Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Chef's Exec Producer Spills

Top Chef's Executive Producer Shauna Minoprio gives you the insider scoop.

Let's get some stuff out of the way ....

No, I am not a good cook. I'm a pretty good eater though.

No, I don't eat the food the chefs make -- by the time we break from shooting a challenge, it's either been eaten by the guests/judges or it's gone cold and nasty. On set I survive on a steady diet of fun-size Snickers, Cheetos and stale bagels.

Yes, from time to time I do get free meals in really nice restaurants. It's bloody brilliant.

Yes, I am from England.

Yes, everything you see on the show really happens.

So now you know. I am not much of a writer, and this is my first ever blog (unless you count the diary I kept between the ages of 13-15 which mostly consisted of hormonal ramblings about boys I had met once for 30 seconds). I am big on lists, though, so I'm going to stick to what I know...

So, for your reading pleasure, here is a list of the some of the things that kept me awake at night in the run-up to Season 2...

1. New shooting location This season, we decided to shoot in Los Angeles, enormous, diverse and food-friendly. It's a complete coincidence that it also happens to be where I live. We built the Kenmore Kitchen in downtown LA, which is arty and cool and full of groovy loft conversions. It feels right for our chefs to be at the cutting edge of modern Los Angeles. Also, if I have to watch another reality show set in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills with a hot tub, I'll kill myself.

2. Hot new season A couple of days before our shoot starts, LA experiences the mother of all heat waves. This is not good news, as professional kitchens are already hot enough -- and that's before you add in thousands of kilowatts of bright hot TV lights. We bring in a monster machine that looks it's trying to eat the entire building with long tubular white tentacles. It sucks up so much power that it might as well be fuelled by a team of PAs shoveling $100-dollar bills into an incinerator. The temperature in the kitchen plummets from a sweltering 115 degrees to a sweltering 110 degrees. Oh boy.

3. New host Actually, I wasn't worried about this in the slightest. Having met Padma and had many long chats with her on the phone in the run-up to the shoot, wasn't in the slightest bit worried. I knew she'd be fantastic.

4. New crew Our main production team and crew consists of the following: 1 show runner (me) 1 director of photography 1 co-coordinating producer 1 supervising producer 2 production managers 5 field producers 2 segment producers 3 production co coordinators 2 assistant directors 2 cast chaperones 1 talent co coordinator 1 Art director 2 art department 2 wardrobe 2 makeup 6 camera operators 6 sound mixers 6 camera assistants 1 tech supervisor 1 tech assistant 1 audio supervisor 1 lighting designer 1 gaffer 1 electrician 3 culinary producers 8 production assistants The team is half old hands from season 1 and half fresh blood. Together we're a lean, mean, show-producing machine. Or we will be once we can remember each others' names. With 15 chefs arriving at five-minute intervals, the first day of shooting is somewhere between the first day at school and the charge of the light brigade. You just have to just keep moving, act like you're in control and hope that you're not among the casualties.

5. New challenges I'm worried about 15 chefs flambeeing at once -- I'm sure someone's going to get singed, probably one of the camera operators who spend a lot of time backing into hot pans and sharp knives. I'm also a little worried that the judges might throw up after eating 15 portions of snails and frogs legs (I know I would).

6. New chefs Our recipe this season includes: 2 executive chefs 4 fine-dining sous chefs/line cooks 1 diabetic 1 ex-bulimic 1 molecular gastronomist 1 cowboy caterer 1 ex-actress/waitress 1 pastry chef 1 recent catering school grad 1 self-taught restaurateur 1 culinary instructor They've watched Season 1, filled out applications, interviews, further interviews, made home submission tapes, had background checks, medical checks, done further interviews, and even psych tests. They are so ready. And they have no idea what they're in for. It turns out we have no idea what we're in for either. As the shoot goes on it will become more and more apparent that, despite having passed their psych tests with flying colors, this season's cast is the craziest bunch of people I have ever worked with in the 15 years I've been making reality shows. We're in for a bumpy ride.

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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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