Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

V For Vendetta

Padma Lakshmi on Hawaii, tropical cuisine, and watching Sam and Elia's exits.

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I guess Elia's new look should have served as an ominous foreshadowing of the first half of the finale.

While they seemed mild mannered enough on the plane and at the lunch with Alan Wong and the rest of us, the calm, sweet atmosphere didn't last that long in spite of the beautiful surroundings. While it's true that Elia had been defending (or at least not ganging up on) Marcel for many weeks, while the others shined him on, she obviously had a change of heart. She complains about his long description of his dishes that yes, took long, but I don't see why she should care. Why at the 11th hour do you cry foul about cheating? It seemed as if she'd watched the other episodes or been influenced by her colleagues. I was sorry to have to tell her to pack her knives, because I really like Elia. (It's why I look so weird when I tell her, kind of fighting back emotion.)

I remember in the first episodes I would ask her questions just to hear her beautiful accent. But the evidence was clear.
It was really hard for me to tell Sam to go as well. In the end you work such long hours for weeks and weeks and you do get to know these people. Their struggle to win is palpable. I think that's why the show is so compelling, almost gladiatorial in certain ways. Needless to say, it was a very difficult and emotional Judges' Table for me. I could see that they had all poured their hearts and souls into this competition. And you do go on a journey together. It was also my first season, and I will never forget the experience.

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But it was a joy it was to touch down into lush, tropical Waipio Valley, full of taro leaves. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park. There were wild horses and cool streams running through our path on the very steep drive down and we were literally transported to a secret Polynesian paradise. Chef Alan Wong was the perfect host, gracious and knowledgeable; he had a quiet, friendly dignity. He taught us all so much about food and the history of the Hawaiian Islands. It was a pleasure to sit with him at his table. It was also lovely to see that helicopter come down into the valley with our contestants. After slaving for weeks and weeks in that hot kitchen in LA, I thought they deserved a treat like that. In spite of their behavior towards each other at times, they did work hard all season long.


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Now let's get to the food: Sam made a refreshing poke and I thought his addition of sea beans gave his dish a nice fresh crunch. I would have made something a bit more substantial for my savory dish, but it was tasty, and a perfect way to start the birthday dinner. I love that he used the Japanese citrus fruit juice, yuzu; I just wish he'd used a bit more so that his flavors were bolder. I use yuzu myself a lot in dressings for salad and in hot sauces and chutneys. Plus, since there is already so much Japanese influence in the history and culture of Hawaii, it was completely harmonious. His dessert was so yummy and creative. The marriage of mascarpone and coconut milk was a silky sinful experience on the tongue. The touch of sea salt was a successful surprise.


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Unfortunately I and the other judges were the least impressed with Elia's recipes. It was such a shame because as a female chef I was really rooting for her. Her technique was spot on, and her packaging the steamed opakapaka (snapper) fish in ti leaves was traditional, and probably reminiscent of the process used for tamales too, but there was not that much creativity inside that package. Basically she just used local fish to make a vaguely Franco-Italian tasting dish. The peas and carrots were uninteresting too. I wish she had used some of the Hawaiian flavors in her dishes; they would have melded beautifully with her own heritage and technique. Elia spoke so eloquently about why she loves food and cooking at the lunch in the beginning, I just wish she had been more articulate through her food. She certainly has it in her. Her tuna poke with olives, capers and lemon confit only echoed those Mediterranean tastes again. While perfectly respectable, the dishes lacked originality when compared to her competitors.
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I loved Marcel's tiny tapa serving of hamachi poke on a taro chip. I think it was an ingenious way to add a touch of salty crunch and he used an indigenous ingredient to boot. His pineapple poi left something to be desired, even with the addition of the xanthum gum. It was too runny for me to be called poi. I didn't think there was enough of weight to it. Poi has the consistency of porridge, not thick gravy. While it was airy and light, it was too sweet to be on the palate. It would have benefitted from a bit of salt to contrast the tart sweetness. His technique and knife skills were flawless, as was his presentation. The salmon lumi lumi with, yes, yet another foam (I can't believe he did another foam!!), scallion oil and lotus root chip was the best savory dish of the night. It was substantial and had a lot of flavor. All of us had no problem deciding that he should move on to the finale. His mad scientist way of using all those chemicals and gadgets has been interesting to watch all season long.
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Ilan did the most ambitious dish, using taro with morcilla and squid. My main problem with Ilan's dish is that the fibers caught themselves in the back of my throat, feeling itchy and causing the reaction chef Wong warned him about. It felt like eating the peel of a kiwi fruit. The flavor of the morcilla permeated the whole dish, and the squid had a nice texture and was cooked well, but that scratch kind of ruined it for me.

While my co-judges didn't get a bite of it on their plate, we did hear two or three people at the other tables saying the same thing I did. But that didn't make the edit. I still applaud Ilan for working with a product he'd never tried before. And when feeding that many people, I guess a small margin of error is forgivable. His fried dessert was delicious. It had the lovely fragrance and aroma of saffron with that golden hue and I thought it was extremely creative. And Ilan was right about his presentation -- it wasn't beautiful, I wish it had been as he's usually good at plating. Lucky for him, his flavors were spot on. I think the fact that he made his own sausage and brought it with him to Hawaii showed ambition as well as forethought. In the end, I'd rather have something be tasty than pretty, but maybe in the last round we'll get both?

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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