Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Canadian Confessions

Gail reveals her true identity... and her thoughts on the Thanksgiving episode.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to say upfront that I am Canadian. I moved to New York for culinary school a year or so after college and have only been in the United States for the better part of a decade. I tell you this not because I think you are entirely interested, but because it explains that

I know relatively little about American Thanksgiving, the most widely celebrated, cross-cultural holiday of all. I want to be clear that I am by no means a Thanksgiving expert. Sure; Canadians have their own Thanksgiving too, the same weekend as U.S. Columbus Day -- we eat a bit of turkey and hang out with family, but it is far less of an occasion. In the years since I moved, I have spent the holiday at generous friends' homes and have even cooked once for a large group of ex-pats and others who do not spend it with their families.

Most often, though, I use the holiday as an excuse to go back to Canada for a relaxed, non-celebratory, long weekend (as I will be doing again this year). I must admit to feeling a little left out in the past. After all, any Thursday afternoon spent eating your brains out with friends and/or relatives in honor of those who did it before you, watching a little football and taking a nap is my kind of holiday! So it was with great pleasure that I was able to celebrate an extra Thanksgiving this year, just a few months ago, in the sticky heat of a Los Angeles summer. My real family may not have been around, but Tom, Padma and our guest judge, (the side-splitting and outrageous) Tony Bourdain -- as well as the winning contestants from this week's Quickfire Challenge who did not have to cook -- more than made up for the fun and shenanigans they would have supplied.


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What makes Thanksgiving food so delicious anyway? That I can tell you: the colors and creamy flavors of roasted fall vegetables; the caramelized golden skin and richness of turkey meat; the tart, bright tang of cranberry sauce and the sweet, velvety texture of warm pumpkin pie are all pretty hard to resist. At no point did we ask the chefs who were cooking our meal to depart from these time-honored traditions. We merely asked them to give us a modern twist on them and hoped the food would still taste good. I will never understand why Carlos decided to stick with a salad. I know he believed adding roasted squash and queso fresco would set him apart, but compared to the work done by every other member of that team, it could not compare, even against dishes less edible. I am not suggesting great salads are easy to do, but in this specific challenge, I actually believe he failed. It was not cutting edge. It tasted fine, but was limp and unoriginal. I had no problem agreeing that it was his time to leave the competition.

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Elia's mushroom soup with walnuts was by far the most successful dish from a culinary standpoint. It hit all the high points that a good soup should. It was soulful and smooth, nutty and earthy. It did not start a culinary revolution, but was just modern and playful enough to get noticed. I loved it!


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Marcel made a valiant effort as well. He finally was able to put his mad-scientist theories to work. His dish was sort of whimsical, inventive and pretty to look at, even if the turkey was slightly overcooked. I especially liked his play on cranberry sauce, which was made into an airy foam as well as a clear, bright gelatin that contrasted beautifully against the plate and the meat, in both appearance and taste. No one could say he was not cutting edge, especially in relation to his competition.

On the other hand, I was totally indifferent to Betty's creme brulee duo. As far as dessert was concerned, hers was neither horrifying, nor at all memorable. It was Mike's side dishes that shocked us the most. It simply defied all logic that he purposely chose to make not one, but THREE heavy, beige, starchy items without a trace of green in sight! Not only were they the farthest from cutting edge one could imagine, but they were all enormous in portion size and somehow glaringly inappropriate. Corn rolled in cheese? Twice baked potatoes with shrimp?All of a sudden I felt transported back to 1956, not subtly eased towards the culinary landscape of our future. The only redeeming factor was that he sincerely cooked every dish from his heart. In spite of their appearance, they all tasted OK. I thought Tony Bourdain might explode from sheer excitement. We definitely gave him something to sink his teeth into, not to mention his sarcasm. And that, in and of itself, is always something to be thankful for....

Wishing everyone a healthy and hearty Thanksgiving! PS. Speaking of family dinners, I was invited to a friend's fabulous Filipino feast this past weekend and found myself dining beside none other than Daniel Vosovic, from Project Runway's Season 2 (and a member of my Bravo family). How fun to discover that he is not only as talented and cute as I hoped, but also that he loves to eat!

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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