Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

Hugh quotes Edgar Allen Poe and discusses what an infant American food is in the culinary world.

So Brian is gone but impossible to forget. Who will make poop jokes?

Melancholy is the opening feeling this season. Nicholas is again our study in sadness. Nicholas is agreeing that he can come across like a caustic arse, but Shirley, in an effort to appeal to everyone, clarifies that he is an arse with a heart. Nicholas listens, and then gets that little glean in his eye that says so much.

"And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness of the senses?" -- Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart

Nicholas is doing this for his Dad, who is in a bad health situation. This is a great thing, and a beautiful act of courage on his part to show his Dad that love. Let's do it with more smiling. I want to yell, "Be happy cooking!," but I know better. My pops is going through a different health quandary, equally as grave. There is no manual on how to take care of the parents we adore. Used to be, they would just get a La-Z-Boy and move into your living room. Nowadays it ain’t so simple.

Carlos is coming into his own as a Mexican food villain. I suggest he watch Machete to relax. If he plays his cards right he could follow in the footsteps of Lorena Garcia. I need a nap again.

"To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub." -- Shakespeare, Hamlet.

Speaking of Shakespeare and wordplay, Gail and Tom are here to tell you what’s up. It’s a two-part Quickfire and Gail wants a perfect bite with alliterative tendencies: Sweet, salty, sour, spice. Not silly or soiled.

Nicholas has had a vision. That vision was that the other chefs are not putting 65 elements on their Quickfire plates. He is adjusting his ideas to be more simple, cause in 2014, "artisanally simple" is the new black. Think Kinfolk and Canal House. Google those and support 'em. Good stuff.

Gail wonders whether they should have been given more time. Tom reminds her that he has opened up two restaurants, made cassoulet, and played American Pie acoustically eight times in a row (perfectly), all in less than this generous half an hour. Amateurs.

Nicholas is trying really hard not to overthink this and then falls right into his old trap of accusing anyone in a fifty yard radius of f---ing with his oven/ fryer temperatures. Shirley calls him a dick. Then she says "cocktail fork" and "Jenga" and someone with an obscure website faints.

3-2-1. Padma calls time, assuming the Vanna White role for today’s competition. Did you know Vanna White is 56? Years of turning letters has made her look 20 years younger. I am building a Wheel of Fortune board to work out on.

Carlos: Grilled Mango with Shrimp and Chili Glaze
Nick: Beef Deckle with Aged Balsamic and Purple Potato Chips
Shirley: Tataki Style Flank Steak with Black Pepper Cherry and Crispy Onions
Nina: Shrimp Escabeche with Potato Aioli and Pickled Shallots

Upsies are Nick and Carlos. They go to the second round in the "Eggplant and Red Peppers" challenge. Carlos wants that eggplant, but the very non-competitive Nick makes a mad dash that gives Ben Johnson (may his reputation RIP) a bad name. So when you get peppers that you didn’t want, you make soup. Meanwhile, Nicholas makes scallops of eggplant, which some vegetarian conglomerate with a lock on the Tofurky market is really damned excited about. Alas, the judges are not so much and give the Toyota to Carlos. You can’t spell Carlos without C-A-R, by the way. Nicolas gets in a couple of complaints for good measure.

ENOUGH WITH THE "CARLOS JUST DOES MEXICAN FOOD"! Look, American food is a toddler in the world of food, still falling all over itself trying to grow up. Mexican food has roots and breadth that we are just now trying to nurture. Why is Mexican food being posited as a narrow scope by these chefs? This really is beginning to bug the hell out of me. But, alas, I am not there. I am probably eating a po' boy at Parasol’s.

Onwards to the Elimination Challenge. Winning dish gets on the Emeril's menus. That is a lot of menus. The aim is to create a dish that shows inspiration from their time in NOLA. Emeril invites them to his place for dinner. Bam. First they go to shopping in Carlos' new Corolla. He makes them all sit in the back.

They are eating at the kid's table in the kitchen. Emeril gives them some BBQ shrimp. I love BBQ shrimp. There is a lot of focus on Carlos' career and dish that he's working on for the challenge. This is called foreshadowing.

They are cooking at Emeril's. Nina talks about how she is deserving of a place in the finals. "Before I even wake up and kiss my husband good morning, I call the restaurant." She is a sleep-telephone-caller.

Nicholas is not bringin' the simple, though he claims to be. Carlos is making a masa-less tamale. There is a deep tradition of tamales in the Delta. Read more about that here

Emeril and Tom drop by. They make everyone happy and nervous.

Douglas Keane, Andrew Carmellini, and Grant Achatz are the dining companions with Emeril, Tom, Padma, and Gail. If you don’t know who they are you are not paying attention.

Nina: Speckled Trout with Baby Vegetables and Barbecue Sauce. Nina forgets the one element that the dish did not need. Perfect as is.
Nick: Charred Cobia, Roasted Bass, and Tuna Confit, Crispy Rice and Shrimp Consomme. Great broth, beautiful fish cookery, but Grant says it needs salt.
Carlos: Steamed Seafood Tamal with Saffron Cream Sauce and Pickled Okra. This is an odd plate but they seem to like it.
Shirley: Black Drum, Zhenjiang Vinegar Butter Sauce, Braised Celery, and Mushrooms. Shirley can cook some fish. The Chinese vinegar is a great ingredient to add really pungent acidity. The trinity use of celery, pepper, and onion is smart.

They get to the firing line. Malfatti-gate is a short lived concern. Shirley's sauce was loved and the inclusion of the trinity was smart smart smart. Nicholas made a dish that was beautiful but the fish really did need salt. Carlos' tamale was concerned that the judges were going to eat the banana leaf. Otherwise they loved it.

Winner is Shirley. Look, if cooking is about putting your heart on a plate, than she's got it. Well deserved. Nina is granted a pass to Maui.

It’s down to Nicholas and Carlos. It's a close call on this one.

Carlos gets the axe.

Dear Carlos,

You have shown your mettle through the entire season, but more than that, through your entire life. Go far in this world, and never let them tell you not to cook Mexican food.

All the best,
Hugh

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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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