Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Vintage Venue and Victuals

Tom Colicchio explains how Kristen's dish could easily have gone awry.

Some of the motifs that make Canlis as impressive a restaurant as it is were the very things that made this week’s challenge as good a challenge as it was.  

Peter Canlis, grandfather of current owners Mark and Brian Canlis, was extremely forward-thinking (and his children and grandchildren have shown that same progressiveness). Despite his limited budget, he had the vision to enlist architect Roland Terry, one of the pillars of the post-WWII-era regional approach to Modern architecture, who created a stunning structure with Frank Lloyd Wright sensibilities, right on a hill’s edge, with a design that fairly invites the vista into the dining space.  

The restaurant had a great menu from the get-go and was also a true gathering place in the Seattle area, with devoted regulars. The owners implemented a lovely custom there that I believe endures till this day, in which they confer a wine glass with a customer’s initials upon someone they deem to be a special customer. The glass is not necessarily awarded for frequency of visits, nor can one be purchased -- it’s the relationship that is forged with the customer that determines whether and when a monogrammed glass is gifted to someone. A fun story about the restaurant, by the way: men are required to wear jackets and encouraged to wear ties; women are required to wear dresses. An actress once arrived wearing pants, and when she was told that she couldn’t wear pants at the restaurant, she said “OK”…and took them off right at the door!

While it started out with a sense of modernity for its time, the restaurant itself has been updated through the ages, and so has the food. Regulars would be up in arms if they couldn’t get the Canlis Special Salad, but aside from that, the food has been steadily rethought throughout the years and is very, very modern. In fact, Jason Franey, who is the current chef, came out of Eleven Madison’s kitchen, in New York. Most restaurants do not survive transfer from generation to generation, but Canlis has adapted smartly and gracefully and has stayed relevant, which is a very impressive feat. Throughout the restaurant’s changes, however, its owners have maintained their sense that this is a family business. Whimsically, there is one special table that still boasts an old-school telephone -- apparently this is where Peter Canlis would sit back in the day, observing the goings on, and when he’d note something he needed to address, he’d just pick up the phone.

Similarly, this week’s challenge required skill married to creativity, it required a vision for the visuals as well as the flavors, and, as the Canlis family has preserved, a sense of whimsy and fun as well. The chefs needed to understand what the original menu was suggesting about the dishes offered and extrapolate as to the ingredients and method of cooking, in order to skillfully create their vision of what had come before. This challenge reminds me of a period film or piece of theatre, in which the director, designers, and actors pull together to recreate an era. Knowledge of the era must be combined with a hefty dose of imagination and, of course, the skill at one’s craft necessary to pull the whole thing off.For the most part, the chefs did a great job. They “got” the challenge, and everything looked and seemed very '50s. And so many of the dishes really delivered on all fronts. 

Josh’s soup was too salty, yes, but not enough to kill it. The dish was saved from the very bottom by its good, beefy flavor, which superceded its saltiness. An inherent problem with the dish, as a matter of fact, was the actually dish, i.e., the bowl itself, which was the wrong vessel for onion soup -- it was way too wide and shallow.  The reason for the crouton in onion soup is to hold up the cheese, but this wasn’t possible in the bowl Josh used.

CJ’s dish was a serious contender for “One of the Worst Two Dishes” -- he’s lucky that it was edged out by Chrissy’s and Carla’s. His lamb didn’t get enough char on it. The meat’s mealiness came from his having sous vided it for the wrong length of time -- I just can’t understand why he chose to do that at all. All in all, the dish was under-seasoned and boring… but it was still not quite as bad as the other two dishes.

As for Carla’s, you need to understand a couple of things both about being a chef and about squab: I have seven restaurants, and I have chefs cooking my food. But it is my job and mine alone to make sure that they know exactly how I want each element prepared. One can’t become Top Chef and not know how to supervise others who are cooking one’s food. If I’d been in charge of that squab dish, I’d have been in there making sure it was done correctly.  And cooking for the judges in this competition is akin to cooking for VIPs in your restaurant -- you want to be extra sure that their dishes are prepared exactly as you want them.

As for how Carla wanted them? We judges don’t know at the time what is going on in the kitchen -- we only know what we’re served. But having watched the episode, I see that not only were ours overcooked, but the early ones were absolutely undercooked -- clearly, the chefs then overcompensated for that when cooking the later ones. Squab should be medium rare  If too rare, it's chewy; if overdone, it starts to get, well, “livery” is the best way I can describe what happens to it. Squab is pigeon whose wings are clipped when it’s young so that it never flies. It’s a nice tender red meat bird, like a duck, with really rich flavor. It’s one of my favorite things to cook… and to eat. Sadly, Carla really blew it, not only by not supervising the preparation well -- she actually made mistakes all the way through. Even when doing the whole flattened thing that you saw her do, you still need to butcher it a bit and take out the rib cage. Carla blew it from the get go with this dish.And Chrissy’s salad: I know that she had a tall order, trying to create from the menu description a dish that still exists, against which hers can be measured. But even without measuring her dish against the original, Chrissy made major blunders that merited her being sent home. Quite apart from the fact that there was not enough mint, lemon or oregano, that the dressing itself was heavy, and that then the salad was overdressed with this overly-heavy dressing, she used the outside leaves of the romaine, which simply isn’t OK. Think about the way lettuce grows -- sun hits the plant and the chlorophyll causes the leaves that soak up the sun to turn dark green. It also causes them to turn tough and unpalatable. The leaves inside are lighter in color because they’re not undergoing photosynthesis and have less chlorophyll. These inside leaves are crispier and juicier, and they have better flavor. Salad-making is the first thing a chef will learn in culinary school, and it should not then be taken for granted. When you are served a good salad, it has an appetizing brightness and freshness to it. When you get a bad one, you know it instantly. Soggy, wilty, and/or tough greens are an instant appetite-kill, and we were presented both. I was surprised that Chrissy overdressed the salad, and more than surprised that she served us the outer leaves of the lettuce that should have been thrown in the garbage. Clearly, she doesn’t know how to use romaine lettuce. It’s a weird hole in her body of culinary knowledge, but, as with Carla’s need to know how to supervise those who execute your dishes, it’s not knowledge that one can lack and still become Top Chef.

On the other side of the spectrum we find Kristen’s onions and mushrooms. I was so glad about this win. I try to imagine how many thousands of pounds of mushrooms we’ve served in my restaurants since we first opened our doors to customers -- let’s leave it at “many.” The mushroom is not a forgiving ingredient. Mushrooms have a very high water content. Overcrowd the pan, and they’ll go greyish and mushy and bland. Whereas when you see one cooked properly, it’s a beautiful brown and the flavors are intense. Believe me when I tell you that Kristen could easily have been sent home for either of her two dishes -- it’s easy to mess them up. In fact, in a very crucial way it’s easier to slip up with them than with a more “complicated” dish: when you make a dish with only one component, there is nothing else behind which you can hide an error. It’s a tightrope walk -- you either walk it to the other side and succeed, or you fall to your death. All or nothing. I was so glad to see Kristen take her one-component side dishes as seriously as any other dishes on the menu, not treat either of them as a throwaway, and execute each of them so adeptly. She nailed them -- there were no flaws in either dish. Of everything that was cooked in this challenge, hers were the best examples of how to make those particular products. Her mushrooms were better-prepared mushrooms than the steak was a well-prepared steak or the crab was well-prepared crab.  Sure, there were strong dishes in this challenge, but the simplicity of hers made Kristen’s perfect execution of them all the more gratifying. You know me by now -- I am all about taking the finest ingredients and preparing them as simply and perfectly as possible, so as to let them shine.  

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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