Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Aloha

Executive Producer Shauna Minoprio gives you the insider scoop.

Let's talk about this week's show. Hawaii! An amazing and magical place. The lunch with Alan Wong in Waipio valley was a really fantastic experience for everyone - production and crew included. While the chefs got to fly in and out by helicopter the rest of us had to driving in down the steepest public road in the whole of the US, across two rivers and past wild horses.

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It was worth it! Some might question why we did all that for a 'food' show but I really wanted the chefs to have an experience of 'Hawaii' that would be unforgettable and inspirational. Honestly it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Doing so much shooting outside was extremely nerve-wracking because of the unpredictability of the weather. While we were shooting the finale, every other island in Hawaii was experiencing typhoon warnings and flash-floods. By some miracle, the area on the Big Island where we were was the only place not experiencing torrential rainfall. The day the production team arrived we had a traditional Hawaiian blessing for the whole enterprise with all of us there - it was a pretty cool moment - like the blessing the chefs got only with about 50 of us. It did rain the day before we actually started shooting - and the day after we finished. I'm not religious or even superstitious, but still.


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Honestly with the weather on our side it was a great place to shoot - and a great place to shoot a food show. The amazing ingredients they have there - the fish, the beef, the coffee, the fruit, the incredible variety of wonderful vegetables - it's like the garden of Eden. Also, I have to say all the Hawaiian people we met were just so lovely and charming and happy for us to be there. I honestly think that as a producer, it was the best shoot experience of my life. (Or maybe it just felt like that after the previous episode...?)
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I have no idea what Tom, Gail and Padma are writing on their blogs but from a production this judges table was a marathon. I think one camera operator might actually have fallen asleep while shooting because it went on so darn long. You know when judges sometime say 'it was a really difficult decision blah blah' - well this one was a doozy. I'm thinking there might be a bit more hate mail coming our way because of the decision they finally made... maybe I'll just head back to Hawaii for a while...

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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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