Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

To Thine Own Self Be True

Tom Colicchio explains why Sheldon was obviously going home.

It’s always great to bring back our finalists after a few months’ hiatus, and this season was no different in that regard. These are talented young chefs, and I was looking forward to having them in my kitchen and, believe it or not, to expediting for them, which I thought would be fun. I was keen to see what they’d been doing to hone their skills and further their creativity over their time away…

While I think there was much to commend, I will admit to being disappointed by various aspects of their performance, but most of all with Sheldon’s choices. He didn’t cook his own unique food, the very food that had brought him all the way to the finale.

Everyone who creates does so with in their own particular way, hence the term “signature style” -- each person’s work is as identifiable as had s/he actually signed it. You identify the musical sound of your favorite band within two measures of a song’s introduction, you recognize your favorite novelist’s writing style, you know a Rothko from a Rauschenberg.  

It’s no different with food, which is why the suggestion that we judge the food “blind” in our competitions wouldn’t accomplish anything -- very early into a season, we judges come to know which chef cooked a dish just by seeing it and tasting it.  

Sheldon’s bold flavor profiles and innovative takes on Filipino food are exciting. Just because he wanted to plate his food differently and do something visually new upon his arrival at the finale was no reason to abandon the style he’d developed over the arc of his career to date. He could have done his food and just plated it in the more modern way he was now going for -- he might easily have knocked it out of the park.But instead, everything Sheldon did in this challenge was so bland. There is no comparison between the broth he did for Restaurant Wars, with its depth of flavor, and the one he gave us here. He failed to season the prawns, simply pouring the broth over them. His first course was such a bland dish, when it didn’t need to be -- it could easily have been every bit as soulful as everything else he did all season long.   

It was the same with Sheldon’s quail dish, which had very little flavor (not to mention the fact that I’m not quite sure why he thought he had to sous vide it and then cook it -- quail is so small and cooks so quickly). Yes, the plate looked pretty, but a pretty plate will only get you so far as a chef… and in this competition, it won’t get you to the end zone.

As for Sheldon’s dessert, he was on the right track, but he didn’t complete the job. Maybe had the fennel been candied, for example, the dish might have cohered, since other parts of the dish kind of worked, but the dessert just didn’t work as a whole, as presented. Overall, as I began saying above, everyone had a sense that Sheldon’s three dishes were such a departure from what he’d done all season long. They were not well-seasoned and not very interesting, and they missed the mark.  

As for Brooke, her prep was a disaster -- I knew she’d have problems as soon as I walked into the kitchen. Her station was totally upside-down, she was clearly stressed, she was even slicing and cleaning sweetbreads to order... and you know someone’s in trouble when they’re doing that.  If you’re not organized, your service is going to suffer. Brooke just wasn’t ready. I’m not sure why -- she had three hours to put three dishes together, and many more of her components could have been prepped and ready to go by the time patrons walked into the restaurant.

Everyone else thought Brooke’s dessert was great, but I thought it was at best OK. It was a cake topped with sauce and berries that I thought any decent home cook could have prepared. Overall, Brooke’s food, once presented, was flavorful, but her lack of preparedness could have hurt her. Had Sheldon stepped it up a little bit, Brooke could have been sent home.

And as for Kristen’s food, she had errors throughout, but none bad enough to surpass Sheldon’s weak presentation and Brooke’s disorganization. The chestnut veloute she served for her first course was really flavorful, though I didn’t care for the texture of the rillettes in that soup.I found Kristen’s second course lacking a bit; it was a little short on flavor. The only veal item in the dish was the sauce. I personally would have chosen to play up the meat aspect of the dish a bit more than she did. If she didn’t want to go all out with a braised veal breast, for example, she could still have done something short of that to bring out the veal a bit more. We do a seared tuna and veal sweetbreads that works beautifully, for example. There were interesting components in her dish, and it was well-plated, but we’re used to seeing Kristen manage to pull that off while also delivering on flavor.

Kristen’s dessert was flavorful and interesting. It wound up being a bit simple in presentation, but not enough to hurt her much. She realized that she has tended to overthink things, so she held back… a bit too much. As with Brooke, though, she was so clearly safe from elimination because Sheldon’s dishes were so obviously getting him sent home. If only he’d melded what he was doing with Filipino food with a more modern presentation, we might have been having a very different conversation about the mistakes all three made this week…

And so here we are, approaching the final head-to-head in what has been an eventful season. There’s only one thing we know for certain heading into the final challenge: this season, a woman will take home the title of Top Chef.  

Oh, P.S. To the guy who tweeted, “Based on the comments in Last Chance Kitchen, it’s obvious that Kristen isn’t going to make it to the finale. Horrible judging.” Just couldn’t hold off on tweeting long enough to watch the episode, could you? Ready, fire, aim. Thanks for your tweet, guy.

And P.P.S.  For all those wondering why pictures of Andy Cohen keep popping up on the set on Last Chance Kitchen. I have no idea why. Honestly, I have no idea.


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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