Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Restaurant Wars (part Deux)

Restaurant Wars! Lee Anne goes behind-the-scenes.

And then there were six. The Kraft Gourmet Snack Challenge was slightly tricky to write the rules for. I happen to love condiments. I'm a saucy kinda girl, if you know what I mean, and my fridge is chock full of a wide variety of hot sauces, dressings, and pickles. The contestants, however, were not allowed to use any other condiments (such as ketchup and mustard) to enhance the Kraft products. We made sure there were plenty of great ingredients for them to create their dishes with and for the most part they surprised me, some of them using all three Kraft products.


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Mike Yakura returns (with a new haircut), and as you know, he doesn't like to mince words. I thought Sam's dish was by far the most creative, and he utilized all three condiments. Marcel and Cliff used the mayo in more classic and straightforward fashion, as dressing for meat on a stick ("everybody loves it dude!"), and as a binder in a steak tartare. I have to agree with Mike Yakura on Midgely's quesadilla, I am not a fan of seafood and cheese together in general, and the idea of Midge eating mayo straight out of a jar makes me want to vomit.

Elia's dish was interesting, and I thought her play on sweet and savory using the barbecue sauce was very creative. While slightly amusing, it's hard to ignore the fact that Ilan can't help but take a dig at Marcel during the quickfire. If you ask me, his intention to poke fun interfered with him actually winning the challenge.
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And now comes restaurant wars. I remember going through this like it was yesterday. When we announced the challenge to the contestants, and we read the rules, I asked them if they had seen this episode from last season. They all said, "No." I was stunned and sort of like, "You guys are idiots for not doing your homework before getting here." Production had to figure out a way to give it all a new twist ... enter the interior designer. The space they would be serving in was completely raw. However, their kitchen was considerably larger and newer than the kitchen at Octavia last year. They were given an extra $500 to decorate their space, and more time to prep. This is by far the hardest challenge they have had to go through, and trying to build a restaurant in a day is absolutely bonkers. I sympathized with them, but part of this business is realizing a concept, and few of them have ever had to think about all of the little details, such as bread and butter plates for your olive pits.
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Any restaurant is a like a living organism, with all of these different parts that perform different functions. If you've never worked as wait staff or front of the house, it is much more difficult to understand the needs of the customer and how to run a smooth dinner service. It takes time to greet and take orders. It takes time to keep their beverages full and run the food. It takes time to clear plates and reset silverware. Unfortunately, Cliff and Ilan learned this the hard way. leeannesblog_ilan_320x240.jpg

I thought both concepts were good and approachable, considering that the space was in a mall (know your customer), but the food and service was poorly executed. I know this firsthand, after all the mistakes my team had made. It is a tough lesson to learn, but criticism is the only way to get better. The designers are the wild card, because now there is an x factor, someone who is not in the competition that can be held accountable for the success or failure of your restaurant. ("Hey Miguel, do you know where Stephen is???) When service begins however, they are ready and the spaces don't look half bad.
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MEC has booze, Lalalina does not. One has burgers, the other has watermelon gnocchi with cheese sauce. How do you choose? The key to good service is not ignoring your customer. If the food is going to take a long time, at least acknowledge them, get them a drink and pray that the kitchen understands the dire need to get some food on the table. However, food cannot be rushed. I'd rather wait for food that is done right than get a less than perfect product, but the waiter needs to communicate this to me. When the crowds get the comment cards, the contestants are hoping that the food will be enough to make up for the crappy service. Hopefully now they understand that one does not work without the other in order to have a successful restaurant.
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With no winners this episode, man oh man, that was a long Judges' Table. I think they shot until 4am that night. Midgely's unassertiveness at Charlie's, Ilan's bad service, and Sam's watermelon extravaganza (I give him credit for creativity)... Marcel's chicken wing sashimi, Elia's overcooked burger (I tried one...very tough), and Cliff's inability to do anything but bark at his teammates. In the end, it was Michael Midgely's time to go.

Mike grew on me throughout the competition, and while fine dining is not his forte, he's a stand up guy, a comedian, and a damn good cook when he focuses. He's definitely a character with a good spirit and a hoot to hang out with (I have more stories for you later). So there are five left, and the last elimination before Hawaii is coming up. I can't wait for you all to see next week's episode. Reality television at it's best (and worst). Until then, order your burgers rare, and save your blue cheese for the figs and apples.

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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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