Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Welcome Back!

Gail Simmons wastes no time in dishing on Season 2.

I cannot believe TC2 is already here. I am still overwhelmed and delighted by the enormous support and positive feedback you all gave our first season. You can expect a lot of changes this time around -- new host, new city, new crop of cooks -- but the drama, twists and excitement aren't going anywhere.

Before I launch into my thoughts on the first challenge and new contestants, I wanted to mention how happy I was that TC1 winner Harold Dieterle helped us kick-off the new season as our first guest judge. It was so fun to spend time with him on "our side" of the Judge's Table and I am impressed by how far he has come professionally since the first time we met him. He is working hard to launch his own restaurant in New York, and not letting his fame and fortune distract him.

Having Harold join us as a judge reminded me of why he was chosen as the winner: He is a serious chef and empathetic leader who is passionate about his craft. Just this week, we were lucky enough to attend a private Bravo preview of his restaurant's potential menu and I can assure you, it does not disappoint! For me, the thought of filming season 2 brought with it a sense of calm. This time I knew exactly what I was here to do and how to do it. In addition, many of the 15 new contestants spent season 1 studying the show, so they all arrived on set on their best behavior. They acted so cool and collected, as if they knew what was in store for them and had it all figured out. How wrong we all were!

The purpose of the first episode's challenges was not only for the judges to get a feeling for each individual's knowledge and use of basic technique, but also to take the contestants out of their element and force them to think outside the box. I was quite surprised by how few of them had ever actually cooked with the mystery ingredients they were given. Not that I expect anyone to be cooking with frog legs and snails very often, but a well-rounded chef should know how to handle a broad range of proteins; none of these were so totally out of the ordinary for the culinary world.

Versatility is a skill that can never be underestimated.... As you all know, throwing contestants for a loop is what Top Chef does best. Pairing artichokes with snails and American cheese, or chicken with frog legs and peanut butter definitely woke everyone up! In my opinion, the chefs did not have to invent anything miraculous to win this challenge; the best dishes were those that made the unfamiliar, familiar again. As Tom pointed out to me between shots, the challenge did not require you to incorporate all these ingredients in equal proportion, just represent each one in some small way in the same dish.

Betty's liver and frog leg cakes, Mia's (absolutely juicy) Sunday Dinner buttermilk-fried frog legs and Elia's snails with creamy mashed potatoes were at the top of all our lists because they did not attempt to morph their food into some weird and ridiculous mess. Instead, they used ideas and techniques they were confident about and adapted them accordingly, ultimately making the exotic into a dish anyone could appreciate. They also gave us a clear snapshot of their personal cooking styles.

Carlos, Otto and Suyai's dishes, on the other hand, made no sense in either presentation or taste. Carlos positively slathered his dish with the American cheese ... nothing prepared with such a disproportionate amount of the stuff had a hope of impressing us. Otto made the common mistake of adding an extraneous ingredient, white rice, which he didn't even execute well. Learning when to eliminate a component that detracts from the plate is just as important as learning when to add one.
Poor, sweet Suyai shot herself in the foot right out of the gate. She panicked, pure and simple. She even admitted her defeat to Tom -- who made it very clear at the start of the show that he was there to judge, not to mentor the contestants. She did not have a focus or a plan and produced an equally chaotic plate -- frenetic, disconnected and unappealing. We had to let her go.

Ilan's baked snail dish was our clear winner. It was well conceived, beautiful on the plate (yes, that bizarre combo actually looked beautiful) and appetizing too! It resembled something you would find at a cozy, but sophisticated French bistro. When we ate it, we were convinced that perhaps this combination, when put together just right, was not so strange after all ... not unlike this season's motley crew of chefs, pastry chefs, line cooks, instructors, and caterers. Although they may seem like an unlikely bunch, I think you'll agree that once they start cooking, the action -- in and out of the kitchen -- will make you want another taste.

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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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