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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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the finale showdown between Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet.

There is always a Top Chef winner but obviously some seasons have a less experienced assemblage of chefs, while others have veritable US Olympic-caliber culinary practitioners. (Congrats to Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition by the way! Silver! Silver!)

This particular season of Top Chef could have been a contest of mediocrity, but it bloomed into something very skilled and mature, which is good for judging, but makes writing a blog with poop jokes and rap humor very difficult. I have to say, I was a little worried at the beginning that the whole chef squadron was a little shaky. But early retreats by chefs with bigger egos than culinary skillsets allowed the true talent to rise without being malevolent fools. And that talent really was there. By mid season we were eating their visions on the plate, while watching them battle it out over the food and just the food.

The two most successful chefs of the season made it to the end, and they are ready to rumble in the most respective way they know how. One will plate most of their food on the side of the plate, incorporating Korean flavors and modern technique into the vittles, while the other will weave a more classic story and put food more in the center of the plate like regular people. Should be a good show no matter what, because at the end of the day, it’s just hard not to be really enamored with both of them. They are good people.

Gregory and Mei start out on a hot air balloon ride, because that’s how I like to start every day in Mexico. The country looks beautiful to me even if you are in a basket hoisted hundreds of feet into the air by hot air. The hotel I stayed in was the Casa di Sierra Nevada, which was AWESOME, so if you are looking for a vacation, go there. It's no party town, but it is plenty fun. Great food scene. And to put safety into perspective, I felt safer wandering around St. Miguel than I do my hometown. Anyway, the balloon ride looks like fun and allows for that finale moment of almost tearful reminiscence and contemplation.

So their balloon ride lands in a vineyard, and Tom and Padma are waiting to put a halt to this sentimentality. The task is put forward and the challenge, this final culinary joust, is to create a meal that is the meal of their lives. They pick their two sous chefs per person; Gregory picks Doug and George, while Mei picks Melissa and Rebecca.

They prep their menus after a good night’s sleep. The prep I will not talk about too much, but suffice it to say that each team seems very pro and super on top of things.

Traci des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, and Donnie Masterton are dining with us, all of them amazing chefs. Like amazing amazing. The kid’s table, at which I am the head, is made up of Sean, Traci, Gavin, and Gail. It is a super table. At the table I decide to hold true to the tourist warning of not drinking the water. I thus only drink wine and the phenomenal beauty of Casa Dragones tequila, a concoction that will make me sleep soundly (but probably by dessert) on the table.

Mei hits us with an octopus that I really, really like. It resounds with flavors of coconut, avocado, and fish sauce. It is deep. The only flaw is that maybe it is a bit over done. The over cooking made it kind of crunchy and she could easily have been cooking it to that point on purpose. Second course from her is a congee, with peanuts, carnitas, egg yolk, and hot sauce. It is so f----ing delicious. Like stylized comfort food that you just want to eat all the time. Comfort food, when perfect, is perhaps the hardest food to cook, because it is by definition food you are very familiar with, resulting in people having a lot of preconceived notions about it. This congee would have silenced all critics on congee. It was that good.

Mei is gliding through this meal. She has palpable confidence, but is still a nicely soft-spoken leader. In my years of watching people lead kitchens, I have always been more taken with the allegiance that soft-spoken leaders cultivate in their staffs. Her third course is a duck course, and like the congee, she has cooked duck at least twice this season, but in entirely different ways. This duck has kimchi, braised lettuce, and huitlacoche on the plate. Huitlacoche is corn smut, a term I just yelled in a coffee shop, making everyone uncomfortable. It is a good plate, but my refrain about duck skin continues. It was a bit chewy. All in all, the dish just was texturally challenged. It needed a crunchy texture. But it was good still. Her last is her version of yogurt dippin’ dots with strawberry-lime curd, milk crumble, and stuff. It was blow-you-away amazing. Very complex, but very successful. Tom says it is the best dessert on Top Chef he has ever had, and I definitely concur, though he has tasted many more than I have. The toasted yogurt base was amazing.

Gregory steps up with a brothy octopus with cashew milk, fresh prickly pear, and also xoconostle, which is the dried version of prickly pear, kind of like a prickly pear fruit roll up. It is a strong dish, and may be the winner in the Octopus Olympiad. His second was a strange soup that was redolent with flavor until you choked with a shrimp head lodged in your gullet. Strange and a little unrefined for me, and pretty much everyone else. It was a wanted textural element, but made a rustic soup weird. The whole dish needs to be compared to the comfort food of Mei’s congee, and in that context it is no contest.

Third course from Gregory is a bass with carrot sauce, tomatillo, vegetables, and pineapple. It is a strange dish. I am worried for Gregory at this point. It is not like the dish was bad, but the dish was just not a winner winner. Well, let’s not rest on that notion, because his next and final course is a stone cold stunner. Simple short ribs in mole with sweet potato. It is purity on the plate and equal to the idea of Mei’s congee in nailing comfort food. Kudos. He’s back on track. This is a close contest.

Judges' Table comes and we deliberate. I am not going to mince words and hold off on this: It is really close, but this season’s winner is definitely Mei. Well deserved. Gregory is the consummate pro in placing second and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this restaurant world. His win versus addiction and his success in cooking shows one tough person with oodles of talent.

Mei. Mei. You rock. You are a chef’s chef. You make food that excites and makes us ponder. You are a leader and a super cool person. You are the winner and will always be a winner. Onwards.

Until next season. I loved this season. Thanks BOSTON. And thanks San Miguel di Allende. You are awesome places to work.

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