Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hugh Acheson: I Love the Smell of Lemongrass in the Morning

Hugh thinks the eliminated chef will be just fine.

During the course of this episode, not much time is spent in the French Quarter, so you can put away your beads. We will soon see the beautiful truth about NOLA and Louisiana: the late night revelry on Bourbon Street is .0005% of the character of the city and state. There is so much out there to learn about in the Crescent City and also of Louisiana, and this episode shows a culture that really has laid down roots in the area, bringing a whole culinary culture with them.

The Vietnamese have made inroads into the area, as they brought fishing and shrimping skills into the area almost a half-century ago. With the cultural migrations we see the wonderful effects of food on a society, as Vietnamese food is lauded in NOLA now, and has become part of their newer overall culinary heritage. I remember being at a Hibachi grill type place in Athens, GA and the very native Japanese-looking chef welcoming us in the most Southern Georgia accent ever. “Hey ya’ll! I am Elliot and I am from Macon, GA.” This is our modern South, and I for one kinda love it. 

There are lots of shrimp in this episode. Wild shrimp fisheries are the backbone of Gulf and lower East coast seafood in the US. The industry employs our citizens and provides a wonderfully sustainable offering. The process by which shrimp are caught has made huge strides, with less bycatch through the use of BRDs (Bycatch Reduction Devices) and better seasonal systems of when and how the shrimp can be harvested. Shrimp reproduce like mad, and so it is a renewable resource that we can be happy with eating, unlike most of the fish in the sea, that are really and truly on their last legs. Sadly, it is an industry peril. Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the infrastructure in the Gulf, much of it built by Vietnamese immigrants, and pressure from imported farmed shrimp products has made the black tiger shrimp a lower cost, but much less tasty, option. So we have to invest in our dinner by supporting our own: be conscious of where your shrimp come from… it’s somebody’s job at stake. 

The episode commences with our introduction to Emeril’s companion for the day, Eddie Huang. Eddie is a fool for swag, or a fool who swags, depending on your opinion of him. He is nothing, if not divisive.

Eddie is the TV "sensation" and "chef" of such restaurants as Baohaus and Xiao Ye. He is known to be a proponent of rap, smoking weed, Four Loko, brightly-colored clothing, and well, he hates me. This should be fun. 

Eddie and Emeril drop by the Bourbon Street pad. Emeril loops the chefs into teams. The teams are excited and are wondering if Emeril has a secret bedroom in their fancy pad. At this stage in his career, he is well beyond sleeping in the secret room under the stairs, so no, Emeril doesn’t live there. 

No Quickfire will happen today, as they are going straight into a fun-filled Vietnamese journey cum Elimination Challenge. Eddie and Emeril are going to take the chefs on a crash course in Vietnamese cuisine, in a party limo. They take advantage of the smells of cologne, stale beer, and cigarettes (the hallmarks of limo life) to talk through their ideas. Isn’t it funny that you think limos are like the coolest thing ever until you ride in one and realize it’s actually the place where inebriated teens in prom clothes throw up the most? 

They arrive at Dong Phuong for some baked goods and Banh Mi. Eddie Huang (Chinese ancestry) from NYC via the Florida suburbs, seems to be an expert in Vietnamese cooking.

Travis is making Travis look like a bit of a buffoon. His romaine comments seem a little bit strange. I mean I love me some romaine, but I am not sure how Vietnamese that is. This is right before he confesses to his love of Velveeta cheese with Vietnamese spices. He’s a fusion master. 

They go shrimping. Daisy Dukes eats shrimp. They hang out with the fishers, fishing for insight into what they do with the shrimp they catch. Shirley seems the best at gaining knowledge on the whole topic, and that knowledge will help her immensely in the challenge. 

Janine is pretty comfortable with this, given her experience in Thai food. She longs for the Indochina days. She also says TOMATO, not TOMATO. So beguiling. 

Carlos is nervous, but then again he’s always nervous. He calms himself by requesting to make soup. I too find making soup calming, but I think Carlos may need a Xanax and some chicken noodle soup to really relax. 

Noodle time at Kim Anh’s. Sara is a little worried that Captain Vietnam (Travis) is flaunting his Pho (pronounced “faux” JUST THIS TIME) knowledge a little bit too much, and Captain Vietnam is worried that Eddie is flaunting himself a bit too much. Is what Eddie is wearing called an “urban romper”? If not, it is now. 

Green Team is not really getting along. Sara is not trusting Travis, and Travis doesn’t understand why she doesn’t love him. It’s because Travis only loves beautiful Asian men, by his own admission. 

In the kitchen, menu clarity comes in many forms. 

Michael is playing cleanup hitter for the Orange Team. He seems to not have a dish in this race. I am sure he will be a lot of help though. They can get him to throw people’s plates around the kitchen. 

Who Moved My Lemongrass? This is a new business genre best seller in Vietnam. Justin has way too much of the stuff but is the smart, kind competitor: if you ask him he will help you. If you don’t ask you get nothing, cause you ain’t on Justin’s team. Eddie is playing culinary aggressor and is latching onto the lemongrass debacle. Travis calls Eddie a douchebag, completely blowing all chances that Eddie will invite him onto his MTV show, Fo’ Realz: Hiding the Lemongrass, right after that Teen Mom show.  

“Brilliance is winning but also not telling your opponent when they are losing.” This is attributed to Napoleon but it seems a little long and drawn out for a famous quote. I will be Googling that. But now right now. It’s going on the “To Google List.”

Orange Team:

Nicholas: Black Pepper Squid with Cabbage and Peanuts

Blah de blah. Which is French for boring. 

Brian: Gulf Shrimp and Pork Belly Spring Roll

They love this. They being the judges. Texturally strong with good sauce. 

Carlos: Fish Head Soup with Pineapple, Tomato, and Tamarind

The soup is sweet. It, like Carlos, needs some bitterness and acid to survive this war.

Louis: Beef Broth Pho with Raw Eye Round and Oxtail

They are not big fans. The broth is tepid. Pho Pas. 

The judges warp this up with Eddie complaining about aromatics, which is his version of a fart joke, and Tom wondering whether they can go out for real Vietnamese later on. Sufficed to say that they are wishing that the food was a little, well, better.Red Team:

Nina and Carrie: Raw Beef Salad with Pickled Vegetables

They are flip-flopping over inauthentic/authentic. They deem this one inauthentic. 

Shirley: Vietnamese Barbecue Shrimp with Creole Spice Butter

The judges break from their search for authenticity and just enjoy the Chinese-Vietnamese-Mr. B’s fusion that Shirley has concocted. They love this dish. She has successfully defended a continent billions. 

Justin: Beef Pho with Rice Noodles and Lettuce

They like it a lot. Much better Pho the money. 

Carrie: Lemon Custard with Caramelized Bahn Mi

Not loved. Not even remotely. 

Is it just me or is it strange that Shirley tells us she will feel bad going home today, “especially cause I am Chinese.” I don’t think it would be heresy for me, as a kid from Ottawa, to go home on a Oaxacan cooking challenge, why should she feel the cultural need to represent an entire continent which comprises hundreds of cuisines? Weird. 

Green Team:

Travis: Grilled Pork Sausage Lettuce Wraps with a Pineapple Shrimp Paste Sauce

Captain Vietnam knows his stuff and they like it overall, but the sauce lacks. There is innuendo between Gail and Padma. Pay attention, people. 

Sara and Stephanie: Oxtail Rice Wrap with a Pork and Shrimp Rice Wrap

Kind of liked, kind of not. 

Bene and Janine: Fresh Gulf Shrimp with Ginger Vietnamese Tomato Sauce

Complete disaster. Shrimp are over and mucked up and the sauce is just not good. 

Stephanie: Coconut Macaroon with Vietnamese Coffee Flavors

Pedestrian, but sometimes, after a really weird meal, you want something simple and basic that required no effort at all….

Red aprons up in the winner’s lineup. Shirley wins, and her dragon is rising. She is a force to be reckoned with at this point. 

Bottom lineup is the Green Team. They reluctantly go up to the line. This is a pretty tight squad to be on the bottom. Sara is crying a lot. Stress is getting to these chefs. Tom questions Bene's sauce. Janine, who confesses to not being as talented as a fry cook at Hooters, is sent packing. Last I heard she is opening a restaurant in NYC. She’ll do fine. She can cook too; this just wasn’t her day. On this show you are only as good as the food you make that day. 


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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