Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Gumbo for Leah Chase

Hugh Acheson would have been more intimidated by the Quickfire Challenge than the cheftestants seemed.

If you had told me that I would be making gumbo for Leah Chase I would have been beyond nervous, not out of fear of failure, but fear of not giving proper respect to a historic dish. I would be fearful of Leah remarking that my gumbo was too modern, too risky, too indifferent to the history of food in Louisiana. Evidently the chefs do not fret in the same way I do. 

Leah is the chef and proprietor of Dooky Chase, a restaurant that speaks to the relevancy of food in Louisiana everyday it operates. It has been around a long time serving the best fried chicken and Gumbo Z’Herbs, with a painful sabbatical after Katrina. Katrina, the storm that changed everything, destroyed Dooky Chase, but through a lot of work and the dedication of a lot of chefs and volunteers the restaurant was rebuilt better than ever. It is the definition of iconic. 

No rest for the weary, and we pick up right where last episodes ejection happened. Padma enters into the Stew Room like a smiling dementor to steal the last breaths of air from the gasping young chefs. She announces that a gumbo challenge starts now at the cast house and they had better get their crock pots plugged in and the roux cooking. I get sleepy just thinking about this challenge. 

Gumbo to me means many things, and there are many types of gumbo you can make, but the chefs really like loose interpretations, and we see all sorts of stuff going on. Brian likes cat naps while stirring roux. Michael likes to do things twice and will be making a new gumbo, but he is really just competing with himself in all things. 

Beets, cabbage, soy are three things I have never seen in a gumbo before. I really hope that these chefs realize in hindsight that they just made gumbo for LEAH CHASE. 

Oddly enough, the two NOLA chefs make gumbo that fails to impress, and Michael actually makes it to the bottom. Jason says Leah Chase has no idea what she is talking about. I poke him with pins in my mind. Patty is getting no love either. She just doesn’t seem to be getting traction in the competition. 

Shirley makes a nice looking gumbo with pork belly. Aaron makes a thick gumbo that Leah loves. Carrie makes a green gumbo which reminds Leah of one of her famous versions. Though Carrie thought her gumbo was weird and badly received, the judges loved it. 

Carrie wins immunity. 

On to the Elimination Challenge: cooking for Habitat for Humanity volunteers. Susan Spicer is in the house. She rules. Food trucks will be used. Shirley has a roach coach for sale if you are interested. You could start your own Kogi empire if you are smart and understand the nuances of food truck by-laws. May you call it “What the truck?” May you succeed beyond your wildest dreams. 

Poor Bene. Why are they picking on him? Nothing he says is being listened to. We have the answer to that age old quandary: “If Bene talks in a group, does anyone listen?”. 

Teams have been named, but there are too many to list.

Michael is cooking crawfish at the house. He is that father figure who terrifies the family. It is decided that Casanova will be the model chef for this challenge and stand in front of the truck looking pretty. This was actually decided at birth, but I play along. 

Team Yellow has made a taco truck experience. Team Blue wants to have a truck spa experience. Team Red is not listening to Bene, unless he is their quiet servant. Bene must even experience badmouthing from Michael, which would drive anyone over the edge. We may have a runaway on our hands. Team Yellow is making wine bottle dough. 

Brian Huskey confesses to being born with a silver spoon. I am not sure where the family fortune comes from, but after much internet searching I am making up that it comes from holding the patent to the Flobee. Lucky man. 

Immortal words from Jason: “If it’s burnt, don’t use it.” Dude, if you condescended to me in a kitchen like that, I would cut that hair right off of your head. Daly Patty is just a lump of sadness in the first 48 of this season and can’t fight back. 

Michael talks about Katrina and the recovery. Such a tragedy. That city has some amazingly resilient souls. 

YELLOW TEAM/Work Site #1 Aaron, Carlos, Travis, Carrie, and Brian

Travis and Brian: Dorado and Shrimp Ceviche with Tomato

Carrie and Aaron: Beef and Pork Curry Empanadas with Watercress and Mango

Carlos and Aaron: Tilapia Tacos with Chipotle Aioli and Cabbage

 

BLUE TEAM/Work Site #2: Jason, Patty, Nicholas, and Bret

Jason: Salmon Hand Roll with Quinoa, Honey Mustard Miso, and Cucumber

Nicholas: Grilled Shrimp with a Fish Sauce Caramel, Melon-Sungold Salad, and Crushed Wasabi Peas

Bret: Coconut Ceviche with Red Snapper and Bay Scallops

Patty: Tuna Slider with Crispy Pancetta, Avocado, and Tomato

GREEN TEAM/Work Site #2: Shirley, Stephanie, Sara, and Louis

Stephanie: Crispy Chickpea with Watercress and Radish Salad

Sara: Tuna Burger with Sprouts, Avocado, and Watermelon Rind Pickles

Shirley: Spiced Grilled Lamb Salad with Cucumber and Asian Pear

Louis: helped, made the watermelon amuse

 

RED TEAM/Work Site #1: Justin, Bene, Janine, Michael, and Nina 

Janine: Green Gazpacho with Pickled Shrimp

Justin: Lobster and Crab Fritters with Corn Puree and Bacon Jam

Nina and Bene: Jerk Chicken Sandwich with Mango and Crispy Plantains

Michael: Ricotta with Burnt Honey, Stone Fruit, and Toasted Coconut

Jason is banking on his hair to make up for a flaccid handroll. From the point that Tom tastes the handroll, I want you to take a shot of bourbon every time the term “handroll” is uttered. You should not drive after this exercise. Actually you should probably not do this cause you will be admitted to the hospital. It’s said about 50 times.

Some innuendo is said about the Aussie girl being good with her hands. By her. Argh. I need a mental shower. 

Tops are Yellow and Green. Together they make poop brown, but separate they are beautiful things. Yellow pulls it out though. The judges loved everything the team made. Spicer announces the winner, and Carrie wins for the gutsy move of making empanada dough on a truck. 

Bottoms are Red and Blue. Blue is pulled out to the firing line. Bene sighs a sigh of relief, but no one hears. 

Patty, Jason, Nick, and Bret let the judges know about the economics of a table of free food: Bret’s logic is that if a ton of stuff remains, that’s cause they loved it. Whaaaaat? Dr. Tom, PhD and Dr. Padma, PhD school Bret. 

At the end of this day, Jason goes home for a handroll disaster. Should have, would have, could have. 

Onwards. 

Follow me on the 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

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