Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

It's Been Fun...

Lee Anne Wong on Hawaii and the challenge that sealed the deal for winner Ilan Hall.

Last blog! There was a ton of drama (again, it naturally evolved) and there was also a lot of good food.

We arrive at Donatoni's, where Ilan and Marcel must choose teams. This time there is more of a choice in sous chefs, and Mia and Frank end up hanging by the pool at the Waikoloa for a few more days.

I thought it was good of Sam to choose to be with Marcel; it shows his thoughtfulness in knowing that he can help Marcel win and also learn a little something about Marcel's style of cooking. It was a difficult situation for both Sam and Elia, having been eliminated the night before, and the fact that they were both game to cook for their leaders was admirable.

After the teams were chosen, I read the rules and then had to sprint to the other end of the property to make sure the farmer's market was set up. We had worked very closely with Michael Ni, of McNeil Wilson, representing the Hawaii Visitor's Bureau, and Matthew Loke, from the Department of Agriculture, in setting up the market. Once it was ready to go, it was a sight to behold. The fresh produce and local agriculture was all that a chef could ask for and more, and the farmers were wonderful to work with. Each team had two hours to decide on their menu and go shopping. My general observation at the time was that each team grabbed a plethora of ingredients, but much of it never made it onto either menu. (Ilan's protein-heavy menu with a severe lack of vegetables, for instance.)

The two teams crammed into the Water's Edge kitchen to begin their prep for the next day. Rules stated that they had to have everything wrapped, ready and packed for transport the next day. The five minutes to collect everything was an allowance we had made for both teams once Jeff, Sarah, and I had discovered Marcel's fish not packed up with the rest of his stuff the morning of the final challenge. It gave both teams the opportunity to take a last look in the walk-in and grab anything they might have forgotten. Alas, he still forgot the fish. On to dinner, the judges were an array of well regarded professionals. I eat at WD-50 often and have known Wylie for several years. It was also great to see chefs like Scott Conant, Michelle Bernstein, and Roy Yamaguchi at the table, too. It is always a pleasure to see Chef Hubert, who had cooked for us when we were in Vegas last year. Again, I had the opportunity to sample each dish.

Let's start with Ilan's first dish. His heart was so set on using the angulas that I think he failed to pay attention to the actual dish. Angulas are widely used in traditional Basque cooking, and the ingredient would have been better used in a different context, or at least cooked with garlic or chilis to enhance their flavor and texture. The bread was too thick and the angulas were lost among the saltiness of the caviar and the tartness of the green zebra seeds. His sauteed moi was a perfect dish. I like that he substituted the local macadamia nuts for almonds, which are traditionally used in gazpacho blanco. The recipe is demoed on the Top Recipe webisode this week, for those of you that are interested in making it. His version of surf and turf was ambitious. He had squab, prawns, foie gras, and lobster all in the same dish. I found it to be very rich and wished for some better texture with the addition of vegetables (there was only a small amount of soft braised leeks underneath all that protein) and the flavor profile screamed for acid. A little lime or lemon juice would have cut through the richness of the ingredients and heightened the flavor of just about everything.
The short ribs were very chewy and could have used more cooking time and some moisture or braising liquid. I did like that he grilled them, it added a nice charred flavor, and the romesco was very tasty. But for me the dish was not complete, lacking in any other garnish other than a few sauteed pieces of mushroom (a creamy taro or Hawaiian sweet potato puree would've been nice). His dessert was absolutely delicious. They serve the fried bay leaves at Casa Mono with a creme brulee. His take on it was very creative and was the one dish that best utilized the beautiful products of the farmer's market. It was a combination of sweet and tart fruits: tangelo soup, surinam cherry sorbet, dragonfruit, mango, and papaya, with the avocado added for creaminess, which I thought was genius. All in all, he created a very nice menu (his first tasting menu ever, to be exact), and the judges responded well to most of it.

Next was Marcel. He took a lot of risks and eventually lost because of his inexperience with certain techniques. His menu writing skills need some work too. His first dish was visually beautiful. However, it was very aggressive in flavor and left quite the aftertaste (I could only have two spoonfuls before I had to put it down). The salad debacle left me scratching my head. The technique that he was trying to use with the isomalt was one he had found out about only several weeks before, when he attended Spain's 10 here in NYC. It is a technique that renowned pastry chef Paco Torreblanca had demonstrated to an audience of 300.

Even if the encapsulated vinaigrette had worked, it was still just a salad, weaker in flavor than the first dish, and it really had no place on the menu at all. When he realized they had forgotten the kampachi, things took a turn for the worse.
He bit his tongue to prevent blaming Mike and Sam for the error, but then again, Mike is right; Marcel should have triple checked everything before leaving the Water's Edge kitchen. Sam gamely got Marcel refocused and the outcome was a phenomenal dish of poached hearts of palm with matsutake mushrooms, seabeans, and a kaffir lime and coconut sauce that left me begging for more. I thought his beef dish was good and nicely plated, his take on steak frites with the crispy taro ball.

The dessert was interesting. The Kona coffee caviar is achieved by mixing the coffee with sodium alginate. When dropped into a solution of calcium chloride and water, soft liquid pearls form, sort of like salmon roe. What I didn't understand was why he didn't pile tons of the caviar on the dish. It was the whimsy and the best part of the dish. To his credit, Wylie thought it was a great take on the concept of caviar and blini, and it did in fact satisfy my sweet tooth. While he had some missteps, it was a thoughtful menu that incorporated his idea of molecular gastronomy with much of the produce from the farmer's market.

For the record, I don't think Ilan has a greater passion for cooking than Marcel (if that was the case, Marcel would've been eliminated a long time ago), nor is he more forgiving (they both had their hand at playing the antagonist and the victim). At the same time, Marcel's got a thing or two to learn about what it really means to be a chef, and accepting responsibility for your team's mistakes. It became a battle of egos, and who was going to give the smackdown to the other one. That being said, they still both did a great job with their final challenge.

The reason why I was critical of these guys throughout the blogs was because I did get to spend time with them, observing their behavior in the kitchen and their interpersonal actions, however annoying or despicable. No one is an angel and going through the process myself, there is transformation once you see it all on TV, though it does not happen overnight. There is a ton of emotional rubble to deal with and for any cook there is pride, passion, and ego involved. I didn't speak much about it beforehand because certain episodes had not aired yet and I didn't want to give anything away. I got to spend some time with Marcel in Vegas, and he really is a good guy. He is so hungry for knowledge and passionate about food and the future of food that I can't help but want to stay in touch with him to find out where he goes next.

I went out for dinner and drinks with Ilan and Ted Allen the other evening after the TC3 casting call here in NY and I think he realizes now how negatively the public has responded to his televised attitude. The title of Top Chef comes with the responsibility of behaving like one. Ilan is a wonderful person and very talented in the kitchen. His cooking style is a combination of inventiveness with classic technique and big, bold flavors. He is taking some time off to travel and hopefully stage at some restaurants around the world and I wish him the very best. He has cooked for me in the past at Casa Mono, before I knew him through Top Chef, and I eagerly await to find out where he settles down next so I can sample his food again.

Hawaii is truly one of the most amazing places I have had the privelege of visiting. I had a great time on the Big Island and want to send a special thanks to Michael Ni and company, Matthew Loke, Leanne Pletcher, Jeff, Sarah, and all of the other individuals who helped make our production seamless.

I got the chance to hop over to Oahu afterwards for a few days and was equally blissful with all I that I got to experience, including visiting some family who live there. The physical beauty of the islands, the people, history, culture, and food all come together to embody the spirit of aloha and I look forward to the next time I get to watch a rainbow sunset over the Pacific Ocean. We're already getting ready for Season 3, so keep watching and don't forget the bacon! xoxo- Lee Anne

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Gail dishes on Doug Adams' flawless return to the competition and why Melissa King's dish failed to hit the right artistic note. This week we had the Last Chance Kitchen finale between George and Doug, and Doug ended up returning to the competition.

Gail Simmons: It looked like a really close battle -- Tom was really happy with both of their dishes. I will say if I had to put money on it, I would have guessed it would be between George and Doug at the end. They really are two of our stronger competitors. Obviously George was just coming off of his elimination, and it didn't surprise me that Doug stayed at the top of Last Chance Kitchen since being eliminated. I was thrilled to see him in Mexico with us. Great! So he comes back, he wins and then onto the Quickfire Challenge. Any thoughts on this part of the competition?

GS: I'll just say that I’m a big, big fan of Chef Olvera, and I’m so glad we were able to get him on the show. His main restaurant, Pujol, is in Mexico City, but he has Moxi at the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel, where we were  lucky enough to eat the night that I landed, and a new restaurant here in New York that I am really excited about called Cosme. His food is very much rooted in Mexican ingredients and Mexican cooking, but his food is so modern. He really is one of the most talented chefs in the world at this moment, and I’m glad he judged the prickly pear Quickfire. They filmed it right in the center square of San Miguel; it is an amazingly gorgeous place. It was a really great setting for our first challenge in Mexico. Then we have the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by an artist's piece of work, and Doug won with his brisket.

GS:  This challenge is interesting, because San Miguel is such a mecca for artists; it’s an artist colony that has produced incredible work for years. The city itself is so visually inspiring, as are the artists that work there. Their work is so varied, so vast. What was unique in this challenge was that it forced the chefs to take inspiration from an unusual source and think about their dish in a different way. All of the artists are very different, from a graffiti artist to someone who does more abstract landscapes. It was truly exciting to see what the artists did with the canvases they were given and what they shared with the chefs.

I tasted Doug’s dish first and understood it in an instant; it needed no explanation. But when he did talk about it, I realized it had so much depth not only in flavor, but in its purpose. He had an immediate connection with the artist he was paired with -- they were both from Texas and she reminded him a lot of his mother. There was a deep sense of home and comfort between them, which I think allowed him to cook so purely, so simply. The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not "chef it up" too much, he kept it pure. He modeled the presentation of the dish exactly off of the painting itself with those colors from the Mexican landscape -- the deep reds of the earth, those dark greens and browns -- which made perfect sense. His brisket obviously tasted like Texas, but it definitely had an air of Mexico. It had the tomatillo, the masa, and even the red brisket itself was reminiscent of Mexican flavors, since Mexican cuisine has had such an influence on Texas to begin with. The dish was about his roots on a lot of levels. I devoured all of it, it was so hardy and comforting, but it had an elegance and finesse to it in the plating -- the ingredients he chose to put side by side as opposed to stewing them together -- made it special.

The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not 'chef it up' too much, he kept it pure.

Gail Simmons And then we had Gregory's grilled strip loin with ancho chile, beets, cilantro puree, and valencia orange sauce.

GS: Gregory’s dish was excellent too. He did a perfectly grilled strip loin. He was worried about it before we tasted it, but it came out perfectly. He made three incredible sauces to go with it, which drew a lot of inspiration from his artist's painting. The first was this ancho chile sauce and then this beautiful green cilantro puree. The ancho chiles were reminiscent of the peasant farming, the green cilantro tying into the earth. Then there was the orange sauce, which completely changed the dish. When you first tasted it, the dish was earthy, it was deep and complex, it had the Mexican chiles that really shone through with the beef. Then you got a splash of that orange sauce, and it balanced everything out in a way that surprised us. It was so inspired, you could tell that it echoed the sunshine in the painting. It conveyed the artist’s vision of this peasant toiling in the soil through this glorious sunshine, and that’s exactly how the dish tasted.

It was a really close battle between Gregory and Doug in this challenge; both of them did such a great job. Ultimately we chose Doug, because we thought there was an unmistakable depth to his food and it was completely flawless. Let's move on to Mei, who had the snapper and bass crudo with chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles.

GS: In true Mei fashion, her dish was completed beautifully and precise. It was very tightly conceptualized -- every drizzle, every piece of fish, every garnish was perfectly placed, and it was a gorgeous plate of food. I loved her relationship with the artist she worked with, Bea. They had a lovely conversation, which was great to see, and the dish clearly reflected Bea’s work. The chicken skin, the fish, the splashes of color were all inspirations from the painting. Every bite of Mei's dish had a little surprise; there was a little spice, a tiny bit of salt, and a beautiful splash of sweetness, which made it so fun and so playful.

My only criticism of Mei’s food comes from a presentation standpoint. Because Bea’s art was so outrageous and so loud and loose and free in a way, we had hoped that Mei’s food would’ve reflected that. We thought it would have allowed her to loosen up her presentation a little bit. Of course, I respect that she stayed true to who she is and how she presents her food. It was a dish that took a lot of technical skill and was really enjoyable when we ate it, we had just hoped to see more playfulness. And then we had Melissa's smoked eggplant ravioli with shrimp, chorizo, and cotija.

GS: Melissa’s dish was absolutely decadent, delicious, delightful. We all agreed that her smoked eggplant ravioli was perfectly made -- it was smoky, very rich, and the pasta was well cooked. That alone was as good as anything else we had eaten that day. Where we thought she fell short, relative to the other dishes, was that there definitely was less cohesion between the artist's work and her dish. Shrimp, chorizo, cotija cheese, and eggplant can go together, but in the way she plated them, they weren’t really talking -- the shrimp was over here, the sauce was somewhere else, then there was the eggplant ravioli. There didn’t seem to be a line that connected them all. And when she described it in relation to the artwork, we really weren’t sure it conveyed that dramatic splash from the graffiti art. We needed more from her. There was such a direct conversation between Doug and his artist, and it really felt like they were working on the same piece of artwork together. Melissa’s dish, although tasty and very pretty, did not have that same depth. I’m not just talking about flavor; it’s really about the inspiration and the connection, not only between the ingredients on the plate, but between the chef and the artist. His work was really beautiful (and watching the show I regret not buying a piece from him at the time). But it can be hard to translate art, because it’s something so personal. In the end between the four of us we decided that on that day it was Melissa’s dish that did not measure up in terms of the inspiration and connection like the other dishes did. So she was eliminated. It seemed like one of the tougher eliminations this season.

GS: Yes, it was. It always is at this stage of the season. But it was a really great challenge too. I think regardless of winning or losing, Melissa really loved the process and that was so great to see. It was an intellectual challenge that was hard to interpret, and I think they all did an incredible job. I’m really going to miss Melissa. I honestly think she is a huge talent, and I know she is going to do well wherever she goes next.

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