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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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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