Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Tepid Teamwork

Tom Colicchio offers solutions to the chefs' dish problems.

Don’t get me started on this week’s challenge. OK, never mind -- I’m already started.

You know from watching the episode that I was sorely disappointed by the chefs’ offerings this week. It was totally appropriate under the circumstances to take the $10K win off the table. I think there were a few things going on with the chefs that all contributed to their poor performance in this week’s challenge.

For one thing, I think that because the chefs don’t know one another very well yet, and, apparently, because there has already been some animosity between them, the chefs bent over backwards to be deferential to their teammates, at the expense of the dishes they were creating. They couldn’t seem to find a way to disagree without being disagreeable, without it seeming like a confrontation, and without seeming to be saying, “You suck, and my food’s better.” Or they second-guessed themselves. Tyler, for example, seemed intimidated by CJ, so he deferred to him, even though Tyler knew CJ’s concept was a poor one. Josh didn’t want to spar with John and got talked into a bad idea in order to be polite and keep the peace. In pair after pair, the chefs' desire to seem cooperative and not to seem to disparage their teammates' concepts or know-how meant that no one took a stand or took the lead, and mediocrity was the result.

Another reason for the poor showing seems to be something that normally occurs further on in the competition. At a certain point in the middle of the season, many of the chefs are trying to hang on, to make dishes that are good enough to ensure that they won't be sent home, but they do not take risks, lest they crash and burn. Food that is merely competent, however, is not what the chefs are here to do. As Gail said, they’re here to be creative. Everything was bad this week… but not because these ingredients were so hard to work with. Look, when we get a seafood dish with sand in it, that dish didn’t fail because the ingredient was hard to work with. Execution was poor. 

But there was another problem evident this week as well. Every single one of the ingredients could have been worked into the dishes better. The problem was that no one this week was creative. There was not one dish that we judges could point to and say “that looks interesting.  This chef is thinking differently.” Nothing looked like it came from a chef with any accomplishment. It is not enough to just do a burger with a pickle. As I said onscreen, and as I show in my cookbook, Think Like a Chef, when you have an ingredient, it should inspire you to think what you can do with it, not what you can put it with. I appreciated that Tyler at least thought to try to bread the pickle. At least he endeavored to do something with it. It wasn't a good something, but it was something. 

But even so, there was a real failure of imagination, of creativity, here. There were so many directions in which this pair could have gone. For example, what about using the spicy pickle in your own version of a Sauce Gribiche, which is a classic French sauce similar to a tartar sauce, made with hardcooked eggs, capers and, traditionally, cornichons. That would have been “doing something with” the pickle. Heston Blumenthal, one of the most creative chefs out there today, puts the classic Sauce Gribiche to a wildly imaginative purpose, using it, along with an “edible soil” of olives and grape nuts, to anchor his “Garden Salad with Sauce Gribiche” recipe, in which his vegetables seem to be planted in the soil, ripe for the diner to pick. Whimsical and delicious. You can take something as simple as the spicy pickle and turn it into something very, very modern, interesting, and special… or you can just look at it as a pickle. Even if you didn’t go as far “out there” as Blumenthal does, but you made a gribiche or just a more conventional tartar sauce and then went the American route of using it with fish, you’d still be creating something from the ingredient. Stefan and Brooke were on the right track with their dish, but the main problem with their execution was that Stefan used sugar in his cabbage -- that’s how that cabbage is prepared, and the two just didn't know how to fix this very fixable problem. Frankly, the dish would have fared far better had he gone in a totally different direction with the cabbage, perhaps doing something winey and vinegary to counterbalance the sweetness of the rosewater ingredient. Even so, though, they, too, could have been far more imaginative. European desserts used rosewater long before chocolate and vanilla became ubiquitous. And many dishes from the Indian subcontinent use rosewater as well. Stefan and Brooke had ample sources of inspiration, had they allowed themselves to be inspired.

All of this said, please realize that I’m not judging any of the contestants as chefs. If I wanted to judge them as chefs, I’d go to their restaurants with secret cameras. No, I’m judging the food they present me in any given challenge. OK, so they all made bad dishes this week. That doesn’t tell me much about them as chefs. We’ve all made bad dishes. The question is what they’ll do now that they’ve been admonished to step up their game. 

I think CJ said something insightful in his exit interview. He said that he feels that he’s only now starting his career. This is true. He’s been bouncing around a bit since his last stint on Top Chef, but I hope he’s now thinking about food a bit differently. We’ll see, in “Last Chance Kitchen”…

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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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