Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

McPhail's Navy

Ep 3: The chefs attempt the "impossible" by replicating iconic Commander's Palace dishes for their creators.

Hello my little Veal Tchoupitoulaseseseses. That's a mouthful! 

At the start of the hour, we find the chefs still in the Stew Room, post-Jason's elimination. Bret makes some comments about Jason, which don't sit well with Nick. This won't be the first time this episode where Nick reprimands Bret. 

Eventually we're back at the house, where Bret is hilariously doing what can only be described as Tae Bo with light weights. I want this on loop. He's obviously bulking up in case Nick eventually asks him to "take this outside." My money's still kinda on Nick.

But fight night will have to wait because it's time to head to the kitchen for the chefs' second Quickfire Challenge! But this isn't just any Quickfire Challenge --it's an elimination Challenge. Dun dun dunnnn.

Dana Cowin is guest judge and apparently has a lot of ideas about food trends that need to die. One of them was kale, which her colleague Gail Simmons is also over. Watch this:

Her list included eggs on top of things, bacon, kale, and smoking. I would probably add truffles to that list. I love me a truffle, but it's too easy. That being said, I made bacon chocolate chip cookie cake for a co-workers in-office wedding shower this week.

I wonder what Dana Cowin would think!

During the Quickfire Challenge, a few concerns come up.

1. Michael is smoking Justin out… literally. Michael is either oblivious that his smoke is in Justin's face, or he's doing it on purpose.

2. Stephanie reveals she's coating her pasta in bacon fat. Yesss. As the late, great Brittany Murphy said in her pivotal role as Tai in Clueless, "Mmm break me off a piece of that!"

3. Janine's worried about there pork being undercooked. (Spoiler alert: Phew! It's fine!)

4. Bret is worried. And making kale salad, which he was explicitly warned against.

5. Aaron worries his kale is overdressed and too salty.

Dana, Padma, and Emeril go 'round to taste th food. Michael wants them to taste his disdh, then guess his "trend" in a what-could-be-fun-but-comes-off-as-patronizing way, but he accidentally reveals  it before they're able to guess. Trust me, Michael -- it's better this way. 

In the end, Shirley's congee wins immunity, and Aaron's worst fears become true -- he goes home.

"That was fast," sys Nick. It sure was, Nick.

I liked Aaron and wish him well.

On to the Elimination Challelnge. I don't know about you, but this week's episode had me one click away from booking the next flight to New Orleans. I know each episode so far has featured some crave-worthy aspects to this city, but for some reason, this episode just did it for me. 

The chefs "relax" and enjoy a meal at the iconic Commander's Palace. As Travis innocently admires the fact that the restaurant has its own plates, James Beard award-winning chef Tory McPhail enters the dining room. His dining room. Chef McPhail presents the chefs with their task: to replicate a Ccassic Commander's Palace dish. Carrie, last week's double threat, deems the challenge "impossible." You know what would have been impossible, Carrie? If he revealed the challenge after you ate. Muhahaha. 

"Per usual, I feel like I'm going to vomit." Thanks for that one, Stephanie!

Shirley, who I gained a new respect for after noticing she finished her entire veal chop,  is apparently a "shadow chef," a chef with a keen ability to replicate dishes. She also had the keen ability to utter Elimiation Challenge locations before Padma does. Janine also has an advantage -- she owns the Commander's Palace cookbook! 

The chefs cook in groups based on their table partners, but each has to cook separately, which I get slightly confused by after witnessing one team sharing dish elements. Don't worry -- this will bite them in the arse later.

Another doozy comes in Bret's revelation that he's going to grill his chop right before service because the grill is too crowded. Ruh-roh!

The judges enter the restaurant, and in an adorable moment, greet proprietors Lally Brennan and Ti Martin. Paul Prudhomme is in the house, whose face I've only seen in my local market's spice aisle!

The proprietors start telling tales of their "discreet restaurant," while the chefs get anxious in the kitchen.

Nina has accidentally started plating on Michael's monogrammed plates (kudos to our production design department on those, by the way). So, Michael does what anyone would do and starts tossing her okra off the plates. Huh?

Louis asks Nick to taste the team's spice mix and Nick says not to add salt. 

[Cue foreboding music.]

Shirley can't find her beets and starts yelling at her fellow chefs to "come on!" and reveal where her beets are. "It has me questioning whether or no I took her beets on accident." Ha! Good one, Brian.

The beets are found and the chefs are ready to present. 

First group up is the team replicating Chef Jamie Shannon's Shrimp and Taso Henican, which consists of Bene, Michael, Travis, and Nina. While Bene's sauce is lauded, Nina's shrimp were impeccable and she ends up on top.

Next is the team replicating Chef Paul Prudhomme's Black Skillet Seared Trout: Janine, Nicholas, Louis, and Carlos, and they all have seasoning issues. And while Nick did tell Louis to leave the salt out of the mix, presumably they all would have added salt to their own dishes. Carlos and Louis were the worst, though, and end up on the bottom. 

Brian, Patty, Shirley, and Bret present Emeril's Veal Chop Tchoupitoulas, and as Bret knew, the lack of sear on his veal chop was a problem. Hugh goes so far to say that his veal seemed "steamed." Ouch!

But, could Hugh do better? He's willing to find out by challenging Tom to a cook-off. You in, Tom?... Tom?...Tom?

And finally there's dessert: Tory McPhails' strawberry trio. Justin's beignet is killer and Stephani'es biscuit is better than Coimmander's Palace's, according to Hugh. Ha! But he says it with that s----eating grin that reads "I sorta mean what I'm saying, but I'm also just giving you s---." Tom notes, quite astutely, that the chefs should have had the biggest issue with this course since, well, it's dessert and it's Top Chef, but this course was the most successful. Dana Cowin is a whipped cream whore, after all. (Her words, not mine!)

The desserts were so good in fact, Justin wins the whole thing! A new orleans chef winning a Commander's Palace challenge with a perfect beignet? That seems right.

Ultimately, Louis, Carlos, and Bret face the judges in the bottom, and the judges are confounded as to why Louis and Carlos's team didn't make their own spice mixes. They're safe, though, because Bret's veal was that unsatisfying.

Looks like Nick won't have to worry about Bret taking his couture space any longer. Bye, Brett!

Until next week, Have a Nosh!

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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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