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.

Read more about:

You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Gail dishes on Doug Adams' flawless return to the competition and why Melissa King's dish failed to hit the right artistic note.

Bravotv.com: This week we had the Last Chance Kitchen finale between George and Doug, and Doug ended up returning to the competition.

Gail Simmons: It looked like a really close battle -- Tom was really happy with both of their dishes. I will say if I had to put money on it, I would have guessed it would be between George and Doug at the end. They really are two of our stronger competitors. Obviously George was just coming off of his elimination, and it didn't surprise me that Doug stayed at the top of Last Chance Kitchen since being eliminated. I was thrilled to see him in Mexico with us.

Bravotv.com: Great! So he comes back, he wins and then onto the Quickfire Challenge. Any thoughts on this part of the competition?

GS: I'll just say that I’m a big, big fan of Chef Olvera, and I’m so glad we were able to get him on the show. His main restaurant, Pujol, is in Mexico City, but he has Moxi at the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel, where we were  lucky enough to eat the night that I landed, and a new restaurant here in New York that I am really excited about called Cosme. His food is very much rooted in Mexican ingredients and Mexican cooking, but his food is so modern. He really is one of the most talented chefs in the world at this moment, and I’m glad he judged the prickly pear Quickfire. They filmed it right in the center square of San Miguel; it is an amazingly gorgeous place. It was a really great setting for our first challenge in Mexico.

Bravotv.com: Then we have the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by an artist's piece of work, and Doug won with his brisket.

GS:  This challenge is interesting, because San Miguel is such a mecca for artists; it’s an artist colony that has produced incredible work for years. The city itself is so visually inspiring, as are the artists that work there. Their work is so varied, so vast. What was unique in this challenge was that it forced the chefs to take inspiration from an unusual source and think about their dish in a different way. All of the artists are very different, from a graffiti artist to someone who does more abstract landscapes. It was truly exciting to see what the artists did with the canvases they were given and what they shared with the chefs.

I tasted Doug’s dish first and understood it in an instant; it needed no explanation. But when he did talk about it, I realized it had so much depth not only in flavor, but in its purpose. He had an immediate connection with the artist he was paired with -- they were both from Texas and she reminded him a lot of his mother. There was a deep sense of home and comfort between them, which I think allowed him to cook so purely, so simply. The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not "chef it up" too much, he kept it pure. He modeled the presentation of the dish exactly off of the painting itself with those colors from the Mexican landscape -- the deep reds of the earth, those dark greens and browns -- which made perfect sense. His brisket obviously tasted like Texas, but it definitely had an air of Mexico. It had the tomatillo, the masa, and even the red brisket itself was reminiscent of Mexican flavors, since Mexican cuisine has had such an influence on Texas to begin with. The dish was about his roots on a lot of levels. I devoured all of it, it was so hardy and comforting, but it had an elegance and finesse to it in the plating -- the ingredients he chose to put side by side as opposed to stewing them together -- made it special.

The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not 'chef it up' too much, he kept it pure.

Gail Simmons

Bravotv.com: And then we had Gregory's grilled strip loin with ancho chile, beets, cilantro puree, and valencia orange sauce.

GS: Gregory’s dish was excellent too. He did a perfectly grilled strip loin. He was worried about it before we tasted it, but it came out perfectly. He made three incredible sauces to go with it, which drew a lot of inspiration from his artist's painting. The first was this ancho chile sauce and then this beautiful green cilantro puree. The ancho chiles were reminiscent of the peasant farming, the green cilantro tying into the earth. Then there was the orange sauce, which completely changed the dish. When you first tasted it, the dish was earthy, it was deep and complex, it had the Mexican chiles that really shone through with the beef. Then you got a splash of that orange sauce, and it balanced everything out in a way that surprised us. It was so inspired, you could tell that it echoed the sunshine in the painting. It conveyed the artist’s vision of this peasant toiling in the soil through this glorious sunshine, and that’s exactly how the dish tasted.

It was a really close battle between Gregory and Doug in this challenge; both of them did such a great job. Ultimately we chose Doug, because we thought there was an unmistakable depth to his food and it was completely flawless.

Bravotv.com: Let's move on to Mei, who had the snapper and bass crudo with chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles.

GS: In true Mei fashion, her dish was completed beautifully and precise. It was very tightly conceptualized -- every drizzle, every piece of fish, every garnish was perfectly placed, and it was a gorgeous plate of food. I loved her relationship with the artist she worked with, Bea. They had a lovely conversation, which was great to see, and the dish clearly reflected Bea’s work. The chicken skin, the fish, the splashes of color were all inspirations from the painting. Every bite of Mei's dish had a little surprise; there was a little spice, a tiny bit of salt, and a beautiful splash of sweetness, which made it so fun and so playful.

My only criticism of Mei’s food comes from a presentation standpoint. Because Bea’s art was so outrageous and so loud and loose and free in a way, we had hoped that Mei’s food would’ve reflected that. We thought it would have allowed her to loosen up her presentation a little bit. Of course, I respect that she stayed true to who she is and how she presents her food. It was a dish that took a lot of technical skill and was really enjoyable when we ate it, we had just hoped to see more playfulness.

Bravotv.com: And then we had Melissa's smoked eggplant ravioli with shrimp, chorizo, and cotija.

GS: Melissa’s dish was absolutely decadent, delicious, delightful. We all agreed that her smoked eggplant ravioli was perfectly made -- it was smoky, very rich, and the pasta was well cooked. That alone was as good as anything else we had eaten that day. Where we thought she fell short, relative to the other dishes, was that there definitely was less cohesion between the artist's work and her dish. Shrimp, chorizo, cotija cheese, and eggplant can go together, but in the way she plated them, they weren’t really talking -- the shrimp was over here, the sauce was somewhere else, then there was the eggplant ravioli. There didn’t seem to be a line that connected them all. And when she described it in relation to the artwork, we really weren’t sure it conveyed that dramatic splash from the graffiti art. We needed more from her. There was such a direct conversation between Doug and his artist, and it really felt like they were working on the same piece of artwork together. Melissa’s dish, although tasty and very pretty, did not have that same depth. I’m not just talking about flavor; it’s really about the inspiration and the connection, not only between the ingredients on the plate, but between the chef and the artist. His work was really beautiful (and watching the show I regret not buying a piece from him at the time). But it can be hard to translate art, because it’s something so personal. In the end between the four of us we decided that on that day it was Melissa’s dish that did not measure up in terms of the inspiration and connection like the other dishes did. So she was eliminated.

Bravotv.com: It seemed like one of the tougher eliminations this season.

GS: Yes, it was. It always is at this stage of the season. But it was a really great challenge too. I think regardless of winning or losing, Melissa really loved the process and that was so great to see. It was an intellectual challenge that was hard to interpret, and I think they all did an incredible job. I’m really going to miss Melissa. I honestly think she is a huge talent, and I know she is going to do well wherever she goes next.
 

Read more about:

You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet