Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Quin-whaaa?!

Hugh Acheson doesn't understand Bene and Brian's "spooky spa" concept.

Last week saw Travis squeak through a Judges' Table at the expense of Janine, who made Hanoi-d shrimp. Given her accent the little creatures thought they were destined for the "barbie." The poor little crustaceans never saw it coming when the merciless Aussie fried all thoughts of tenderness out of them. Alas, there is some redemption to be had and Janine has emerged victorious in the first Last Chance Kitchen, which you can watch HERE.

There are lots of tears in the Stew Room. “I feel like we failed her,” says Sara, momentarily forgetting that this is a competition where one chef will take home a big check. None of this fazes Travis, who has planned much, much bigger life events to happen during his 15 minutes of fame: Travis is proclaiming to the world beyond his friends and his mother that he is gay. During a commercial break, the many variations of “It Gets Better” speeches that have become the soundtrack to their suburban home are finally making sense to his father, the one person that Travis has not told this important news to. Hopefully his pops responds with a hearty, “Big deal. All good. Love you no matter what.” 

Did you know that the first commercial use for aluminum foil was Life Savers? This is what the Wikipedia told me. The chefs walk in for the Quickfire and everything is wrapped in Reynolds Wrap, and Carlos is wondering who would do such a thing. We are reminded of the past season where they did a similar experiment and even John Tesar was fooled by the pineapple wrapped in foil thing. “Pineapple! Oh, Jesus.” Really John?

Padma and Gail have brought their moms. Awwwww. The chefs get split down to groups allied to Gail and groups pro-Padma, and then the moms are tasked with speed shopping for all the ingredients and tools. Nobody grabs the foil-wrapped Hosea in the corner. 

The chefs are unpacking the foil mess and making swans. There are a lot of different things on the tables, and there seems to be a conspiracy to give Nina’s group all of the ingredients that no one can find a home for. Her soup is about to become a halfway house for wayward ingredients. Carlos is finding maternal inspiration, pulling at our heartstrings as he is apt to do. He is the chef who seems to be garnering the most compassion from viewers, but that may change. He was a bit too nervous last episode, and America doesn’t like a softie who can’t make a decision. But we all are still cheering him on. Like aluminum foil, there is a shiny side and there is a matte side. If Carlos is our shiny, then the King of Krazy, Michael, is hands down the matte. Right now he is babbling on about something, but I have an all-time high resistance to him, so I don’t even hear him talk. It’s my form of television Darwinism. 

Michael and the Little Grocer, Justin, are cooking something en papillote, which means cooking in a sealed steam environment of parchment paper, which was a massive missed opportunity to get bonus points for cooking something in foil.  

As the challenge winds down, we have plates on the table, thanks to Alpha leader Sara. Let’s see what we got:

Sara and Stephanie: Lamb chops, fonduta, mushrooms. Corn. Stuff. Gail’s mama says the lamb is nicely cooked. 

Justin and Michael: Red Snapper en Papillote with Rice Pilaf. Sake to me. The two generations of ladies love it. 

Carrie, Louis, Shirley: Buratta, apples, balsamic sabayon. Nothing really to hear on the eating. Something about Carrie’s arm about to fall off. Looks pretty classic. And good. 

Carlos and Travis: Clams Poached with Fish Sauce and Coconut. Asian Mexican spice fest. After being on the firing line last episode, this may be a redemption dish for both of them.

Nick and Patty: Snapper and Branzino with Mustard Vinaigrette. Citrus explosion gets a “very nice.” Perhaps Patty has been purposefully losing to hide the fact that she is a shark. A shark trained by David Burke. 

Bene, Brian, and Nina: Soup. Beans, chiles, cherries, okra. Looks very strange. Too many ingredients. “Train wreck,” says Justin, and no one, and I mean no one, disagrees. 

The win goes to Team Padma. 10K is endowed to the scholarship fund called “Shoes for Bene.”

Lea Michele gleefully races in. Stephanie Cmar wants to hang with Lea. Well, duh, who wouldn’t want to do that? Just hang out and once in a while break into song? Bliss I tell you. 

Michael got laid once when he dressed up as a pregnant nun. Some people just say strange things to socially ostracize themselves from the pack. Michael is the poster child of those people.  

They break up into teams they really don’t want to be on, and they then talk to Lea Michelle about her vegan dream diet, which turns out not to be really vegan at all. She likes to branch out. Cheese is her favorite. Things that are a party in your mouth.  So teams of two and they are cooking a dish per team member, so if you are following me that’s two different dishes per team. If you are not following me, you should go get some coffee, take a break, and then loop back in when you can concentrate. Oh, and it’s a Halloween costume party. Think scary. 

Whole Foods run around. Some teams are happy and some are really not. Michael is making balls. Fried balls that will weigh Nina down. Prep is occurring. Tom drops in on this scary cooking fest. Lots of rice balls happening. Tom bids them adieu until tomorrow.

If you harken back to what Lea likes and dislikes it’s kind of important. 

Likes: Italian, Mexican, vegan lifestyle, cheese, vegetables, parties in mouth, spice, and maybe Mexican men. 

Dislikes: Beets. sweets. 

Nick is taking a Plan B approach because of what the competition of Michael and Nina are doing. Brian and Bene are doing a spooky spa cuisine. All spa cuisine is spooky to me. Michael is battling with Nina. Michael is a boisterous soul and a born rabble-rouser. 

Time finishes, so they go out looking for haunted houses. Brian has a plan to meet any horror movie scenario.  

So here we go. Spooky. Shirley and Louis have the best chemistry and Michael and Nina have the worst. Michael calls Nina Boo Boo a lot, which is his way of making sure we understand that he finds her talented, but still a girl. Really. It is. It’s kind of gross. Anyhow, my view is that regardless of the box she checks on the census, she could beat him in all competitions, except the Who’s Krazy Olympiad. Just saying. Maybe he’ll surprise me. Maybe he won’t.  

The judges enter and someone named Charlotte has given me a Prince Charming outfit. She sent me this picture in advance to set my mind at ease for how I would be dressed. No joke -- she really did. 

hugh-little-prince.jpg

I still adore her, but this is a really suspect outfit. I feel like a weirdo. I mean I am a weirdo, but this is not helping. Just so you know, I am neither charming, nor a prince. 

Padma and I wander around eating vittles and talking to the locals. It’s a great group of people in a very interesting room. The chefs overall have done pretty well with some really making great vittles and some reaching ho-hum. Tom is dressed like Gatsby, but he really just looks like Tom in a boater. He has some competition in the Gatsby department when our big boss man, Andy Cohen slides in and starts calling everyone “Sport.” Lea is dressed like a cat, but an adult cat. Padma is dressed like a voodoo priestess. I am itchy, and the pins that hold my XXL Prince Charming outfit to my body are poking me in odd places. You know that feeling when you are going through pain, but kind of enjoy it? That’s me right now.  

So we eat:

Black Team - Carrie: Charred Chicory puree, mushrooms, and black garlic

Black Team - Stephanie: Leek, ash vegetables, and fontina fonduta

I just like saying Fontina Fonduta. Ash is all the rage these days with the decline in smoking… we gotta get that carbon from somewhere. Both dishes are really tasty. They worked well as a team and have put out good stuff, which appealed to the hostess, Lea. 

Yellow Team - Nicholas: Butternut Cannoli with Ricotta Salata

Yellow Team - Patty: Lemon Arancini

Arancini is a fried risotto ball, and we are about to see a lot of them. But Patty is finally doing good with this one. She killed it. Nick did good too. He saw another chef doing gnocchi, and he changed course very successfully. 

Green Team - Brian: Quinoa salad with mushroom espuma and some cobweb thing

Green Team - Bene: Heirloom Tomato Salad with wilted kaleYou know how you are supposed to eat spa food cause it’s good for you but no one wants to actually eat the stuff? This was that to the nth degree. Just a strange choice to make. Brian’s espuma was kind of flat, where usually they are aerated to a foam. Bene’s salad, though he will later plead that he seasoned it, was really drastically underseasoned. Tomatoes just don’t shine without some salt. 

Orange Team - Nina: Gnocchetti with kale pesto and squash

Orange Team - Michael: Arancini thing.

This is one of those times when the Sesame Street song, “One of These Things is not Like the Other” gets stuck in my head. Nina’s was amazing. Smart, executed perfectly. Michael’s was not great. Blah. Boring. Sweet tomato sauce. 

Red Team - Travis: Vegetable Ceviche

Red Team - Carlos: Goat cheese fondue with fried zucchini

Slutty Santa has come through. Really refreshing. Hot though. Good hot. Carlos is killing it too. 

Blue Team - Louis:  Braised Quinoa thumb thing

Blue Team - Shirley: Hand cut noodles, pickled daikon

I understand that Lea Michele is vegan, but this Quinoa thing has got to end. Now, it was a better rendition than Brian’s quinoa things but still. Shirley’s was pretty good but also kind of something you would find at the buffet at the health food store. 

Grey Team - Justin: Beet pasta with green tomatoes

Grey Team - Sara: Arancini. New profile. Mo-rockin’.

Pasta was strange. Not horrible but kind of weird. Arancini was fine. If I see another ball of fried rice, then I am outta here. 

Stew room starts with Carlos praying, because at this point it can’t hurt, can it? Then the chefs get to watch us weigh in on what just happened. Reactions are mixed because the food was mixed. 

Tops are Nicholas and Patty and also Travis and Carlos. In this challenge though Red reigned supreme. Carlos and Travis worked it and won. Carlos thinks he really now has a shot with Lea. He can still dream. You can never take that away from him. 

Bottoms are Orange, Michael and Nina, and also Green, Brian and Bene. It’s hard to lose as a team. Lea did not want spa cuisine. She wanted party food, and no party starts with quinoa, at least none I really yearn to attend. 

Michael leaves the show with some uncomfortable hugging. He feigns shooting himself on re-entering the kitchen, and there is an odd quiet to the crowd. 

Be well, Michael. You are a live wire. 

Follow me on Twitter @hughacheson

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.

Read more about: