Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

And Don't Call Me Shirley

Hugh marvels at Nick's illness and recovery... from a safe distance.

And here we are again. Tears are falling and drying on the industrial tile flooring. Welcome to Top Chef. We have whittled down to about 10 chefs. I am bad at counting, or so comments on my CNN article this week say. 

What’s going on? More like what’s going around. Sickness. Like a plague of badness. Nicholas has the strep and will not be in the Quickfire. Kermit Ruffins is in the house to not get strep from Nicholas. It’s the bebop improv challenge. They will run around like a game of musical chairs, controlled by Kermit’s trumpet. Got it? OK. This is strange. Carrie, the aristocrat, is flummoxed my the plebian microwave. 

They start on the prep that they will leave behind. They dance around in the circle and land in new spots. Travis, the Vietnamese chef, is confused by Nina’s mise en place that pivoted a dish to “French with Asian ingredients”… like the food of Vietnam. Okey dokey.

Slowly but surely they are finding strange starts to food. Forgotten vegetables, overcooked sauces, raw proteins in tiny ovens, their egos in a circulator. Relief comes when they land on the stations where they started but that doesn’t last long. They move on, much to their chagrin. 

Brian is “conceptualizing a sexy plate-up.” This line encompasses everything that makes me want to be a dental hygienist. 

I do now notice that Kermit has stolen Bill Murray’s pants from Moonrise Kingdom. I think this is cool. 

Padma comes in in a slinky evening gown, cause that’s how she rolls. They eat through the food, and it is way too much information for me to relay. Suffice it to say that for trusting someone to prep and make 75% of your food with no clear destination in mind, the food looks pretty tasty. 

Bottoms are Louis with his pork/ frog surprise and Justin with his microwave tofu scramble. Tops are Carlos with his redfish, Brian with his duck and mussels, and Patty with her pork with stuff. Brian wins cause he made that plate one sexy beast. I am going to take a nap now, as the stress of this whole blog thing is getting to me. Brian is not going to chillax “shoes off, socks off,” but he is happy with his earned immunity. 

OK, I am back. My “me” time was great. Potluck challenge with team menu collaboration. They have to “band” together. Patty is learning this term “potluck” for the first time.  Well Patty, dictionary.com and I are here for you:

pot·luck

[pot-luhk, -luhk] Show IPA 

noun 

1. food or a meal that happens to be available without special preparation or purchase: to take potluck with a friend. 

2. Also called potluck supper, potluck dinner, potluck lunch. a meal, especially for a large group, to which participants bring various foods to be shared. 

3. whatever is available or comes one's way: With fluctuating interest rates, homebuyers are learning to take potluck with the banks. 

Origin: 

1585–95; pot1  + luck 

Three teams assemble. They are Blue, Green, and Gray, which makes a kind of really ugly gray. They are first going to Vaughn’s in the Bywater, the new Williamsburg of NOLA. I joke. I joke. It’s a great hood. 

They use the modern office to get this rolling, which looks suspiciously like a Toyota RAV4. Nicholas is contacted via phone, because this will contain the plague that he has. He has grown a striped zebra hoodie and the transformation is almost complete to Zebra Zombie. 

Shopping time. I really want to se a coupon challenge and only buying with SNAP funds but maybe next season. In the meantime, call your congresspeople and senators and tell them to stop eviscerating every tangible piece of nutritional assistance this country has left. Don’t get me started. 

Travis has been instructed to “touch it, smell it, poke it” over the phone, like he just ran over a deer. Nicholas is to Travis what Steve McCroskey was to Ted Stryker in Airplane. Just don’t call him Shirley.*

*to make sense of the last two lines you have to watch Airplane.

Louis thinks that Thomas Keller would like his veggie dish that he is planning. Nice. 

They dress up and go to eat red beans and rice with Kermit. And they drink. And drink. And then they wake, their livers missing, and get to work. Nicholas has gotten over the plague. He is ready to compete. Go Team Gray. 

Not only is Nicholas healthy again, he has been fed super vitamins or something and is trying to cook everything for everybody, on his team or not. He is a man with a plan and a very long prep list. 

Shirley is a taskmaster. Brian wants to know if anyone wants chili threads… this is code for weed. 

They pack up and get their move on. 

Diners start arriving and it’s a who’s who of NOLA music. The good old days were when people faked heart attacks on stage.  

Guest judge Sue Z. in the house. Blue Team up first. 

Blue Team: Shirley, Louis, Justin, Sara

Justin: Hominy Grits with Brown Shrimp, Roasted Okra, Fava Beans, Smoked Bacon

Good grits. Underseasoned shrimp?

Louis: Grilled, Pickled Vegetables, Crispy Sunflower Seeds, Mustard Vinaigrette

Likey. 

Shirley and Sara: Glazed Beef with Charred Onions, Melon Pickles, and Pickled Ginger Vinaigrette

They love the ribs. 

Green Team: Carrie, Nina, Stephanie, Carlos

Stephanie: Fried Baby Artichoke, Preserved Lemon, and Anchovy Aioli

Fancy. People like 'em. Even Tom likes 'em. 

Nina: Semolina Gnocchetti with Sausage

“Fancy Hamburger Helper. That sounds like an insult, but I like Hamburger Helper.” ‘Nuf said, cause they loved it. 

Carrie and Carlos: Summer Tiramisu with Nectarines, Pistachios, and Cheese

Trifle-esque. They love it, except Sue who can’t get over that it is not tiramisu.

 

Gray Team: Travis, Brian, Patty, Nick

Brian and Travis: Togarashi Fried Chicken with Bee Pollen and Ponzu

It’s a “chefs' potluck,” so bee pollen, check. Togarashi, check. Ponzu, check. Chicken is loved. 

Patty: Tomato Watermelon Salad, Szechuan Pepper, and Goat Cheese Espuma

Needed some spice. 

Nicholas: Barramundi and Red Drum Fricassee, Zucchini, Truffle, and Yuzu Kosho

Fish is bland. 

Travis and Brian: Caramel BBQ Ribs, Dehydrated Potatoes, Peanut Gremolata

No likey the rub. 

Everyone seems to have done quite well. No team really seems to have flopped. 

Gray is the bottom and they get called to the gallows. Patty underseasoned the salad and forgot the chili threads, Nicholas overcooked the fish, and Travis made weird ribs.

Green Team gets on top. They defined tiramisu is the only negative. Stephanie wins with her artichoke dish. She lets her hair down. Most improved indeed. 

Patty goes home. No luck in potluck. Teary-eyed, she leaves the stage. Keep your head high. Godspeed, Patty. 

Follow me on twitter @hughacheson

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

Read more about: