Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Tracing Tradition

Tom Colicchio weighs in on the great turkey brining debate.


Few meals conjure as much sentiment and emotion as Thanksgiving. Everyone has his or her own memories -- good or bad -- and they are, however subconsciously, linked to the food. So everyone has strong opinions about which food should appear on the table, and about exactly how that food should be prepared.

The chief food under discussion, of course, is The Bird. 

Roast the whole thing? Braise the legs but roast the breast separately? Spatchcock it? Baste? Don’t baste? Only baste at the end? This year, the big, heated (no pun intended) “discussion” in the Twittersphere/Blogosphere was about brining: To Brine Or Not To Brine (sub-“discussion”: if brining, to dry brine or wet brine?). I am decidedly in the “Brining’s not necessary” camp and posted my own recipe, and I can’t tell you how many indignant “But Alton Brown says the turkey must be brined!”messages I received.    

Not knocking Alton, whose knowledge of food and of food science I respect, but, as you saw on the show, my turkey comes out moist and succulent without all that fuss. In this challenge, my team basically did the turkey and stuffing as I do at home. The rest of the team, though, pretty much did whatever they wanted. I honestly had no idea what Carla was making (I couldn’t understand what she was yelling at me that she was doing) -- I’m just glad she did it so well. The team pulled together and put together nice dishes. Everything was beautifully presented and delicious. I initially expected just to advise my team and steer the meal in a particular direction, but when I got to the kitchen and saw Emeril at the stove, I jumped in, too, for a little while. We had a great time joking and cooking. Overall, it was a lot of fun.Emeril’s team largely did well, too, but once we saw Josie’s undercooked turkey, everyone at the table knew it was all over for the Gray Team. If Josie hadn't had immunity, she would have gone home — this was one of those times when having immunity truly came in handy. Kuniko’s potatoes were clearly the second-worst dish of the evening, so it worked out well for all that she was on the team that was up for an elimination. Kuniko had plenty of time to cook that dish, and it was such a simple dish that any chef should have been safe from elimination with it. If that dish is cooked correctly and seasoned properly, you just can’t get sent home. I couldn’t understand how Kuniko blew a dish like that, or how she didn't realize the fact, which was easy to discover. Honestly, she made our job as judges easy this week.

The challenge itself reflected what’s great about Thanksgiving. Fast Company magazine interviewed me for an article in the current issue about Thanksgiving, in which they discussed the origins of the holiday. “The First Thanksgiving” actually wasn’t… a thanksgiving, that is. Apparently a hunting party shot a bunch of birds and invited some of the Native Americans to join them in eating them, along with harvested vegetables. Giving thanks probably wasn’t part of the agenda, or at least not at the top of it. Large harvest meals were common throughout the growing nation in the autumns that followed, in order to eat up food that would otherwise go to waste, but it wasn’t until 1863 that Lincoln, noting that we didn’t have any official holidays in the fall, declared it a national holiday of thanksgiving in a gesture intended to start to reunify the country. People most likely ate whatever was available locally, which, in New England where the tradition began, would most likely have included a good amount of fish, because cod came into the shallows in the winter, and oysters and scallops were much more abundant than now (think “oyster stuffing”). Squashes, nuts, fall-berries like cranberries, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, parsnips, turnips… all became traditional.But the part I love most about Thanksgiving, that was reflected in the challenge, is how every group arriving from foreign shores made the tradition their own. Coming to New Orleans via Fall River, MA, where he grew up, Emeril put a decidedly Portuguese-American spin on his team’s “traditional” dishes, while I put an “Italian-American” spin on mine. In my family when I was growing up, we always had lasagna as a first course. My grandmother always made the stuffing with a lot of garlic in it. Far be it from me to decide what belongs on anyone’s Thanksgiving table. All I hoped for, in this week’s Elimination Challenge, was that whatever landed there was made well. 

I hope your holiday meal was great, as well, and that you and yours had a Happy Thanksgiving together. I had all my boys with me, and they all ate with gusto from college student down to toddler, so I’m a happy dad today. And no, to answer what I know what you’re wondering: the stuffing didn’t have a lot of garlic in it this year.


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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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