Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Gloopy, Soupy, and Radish Dresses!

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

Make Melissa's Mom's Egg Custard

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Make Mei's Inspired Duck a l'Orange

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

Gloopy, Soupy, and Radish Dresses!

Gail explains why Carrie's dish didn't land her in the bottom. Quickfire  Challenge. We have the creole tomato and the lovely John Besh.
Gail Simmons: I think John Besh is even more lovely than the coveted Creole tomato. He’s fantastic. He has a new book out called Cooking from the Heart, and it’s sitting on my desk right now. It’s so beautiful. I’m very happy for him.

I think this was the perfect Quickfire challenge for our chefs, appropriately at Covey Rise Farms, which is a gorgeous special place. So many restaurants in New Orleans, wherever we ate while we were there, always highlighted the ingredients and the produce that they got at Covey Rise Farms because it really is one of the best local farms. I was thrilled the chefs got to spend some time there.

I actually went to a Creole tomato festival when I was in New Orleans. The dishes for this Quickfire looked colorful and fresh, but some clearly were better than others. Nina’s looked fantastic! I was surprised to hear that so many of them seemed to be stumped by the challenge, that they just had a mental block about it, considering how straight forward it was compared to so many other crazy things we have them do. But I can imagine that happens from time to time just by nature of how the show works. You have such a limited window with which to think through what you’re going to do before you have to act. It was interesting that many of them didn’t do dishes that were very creative or exciting this time around. On to the Elimination Challenge, where they used cream cheese to create three different courses. Nina got to choose what course she did and she chose an appetizer -- did you think that was a smart choice? 
GS: I did think that was a smart choice. I’m sure she did it, one, so she could cook first and get it over with, and two, so that she would have more options to make smaller portions. I find it sometimes easier to cook appetizers than main courses because they don’t have to be as large; they don’t have to be as substantial, and they don’t have to always incorporate that more traditional protein-vegetable-starch ratio that chefs always want to put on a plate. Let’s start with the appetizers. 
GS: The appetizer group was the best of the three groups, probably for all of those same reasons. It’s easier to make more compact, more succinct. The colors were gorgeous using all of those magnificent summer vegetables. This was shot in June, so it was prime time for local produce and we were very happy with this first course dishes overall. They really gave us a breadth of flavors and presentations.

I thought Patty’s crudo was the most simple. It wasn’t dressed enough, it needed olive oil, it needed seasoning, but her vegetables were well conceived and incorporated. Carlos gave us great flavor, very creative. Sara’s lamb chop -- which looked more like a main course than an appetizer -- was truly still raw and stood out as the weakest of the lot for sure. On the other hand, Nina’s clearly was the most successful. Her zucchini blossoms were beautifully fried; they weren’t greasy, the eggplant and cream cheese combo was absolutely fantastic inside of them. And she presented them in a really modern, clever way.The entrées, on the other hand, were disappointing. With the exception of Justin’s duck, which we all agreed was very strong, the rest of the entrees were lackluster. They were uninspired. We had simple roast chicken with vegetables that were overcooked. We had lamb that was undercooked with overcooked vegetables. Just inconsistent. Carrie’s dish was OK, but, as I said on the show, was a little “gloopy and soupy.” She made vinegar-braised chicken and chilled cucumber salad, but then she put the crunchy cucumbers in the vinegar-braise, so it wasn’t chilled anymore and got soggy. I wish she had separated the two and composed the dish a little more instead of putting everything all together on top of each other on the plate. From a presentation standpoint it didn’t follow through. What did you think of Travis’ admission that he purposefully cut the vegetables that way? 
GS: Sometimes that makes sense and helps us understand the dish. BUT, just because you mean to do something, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. I’m sure it is true that he set out to cut his vegetables in these ragged different sizes. If that was his intention, it’s good to know that was his intention, but that makes us think your intention was misguided. It just didn’t make any sense to not cut them or cook them in a consistent manner, so they would cook at the same time, and eat well together.

I was more amazed by Travis’ comment about his lamb chop. At one point he said that his knife was so sharp, that he butchered the lamb chops completely, which is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. When you have a sharp knife you’re able to do good work. It’s when you have a dull knife that the knife doesn’t cut properly, and that’s when you butcher and don’t slice food well. I cannot for the life of me understand how having a really sharp knife was a detriment to him and that made for poorly-cut lamb chops. Doesn’t make any sense at all. Finally, the desserts.
GS: The desserts were a mixed lot. Some of them tasted great. Stephanie’s custardy mousse was completely soupy, and clearly not set up, but it had good flavor, which is why she wasn’t called out on the bottom. We could definitely tell there was an issue with it -- the recipe wasn’t right, or she didn’t have enough time. Something happened there. Shirley’s steamed egg custard was a little bit scrambled, but otherwise, not a terrible dessert. It was just a little overcooked, which tends to then take the custard like that from being smooth and silky to being a little mealy and you start to taste an egg-y flavor. It was just on the other side of being a little too egg-y.

Louis’ graham cracker with blackberries and cream cheese was somewhere in the middle. It was sort of bland, and the graham cracker/cookie/cake he made was a little soggy. You want graham cracker to have a snap to it, to have a crunch, and it didn’t. But the flavors were lovely, and it was presented in a very beautiful way, actually.

Nicholas’ was by far our favorite dessert. The funnel cakes were fun -- they weren’t the best funnel cakes I’ve ever had, but they were completely redeemed by the carrot and peach-flavored cream cheese dish that he served alongside them. You could dip the funnel cake in these beautiful pieces of fruit and cream cheese, almost like a mousse. Tons of flavor, it tasted really bright and fresh, and the fruit was perfectly ripe and juicy. It was an inspired, fun dessert to eat. We were all really impressed that he made it.

Ultimately, as the challenge was about incorporating the cream cheese and the local produce together, we thought Nina did the best job and she won $10,000. She is on a roll!

On the other hand, Bene’s chicken with overcooked vegetables and poorly roasted chicken was the weakest and he went What was it was like being at the table with all of John Besh’s executive chefs?
GS: It was amazing. They are such a great group of people. We came to know quite a few of them in the course of our time in New Orleans. One, because we ate with them at that meal, two, because we ended up eating at their restaurants all the time. And a few of them we ended up going out with a few nights. They showed us around. They were such great ambassadors to the city for us. John and Octavio and their team were so generous to us in everything we needed while we were in New Orleans. They’re a great group of chefs -- talented, dedicated. He has really created a philosophy in his work environment that they all prescribe to which is so nice to see. They’re all really united in the way they think about food.  You can tell that they love what they do and are passionate about not just cooking great food, but doing it in New Orleans in a way they can all be really proud of.

On a sidenote, I got to wear a dress covered in radishes in this episode which was my favorite! I just want to say that everyone needs to take a closer look at my dress because it had RADISHES all over it. 

Next week’s challenge is amazing with Kermit Ruffins. He’s one of the country’s foremost jazz musicians and he loves to cook. It was really exciting to hang out with him, so I’m looking forward to next week, too. 

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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