Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Where Do I Start?

Padma Lakshmi was very happy with the food this week. But she can't say the same about the chef's behavior.

Where do I start? How the hell can you behave like that?! I don't care if you want to shave your head or any other body part. No one has the right to touch and manhandle another human being. It wasn't in fun; they weren't all chummy with Marcel. I bet he was very scared being woken up like that from a sound sleep and dragged onto the carpet.

In a previous blog, I said that Marcel was their Piggy in some "Lord of the Flies" scenario, and unfortunately it turns out that I was right. How dare Cliff lay his hands on Marcel? And nevermind human decency -- how stupid can you be? Leaving aside the fact that you're on national television, or that potential investors, employers, and millions of the general viewing public are watching, why would you jeopardize your chance at $100, 000 dollars after you've spent weeks and weeks slaving your heart out with little sleep, away from all your family and friends? Elia, Ilan, and Sam were not innocent in it either. None of them said to stop. In fact, Ilan eggs Cliff on so boisterously off camera and Sam sits there laughing on the couch. I guess Elia was holding the camera? I felt awful when I heard and even worse when I saw the footage. I always thought that our show was better than many reality shows because it was about people trying to be the best at their craft, and that that dedication was compelling to watch, I saw no one trying to be better that night. What a shame. Now, about the food.
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This week's Quickfire was simple: Work with chocolate to make a savory or sweet dish. The chefs had 90 minutes to prepare something for Eric Ripert, whose presence they were understandably moved by. Elia turned again to her roots to do a version of chicken with mole sauce. But the poached chicken lacked flavor -- I don't think she added any seasonings to her poaching liquid. The chicken was moist but lacked flavor. Then she poured what tasted like pure melted chocolate over it. It lacked subtlety and I think Eric, while noting this, managed to be diplomatic in telling her so. She would have won hands-down if she'd let her dessert stand by itself. It was fantastic. It was airy, creamy and felt like velvet on the tongue. The ginger added a delicate fragrance, complementing the mousse and the strawberry crumble added the perfect contrasting texture. I loved that she called it a "kiss" because that's what it felt like, soft and sweet in the mouth.

Sam, who seemed to be at a disadvantage because of his diabetes, actually did a dish that was very innovative. Using chocolate as an accent, he created something totally unique. The banana echoed the sweetness in the chocolate chipotle and black bean sauce and the cilantro pesto acted as a peppery counterpoint. I think the shrimp was a perfect canvas to showcase all these flavors. While the chocolate, chipotle, black beans and cilantro were all Mexican ingredients, the dish itself had an unusual character that was hard to place.

Cliff's braised chicken with piquillo pepper, rosemary and chocolate sauce with potatoes was robust and hearty. It felt like a complete meal on the plate, and while it was just fine, I thought that it didn't showcase the chocolate in any particular way. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with his dish, it's just that compared to the sophistication of Sam's dish and Elia's dessert, it lacked a bit of originality. Again, it wasn't that his dish was bad but that his competitors were better. padmasblog_ilan211_320x240.jpg

I'm not sure what Ilan was thinking, but liver imbedded in chocolate? I guess he was trying to do something totally new and different, but I don't find anything sensual or sumptuous about chicken livers. If you watch Eric as he puts it in his mouth, he almost doesn't know if he should swallow it. He raises his hand up as if he's going to spit it out. Maybe if Ilan had done the chicken livers with some type of chocolate sauce it would have been better, but Eric's comment that it felt like a dessert was spot on, I think Ilan did want to do a dessert, or a candy as he put it, but no one wants to bite into a morsel of liver imbedded into their candy or dessert. The meaty aftertaste of the liver fought with the rich chocolate ganache, leaving an awful pasty, salty, muddy feeling in the mouth. Ilan has made some excellent food this season and while he redeems himself later in the elimination challenge, that ganache a stinker! We've all been there. Sometimes you think you've got the cleverest idea and it turns out to be ...well, too clever for your own good, not to mention the good of your diners.

I was proud of Marcel for trying something he's never done before. Those potato cannolis were crispy and perfect. With a hint of salt, they really encased the two fillings well. Both the chocolate mousse and coffee whip cream were light and airy, while still feeling quite rich and luxurious on the palate. His dish was polished, and his sauces were spot on. As always, his presentation looked very professional, clean and pretty.

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Chef Ripert chose Sam's dish as the winner and I concur with his decision, but Marcel's dish was very close behind.

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The Elimination Challenge: To make a five course romantic meal for couples celebrating their anniversary. Sam was able to choose his course and the protein, and no other chef could use the same protein he did. I think Marcel overreacted when Sam chose his protein and when he chose to do beets; as if Sam would choose to do beets simply because Marcel wanted to. I don't believe Sam thinks like that. Marcel is a good enough cook to be able to adapt to the situation and do something else. Marcel also showed poor sportsmanship when he refuses to help Sam plate and serve his dish. I can see how Marcel would want to concentrate on his own dish, but then he shouldn't expect anyone to help him -- fair is fair.

Sam's organic beets and seared scallops with a lobster and umeboshi plum sauce was a very successful first course. It was delicate and balanced and I loved the plum and lobster sauce. The scallops were voluptuous and silky and cooked perfectly. The magenta juices from the beet slice on top bled down into the scallop with a lovely swirl of color. This was visually impressive and sexy on the plate. The micro greens were fluffy and still crisp to the bite with not a drop of extra dressing. Micro greens are easily wilted and buffering them with a slice of beets to insure the heat from the scallops wouldn't destroy them was a smart move. You could also see the goodwill that Sam had garnered from his colleagues all season long in action. Ilan and Cliff worked diligently on Sam's plates as if they were their own. That kind of teamwork is admirable, and should always be the case in a professional kitchen.
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Ilan's fideos and clams with saffron was the best thing I ate all season long. You don't really hear me say that on the edited version, but it was true then and in hindsight is still true. In fact, I think I even finished whatever was left on Eric's plate as well as mine. The fideos were oven-toasted to perfection, the clams were moist and juicy, and the seasoning of the dish as a whole was savory and delicious. I can still recall the taste. It was also a textural winner especially on a date or romantic dinner. I saw couples all around me feeding each other, and smiles of pleasure everywhere. padmasblog_padma211_320x240.jpg

Marcel's salmon was fine but nothing to write home about. I also thought those mini cut out hearts adorning the fish were a bit literal and cheesy. An easy mistake when you're as young as Marcel, but had his dish been tastier, we would have all forgotten those little hearts. The salmon needed some added flavor, and really needed some tartness to balance the richness of its flesh, especially with the accompanying puree. Any acid would have helped: Yuzu juice, Kafir lime juice, dried green mango powder, tamarind, sumac powder (would have given it not only sourness but great vermillion color), or just a squirt of plain old lemon juice would have helped. While Marcel has great technique, his cooking can sometimes lack soul, and that's when the flavor of the dish suffers. If he had helped Sam, who by the way took the high road and helped out when he didn't have to, Sam may have tasted his dish and told him to add the sourness, because using liquid acid ingredients like vinegars, etc., to flavor food, as we know, is Sam's forte.
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Given Cliff's behavior outside of the kitchen, I don't feel I need to comment on his dish, except to say that the lentils were an ugly pureed mess with no flavor, and the rest was forgettable. Elia's dessert was delicious. While the idea may have seemed good when she thought of it, it wasn't well thought out. She realized this in retrospect. The cremeaux (with puff pastry) was good but not as good as what we had in the Quickfire. We did finish the dessert though, and after a five-course meal, that's saying something. Let's hope they behave better in Hawaii, and that the focus is where it should be: on the food.

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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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