Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Comforting Food

Padma Lakshmi reveals her favorite comort food, why she loved the TGIFriday's challenge, and why cooking with kids in mind is key.

Is there anything more scrumptious than a heaping bowl of your favorite ice cream? I was very curious to see how everyone would fair in this week's Quickfire Challenge. Ice cream is such a universal food, one that gives great pleasure to so many of us. I love making homemade ice cream and was surprised to learn that not many of the chefs had actually made it before. But ice cream isn't hard to make, and I thought they did well ... for the most part. I couldn't believe it when Marcel told me he made avocado and bacon ice cream. I appreciate his wanting to create new flavor profiles and be innovative, but part of being a great chef is knowing your audience. In this case, I told them they would be going to Redondo Beach where it was a hot summer Sunday, and that there would be a lot of kids.

I was amazed by how good Carlos' avocado and marshmallow ice cream was. It tasted sweet, smooth and delicate, and the soft pillows of marshmallow melted in the heat of my mouth becoming a swirl of creamy, sugary goodness. I thought Michael's Elvis ice cream was interesting and I was glad to see him put some thought into his dish and be a bit more creative. And I must admit, the bacon in Elan's breakfast ice cream with waffles and maple syrup was intriguingly delicious ... but if I had to order one flavor again, it would be Josie's peach cobbler ice cream. Peaches were at the peak of their season, ripest of all the fruits when we filmed and I could smell them from two feet away on the table of items they chose from. In the end, the textures and taste of Cliff's ice cream beat all else out, getting the most votes from the crowd.

The last time I was in a TGIFriday's must have been when I was in high school, so I don't know what their menu is like now, but I can guess. I loved this Elimination Challenge because it had to do with childhood favorites. No matter how sophisticated we all think we are, it's often the things we grew up with that give us the most comfort and pleasure. And sometimes that's what we want most, unfussy, simple food. Betty said that a good chef has to have versatility and she's absolutely right. You should be able to cater to a wide variety of palates and preferences. And the biggest mistake you can make is to underestimate or look down on your patrons.

I loved being there at the fire house, too. Something about the easy comaraderie of those fire fighters made the station a very welcome place, and we actually had a couple of calls that the guys had to go out and deal with -- luckily it was nothing serious. I talked with the fire fighters about everything from food (many pride themselves on being serious cooks), boxing, how to put out a kitchen fire (always smother it, don't splash water over it, ever), and how their families deal with their work. It was a fun and enlightening episode and I think the challenges gave the contestants a chance to catch their breath, after feeding 1,000 food fair patrons, a fire house seemed to be a piece of cake.

And yet, Frank's choice of that Alice and Wonderland mushroom meditation was ill conceived to say the least. No one will ever order that dish. It wasn't comforting, or satisfying -- just strange and a bit too clever for the venue. But that is not to say feeding patrons in casual dining establishments is an easy task, especially since a chain of restuarants like TGIFriday's has hundreds of outlets and all those menus have to, for the most part, be standarized; not easy when you think of the regional tastes of this country and how they may differ. Betty's roasted pepper-tomato soup and grilled cheese was my absolute favorite because it aced the challenge in every respect. Mia's meatloaf was something else I would order again, especially with the ketcherella ... it showed creativity, while using familiar ingredients.

Cliff's mac and cheese and fish sticks were great but unlike the other judges, I felt that one less cheese -- like leaving out the strong gorgonzola -- would have improved it. The best dish I tasted that day was actually Sam's fruit salad. It was so much more than just a fruit salad, it was savory and sweet, and tart and light and had a great balance of flavors bursting in my mouth all at once. But it wasn't substantial enough to offer as a dish on a casual dining menu, especially as an entree, as was the case with Elan's smoked corn with bacon which was lip-smackingly good. That corn would have been a great side dish, but not enough to win this week's challenge.

All in all, this week was about appealing to the child in all of us. Something a chef should always think about.

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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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