanship, rather than just being expected to make great food. But that is the game. Chefs win by repeatedly cooking the best food they can. Period. As I wrote above, if they think about food inventively and have the skill set to execute their ideas effectively, they set themselves apart… and can win. It’s really that simple. It’s not easy, but it is simple.

P.S. Yes, Bob Kramer’s knives, with their rare wood handles and great blades, really will set you back $4-5,000 each… if you can even get one. There’s a long list of people who have ordered them, and since Kramer makes them so slowly, he has a lottery system, sometimes randomly selecting people off the waiting list and sometimes selecting those who have been waiting the longest (he feels it’s fairest to mix it up that way), so it can be a long while before your order is filled. He has begun making some knives for Henckels, though, so you can invest less money and time in getting one now.


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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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