Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Knife Skills And Petri Dishes

What made Harold jealous in this episode? Hint: It wasn't Otto and the lychee situation.

First off, thanks everyone so much for the support. I want everyone to know, we're trying really hard to get Perilla open. We're very close to securing a West Village space, and are getting pretty close to raising just a little bit more money. You know, keep a look out for us -- we're shooting for an end of the year opening. You're welcome to submit cash!

It's been pretty great to be on the street since Season 2 started airing. People still recognize me and ask me if I'm going to be on the entire season. I have to say, I'm not cut out for doing that job. Mainly because I really want to get my restaurant open, but being on the other side, it's not really fair for me to sit back and seriously critique these guys. They're constantly asked to make these really quick decisions, and watching it makes me think that all I can do is just try to be as fair as possible here. So, let's talk episode two.

First off, I was pretty cracked up by seeing Tom get up at 4:30 in the morning. You got to let that guy sleep in. He's getting old, man. He's not a young warhorse anymore.

Second off, I was pretty jealous. A fish market?! Come on. I was pretty much right there with Elia's analysis of fish. Love to eat 'em. Love to cook 'em. I'm a huge fish fan, and then they showed up there, I just ... all I could think was, "Wow, man, this is going to be awesome. A sushi plate?!" And you know, one of the things about this competition, it's really about putting flavor profiles together, but also about display of knife skills.

For anyone who is a novice cook, knife skills are equivalent of riding a bike with the training wheels on. You really get a feel for who has experience -- who's been doing this for a long time. You can look at anyone's knife skills and know which person has worked in what kind of environments. The skills will always show. Knife skills are really one of the first things that you learn, and they only get better with experience. That being said, the two that I thought were really standouts, who were really smart about the challenge, were Cliff and Elia. What I thought was smart about Cliff was that he didn't take it too far. It's a Quickfire challenge, he has great knife skills, he cut up his mango, he sliced his fish really thin, but at the same time, he didn't not get involved in the rice. If you're not a skilled in Japanese cuisine, leave the rice alone -- it's just going to make problems for you. And I saw several people trying to make rolls and stuff. I thought Cliff played it really smart. He did a really nice job.

I can make a roll, but unless I'm doing something really creative with a lot of flavor profiles, I'm not going to impress a sushi chef. Elia did make a roll, and I thought that was really intelligent. I really thought it could have gone either way. Then, I have to say, I was worried about poor Mia getting sick. It's not good if one of the contestants is getting sick this early on. Because they're all living in this house, which is like a petri dish, and it's just going to go from there. I'm on the lookout for Marisa. I would hope that for her sake, there's a pastry challenge coming up. I'm going to be honest, I think Marisa is at an enormous disadvantage.

I never really understood why they would have a pastry chef inside the Top Chef competition, because your recipes are taken away from you. And pastry is such an exact science. It really does make me nervous. Team Challenges are always a cook's Achilles heel. It's not so much that you can't work together as a team, it's that you don't know these people. You don't know their style or experience, and it's difficult. One team on this episode had Betty, Josie and Mia, all who clearly complimented each other. I just knew that of all the other teams, these girls were going to pull this off.
And then there was the whole Otto situation with the lychee cans. He's a good - spirited fellow and he's got a good heart. But the spirit of the competition, time after time after time, you will make bad decisions. And just by watching him, and reading stuff about him, you kind of get that he doesn't have a bad bone in his body. I think he made a bad decision. I don't think he was trying to be a thief, but that was pretty harsh to watch how pressure can get you to make bad decisions.

People have also been yapping about Padma in her blog. And I have to say that I think Padma brings a lot to the table. Beside the fact that she's really attractive. Working alongside her, she does a great job. She was asked to come in, with two judges, Tom and Gail, who have established themselves as really knowledgeable. The premise of the show is really successful. It's a lot of pressure on Padma to jump in there, and I think she's doing a great job. One last thing: I remember on Season 1, there were so many times where just before we got to the judges table, people were packing their bags, getting ready to go. There's not a single day of ease and calm unless you win a Quickfire challenge and get a free pass. Aside form that, it's crazy! You can already see people starting to freak out. I think that by the end of this, half of them will be in anger management, and the other half will be in AA.

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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