Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Deadly Sins

Padma Lakshmi on what she thought went wrong in the seven sins challenge.

This week's Quickfire was not one of my favorites: It required the contestants to make a dish based on color, and I think that threw some of the chefs off, even one taking it too literally and not concentrating on the overall objective of Top Chef, to make delicious and appetizing food that is also presented well as it would be in a professional kitchen of some standing.

I felt badly for Cliff who is color blind and got the worst color, or at least the hardest color: purple. I do think he made a valiant effort by trying to match the color of eggplant. But Cliff's own instinct was right, often eggplant does just look black, or close to black. Perhaps if he had chosen a red cabbage which has that lovely purple magenta color, he'd have done better.

I think it's important to note that Marcel offered to help him choose, yet Cliff's reluctance to trust Marcel kept him from taking that offer. More on the Marcel matter in a bit. I thought Michael showed surprising sophistication with his choice of the salmon. The dish had a delicacy and prettiness not often seen in Michael's dishes. Maybe the distraction of his pain led him to stop thinking so much about what he usually does (fry things), and make something that catered to the parameters of the challenge. I was a bit sorry for him that the one Quickfire Challenge he finally did win, did not give him immunity. I am in a way glad, however, as I wouldn't have liked to have him sit the Elimination Challenge out.

I don't know if he'd have even been allowed to actually sit it out, we would have had to sit around and talk it out I suppose, which invariably takes a long time. Everything you see on TV is only a section of what happens -- Judges' Table, for instance, can take hours -- often after the end of the day and a large heavy meal. All this in that heat wave made for very tense talks at times. But each of us judges has equal weight, and all of us have to say our peace. It's only the Quickfire that has just one judge, the guest judge for that episode, while I am there as a guide, and I do taste everything and report some of that to my co-judges, as does Tom when he does a walk-through of the kitchen during Elimination Challenges and reports back to us. The reason we have just the guest decide the Quickfire is a good one: It keeps the judging fresh. When that guest judge walks in he has no idea of what's gone on in the previous episodes, the personal conflicts between them, or who is the weak or strong competitor. He or she is just judging what is put in front of them. That, I think, is very healthy not only for the chefs but for us, as it brings the perspective of another palate.

But back to the Quickfire. What was Betty thinking?? Why would anyone want to eat a hollowed-out zucchini filled with green beans and sunflower seeds and topped with a pesto-like messy sauce? OK yes, she did get the color green, and when you see her interview, you can see how she's locked into that and so steadfast about making it GREEN that she loses sight of the bigger picture. She took the challenge too literally and also her lack of attention to presentation showed, badly. When I look at her plate compared to say Sam, I'd rather eat Sam's. It was yellow, but not all yellow, in the way that any food all one color isn't that appetizing. Also the savory and sweet layering of Sam's flavors was more sumptuous and inviting bite after bite than Betty's green grub. Betty lost sight of the taste, the presentaion, everything. I know it's only half an hour, but so? Her competitors came up with much more interesting, delicious and adventurous plates. Betty has a wonderful way with people and her customer service is excellent, but she lacked a bit of imagination in the Quickfire, latching on to the idea of GREEN so hard it prevented her from addressing whether her dish made one want to dig into it, and come back for more. Also, green is the easiest color in my opinion, and she could have done a dish more substantial than just some veggies; it looked like a health food preparation gone wrong. I love the Quickfires because they bring out the instinctual cook in the contestants, I feel they don't have time to overthink it, and it's thinking fast on your feet in the kitchen that separates the good chefs from the great ones. padmasblog_dinner_320x240.jpg

The dinner for Debi Mazar. I thought the idea to do a dinner inspired by the seven deadly sins was not only fun but poetic in a way. I was really very curious to see what the chefs would come up with for each of their deadly sins. There are times when I've been inspired to write a recipe based on something I've read: MFK Fisher's tangerines in Paris prompted waffles laced with the aroma of orange blossoms, a beautiful banquet set on a table painted in all its Renaissance glory at the Metropolitan Museum inspired me to make an old-fashioned roast with all its trimmings, a scene in Pan's Labyrinth, which I just saw the other night, reminded me of the garnet beauty of a fresh cut pomegranate, and so I have been sprinkling them in my salads as well as into a crumble that is normally made with cranberries and pineapple. Many things in life inform our inner creative process and it is the special person who can let all the brilliant hints life shows us into his or her subconscious.
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Debi was a dream, a real gal's gal, and her friends were really up for being part of our little exercise. Again we were in LA in a heat wave and I almost fainted that evening when I got out of the air conditioned car and was hit by a wall of heat outside. Sam's ceviche was very refreshing and also showed great imagination as well as forethought to the environment he was serving his dish in. He had wrath as his sin, and he could have done something not only spicy, but something piping hot, which would have been a mistake. He went first, which I always think is smart because your audience is hungrier at the beginning of a seven course meal. His dish was delicious and pure and refreshing, and his chile popcorn had a great amount of heat packed into these innocuous looking little kernels of popcorn, surprising you when you popped one into your mouth, much as a person with a short temper surprises you with his unexpected anger.

Betty's soup course represented Sloth. I'll say. Again, maybe too literal an interpretation. No one wants to drink a hot liquid from glass, especially a tall flute. And the residue left by not straining the soup enough was unappealing. Unfortunately, Betty failed to be imaginative again. Those soups were nice but nothing to write home about. Perhaps she could have done something slow roasted, like a roast, not faux slow roasted soup combination. I think I kept picking tiny pieces out of my mouth for fear I was smiling with Betty's soup still stuck between my teeth.

Cliff's Greedy South Asian Bouillabaisse was interesting but not nearly as "greedy" as it could have been. I appreciate the abundance of seafood in it, but whenever we eat a stew like that with coconut milk at my house, we tend to get greedy about the broth more than anything, that's where all the flavor is. I think a number of the diners commented on this. I think Cliff was trying to present the dish in an elegant way by piling the seafood into a pyramid in the bowl so that it would seem like a little mountain of pricey seafood, but what resulted for some of us is that the seafood which was not submerged became a bit cold or dry, and we all longed for more of that broth.
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Other highlights: Michael again, surprised us with his envious fish course. It was prepared well, was tasty and delicate, as well as appealing on the plate. Again, if Michael himself hadn't told us he prepared it, I never would have guessed. I wish Michael would do more of this kind of restrained tasteful food than the bar plates he usually comes up with. I'm glad that he did show us some of this side of him, even if it was late in the game. But he's still in it, despite losing his eggs at the beach, and all the other strange food (Thanksgiving and the Snickers and Cheetos concoction come racing to mind) somehow Michael has hung in there. We'll see for how long. Elia did well with her proud chicken and she always succeeds when she chooses to do a dish that is simple but very well-executed, and she has enough training to do that, again Thanksgiving somes to mind.

And now for the desserts. I know many may have wanted to taste Ilan's dessert over Marcel's when the viewer polling was done when it aired -- but I was there. And leaving the played-out foam aside, Marcel's dessert beat Ilan's to a pulpy mess. Ilan's ill-conceived Gluttony platter was too sickly, wet, and limp to win anything, especially as a last course. There was what looked like a brick of brownie, with a macadamia nut brittle with creme anglais sauce and a funnel cake drenched in simple syrup and powdered sugar. A case of too many weak flavors fighting on the same plate against each other. Now Ilan is a good cook, and he's capable of some excellent and delicious food, and I'm sure that funnel cake was tasty and the right consistency when he originally prepared it. But funnel cake, like many fried sweet foods, does not travel well and doesn't need pairing with other desserts. If he wanted to make a gluttonous dessert, what about going the way of simplicity as Elia did and making a big banana split with some clever flavor twist if he wanted to be creative? Marcel didn't do a lustful dessert but his concept of using cherries was a good one, and it did taste like cherries. My mouth was bursting with cherry flavor; he used fresh cherries in the height of summer in California, and it tasted like it. His portion and presentation were anything but lustful, but he is young. I'd still order that on a menu any day over the toothache soggy surprise that Ilan served us.

I understand the pressure is getting to the chefs, it was getting to me just watching them and it was a very hot day, but there is no excuse for ganging up on Marcel like that. I know that he can be annoying and I'm sure living with him isn't exactly fun. We've all had that kid in school that everyone loved to pick on and I do think somehow this group has decided that he's their bespectacled Piggy in their "Lord of the Flies" scenario. I felt bad for him watching the tape of the show. I saw what he said to Betty and he didn't snap at her, he just told her to wait firmly enough to get his point across. The voice you hear telling Marcel to "hold up" is the voice of our Assistant Director Sean who relays when the cameras are ready to film the one and only time that food is served to that bunch of live waiting dinner guests, and if Marcel hadn't waited or told Betty to wait loudly enough, we would have missed the shot. And Betty and others know that. They just decided that whatever little thing he did was an excuse for them all to behave in that way. Who's heard of kitchen folk being that thin-skinned? If you don't like being barked at now and again, you should really get out of the kitchen. I do think they're a little frightened of him and his skills, whereas they aren't threatened by, say, Mike -- who they seemed to helped along on more than one occasion. I'm not saying that Marcel is completely innocent, but watching tonight's episode, I was shocked by the level of aggression on everyone's part. I do hope this doesn't continue to be the case. This is supposed to be a professional environment, not one where personal attacks are commonplace.

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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