Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Gail reflects on the neck-and-neck competition between Nina and Nick and why after an arduous Judges Table, Nick came out on top. For this final challenge the chefs are tasked with creating a four-course menu and a restaurant for the evening. Do you want to start by talking about their approaches?
Gail Simmons: I think they both had a similar approach in that they wanted to show us how much they’ve grown, how much they’ve changed, and the breadth of their cooking ability. I think they both came really prepared, which was amazing to see. They both had very clear visions from the beginning of exactly how they wanted their restaurants to be run, exactly how they wanted to cook. They chose sous chefs who they thought would be able to deliver that in the best possible way. So it was really an exciting finale, also because it was such a close finale. It was really up in the air. There was not, in my opinion, an underdog or clear winner whose finale it was to lose. I think in the past, not always, that has been the case. For me at least, this was a neck-and-neck race, which was great. It made us really excited to see what they would actually cook. Why don’t we start with Nina’s restaurant?
GS: Well first off, our judges were really fun to be with. David Kinch from Los Gatos, California, who I’d actually never met in person before but I had been a fan of and known about for a long long time. I know his girlfriend well. Takashi Yagihashi a Top Chef Master from Chicago. Paul Bartolotta, who has been on the show with us and been in other finales before -- I think the last finale he was in was in Signapore, and Morimoto who has a restaurant at the Andaz where we were staying in Maui and obviously spends a lot of time in Hawaii and is a fish genius to say the least. So it was great to have them their and have their knowledge and insight into the food. It was really exciting for all of us. So now, why don’t we talk about the food at Nina’s? What did you think of her decision to branch about beyond the four dishes, by adding the breadfruit and the papaya skewer?
GS: This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen someone make extra courses, or provide a little extra touches in their dishes. I liked what she chose to do. I have to say that the two things she chose to do -- the breadfruit appetizer at the very beginning with the foie gras butter and then the papaya skewers were amazing. They both added a lot to the meal in terms of how well they were made and how thoughtful they were. That papaya skewer was the perfect sort of palate cleanser. It was cold, icy, and delicious. And the breadfruit was a great play on a bread course and it was also very delicious.

The only reason that something like that becomes an issue is that they are using their time and energy to put towards making these things when there are flaws in the four dishes that do count the most. So you kind of wish, if you they hadn’t been preoccupied making theses dishes they could have thought through something or made the other dishes better. Sometimes your main dishes suffer because of it, and in this case specifically her swordfish and her dessert were definitely not perfect. We all sort of felt that it was a shame that she gave us these amazing things that we couldn’t really count in the body of her work, but that dishes that we did have to really examine weren’t exactly as we hoped they would be. Let’s talk about the successful dishes Nina had that night
GS: Nina and Nick’s first courses were a very direct comparison. They both did a raw tuna, crudo course. Both were very good for that matter. Nina’s was a little bit brighter, a little more exciting. Nina’s crudo had heat. It had great seasoning so you really got the full flavor of that fresh fish. So hers was a little stronger than Nick’s, although I really liked them both. And then her second course was this orecchiette with goat ragu that was once again an incredible pasta dish from Nina. Her pasta is really flawless. And the goat ragu was tender and had tons of seasoning and spice. She had fresh cherry tomatoes in there that sort of burst in your mouth. The actual pasta was absolutely delicious. I can’t say enough about it. It was such a beautiful course, such a delicate pasta. I was so happy to hear that Paul Bartolotta liked it as much as we all did. He is sort of my pasta guru, and he was totally blown away by it.

Her swordfish was not only sort of unexciting from a presentation standpoint, but it really didn’t have much flavor. It didn’t feel very cohesive. It felt like a departure from her meal because the first two courses were so exciting, so Nina, so what we’ve come to expect from her. This swordfish just feel flat. It really wasn’t as the main course of a meal what we expected from her.

And then her dessert, I think we all said it many times, didn’t really feel like a dessert. It was small. It was just a finger food, a few bites. It didn’t have a ton of flavor. She sprinkled dried coconut and macadamia nuts over the zeppole, but they don’t stick to the zeppole, so when you pick it up -- if you’re eating it with your fingers like we were -- you don’t get the macadamia nuts and the coconut with it. Then you have to pick them up separately and shove them in your mouth. It all just wasn’t a completely bite. You couldn’t get what you wanted out of that dish when you went to eat it. That’s where it really fell short. I know that she can better. I know dessert isn’t her forte, and she didn’t have to cook one. I know why she did -- she wanted the meal to feel well rounded and I appreciate that. Sadly, after those two highlights at the beginning of her meal, this dessert did not really do anything at all. And now let’s talk about Nick’s restaurant and meal. 
GS: Nick’s service varied wildly from when we ate there and when Padma and her group did. There were major issues with service on their end. We definitely heard some noises but we got our food in an acceptable time and didn’t really notice how much of a struggle Nick was having in the kitchen -- except for that one huge lash out that he made.

That said, his first course was really nice. A little underseasoned, a little subtle, but he showed us a really skilled dish. The green apple and wasabi were in a water. The dish was beautiful, it just was a little bit underseasoned so you didn’t get those flavors that you want to burst in your mouth with that fish. Those are really strong flavors -- meyer lemon, green apple, wasabi -- and they just tasted a little bit muted. But it was beautifully presented and beautifully crafted that dish. So it was by no means a failure.

The next dish of his was my favorite dish that he made all night -- this shrimp bisque with scallop and daikon noodles. I loved it and I think a lot of people at the table did too. It had tons of flavor, the bisque was sort of the sauce pooling at the bottom of the plate and it was bursting with flavor. It was rich and you could tell that he made an amazing stock and base. I loved the texture of the noodles. There was heat. There was a great counterpoint with some chilies that he had in the dish. I thought it was fantastic.

Then he had the duck course, which was very complex and very sophisticated, actually. And certainly was much stronger a dish than Nina’s third course. Emeril really had a problem with how his piece of duck was cooked but none of us did at our table. We thought it was cooked well, and he rendered the fat on the duck, which is a really important step when you are first cooking the duck. He did it really well so that the top of the duck was crispy. The squash was sweet. There was crunch, there was a smooth puree. It had everything you wanted in a main course -- it felt very complete, very substantial, and really refined.

And then finally his dessert. He chose to do panna cotta to redeem himself from a previous challenge, the Jacques Pepin Spanish versus French challenge. I wasn’t there for that challenge so I didn’t know how bad his original panna cotta was but I heard from my fellow chefs about it. I have to say I loved this panna cotta. The great part about this panna cotta was that there were so many elements besides the custard itself so that every bite you took was a little bit different. There was a lot of texture. There was fruit. The nuts, the white chocolate. I’m not generally a fan of white chocolate. This incorporation of white chocolate didn’t hit you over the head, didn’t feel too buttery. Sometimes I find white chocolate leaves a film on the roof of your mouth, because it’s really just milkfat and I really liked the way that all his flavors came together. I really like the texture. It felt very tropical. It felt perfect in the Hawaiian setting we were in. It could have had a little more “jiggle” I think, which was some people’s complaint, but ultimately we all licked the bowl clean and that’s a pretty powerful review.

So then we got down to the deliberation and this was really, and I know we probably say this every time, but it really was one of the hardest decisions we’ve made. We couldn’t agree, quite frankly, and mostly that’s because we had very different experiences between the two tables. Padma’s group was five people while we were four, so what became very complicated was because we had different experiences eating our meals because service went differently for the two tables,it made the comparison sort of skew -- as there were five of them. So it wasn’t necessarily a fair and even discussion. So we really had to get down to dishes, comparing each dish to each other and putting aside the rest of the experience so we could make sure we were judging on fair ground so to speak.

And when we went through the dishes, it was really close. Nina’s first two dishes were stronger than NIck’s, but NIck’s final two dishes were stronger than Nina’s. And then there were the extras that Nina made and we had to figure out how to factor them in. And this went on and on for hours literally, until we sort of realized we had to think about who made the worst dishes of the night, who made the best dish of the night, and that went to a vote between all of us. And in the end we thought that the full experience that Nick gave us and the strength and highlight of just a few of his dishes -- really the last three courses of his -- were really exceptional. So after much back and forth, long into the night, wherein I almost fell asleep at the table numerous times from sheer exhaustion we decided that Nick’s meal was the winning meal that night -- and that he would be named Top Chef!

Nina, looking back, was one of the strongest competitors we’ve ever had. She is so articulate and the food she cooks is so completely from the heart. She’s so talented. She’s got such an amazing philosophy and insight into herself. She’s such a great chef and such a great leader to. I admire her so, so much, and I love eating her food. I hope that I get to eat more of her food again -- Italian, Caribbean, whatever she wants to cook I’ll take it. And it’s rare that a chef really at her level, just coming into her own has such an amazing grasp on so many different cuisines. She really is talented and I adore her. I truly adore her.

And Nick I feel really amazing about too as the winner this year. I’m so proud of him. I think of all the chefs that were on this season he grew the most in a lot of ways. He came back fighting for his life. He won every challenge in the finale -- he won the Quickfire and the Elimination last episode and then he won overall. We did not take this decision lightly. He is so capable, so strong, so technically sound, and that’s really what impressed us the most. He also, I think, is really trying to push himself, in a way that we were really blown away by -- and i think it showed in his final meal.

So I’m excited to see what Nick and Nina do next. I’m excited to have Nick with us at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen this year and to get to know him even more now that we can actually have a conversation.

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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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