Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Big Showdown

Gail Simmons on Ilan Hall's big finish.

So that was it. The big showdown. The last hurrah. I'm relieved. Not because the season has come to an end, but because it culminated with an appreciation for the purpose of the game and focus on the ultimate prize. No backstabbing, no drama, no childish tactics. It was finally about serious cooking for the love of great food. What we all enjoyed most was the absolute dichotomy in cooking styles of our two finalists. It was very exciting to witness two young chefs at more or less the same stage in their careers take such different inspiration from the same choice of products and the same mission: to cook the best five course meal they possibly could.
One of the highlights of being on the Big Island of Hawaii was discovering its incredible produce. The farmer's market where Ilan and Marcel chose their ingredients was made up of some of the state's spectacular meat, fish, fruit and vegetable purveyors. While the two teams shopped for our dinners, Padma and I perused the stalls, tasting fresh hearts of palm, pristine wild mushrooms, spicy macadamia nuts, rich chocolate, fuchsia carrots and at least a half dozen tropical fruits we had never seen before in our lives. Many of these specialties made it onto our plates in unexpected ways. As one of the farmers told me that day, Hawaii's complex microclimates allow for year-round harvesting of foods that we on the Mainland associate only with summer. For example, Ilan's first course of Pan con Tomate with Angulas -- baby eels -- and Osetra Caviar may have been clever and pretty, but I was more excited to taste the ripe, sweetness of fresh tomato in the dish.
Although Angulas are a delicacy, which when served fresh can be a dramatic addition to a meal, the canned version was out of place on an island known for its exceptional seafood. I worried he was off to a rocky start. But his Pan Roasted Moi -- native Hawaiian fish -- with Macadamia Gazpacho more than made up for what the first course lacked. This was the same type of clever combination that had won him a place in the finale -- a thoughtful presentation of a typically Spanish dish, using unmistakably Hawaiian ingredients, elevating it to something even more delicious. It was our clear favorite of the whole meal.

The Grilled Squab and Shrimp with Foie Gras was equally rich and flavorful. The Beef Short Rib with Mushrooms and Romanesco was striking both visually and on the palate. It may have been tougher than I was used to, but the sharp color and texture contrasts served to spotlight Hawaii's revered grass-fed beef. Ilan's Tangelo and Vanilla Bean soup with Exotic Fruit and Fried Bay Leaf sealed the deal. It was sweet and tart enough to satisfy our dessert craving, but not too fussy that he had to worry about his lack of pastry skill.

Marcel made a few obvious mistakes along the way. We did not know the extent to which he forgot certain key ingredients, (or the lack of direction he seemed to have once they began their final preparation). His first course of Uni -- sea urchin -- in Vanilla and Meyer Lemon Gelee was a daring choice and we ate up the story of walking on the beach that accompanied it. It was an intricate starter with layers of flavor and texture, unlike anything I had eaten before.

His salad was clearly a disappointment. It was attractive and fresh but the simplicity of the dish gave his secret shortcoming away. If his original idea for the vinaigrette had worked, it could have been an entirely different conversation. The risk he took in serving something he hadn't yet mastered did not pay off in the end. Next came his Hearts of Palm with Maitake Mushrooms, Kaffir Lime Sauce and Sea Beans. As the saying goes, silence is a virtue. Had he not told us he was missing the kampachi, we never would have known. Sure, we were stunned that he chose to serve two vegetarian courses in a row, but we were also thrilled at how innovative this course was, regardless of who cooked it! The blend of flavors was outstanding and also unlike anything we had eaten to this point.

The Seared Strip Loin with Spring Garlic Puree and Taro Ball looked like a piece of art. The beef was well seasoned and cooked, but the taro was far too dry and difficult to eat without it falling apart. Marcel's dessert was almost as clever as Ilan's had been.

Where Ilan had kept to the simplest use of ingredients, allowing Hawaii's vibrant fruits to speak for themselves, Marcel took one last opportunity to demonstrate his scientific tendencies. His Caviar and Blini with Kona Coffee and Hawaiian Chocolate Mousse showed skill and (at last!) a sweet sense of humor. If only he had more time to make more coffee caviar. This is the kind of dish I have a feeling we will all see perfected in years to come, the type of instant classic conceived by a young chef determined to make his mark on the world.

I think it is clear why, of the two, we chose Ilan as our Top Chef. They both have the passion and drive to be successful in whatever they now decide to do. But at that meal, Ilan's food reflected not just a capable hand, but also the ability to direct a team in creating the exact meal he envisioned from the start. It was consistent, considerate and, above all else, really fun to eat.

After all, isn't that what it's all about? Thanks again to everyone who participated in our blogs, voiced their opinions and came along on such a wild ride. See you next season!

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.

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