Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Snack Time

Padma Lakshmi talks restaurant wars, Mike's elimation, and the perfect snack.

This week's Quickfire was one of my favorites. I love snacks, I always have. They are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my favorite food item to conceptualize, concoct, and, most of all, devour. You can tell a lot about a chef's personality by what they consider to be a great snack, and how well they execute it. A successful, winning snack is something that is the right size -- much bigger than an amuse bouche and considerably smaller than a main course, it shouldn't fill you up like a meal but rather curb your hunger until the next course. The best snack is something savory, preferably with a crunch to it, but there can be great sweet snacks, too, such as a midnight snack of milk and cookies.

Successful snacks are also built to share and many benefit from being finger foods rather than something one has to eat sitting down with a knife and fork. I was very curious to see what the contestants would whip up. And I was pleased that none of them turned their nose up at working with mayonnaise, because this is an ingredient all of us are familiar with and a staple in almost every pantry in America. Some of the best snacks come from spontaneously using what is at hand, and this is perfect for the nature of the Quickfire Challenge.
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While I would normally consider large chunks of lamb a bit heavy for a snack, Marcel executed his kabob with great skill. They were cooked perfectly, moist and succulent, with great flavor and balance because the zesty Madras curry powder that cut through the richness of the mayonnaise and meat. I've used this trick myself. Curry powder is great to mix into mayonnaise when making a quick tuna, egg or chicken salad. Since it is a melange of various spices, the work is largely done for you. So his snack was a winner. padmasblog_michael2_320x240.jpg

Mike seemed buoyed up by his "history" making sweep from last week, and decided that he would go all-out with his snack. I think he went too far. First off, the size of his snack was more like a meal, and the combination of shellfish and cheese and mayonnaise was a nauseating one. Rather than dump that huge glob of pure mayonnaise on top of his chopped lettuce and tomato, he could have made something more delicate to drizzle on top, such as mixing two or three of the required condiments with the chipotle pepper. This would have at least been a bit innovative. His snack was heavy and unpolished. A snack is supposed to whet your appetite, not smother it. But taste is subjective, and Mike is someone who "eats Mayo right out of the can." I've never even seen mayonnaise in a can.
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Cliff's tartare was tasty and I liked the crispy toasts he made to scoop it up, they allowed the diner to decide how much of it to consume. Sam's sandwich was an ingenious one. It used all three Kraft products, layered sweet, salty, and sour notes all in one bite, and met the crunchy textural criteria by not only toasting his bread, but adding crispy fried tempura shrimp. His forte is definitely pickling (even back to the firehouse episode), and here his talent and creativity served him well. I would have never thought to pickle peaches in Zesty Italian Dressing, but it worked brilliantly and many great sandwiches are accompanied by some type of pickles. Usually they're sweet or sour pickles, but Sam brought an inventive new twist to this practice.

Elia also showed great creativity by mixing the yogurt and barbeque sauce with honey for a sweet snack. Sweet snacks are harder to pull off; especially when you don't know what order you'll be judged. Most people want something savory, but her snack was sophisticated, light, and well balanced. She also showcased gorgeous fresh summer figs and complemented them with the other ingredients. The cinnamon toast and almonds completed the snack in an exquisite, perfectly light-handed way. The biggest reason her sweet snack worked for me was because while it was sweet, it wasn't too sweet or overpowering. The flavors were clean and each played its music on the palate. I was very impressed with her.
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Ilan's Napoleon of tomato and salmon was OK, but he would have benefited by using flour tortillas rather than corn -- they tend to dry out quicker, as was the case with his dish. It's a shame he felt the need (again) to send up Marcel by joking of foaming the Italian dressing. Marcel's comment about it backfiring was spot on. Why take the Judges' attention away from yourself by mentioning your competitor when you have only mere seconds in a Quickfire to prove yourself? It seemed like an insecure waste of his energy, and he's a good enough cook to not need to do any of that. What's becoming apparent, episode after episode, is that he considers Marcel his biggest rival. Maybe that's not only to do with a personality clash. Perhaps that could be said of the other contestants, too. Elia, of course, is the exception in this.

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Our guest judge picked Sam and Marcel as his two winners. While I agree with him about Sam, I would have picked Elia over Marcel because her snack was much more innovative, clever and unusual.
Here are two recipes for snacks from my new cookbook Tangy, Tart Hot and Sweet, to be published in September of this year. They are really easy to make.

Mushroom and Goat Cheese Taquitos with Mint and Date Dipping Sauce 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1/2 cup chopped shallots 8 ounces fresh Portobello mushrooms, diced 1 teaspoon oregano 1 teaspoon thyme 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper 8 ounces feta cheese 4 ounces ricotta cheese 8 8-inch diameter flour tortillas Canola oil, for frying salt

Taquitos 1. Over medium high heat, heat olive oil in a large skillet. Toss in the shallots and after 2 minutes add the mushrooms. Saute for 2-3 minutes. Add the oregano, thyme and red pepper; stir for 3 more minutes. Add a sprinkle of salt and saute for a few minutes until the mushrooms are browned. Remove from heat. 2. In a large bowl, combine the feta and ricotta cheeses with the sauteed mushrooms, mixing well to form a paste. 3. Lay one tortilla flat on a cutting board. Spread two heaping tablespoons of mixture into a line across the tortilla, horizontally, near the end closest to you. Roll nearest end over the mixture and keep rolling until the tortilla is in the shape of a flute. Press down gently as you roll to distribute the cheese mixture throughout the inside of the flute. Be careful not to push too hard letting it seep out of the sides. 4. Secure the tortilla closed using a wooden toothpick as a straight pin (not perpendicular, but parallel to the flute) to hold the end of the tortilla shut. Do this with all the tortillas.* 5. Place a large skillet filled to a depth of one inch with Canola oil over medium high heat. When the oil gets hot, turn the heat down to just lower than medium and fry the taquitos on each side until golden brown. This should take no more than 1-2 minutes total; turn to brown each side every 30 seconds. 6. When done, immediately place the taquitos on paper towels to drain excess oil. When cool enough to touch, carefully ease out the toothpicks before serving. 7. Each taquito can be cut in half on an angle to serve, as they are quite filling (this also makes it easier to remove the toothpick). Serve with fresh mint and date dipping sauce. *Using tortillas that are room temperature or slightly warm are easier to manipulate the toothpicks into. So if you keep tortillas in the fridge, take them out enough in advance.

Dipping Sauce 2 cups fresh mint leaves 3 dried dates, pitted and chopped 5 serrano chilies, stems removed 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice Put all the ingredients in a blender or processor and puree to form a smooth uniform dipping sauce. A tablespoon of water can be added to blend if needed. It will keep for 2-3 days in the fridge. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Pan Asian Lettuce Cups with Curried Beef 2 heads butter lettuce 3 tablespoons canola oil 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil 1 cup diced yellow onions 1 teaspoon minced garlic 1 tablespoon minced ginger 1 1/2 pound ground beef (turkey or lamb can also be used) 1-2 tablespoons light soy sauce 1 teaspoon Madras curry powder 1 teaspoon dried mango powder (Amchoor) 1 cup roughly chopped fresh mint 1 cup roughly chopped fresh basil 4 green Serrano chilies, chopped with seeds 1 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice 1. Carefully separate the leaves of the lettuce to form cups. The firm middle leaves are best, and you'll need 6-8. 2. In a skillet, heat the Canola oil on a medium flame. Saute the onions, garlic, ginger, and green chilies until onions are glassy, about 5-7 minutes. 3. Add the meat, soy sauce and powdered spices. Cook on medium heat, stirring often to break up meat into tiny, tiny bits with no lumps. After the spices have been mixed into meat well, about 5 minutes, turn heat down to medium low and cook for an additional 35-40 minutes, until meat is well cooked and browned. If meat becomes too dry, a tablespoon or two of water can be stirred into it to keep it moist. Remove from heat. 4. Stir in mint, basil and lemon juice. Spoon mixture into lettuce cups and drizzle the toasted sesame oil over the top. Serve warm. Serves 6-8.


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Now for the Elimination Challenge: I did feel a bit sorry for the contestants. The parameters of the challenge were to come up with a concept for a restaurant, decide on the menus, and execute this for up to 24 diners. They had a $500 budget for food, $500 for restaurant supplies, and $500 for restaurant design/decor, and one server. Not easy or realistic. And I was shocked to see the walls of the place were not even painted. I think the designers left a little to be desired -- neither place looked remotely designed or decorated. If doing a diner, why not decorate with old 45 records and school pennants like Arnold's in Happy Days? They don't cost much.

Doing a casual Italian, or Trattoria, why not get simple red and white checkerboard tablecloths for a fabric store in bolts and old framed black and white pictures of Sofia Loren or some Fellini movie stills? What was that cheap looking floral tapestry? And the potted cactus, why? On Hollywood Boulevard you can get really cheap 8x10 pictures of almost anyone, how about Pavarotti, or Anna Magnani? The diner, too, could have used pictures of say...Doris Day. Anyway, you get the drift. The same challenge was done in Season 1 of "Top Chef", and I think to better effect. This is because the contestants took the decorating into their own hands, the space while raw was at least finished.
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While things like tempura don't usually come to mind when thinking of a diner, I felt that Cliff was that team's greatest weakness. Why didn't Elia stand up to Cliff? He can be intimidating but she knew she would have been better for the job. Sam's team had bigger problems with stray olive pits, no bread plates and no wine; their team was the worse of two losing teams. Their biggest weakness was Mike. Finally Mike's lackadaisical attitude caught up with him. Relying on his list, he failed to think on his own and take responsibility for at least the shopping. He kept saying he followed the list, I think "Top Chef" is looking for leaders, not followers.

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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