Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Hugh comments on Nick's big win and what he hopes the chef can achieve in the future.

It is the eleventh season, in this the eleventh hour. We have whittled down to Nina Compton, the Italian chef from St. Lucia and Nicholas Elmi, a very talented, French trained from Philly. One has been on a consistent tear all season long and the other has been on a frenetic journey of highs and lows. One is prone to calm introspection and the other is prone to stressful bouts of loathing everything in their wake.

The venue is Maui and that should provide a comfortable backdrop for all of the chefs involved. Clear your mind. Namaste. My mind was clear and freed of all worries, but that may have been the MaiTais. You really should in this lifetime get yourself to Maui and hang loose. It is a phenomenal island full of wonderful people. My family and I ventured pretty far and wide in our little rental car: a wonderful MaiTai lunch at Mama's, awesome sushi at Koiso, a little Mom and Pop joint, a super fun meal at Star Noodle, and many great meals at the Andaz where we based. It was by far the best work vacation ever.

We are privy to some foreshadowing content that shows a very clear truth: this was a really difficult call to agree on. It was a long, long night. I remember the last stretch in Alaska after the Texas season and that was a long night but not nearly as neck and neck as this decision. Trust me when I say this: it was as close as the show makes it out to be. It really was.

So we start with drinks on the couch where Nina and Nicholas are relishing in their position. Nicholas is itching to get this over with, and Nina is as well, but as always Nina has a certain island-calmness about her. They are both picturing themselves wearing that crown and walking a runway made of truffles and foie gras.

I try to imagine Nicholas as a character in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but draw a blank on how we fit he angry chef into the show. Ideas will be vetted.

All is fine until we all wake up the next day and Padma is recreating a Bo Derek scene from Ten, without the corn-row hairdo. I advised for the corn-rows but after James Franco’s character in Spring Breakers that hairstyle has taken a bit of a dive in popularity.

Nicholas is hoping to win the $125K to kickstart his own restaurant where he won’t have to answer to anyone. Let me inform you that you once you open your own place you have to answer to the bank, customers, Yelpers, critics, the IRS, the landlord and your family. Lesson number 47: There is always someone to answer to, unless your name rhymes with Keesus Plighst, Wallah, or Gouda.

On her walk on the beach Padma has found a bunch of other chef contestants, like seashells, sand dollars, conch or flotsam. From this seaside haul, Nicholas chooses his team: Jason, Louis, and Brian. Nina chooses Shirley, Stephanie, and Travis. The three unpicked are Carlos, Janine, and Sara, who get the horrible punishment of going to the beach and swimming with tortoises. This means that what we eat will probably not be an authentic Pozole, Shrimp-on-the-Barbie, or inspired by an airport-based Wolfgang Puck concept.

They plan the menu.

First to Team Nicholas, who I will call Rage Against the Service Staff Machine. East Coast meets Hawaiian crudo is a Mike Fennelly special from 1994. You will have to be an extreme foodie from Santa Fe, New Orleans, or San Francisco to get that one. Google on. Second course will be scallop noodle, an ode to his bro Jason, who claims he is "just a squirrel, trying to get a nut." We all have our methods to our madness.

Team Nina. I have 99 Luftballons in my head for some reason, but that was spelled Nena. I may need a lobotomy to get it out of my mind. And it's the German version of that post-apocalyptic '80s love song. Aaargh.

Well Nina is wanting a crudo as well and they go shopping for fruit. What happens in between we will never know. During the shopping we reminisce about Pepin's scolding of Nick for a poor panna cotta. He wants redemption.

They are in two different kitchens. One is more equipped that the other. Nicholas got the nicer one, but I think it’s just a roll of the dice. But that role has resulted in Nina being without a ice cream spinner or a Paco Jet, which is a fancy burring device that you can make ice cream with. Paco Jets are killer. We love them.

Chef coats on. Teams are a go go with Jason on noodle, Brian on duck, and Louis on crudo. Nicholas is playing cheffy chef and overseeing them all. He's driven. Nina is trying to get together a dessert. She's going to make donuts, or Stephanie is. Travis is busting it and Shirley is moving at Shirley speed, which is faster than anyone else in a professional kitchen nowadays.

That swordfish looks pretty. Over to team Nicholas' kitchen where Jason is ego pressing some shellfish. He says it's a 200 pounds of ego pressure but I think it more like 2 tons. No one ever called him shy.

Tom and Emeril walk in and Tom is audibly perplexed when he learns that Jason was the first chef picked to be on Team Nick. This shunning makes Jason angry until he glimpses a beautiful man only to realize it is but his own reflection. The Earth is back in balance. Nicholas, Tom and Emeril talk through the season and whittle down to this: Nicholas is a chef of nuance. Nuance needs to show through in taste and style or he will not be Top Chef.

Tom and Emeril interrogate Nina. Dessert is the topic. We always talk about this in the finale: should a chef do dessert? Obviously it is not Nina's strong suit and Tom is all for four savory courses to stay strong. He may have a point. He often does.

Jason is nominating himself the most important chef in this finale. The weight is on his shoulders. He is going to make these scallop noodles rock the world. He is his own life at his own party. And for a squirrel, he does have great hair.

I would take Shirley on my team in an instant. Just sayin’.

They dress up and go to O'o Farm to hang with Emeril and Tom. The families arrive. They all get teary. They eat pig head to memorialize the occasion.

Gettin' realz. Nicholas conducts a pre-shift waiter meeting and demands excellence. First I would have made sure they were paying attention, then when I realized they were not, I would try to figure out a way not to bamboozle the newbie waiters with a ton of table service. "Service is going to be. . .relatively intense." Truer words are rarely spoken.

Nina has her waiters wearing grey toned Hawaiian shirts. This sets a somber tone. Nicholas is getting really mad at his servers. They are wondering whether this job is worth the abuse.

We are dining in two separate groups: Tom and Gail are joined by David Kinch (Manresa, Los Gatos, CA) and Takashi Yagihashi (Takashi, Chicago). Padma, Emeril, and I are joined by Paul Bartolotta (Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, Las Vegas) and the OG Morimoto (Morimoto restaurant group). So when you have a sustainable mastermind in David, two sushi masters in Takashi and Morimoto, and the preminent expert on Mediterranean fish. Not too shabby.

Nina: Breadfruit with Whipped Foie Gras Butter. All of team Tom enjoy this bonus.
Nina: Tuna and Escolar Tartar With Tomato Water and Jalapeno. Good news as they love it again.
Nina: Roasted Goat Sugo With Orecchiette, Cherry Tomato Confit, and Goat Cheese. Killer. Killer. So awesome.
Nina: Swordfish with Squash Puree, Braised Kale, and Smoked Onion Jus. Wintery. Not very evocative of Hawaii, Italy or St. Lucia. More evocative of Rhode Island.
Nina: Compressed Dragon Fruit and Frozen Papaya Skewer. Odd. But nicely timed.
Nina: Chocolate Zeppole with Macadamia Nuts and Passion Fruit Anglaise. Fell flat. Unfinished in comparison to the rest of her courses.

Nicholas is having some service problems and it is one thing when diners don’t notice the dictatorial directives, but its less than enjoyable when, as diners, we see this.  

Nicholas: Hamachi and Tuna Green Apple Wasabi, Celery, and Maui-Meyer Lemon. Not cut beautifully and there is only so much you can plate off to the side to wow us. I mean it was good and all but in the battle of crudo, Nina won in my mind.
Nicholas: Sweet Shrimp Bisque, Scallop, and Daikon Noodles with Thai Basil. Tom loved this, like dish of the year stuff. I didn’t. Just didn’t really make sense to me. That is just my humble opinion though. The opinions at my table were very much like mine.
Nicholas: Kombu Cured Duck Breast With Kabocha Squash, Hijiki, and Ginger. It was a great dish. Maybe the duck was a bit chewy, but it was great nonetheless.
Nicholas: White Chocolate Panna Cotta Almond Cocoa Crumble and Tropical Fruit. Not a panna cotta but an interesting dessert.

During service Nicholas was having a lot of problems with his servers and I think its kind of the same problems you would have with a temp catering staff. You can never assume they will be at the same level as your normal crew. You must work around the fact that this is all brand new to them and adjust. If you yell, they only get worse. It's like yelling someone who is terrified. They do not suddenly get over it. This is really and truly what I saw happening with service Chez Nick.

So save for the service issues, both did great. Pound for pound, both chefs brought beyond their A game. They killed it. Through the whole season the food Nina created was so pure, so different, yet so homey. Nicholas gave us sublime food and some bricks, but boy oh boy he can cook when he nails it.

Oh my, the table was a long one. It was a four course affair and we had them split on courses. It came down to which food was more memorable and enjoyable in the moment. Not an easy decision.

Nicolas by a hair.

The verdict was cast in the wee hours of that following morning and it was great to see the thrill and relief on Nicholas' face. It was like he had just run the marathon of his life and it hadn't really gone the way he wanted to at times -- but that the end result made it all worth it.

As for Nina, she will be okay. That hard work and focused dedication she showed through the entire season will earn her monies that will make the 125K pale in comparison. She's a leader through and through.

Nicholas, some words of advice: Your commitment to your craft and to your family is something we can all learn from. My only advice would be to be kind to yourself. You deserve it. Happy chefs make better food.

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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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