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.

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Gail dishes on Doug Adams' flawless return to the competition and why Melissa King's dish failed to hit the right artistic note.

Bravotv.com: This week we had the Last Chance Kitchen finale between George and Doug, and Doug ended up returning to the competition.

Gail Simmons: It looked like a really close battle -- Tom was really happy with both of their dishes. I will say if I had to put money on it, I would have guessed it would be between George and Doug at the end. They really are two of our stronger competitors. Obviously George was just coming off of his elimination, and it didn't surprise me that Doug stayed at the top of Last Chance Kitchen since being eliminated. I was thrilled to see him in Mexico with us.

Bravotv.com: Great! So he comes back, he wins and then onto the Quickfire Challenge. Any thoughts on this part of the competition?

GS: I'll just say that I’m a big, big fan of Chef Olvera, and I’m so glad we were able to get him on the show. His main restaurant, Pujol, is in Mexico City, but he has Moxi at the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel, where we were  lucky enough to eat the night that I landed, and a new restaurant here in New York that I am really excited about called Cosme. His food is very much rooted in Mexican ingredients and Mexican cooking, but his food is so modern. He really is one of the most talented chefs in the world at this moment, and I’m glad he judged the prickly pear Quickfire. They filmed it right in the center square of San Miguel; it is an amazingly gorgeous place. It was a really great setting for our first challenge in Mexico.

Bravotv.com: Then we have the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by an artist's piece of work, and Doug won with his brisket.

GS:  This challenge is interesting, because San Miguel is such a mecca for artists; it’s an artist colony that has produced incredible work for years. The city itself is so visually inspiring, as are the artists that work there. Their work is so varied, so vast. What was unique in this challenge was that it forced the chefs to take inspiration from an unusual source and think about their dish in a different way. All of the artists are very different, from a graffiti artist to someone who does more abstract landscapes. It was truly exciting to see what the artists did with the canvases they were given and what they shared with the chefs.

I tasted Doug’s dish first and understood it in an instant; it needed no explanation. But when he did talk about it, I realized it had so much depth not only in flavor, but in its purpose. He had an immediate connection with the artist he was paired with -- they were both from Texas and she reminded him a lot of his mother. There was a deep sense of home and comfort between them, which I think allowed him to cook so purely, so simply. The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not "chef it up" too much, he kept it pure. He modeled the presentation of the dish exactly off of the painting itself with those colors from the Mexican landscape -- the deep reds of the earth, those dark greens and browns -- which made perfect sense. His brisket obviously tasted like Texas, but it definitely had an air of Mexico. It had the tomatillo, the masa, and even the red brisket itself was reminiscent of Mexican flavors, since Mexican cuisine has had such an influence on Texas to begin with. The dish was about his roots on a lot of levels. I devoured all of it, it was so hardy and comforting, but it had an elegance and finesse to it in the plating -- the ingredients he chose to put side by side as opposed to stewing them together -- made it special.

The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not 'chef it up' too much, he kept it pure.

Gail Simmons

Bravotv.com: And then we had Gregory's grilled strip loin with ancho chile, beets, cilantro puree, and valencia orange sauce.

GS: Gregory’s dish was excellent too. He did a perfectly grilled strip loin. He was worried about it before we tasted it, but it came out perfectly. He made three incredible sauces to go with it, which drew a lot of inspiration from his artist's painting. The first was this ancho chile sauce and then this beautiful green cilantro puree. The ancho chiles were reminiscent of the peasant farming, the green cilantro tying into the earth. Then there was the orange sauce, which completely changed the dish. When you first tasted it, the dish was earthy, it was deep and complex, it had the Mexican chiles that really shone through with the beef. Then you got a splash of that orange sauce, and it balanced everything out in a way that surprised us. It was so inspired, you could tell that it echoed the sunshine in the painting. It conveyed the artist’s vision of this peasant toiling in the soil through this glorious sunshine, and that’s exactly how the dish tasted.

It was a really close battle between Gregory and Doug in this challenge; both of them did such a great job. Ultimately we chose Doug, because we thought there was an unmistakable depth to his food and it was completely flawless.

Bravotv.com: Let's move on to Mei, who had the snapper and bass crudo with chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles.

GS: In true Mei fashion, her dish was completed beautifully and precise. It was very tightly conceptualized -- every drizzle, every piece of fish, every garnish was perfectly placed, and it was a gorgeous plate of food. I loved her relationship with the artist she worked with, Bea. They had a lovely conversation, which was great to see, and the dish clearly reflected Bea’s work. The chicken skin, the fish, the splashes of color were all inspirations from the painting. Every bite of Mei's dish had a little surprise; there was a little spice, a tiny bit of salt, and a beautiful splash of sweetness, which made it so fun and so playful.

My only criticism of Mei’s food comes from a presentation standpoint. Because Bea’s art was so outrageous and so loud and loose and free in a way, we had hoped that Mei’s food would’ve reflected that. We thought it would have allowed her to loosen up her presentation a little bit. Of course, I respect that she stayed true to who she is and how she presents her food. It was a dish that took a lot of technical skill and was really enjoyable when we ate it, we had just hoped to see more playfulness.

Bravotv.com: And then we had Melissa's smoked eggplant ravioli with shrimp, chorizo, and cotija.

GS: Melissa’s dish was absolutely decadent, delicious, delightful. We all agreed that her smoked eggplant ravioli was perfectly made -- it was smoky, very rich, and the pasta was well cooked. That alone was as good as anything else we had eaten that day. Where we thought she fell short, relative to the other dishes, was that there definitely was less cohesion between the artist's work and her dish. Shrimp, chorizo, cotija cheese, and eggplant can go together, but in the way she plated them, they weren’t really talking -- the shrimp was over here, the sauce was somewhere else, then there was the eggplant ravioli. There didn’t seem to be a line that connected them all. And when she described it in relation to the artwork, we really weren’t sure it conveyed that dramatic splash from the graffiti art. We needed more from her. There was such a direct conversation between Doug and his artist, and it really felt like they were working on the same piece of artwork together. Melissa’s dish, although tasty and very pretty, did not have that same depth. I’m not just talking about flavor; it’s really about the inspiration and the connection, not only between the ingredients on the plate, but between the chef and the artist. His work was really beautiful (and watching the show I regret not buying a piece from him at the time). But it can be hard to translate art, because it’s something so personal. In the end between the four of us we decided that on that day it was Melissa’s dish that did not measure up in terms of the inspiration and connection like the other dishes did. So she was eliminated.

Bravotv.com: It seemed like one of the tougher eliminations this season.

GS: Yes, it was. It always is at this stage of the season. But it was a really great challenge too. I think regardless of winning or losing, Melissa really loved the process and that was so great to see. It was an intellectual challenge that was hard to interpret, and I think they all did an incredible job. I’m really going to miss Melissa. I honestly think she is a huge talent, and I know she is going to do well wherever she goes next.
 

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