Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Go Greenmarket

Lee Anne Wong on why the chefs should step-up to the challenge and stop bitching.

When I first discussed this challenge with Shauna and Scott, we asked ourselves, "What defines food as 'raw'?" We got into a long conversation revolving around how we should shape the rules to the Quickfire Challenge. Should we allow them to heat the food to 118F, the temperature at which food enzymes begin to break down? Should they be allowed to use sugar, which is a refined product, therefore not technically raw? It ended up being more complicated the more we discussed it, so we finally agreed to a simpler set of rules that both the contestants and the viewers could understand easily. No use of flame or heat whatsoever, but they would be able to purchase whatever was available at the greenmarket, even if it was an already cooked product (though use of a cooked product would be taken into account during judging).


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I am a huge fan of greenmarkets, local farming, and C.S.A.s (Community Supported Agriculture). There is a general movement in the restaurant business these days to support and showcase the products of smaller businesses and farms. Chefs are becoming more and more involved with sustainable agriculture, acting as the voices and architects for products that look and taste better, and will help to preserve the earth in the years to come. It is not only a more responsible practice (big business farming is terrible for our environment for many reasons), but on the flipside can add dollar value to your menu.

I will admit, I sometimes find it to be exploitative and overbearing to look at a menu where every dish reads like: "Bigfoot Farms Oven roasted Pork Belly, Santa Claus Rivers Petite Fingerling Potato Fondue, Leprechaun Valley Organic Sun-dried Green Zebra Heirloom Tomato Confit, Herb Salad picked from the Chef's Backyard." You get the idea. Most of the time I feel that it is in earnest, paying homage to those who spend their lives growing and raising that which eventually becomes lunch or dinner. On occasion I feel it is overkill, like just hopping on the gravy train of the public's general interest in eating organic and local.

Either way, let me tell you why you should shop at your local greenmarket if it is available. When you go to the grocery market, ever notice that your garlic has already sprouted by the time you get it home and unpeel it? Your ''fresh" corn on the cob is a starchy mess? The worst culprit tends to be those beautifully shaped, perfectly red tomatoes ... mealy and flavorless most of the time. Most of this produce has been mass-produced and genetically modified to make it look good and have an extended shelf life. Not exactly what Mother Nature intended. It is harvested and shipped to a plant, where it sits before it is cleaned and packaged for sale. Then it is shipped to a distributor, where it sits in a warehouse until it is shipped to a market. It then sits in the back storage room of a market until it is put out on the shelf for the consumer, where it sits, until after many hands rummage through it all and you finally have a terrible product to take home and cook for dinner. Your onions may be over a month old by now.

Think about it.

I shop at the grocery store. It is convenient, and at times cheaper than the greenmarket (though I will not discuss my disdain for a certain large and ridiculously expensive supermarket chain that I refer to as "The Evil Empire"). But I absolutely relish shopping at the greenmarket. Some dishes come to me in my dreams. (I've been in Los Angeles for the past two weeks, shopping at a crappy supermarket due to convenience and a busy schedule.) I basically spent an hour at the airport this morning thinking about how nice it's going to be to hit the Union Square Greenmarket on the way to work tomorrow.

I am literally watering at the mouth, thinking about my $8 a dozen Aracuna Chicken Eggs. And I know I can find some beautiful winter greens, like some cavalo nero (black Tuscan kale) or hearty Swiss chard. Lunch will be good tomorrow. I have been giving cooking demonstrations on Fridays in Union Square, and look forward to returning in the Spring, when it will be warm enough for me to cook outdoors using the fantastic products of the greenmarket and all of my favorite things like wild asparagus and morel mushrooms begin to show up. (The winter quarter at Union Square is considerably smaller in size, but I still shop for all of the delicious root vegetables and fruits there.)


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Okay, so this greenmarket raw Quickfire should not only be easy, but a challenge that I would expect them all as chefs to welcome with open arms. The morning of the challenge, I had scoped out the market and told Shauna that the contestants should have no problem creating a fabulous dish from what was available, as there was a large selection. Understanding flavors, textures, and technique would be key to this challenge, as well as imagination. The judge is Chef Raphael Lunetta of Jiraffe in Santa Monica (SUCH a cool guy). Let me tell whose dishes I didn't like.

First and foremost, Mia; She talks about how awesome fresh corn and heirloom tomatoes are, and then covers it all up in gobs of sour cream and mayonnaise. The plating looked like something straight out of a bad diner (yes Mia, presentation DOES matter in this competition). Betty, too. Her dish seemed all over the place, and grape guacamole doesn't seem to be cohesive with the rest of the plate.

Frank and Elia chose to marinate their raw seafood, adding flavor while curing and essentially cold cooking the fish, a great technique. Though it is not discussed, I thought that Sam's dish was not only eye appealing, but delicious (I got to sneak a taste of the camera plate). Pickling is another way to add flavor without adding heat, and it is one of my very favorite techniques, having worked at a Scandinavian restaurant for three years.

Ilan's commentary on Marcel's winning dish is one borne out of pettiness, in my opinion. Watermelon, tomato, and basil are a clean and classic flavor combination, and they are ingredients that I myself like to put together in summertime dishes. I watched all of them shop, and Marcel seemed to not just buy the tomatoes, but tasted them to make sure they were the most flavorful tomatoes he could find in the market. Good for him. His immunity shuffle, however, is obnoxious. The one thing I have to commend Marcel for is that even though he won immunity, he still wanted to win the challenge, rather than play "not to lose" like we have seen so many times before.
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Some say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. While I agree, I am not a huge proponent of breakfast foods. Take me to a diner at 8:00 a.m., I'll probably get a BLT and fries (it has bacon...a 24-hour food). When thinking about what to cook for a breakfast of athletes I immediately think: protein and complex carbohydrates. The challenge for the contestants was not knowing what heat sources or cooking equipment would be available to them. The other challenge was making it gourmet. Most of them complained about their $30 budget. Give me $20 and I'll show you what I can make for 10 athletes. They were thrilled to be at the beach, not so thrilled to be cooking over a fire pit in the sand. Good god, how they bitched.

Spoiled by their shiny, spec'ed out kitchens at home, they were honestly put out by the conditions that were set forth in the challenge. Tom, Gail, and I had a chat on the beach about how most chefs would attack this challenge with enthusiasm. There is something to be said about cooking over an open flame. Slightly primal, and even a lot of fun, sort of like camping (though I wonder how many of them have ever been camping).

Note: A great chef is flexible and can improvise at the drop of a hat, no matter where they are. I call it mercenary cooking. JoAnn and I discussed in length how much cooking equipment we thought would be sufficient. We also knew that sand would be a challenge, but the smarter contestants worked on top of their coolers (problem solved). Most of them had to change their original ideas to adapt to these new conditions. The ladies had a much easier time with this. I thought some of the best dishes included Betty's wrapped eggs and Ilan's Spanish tortilla. Both looked not only appetizing, but they also came across to me as "gourmet."

One thing that bothered me, however, was the use of premade foods; Mia's frozen crabcakes, Elia's waffles, and Mike's dry roasted chicken. I understand the frustration of shopping and not knowing what the heat element would be, but I find it to be too easy of a way out for challenges that are based around your creativity and abilities as a cook. (I got a lot of sh#t for the cake mix, but we still had to actually make it and bake it.)

In the end, the ladies' calm under pressure and gourmet touch is what helped them win this challenge. Elia's sweet and savory creation is reminiscent of a McGriddle, if you've ever had one. Frank, Sam, and Cliff all ended up at the losing table for numerous reasons. I think I was most surprised by Sam's misadventure with the gray eggs and ham. Obviously a big mistake folding in the pesto to the hot eggs, but I think I was more curious where his idea was originally going had he had use of a full kitchen. In any case, Frank's overcooked eggs got him sent home. I never really got to know Frank. Other than the death threats, he seems like a pretty happy, accomplished chef. I wish him the best and hope that his mushroom wonderland eventually hammers itself out and makes its way onto his menu in San Diego.
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I'd like to take this opportunity to brag about what a great guy Raphael Lunetta is. I ate at Jiraffe before I left Los Angeles after we wrapped. He made us an absolutely phenomenal tasting menu based around ingredients he had bought at the greenmarket that morning. He is super-nice, he surfs, and he's an award-winning chef. If you ever get the chance, go eat there. His entire staff is fantastic and the food is full of fresh flavors and beautifully presented. I ate there again last week with my boyfriend and several of our friends for his birthday. Chef Raphael made us another banging menu. The banana cream pie is highly recommended, for after you've eaten all of your fresh veggies. In closing, go to the greenmarket if you can, and remember that firepits are handy for way more than just marshmallows.

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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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