Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Other Side

Season One's winner Harold Dieterle weighs in on Season Two.

I have to admit that it was kind of crazy becoming a judge. I'm going in there on the other side of things. It's amazing to watch the new contestants, because the whole time I'm thinking, "This is going to be one of the craziest times of their lives, and these contestants have absolutely no idea what they've gotten themselves into." I don't have any early favorites yet. And it's still interesting to watch them get into things.

Last year there were twelve, and this year there are fifteen. The contestants are a pretty diverse mix of people, I don't know if it actually gets more diverse than what they've got. There are professional chefs, there are culinary instructors, caterers, people in the food world. And it's really a wide range. I really found myself putting myself more in their shoes. I actually thought that their first elimination challenge was so much more difficult than our elimination challenge. They had a mystery box! We had been pretty much able to shop for -- we got to shop for our signature dish. With all the time to go out to shop, and purchase stuff and cook. It wasn't like we were thrown in without a clue. I think that the amount of time that they were given was definitely a little...excessive. Almost crazy.

I find myself wanting to help, but I don't give any tips. I'm just an elimination judge. Tom, though -- they kind of give him that update on what they're making. He seems to have it well in hand. Basically, looking at the first basket of goods, I kept trying to put myself in their position and think what would I make. They had escargot, potatoes, American cheese, artichokes and peanuts. And I thought that was pretty tough. I think that the American cheese is the standout ingredient, but there's no criteria bout how much cheese you need to use. So I probably would have made a potato gnocchi, put some American cheese in it, then I would have sauteed the gnocchi with the escargots and a little white wine butter sauce. Probably with a nice crispy salad on top, with shaved artichokes and peanuts. And then I thought the second group had a much more difficult basket.

The first group thought that they had it tough, but I'm sorry -- chicken livers and frog legs? Try to put those together. That is not easy at all. I'm still fuzzy on what I would make. I really have no idea. I love frog legs. I guess, I'd make a frog leg confit and a chicken liver sauce, but other than that...I'm lost. Judging is hard. You're sitting around the table and everyone is talking. The contestants kinda had the opportunity to decide who was in the top and who was in the bottom. And a couple of them, I didn't exactly see eye to eye with. I wasn't exactly sure how they thought the criteria was used. I certainly didn't think Marcel's dish was great, but I didn't think it was one of the weaker dishes. He displayed some refinement and some good plating. And the flavors were classical and they were good.

The elimination was just awkward. I felt a lot more comfortable naming the winner than I did talking about the loser. They asked me who I thought the loser was, and I was like, "You guys did a good job picking out the winner, I'll let you do what you do." Obviously they know who should go home, they've been down this road before, I'm not going to name who should go home. They all seemed fine with it, except for production. I've spent a lot of time since the completion of the first season with Tom and Gail. I think we're all friends at this point, so it's nice to sit around and joke with them. I'm looking forward to seeing what these contestants are going to go through. I can't wait to see more drama, figure out who's going to be the villain. Who's going to have their moments. Here's what I miss:

The most fun for me was always back at the house, when, you know, the craziness was taking place. Chefs like to rock star it up quite a bit, and now I'm a judge. So that's definitely something I miss. Check back next week, I'm sure I'll have a lot more to add.

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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