Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Some Holiday Cheer

Lee Anne Wong takes you behind the scenes on the WB lot challenge.

Day 4. It took me several days to get to know the contestants, and I guess it was a very strange place for me to be in, on the other side of the camera. It is sometimes difficult for me not to compare this season with my season, because it was part of the reason I was hired in the first place; what would I have done? How can we make this more challenging? What is a fair amount of time and budget? So again, take it for what it's worth and if for any reason it seems like I am warming to them in this blog, it is because I am.

It took time to get to see and understand each of their cooking styles, their strengths and their weaknesses, and how they interacted with each other. At the end of the day, it is our goal to not only challenge them, but also put them in situations where they can excel. It does no one any good, both cast and production, if the challenge is unreasonably difficult, and they are set up to fail.
Which is why this episode is such a heartbreaker. Watching this brings back a lot of good memories of production. As with the Thanksgiving episode, we had to recreate the holiday season in the dead heat of August. The idea of getting in the holiday spirit is always fun, but so much more so when you actually get to do it twice in one year.

The Quickfire challenge evolved from just creating a drink using Baileys, to actually creating a food and drink pairing, which we all thought made more sense. Producing a food pairing would take a great palate and some creativity, and with the pressure of only twenty minutes, I think they all did a phenomenal job, as it was almost like two challenges in one. The contestants were allowed to taste all the varieties of Baileys before going shopping.

Betty was right on when she said the difficulty in making a successful food pairing is that Baileys is cream based and also slightly sweet. I thought the contestants that used the Baileys for a savory pairing were really innovative. Cliff's Beef with Baileys was great, and so was Sam's French Toast with the savory apple, onion, and rosemary saute. I also love that Midge did well in the Quickfire (don't count him out just yet....).

I remember this day particularly because the set was ridiculously hot that day. We always had to shut down the air conditioning during filming for sound reasons, and I remember how it became problematic for some of the contestants and their end product; Mike with his ice cream, and Elia with her chocolate. Even in the time it takes to get from one contestant to the next, the actual plated dish can suffer with every passing second, foams fall flat, cold things melt, and hot food never gets that fresh on the plate feeling back. Production and judging does take these things into account. I think the one thing we tried to be very compassionate about was that production would do its best to not interfere with the quality of the contestants' dishes due to timing or a hold up on our end. With this particular challenge we allowed those who needed to refoam and refinish some of their dishes. So even numbers of contestants mean team challenge. Elia, Mike, and Mia have a little bit more at stake, since Cliff has won immunity. I think it is interesting how they chose to nominate team captains for this challenge, with Sam's remark hitting the nail on the head.

Orange Team blew me away with their menu. There is somewhat of a formula when it comes to catering large hors d'oeuvre parties (I cook for these types of parties all of the time), and they came through by offering a wide variety with their menu; skewered things, fried bites, plated dishes, spoons, seafood, vegetarian, meat, and also some sweet treats.

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When I heard that the black team was only doing four items, I immediately began to worry. The idea is that when you are feeding 200 plus people, at a big Hollywood party like this, you want the guests to keep coming back for more. One way to do that is by offering a wide variety of hors d'oeuvres. While I do believe quality should be an important factor, I do not see why you can't have both. We certainly gave them a big enough budget and plenty of time to prepare. The black team can barely agree on a menu. The orange team divided up the work and managed to get quite a bit done in the first four hours of prep time.
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Setting up the lot for the WB shoot was awesome. We had scouted that particular set days earlier and were all looking forward to creating a winter wonderland for the guests of LA Magazine. Even more exciting for me was rumor that my good friend Stephen Asprinio would be joining us for the festivities, as well as Ted Allen of "Queer Eye" fame, who stepped in for Gail for a few days. We had scouted the mobile kitchen to make sure the teams would have sufficient means to kick out a great menu for this party.

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Orange team gets to work right away, each of them taking on certain dishes and working well together as a team. I think Marcel gave a pretty accurate assessment of how the black team's strategy could either help them win or lose. It was hard to watch the black team take a nap on a bench that afternoon while the orange team worked away, and still try to hold on to the hope that there'd be some way they could win leeannesblog_set1_320x240.jpg

Once the party started and the sunlight began to fade, we looked around and saw how great the set looked. The snow and the holiday decorations were a sight to behold on a warm summer evening. The guests began arriving and before we knew it there was a holiday party in full swing. Orange team had a great approach by putting out their hors d'oeuvres in different sets, ensuring that the guests would come back to try the new items later on.

I remember looking over from across the street at one point and seeing that the black team's table was empty of food. No food equals no customers. I was feeling for Mike and Mia. Just because hors d'oeuvres are small, it doesn't mean they take less time to make. In fact, most hors d'oeuvres have several components, meaning putting 2-3 garnishes on 200 of something (even 50 pieces) takes time. Orange team really had it together by having most of their food ready for plating by the time the party started.

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I had actually gone out with Stephen after the WB party. I heard about judges table going until 4 in the morning the next day! And I heard all about what went down. What I have seen thus far in these episodes is that these contestants really don't hold back with each other. There's a lot of anger and name calling going on too. But Mia reminds me a little of Lisa and Andrea in the first season. Lisa had a husband and two children she left behind while she was filming in San Francisco. She missed them terribly throughout her entire time there. Andrea, after being eliminated once, knew when she had had enough of the competition and opted to go home. All three are incredibly strong women, all successful in their own right. I am sure Mia is doing well for herself these days. She really did save Elia from going home that night, and it was by far one of the most touching and selfless moments I had seen from any of them at that point. leeannesblog_sam2_320x240.jpg

It was a really perfect night, the night of the party, and the illusion of snow falling made me glow from the inside, reminding me of perfect snowfall in NY. Special thanks to all of the people at Warner Brothers and LA Magazine. They were so great to work with and helped give new meaning to the word 'location' for us. I'm sending out holiday wishes to all of my family and friends, and especially to my newest family, all of the wonderful people who have come into my life in the past year through this blessing known as Top Chef. leeannesblog_tedgail_320x240.jpgleeannesblog_ted_320x240.jpg

To my fellow contestants, Season 1 and Season 2, Tom, Gail, Padma, Katie, and the guest judges, all of the amazing and talented people at the Magical Elves and NBC/Bravo, and to the fans ... Have a spectacular holiday (I am looking forward to prime rib and Yorkshire pudding) and a happy and healthy New Year's!

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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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