Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Lycheegate

Lee Anne Wong on the Lychee controversy.

The best thing about working behind the scenes on Top Chef 2 is being able to get to know the people who made Season 1 happen. I had the privilege of working with a fantastic crew of people at The Magical Elves, many of whom I knew from Season 1, and I've had a lot of fun with them. Again, I was brought in around the 6th episode, so I only hear rumors about the first five episodes. I was talking to one of them the other day, commenting on how I still had to watch the 2nd episode so I could write my blog. He replied, "Ooooh...this episode is gonna be a good one." I could really only take his word for it. I called him after I watched it and basically let him know that I was slack-jawed.

Let's talk about reality TV and Top Chef. Why is reality TV so addicting? In my opinion, especially regarding this particular show, reality TV is not just about everyday people getting their chance to live out their hidden desire to be famous, or be on TV, or win a lot of money, it's about the fact that drama evolves naturally. And sometimes it's better than any script you'll ever read. Thank goodness I never had to live through a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call by Tom (though we did have some early days). On day 3, Mia's already sick. The shot of her throwing up in her mouth reminds me of Dave's moment during Ted's Dinner Party where he is sitting and crying with a big glass of wine in his hands. They keep showing it. But she braved on, as any tough competitor would have done. Kudos to her.


What is so eye-opening for me, though, is the fact that so many cooks out there have absolutely no clue about how to make sushi. Not that this is a bad thing. Like any other cuisine, it takes years, even decades, of practice and focus to even come close to mastering the flavors and techniques. I personally leave it to the experts and tend to be a purist and absolute snob when it comes to my sushi. There is one place in NYC that has ruined me for all other sushi, Restaurant Ichimura, and I tend to spend an obscene amount of money on what is the most sublime sushi. (Besides, if you are going to spend a lot of money on anything, it had better be to ensure the quality of your raw fish.) I've been fortunate enough to have done a short stage at Nobu in California, and also work with a few good sushi chefs.

A couple of years back, The French Culinary celebrated its 20th anniversary with a tremendous gala after the 2004 James Beard Awards. We transformed every kitchen in the school into a different themed culinary extravaganza. I was put completely in charge of the sushi and sake room. Let's just say it's a well-known fact that many people leave the awards hungry because the food disappears faster than you can say, "California Roll." My trusty team of chefs and I, from which three out of five of us had never made sushi before in their lives, put out a RIDICULOUS amount of sushi that evening. And we maki-ed and nigiri-ed our way through five hours of a non-stop crushing crowd. So I know how to make sushi. But it is the kind of sushi that pales in comparison to the spectacular work of a seasoned master such as Chef Shima. (Love that Marcel called him a "bad ass.") Again, I'll leave it to the pros.

It's interesting how the challenge was to create a sushi dish, and several of the contestants created composed raw dishes.

As defined by the food dictionary on epicurious.com: sushi [SOO-shee] A Japanese specialty based on boiled rice flavored with a sweetened RICE VINEGAR, a mixture called SUSHI MESHI. Once cooled, the rice has a glossy sheen and separates easily. There is a wide variety of sushi including nigiri sushi (thin slices of raw fish seasoned with WASABI and wrapped around or layered with this rice), hosomaki (thin sushi rolls) and futomaki (thick sushi rolls). To make these rolls, various chopped vegetables, raw fish, pickles, TOFU, etc. are enclosed in sushi rice and wrapped in thin sheets of NORI (seaweed). The rolls are then cut into slices. Sushi are designed to be finger food and can be served as appetizers, snacks or a full meal. Soy sauce is often served with sushi for dipping. See also SASHIMI.


I thought Cliff's dishes looked damn good, though, using clean, simple flavors. It's also pretty funny when Chef Shima shoves Mia's entire sushi roll into Padma's mouth. I applauded Otto for doing several different sushi rolls on his plate, though his presentation was lacking. So then comes the moment when he calls himself a "round eye from Cleveland, Ohio" in interview. Not sure if I was offended or amused, and I thought to myself, "Did he really just say that on national TV?" It gets better later when he assumes that the Project by Project event will be feeding the needy and hungry Asian community of Los Angeles. I'll say nothing more on this subject. Just think about it. On Team Vietnam, Betty really steps it up and shines. The whole teams seems to gel really well and there are some great key elements, like Betty's and Mia's experience as caterers, and Josie's familiarity with Vietnamese cuisine and flavors. Team Korea, on the other hand, is in for a world of trouble.

Poor Elia. Let's get drunk before we cook for 1,000 people. We (Season 1) probably would have, too. Marissa's just begging to be thrown under the proverbial bus. They are an absolute train wreck in the kitchen, working, or rather "not working," as a team.

Marisa and Elia tell Tom about Otto and the free canned goods and thus Lycheegate was born. Then Marisa curses when Tom calls the rest of the team over to tell them what is going on. What did she expect was going to happen? I rewound and paused this next moment several times, and it's because it was my second time watching the episode while writing this blog that I caught Marisa putting TABLESPOONS of knox gelatin in her recipe. If she miscalculated, even by a teaspoon, it can make all the difference in the world for the texture of your panna cotta. I love the part where she tries to bullshit Ming Tsai once the event starts. Needless to say, the team is less than cohesive. Now onto Team Vietnam. Josie looks like she's gone slightly nuts, and sort of reminds me of Tiffani and that time when my oven got turned down. Gotta stand by Mike on this one: Pho is actually a Vietnamese soup, and their pho looked less than brothy. Betty, however, gets the prize of the series, the Kyocera limited edition ceramic sushi knife. Not too many of us from Season 1 got something for winning an elimination challenge, let alone a Quickfire. I'll tell you what we got...we got to not go home. Once in a while you even got 16 hours to cater a wedding for 100. They'll be giving away Volvos on Season 3.

Team Korea goes to the judges table and just start mauling one another. It's kinda fun to see a bloodbath so early in the season. Frank morphs into a cross between Vince Lombardi and Tony Soprano, with a speech worthy of a professional locker room at halftime when you're down by 20 points. Lycheegate continues on. I don't think that Otto is a cheater, nor a thief. I think that he wasn't thinking AT ALL. I can fathom at least a dozen other reasons why the team failed, other than Otto's Debbie Downer move. I still would have sent Marissa home. But alas, Otto is the one to go. He seems to be very talented and passionate and I am sure this will not be the end of him and he will continue to prosper as a chef. However, if anyone can make out what he mumbles out in his exit speech, please let me know.

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I had the opportunity to hang out with most of the Season 2 cast at the Craftsteak premiere party last Tuesday evening. Big H cooked some amazing dishes as a sneak peek to his restaurant, Perilla. Suyai and Marisa happened to be there, as well as Elia, Mike, Carlos, and Marcel, who were all in from out of town. They joined the hometown gang, Sam, Josie, Cliff, and Ilan. On our end, Dave, Candice, Cynthia, Andrea, Miguel, H, and even Brian Hill showed up to officially pass the baton onto the new cast. We all had a damn good time together. I must say, Suyai and Marisa are lovely ladies and I wish them the best of luck with their careers.


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On a finishing note, I was invited by the Project by Project organization to participate in their NY event at the end of September. I gave a little cooking demo during the VIP reception and was put up for live auction along with many other great prizes. It was a really nice event and I was honored to be a part of it. Project by Project is a wonderful organization that supports and promotes all of its partnership organizations and companies, who in turn are the building blocks for many Asian American business, cultural, and community efforts. It was really nice to see our Season 2 contestants contribute to such a great event. Sorry this was long one, but I couldn't help it. The drama just keeps getting better!

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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