Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Dookie Chase Makes Everybody Cry

Hugh discuss the lack of coffee culture in NOLA, the Pope's coolness, Leah Chase, and this week's dishes.

I trust everyone is enjoying the holiday season. Somewhere after the turkey left the oven, Restaurant Wars is behind us and instead of chef egos being left behind, the egos are rising to the top, like the cream of reality TV.

Tears of rage, tears of freedom, they are all about to be shed. At this stage in the competition they are feeling the pressure, they are missing their friends and families and they are definitely getting restless.

They apply makeup. They lie on couches. Travis explains how things do get better. His story about being singled out because of his sexuality is pretty par for the course, sadly. We are not done with the fight to equality, and this is a story that shows that in the clearest way possible. Fight on Travis.

DJ Hubert Keller in the house. Coffee will be served. Cops are nearby because we also have Dunkin Donuts. Flavors, depthness, dipness, textures. . .Hubert schools us yet again. 10K is on the line. Cmar would buy a lot of stuff with these funds to replace her old, decrepit objects. She should just call me and we’ll fly to Monaco and blow it on slots. After hotel and airfare I figure we’ll have twenty euros.

Shirley wants to be cooled off and would use the money to buy a new AC unit. She lives in Vegas so that is needed, though the high there last week was like 38F. Given the housing market there she probably bought the house for 500K and it’s now worth about $25. Oh the economy.

Carlos tells us stories about how he wooed his wife with a language she didn’t understand. He’s a magnetic man. We all would be suckered into anything he asked.

Brian Huskey wants his balls out there swingin'. His words, not mine. He is making risotto, which is a ballsy move. Go on with your bad self.

Travis: Salmon with coffee. No reaction.
Carrie: Custard with coffee. Crepeless but possessing a crunch.
Brian: Risotto with coffee. Sausage and pea version.
Carlos: Microwave spongecake with coffee. And stuff.
Nicholas: Salmon with coffee. And action sauce.
Shirley: Beef tenderloin with coffee. Garlic puree and coffee sauce. Gets handshake from Chef. Surely this is a good omen.
Stephanie: Crepe with coffee. “Interesting.” She’s in a nervous quandary again.

Justin is not shown. This is usually means he has fallen asleep in the pantry without pants.

Bottoms play out to Brian, continuing the risotto curse, and Nicholas with his mod salmon with coffee pourover.

Aside: My only lament about New Orleans was the lack of great modern coffee culture. Perhaps the swampy 95 degrees Fahrenheit summer days make that a hard business proposition.

Carrie, Shirley, and Stephanie, alternates in Time Magazine's "Gods of Food" issue, take tops. Cmar is floored. She just doesn't get it when she's done good. Ah well, Shirley wins with beef tenderloin, 'cause America, even Hubert Keller, loves the beef tenderloin. It's freedom. 10K to Shirley. I'll be a cool day in Vegas.

Elimination time with Anthony Mackie. He’s a "studmuffin," so coined by Cmar. They are on the road to Dookie Chase. They have to cook what they crave when they go home. With a $275 budget to feed somewhere around 12 people. Leah Chase will be in the house. She’s cooler than the Pope, and that’s saying a lot, cause the current papal occupant has made a fan out of even me, and hot off the presses, Time Magazine. Francis is Time's Person of the Year.

Time out from the regular routine. If you want to learn more about Leah Chase and the history of the restaurant then you should listen to the interview with her at the Southern Foodways Alliance website. Good stuff. Really good stuff. (Or go to the Dooky Chase Restaurant website.)

They shop. They cook. They talk about family life from gnudi to squirrel to cochinita pibil to curry. Shirley gets all agro annoying with her hammer chopping and her incessant dough rolling on the wobbly table. Tom checks in and interrogates them.

They wrap stuff up and get back home. Emeril is there making them caldo verde. Brian Huskey laments. I hear him. We all need to be there for our parents. It’s hard though.

Nostalgic family memories are affecting everything to the degree that Nina calls her grandmother who sounds like my grandmother. My Granny was from Jamaica. Freda. Wonderful woman.

Tom says, "the Charcoal flavor that you usually associate with that dish." Hmmmm. This is interesting.

Nicholas does not want to go home for something he loves. And that’s his family. This causes them all, except Stephanie, to cry.

Let's review the food.

Brian: Korean BBQ New York Strip With Potato Salad Beef. Not charred enough, which is strange because Korean BBQ is usually not charred at all. As a food culture they think caramelization of the protein is a bad thing. I went to an LA Korean BBQ joint with Francis Lam and the lady kept coming over and turning down our grill. We’d turn it back up to high and she’d come back again.
Carrie: Creamed Asparagus Over Toast and Poached Egg. They love it. It looks very pure. Nice job Carrie.
Stephanie: Mussels With Spicy Pickled Peppers and Tomatoes. Straight up and honest vittles. I love a peck of pickled peppers.
Nicholas: Ricotta Gnudi With Pancetta, Peas, Lemon and Parmesan. From the heart. For his family. Nice work.
Travis: Biscuits With Maple Sage Sausage Gravy and Sour Plum Jam. Maybe a bit too country. And the biscuits were raw in the center. Soft butter makes bad biscuits.
Carlos: Cochinita Pibil With Black Beans, Orange Pico De Gallo and Corn Tortilla. Killin' it. I’d eat this in a nanosecond.
Justin: Louisiana Rice With Chicken Thigh Gravy, Pickled Mirliton and Jalapeno. Mixed reviews but I thought it looked good for country, back when country was cool.
Shirley: Beijing Noodles, Fermented Bean and Pork Sauce With Pickled Radish. They like it a lot. "Highly seasoned" is used though, which can mean salty or can me full of wonderment.
Nina: Curried Chicken with Fried Bakes. Love. Nina cooks from her roots often and the results never, ever disappoint.

Tops are Nicholas, Stephanie, and Carlos. Nicholas wins. Cook from your heart has never had this gravitas. This is a good win but Anthony has some sage advice. "Relax, Nicholas."

Bottoms are Brian, Justin, and Travis. They get dragged over coals and then go back to the stew.

Travis is gone. Best of luck to you good sir. You will do great in this world.

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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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