Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Gail shares her feelings about this week's double elimination.

Bravotv.com: Why don’t we start by talking about Last Chance Kitchen? Were you surprised about who made it through?
Gail Simmons: I wasn’t surprised, because through the eight challenges before the finale while we were in New Orleans, Tom had been telling me about how incredible Louis’ food had been. He had been really talking about how impressed he was with him as a chef, and how great all his food was.

In fact after winning so many challenges, I would have been surprised if Carlos had been able to beat him at that point. He deserved to get back in, he really earned it. Tom said he cooked some of the best food Tom had eaten in or out of actual episodes.



Bravotv.com: And then immediately he was thrown into the Spam Quickfire. What did you think of how the chefs fared with Spam?
GS: I was amazed that Nick said he hadn’t thought of Spam, because Hawaii is the home of Spam!

But, I thought it was a really funny Quickfire. It loosened everybody up. They shot it really early in the morning, and I had arrived the night before. Because of the time change I passed out at like 4 am or 5 am that morning and I sat on my balcony and watched the whole thing from my balcony. I could see the hula dancer arriving, and I thought it was really funny. I thought it looked great.  The chefs were able to create really interesting and innovative things from cans of Spam, so I was impressed.Bravotv.com: How was it being in this completely different environment, coming out of New Orleans?
GS: It was a great change, I mean several months have passed clearly -- I was very pregnant all of a sudden. Almost four months, three-and-a-half months had passed since we had been in New Orleans, so I was suddenly seven months pregnant.

It was great to be in Hawaii, for all of us. Such a beautiful location we shot at. All of the locations we shot at for those two episodes were breathtaking and the weather was perfect and every one was just so happy to be there and really excited to make it the best finale we could.

I’d love to be there right now. It’s 12 degrees outside!

Bravotv.com: Now on to the elimination challenge, they are cooking with canoe crops. . .
GS: The canoe crops are basically all of the different crops and meat, protein, pork, etc., and fish that were brought to the island originally by the first settlers. They included things like all of these amazing sweet potatoes and fruits and vegetables that are really now what people consider the distinct bounty of Hawaii. They’re really unique to that part of the world.

It was a really smart Elimination, because it forced them to understand in a deeper way the local bounty and the local foods that the people there eat every day. They were really beautiful quality, and it was kind of fun to see what they did.

There were a lot of similarities between the dishes, because a lot of them overlapped ingredients like sweet potato and coconut, and the opah obviously, but ultimately they were still pretty solid dishes.Bravotv.com: So let’s go over their dishes.
GS: We liked all of the dishes. There were slightly larger flaws with Louis and Shirley, obviously, which is why they were sent home. That was a really difficult decision. We know that all four of them are incredible, incredible cooks. They all did an incredible job. They all really pushed themselves, and they were not easy circumstances. Clearly, it started raining in the middle of their cook time. They were cooking outdoors. They were cooking in unknown, temporary kitchen environments. But ultimately I think they were all really successful.

Louis’ opah, there were just really large inconsistences between the way the pieces of fish were cooked. Some were undercooked, some were over, partially because of the circumstances and the rain. But we couldn’t overlook that size and the portions, they just were not consistent.

And then Shirley’s dish was definitely unique. I loved the way that she handled her pork, it was cooked beautifully. The honey-glazed pork with sweet potato was very, very sweet and a little bit off-balance. It needed some sort of counterpoint, because those two pieces had so much sugar, so much natural sweetness, and so we all kind of felt that it was lacking in contrast, lacking in balance.

So that was how we chose who was going to go home that day.Nick and Nina made pretty perfect dishes, all things considered. Nick’s dish was the strongest dish I’d really seen from him all season. And clearly he won the Quickfire and the Elimination for this episode. I didn’t get to taste his food in the Quickfire, but I really loved his spicy crispy chicken skin that he served on top of the opakapaka with jalapeno. It was cooked beautifully.

It was just a lovely piece of fish; it was plated so nicely. This was Nick finally finding his rhythm I think and finally understanding that you don’t need to make it so precious. It can be a little simpler, it doesn’t need to be so fussy to be good.

Nina’s opah: Because Louis made opah and Nina made opah, we had a direct comparison. Nina cooked her opah so well. She grilled it with taro root and coconut; it tasted like the island. It tasted like her food, but also like the food of Hawaii. It was so concise and such a tight dish, such a thoughtful dish. It looked and tasted like the kind of dish you would think she’d been making for years.

It felt completely organic to come from her, that dish. She definitely had a little bit of advantage in being so familiar with the ingredients, because they are so similar to the ingredients in the Caribbean in a lot of ways. She pulled off such a refined dish using those ingredients, and we were all really impressed with it.Bravotv.com: How did it feel at this point losing the final two?
GS: It was really difficult, especially to let go of Shirley, because I got to know her so well. She’s such a fighter, such a strong contender, and such an extraordinary cook.

I love both Louis and Shirley, but certainly knew Shirley better through spending time with her and watching her grow so much. When I think back to so many other dishes she made I have such strong, fond memories. I want to eat her food again and again. The way that she seasoned her food. The way she made these incredibly rich sauces, and broths, and soups. The way that she seasoned her food was always so creative and always had her voice and point of view. And that’s something that’s really difficult to do as a young chef. She certainly grew into herself along the way. We love Shirley, we really do, and I have no doubt that whatever she does next will be extraordinary.

Bravotv.com: Anything else you want to spill before the finale?
GS:  Besides I love Hawaii and I wish I was there right now -- I think it is actually fitting Nick versus Nina. They have such different styles, but they both have been really strong throughout the competition in very different ways.  We were excited. We knew that when it came down to those two, we would have a really incredible finale. And we do -- and you’re going to have to stick around and watch it!

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the finale showdown between Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet.

There is always a Top Chef winner but obviously some seasons have a less experienced assemblage of chefs, while others have veritable US Olympic-caliber culinary practitioners. (Congrats to Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition by the way! Silver! Silver!)

This particular season of Top Chef could have been a contest of mediocrity, but it bloomed into something very skilled and mature, which is good for judging, but makes writing a blog with poop jokes and rap humor very difficult. I have to say, I was a little worried at the beginning that the whole chef squadron was a little shaky. But early retreats by chefs with bigger egos than culinary skillsets allowed the true talent to rise without being malevolent fools. And that talent really was there. By mid season we were eating their visions on the plate, while watching them battle it out over the food and just the food.

The two most successful chefs of the season made it to the end, and they are ready to rumble in the most respective way they know how. One will plate most of their food on the side of the plate, incorporating Korean flavors and modern technique into the vittles, while the other will weave a more classic story and put food more in the center of the plate like regular people. Should be a good show no matter what, because at the end of the day, it’s just hard not to be really enamored with both of them. They are good people.

Gregory and Mei start out on a hot air balloon ride, because that’s how I like to start every day in Mexico. The country looks beautiful to me even if you are in a basket hoisted hundreds of feet into the air by hot air. The hotel I stayed in was the Casa di Sierra Nevada, which was AWESOME, so if you are looking for a vacation, go there. It's no party town, but it is plenty fun. Great food scene. And to put safety into perspective, I felt safer wandering around St. Miguel than I do my hometown. Anyway, the balloon ride looks like fun and allows for that finale moment of almost tearful reminiscence and contemplation.

So their balloon ride lands in a vineyard, and Tom and Padma are waiting to put a halt to this sentimentality. The task is put forward and the challenge, this final culinary joust, is to create a meal that is the meal of their lives. They pick their two sous chefs per person; Gregory picks Doug and George, while Mei picks Melissa and Rebecca.

They prep their menus after a good night’s sleep. The prep I will not talk about too much, but suffice it to say that each team seems very pro and super on top of things.

Traci des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, and Donnie Masterton are dining with us, all of them amazing chefs. Like amazing amazing. The kid’s table, at which I am the head, is made up of Sean, Traci, Gavin, and Gail. It is a super table. At the table I decide to hold true to the tourist warning of not drinking the water. I thus only drink wine and the phenomenal beauty of Casa Dragones tequila, a concoction that will make me sleep soundly (but probably by dessert) on the table.

Mei hits us with an octopus that I really, really like. It resounds with flavors of coconut, avocado, and fish sauce. It is deep. The only flaw is that maybe it is a bit over done. The over cooking made it kind of crunchy and she could easily have been cooking it to that point on purpose. Second course from her is a congee, with peanuts, carnitas, egg yolk, and hot sauce. It is so f----ing delicious. Like stylized comfort food that you just want to eat all the time. Comfort food, when perfect, is perhaps the hardest food to cook, because it is by definition food you are very familiar with, resulting in people having a lot of preconceived notions about it. This congee would have silenced all critics on congee. It was that good.

Mei is gliding through this meal. She has palpable confidence, but is still a nicely soft-spoken leader. In my years of watching people lead kitchens, I have always been more taken with the allegiance that soft-spoken leaders cultivate in their staffs. Her third course is a duck course, and like the congee, she has cooked duck at least twice this season, but in entirely different ways. This duck has kimchi, braised lettuce, and huitlacoche on the plate. Huitlacoche is corn smut, a term I just yelled in a coffee shop, making everyone uncomfortable. It is a good plate, but my refrain about duck skin continues. It was a bit chewy. All in all, the dish just was texturally challenged. It needed a crunchy texture. But it was good still. Her last is her version of yogurt dippin’ dots with strawberry-lime curd, milk crumble, and stuff. It was blow-you-away amazing. Very complex, but very successful. Tom says it is the best dessert on Top Chef he has ever had, and I definitely concur, though he has tasted many more than I have. The toasted yogurt base was amazing.

Gregory steps up with a brothy octopus with cashew milk, fresh prickly pear, and also xoconostle, which is the dried version of prickly pear, kind of like a prickly pear fruit roll up. It is a strong dish, and may be the winner in the Octopus Olympiad. His second was a strange soup that was redolent with flavor until you choked with a shrimp head lodged in your gullet. Strange and a little unrefined for me, and pretty much everyone else. It was a wanted textural element, but made a rustic soup weird. The whole dish needs to be compared to the comfort food of Mei’s congee, and in that context it is no contest.

Third course from Gregory is a bass with carrot sauce, tomatillo, vegetables, and pineapple. It is a strange dish. I am worried for Gregory at this point. It is not like the dish was bad, but the dish was just not a winner winner. Well, let’s not rest on that notion, because his next and final course is a stone cold stunner. Simple short ribs in mole with sweet potato. It is purity on the plate and equal to the idea of Mei’s congee in nailing comfort food. Kudos. He’s back on track. This is a close contest.

Judges' Table comes and we deliberate. I am not going to mince words and hold off on this: It is really close, but this season’s winner is definitely Mei. Well deserved. Gregory is the consummate pro in placing second and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this restaurant world. His win versus addiction and his success in cooking shows one tough person with oodles of talent.

Mei. Mei. You rock. You are a chef’s chef. You make food that excites and makes us ponder. You are a leader and a super cool person. You are the winner and will always be a winner. Onwards.

Until next season. I loved this season. Thanks BOSTON. And thanks San Miguel di Allende. You are awesome places to work.

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