Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Catering Challenge

Padma Lakshmi reflects on Ted Allen's party, and the difficulties of catering for a crowd.

Talk about a team coming together with all the right moving parts; Sam's team could not have been cast better if he'd picked them out himself.

Sam's dream team was comprised of:

1)The Quiet Leader

2)The Smiley, Warm Caterer

3)The Steadfast Technician

4) The Consistent One

Add to that, starting by gently asking Betty and Marcel to put their differences aside before it became an issue, was a great show of leadership on Sam's part. It was wonderful that since they decided to do so many dishes everyone had a chance to realize their ideas. Marcel seemed particularly excited to be at work, saying how he was planning to work flat out and give it his all. It was nice to see that positivity, passion and pride on display. And the team had much to feel pride about. Their table looked exquisite, it was a festive, bountiful cornucopia of colors and flavors and had all sorts of tasty morsels that would easily satisfy a wide variety of palates. The table was always full, the food was always hot. Also, the presentation was stellar. The garnish ingredients were never superfluous. They always worked as a component of the dish (as a sauce for instance), and they were colorful and done beautifully, on the same level as some of the most well regarded professional caterers I've been exposed to. I remember many of the items to this day, and I had quite a lot of them if memory serves. I didn't even notice that they went with "lower ticket ingredients." All I tasted was succulent, yummy food. And it kept coming and coming.

Now, it's amazing that the other team, with the same number of chefs and the same financial and kitchen resources, could fail with the same zeal as the other team flourished. Elia, in spite of being a talented and imaginative chef, was unable to lead her team. Beyond that, her insistence on doing such a seafood heavy menu was a fatal mistake.

Part of being a successful host is catering to a wide variety of tastes and dietary requirements. What if half those people were allergic to seafood? Would they make the other guests promise to leave the non-seafood for the allergic guests? It's easy to see how gravely this careless lack of consideration for others' tastes and preferences, cost the team. But you don't have to be a professional caterer or even a professional chef to know that, because when throwing a party, whether a cocktail party, a sit down or buffet dinner party, a luncheon or even just having a few folks around to gather by the t.v. to watch a football game, a host must take into account the various palates of the guests. Serving 200 people, a number they were told about in advance, especially in LA, where you have vegetarians of varying orthodoxy, different religions and cults, as well as waist watching actors, and other health nuts, add to that the food allergies, and to that the just, plain old finicky eaters and it's obvious that you need as much variety as you can squeeze out of your budget.

Also the gross miscalculation of how much food her team would need to feed the guests sunk that team before it even got started. They were told that they had to feed 200 guests for a two-hour cocktail party. This holiday season, when many will be celebrating, count the number of little appetizers you pop into your mouth. I bet it's a lot more than you think. I know that I can put away anywhere from 1/2 -2 dozen the first hour and then maybe 5-12 the second hour, depending on how heavy they are, and how hungry I am.

A cocktail party is always just before dinner, when everyone is starving. And most of us don't want to (rightly) drink on an empty stomach. So you'll need a lot. So given a conservative estimate of say, my pace of consumption at the event, for 200 guests you would need 2,400 little canapes. I don't believe they came close to that number. Also, their table looked anemic. And the food was not coming out in a timely fashion. They did not put the guests in a festive, holiday mood. I will say that those strawberries were scrumptious, and I did eat many of those, well, as many as I could get my hands on that is.

Elia also suggests gaspacho. Which is ill advised at a holiday party. I am not a fan of drinking a cold, creamy liquid at that time, unless it is eggnog. I know she meant to do what she thought people would like based on her own experiences, but even when my colleague Tom went to check on them and made remarks which, had they chosen not to disregard, could have helped them save themselves somehow. They were unmoved, and unaffected and didn't listen to him, even though they knew his opinion carried 25% of the weight of the judges final decision. Again, a lack of consideration for other palates. I think this team just had an awful day at work. It happens to the best of us, it was just unfortunate for them that that day had to occur in such a beautifully cinematic location with 200 people in the office.

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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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