Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Those Tricky Holidays

Executive Producer Shauna Minoprio reveals the insider scoop.

The holidays are always a tricky time. Honestly -- I'm not sure why Mia did it. She just seemed to get caught up in a wave of some kind of emotion that is hard to quite define. I think perhaps a combination of exhaustion, frustration and resentment towards Cliff pushed her over the edge. In the end I think she didn't want it enough. She seemed to feel that she had achieved enough by getting that far and now she was tired and pissed-off and wanted to go home. I know I've said this before, but this competition is extremely stressful and requires a lot of stamina to stay the distance.... You have to want it really badly. I also suspect that Mia felt that she was not likely to win the competition and so would rather quit than eventually be fired -- she is clearly a very proud person. I think she made the wrong decision but at the time it was also good to know that she was going home to her family and a decent night's sleep.

Anyway -- the party! What a totally awesome and groovy event it was that the glamorous Warner Brothers Special Events crew threw on the WB lot. It was very Hollyweird watching their workmen in shorts and T-shirts setting up trees and spraying the fake show around. I think the street we were on is where Bill Cosby/Dr. Huxtable used to live which was rather exciting -- and we had the Gilmore Girls around the corner, too! Of course the chefs were more excited about their mobile film catering trucks -- they LOVED them. They weren't the only ones, when Tom saw them, his eyes lit up like the proverbial tree. Seriously -- I know what someone wants for Christmas!

These chefs -- they definitely do live in their own world, and it sure is an alternative universe. They did work incredibly hard throughout the party, even Monsieur Midgely who I had a premonition might slack off to the vodka bar, was doing his utmost to get food from Elia and Cliff and deliver it to the table. Unfortunately his utmost wasn't anywhere near enough to pull off that particular yuletide miracle.

Elia and Cliff sweating it as hard as they could but they had backed themselves into a corner with their cooking "a la minute" plan. By contrast the other team was a well-oiled machine churning out the gourmet snacks despite the fact that they had Marcel and everyone apparently hates him. Maybe they were touched by the holiday spirit -- peace on earth and goodwill to all men, even Marcel. From my point of view shooting at the party was great, the only problem was shooting around the party guests and making sure they didn't get elbowed by a cameraman or hit by a boom pole.

Of course there's always the nagging anxiety that the chefs might screw up under pressure and accidentally poison all 250 guests. There's not a lot I can do about that.... Except, of course, have everyone who eats the food sign a piece of paper absolving the production from all responsibility should they find themselves in hospital with a touch of botulism. Still, it would be rather embarrassing. I'm someone who generally thinks that all publicity is good publicity, but in the case of a Top Chef mass-poisoning, perhaps I would have to re-think that position. At the end of the night the guests were still healthy, if a little drunk, and all was well. My one regret is that we didn't persuade Midgely into a Santa Claus outfit on some spurious pretext -- Top Chef meets Bad Santa, now that's a show!

Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Hugh Acheson weighs in on the finale showdown between Mei Lin and Gregory Gourdet.

There is always a Top Chef winner but obviously some seasons have a less experienced assemblage of chefs, while others have veritable US Olympic-caliber culinary practitioners. (Congrats to Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition by the way! Silver! Silver!)

This particular season of Top Chef could have been a contest of mediocrity, but it bloomed into something very skilled and mature, which is good for judging, but makes writing a blog with poop jokes and rap humor very difficult. I have to say, I was a little worried at the beginning that the whole chef squadron was a little shaky. But early retreats by chefs with bigger egos than culinary skillsets allowed the true talent to rise without being malevolent fools. And that talent really was there. By mid season we were eating their visions on the plate, while watching them battle it out over the food and just the food.

The two most successful chefs of the season made it to the end, and they are ready to rumble in the most respective way they know how. One will plate most of their food on the side of the plate, incorporating Korean flavors and modern technique into the vittles, while the other will weave a more classic story and put food more in the center of the plate like regular people. Should be a good show no matter what, because at the end of the day, it’s just hard not to be really enamored with both of them. They are good people.

Gregory and Mei start out on a hot air balloon ride, because that’s how I like to start every day in Mexico. The country looks beautiful to me even if you are in a basket hoisted hundreds of feet into the air by hot air. The hotel I stayed in was the Casa di Sierra Nevada, which was AWESOME, so if you are looking for a vacation, go there. It's no party town, but it is plenty fun. Great food scene. And to put safety into perspective, I felt safer wandering around St. Miguel than I do my hometown. Anyway, the balloon ride looks like fun and allows for that finale moment of almost tearful reminiscence and contemplation.

So their balloon ride lands in a vineyard, and Tom and Padma are waiting to put a halt to this sentimentality. The task is put forward and the challenge, this final culinary joust, is to create a meal that is the meal of their lives. They pick their two sous chefs per person; Gregory picks Doug and George, while Mei picks Melissa and Rebecca.

They prep their menus after a good night’s sleep. The prep I will not talk about too much, but suffice it to say that each team seems very pro and super on top of things.

Traci des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, Gavin Kaysen, and Donnie Masterton are dining with us, all of them amazing chefs. Like amazing amazing. The kid’s table, at which I am the head, is made up of Sean, Traci, Gavin, and Gail. It is a super table. At the table I decide to hold true to the tourist warning of not drinking the water. I thus only drink wine and the phenomenal beauty of Casa Dragones tequila, a concoction that will make me sleep soundly (but probably by dessert) on the table.

Mei hits us with an octopus that I really, really like. It resounds with flavors of coconut, avocado, and fish sauce. It is deep. The only flaw is that maybe it is a bit over done. The over cooking made it kind of crunchy and she could easily have been cooking it to that point on purpose. Second course from her is a congee, with peanuts, carnitas, egg yolk, and hot sauce. It is so f----ing delicious. Like stylized comfort food that you just want to eat all the time. Comfort food, when perfect, is perhaps the hardest food to cook, because it is by definition food you are very familiar with, resulting in people having a lot of preconceived notions about it. This congee would have silenced all critics on congee. It was that good.

Mei is gliding through this meal. She has palpable confidence, but is still a nicely soft-spoken leader. In my years of watching people lead kitchens, I have always been more taken with the allegiance that soft-spoken leaders cultivate in their staffs. Her third course is a duck course, and like the congee, she has cooked duck at least twice this season, but in entirely different ways. This duck has kimchi, braised lettuce, and huitlacoche on the plate. Huitlacoche is corn smut, a term I just yelled in a coffee shop, making everyone uncomfortable. It is a good plate, but my refrain about duck skin continues. It was a bit chewy. All in all, the dish just was texturally challenged. It needed a crunchy texture. But it was good still. Her last is her version of yogurt dippin’ dots with strawberry-lime curd, milk crumble, and stuff. It was blow-you-away amazing. Very complex, but very successful. Tom says it is the best dessert on Top Chef he has ever had, and I definitely concur, though he has tasted many more than I have. The toasted yogurt base was amazing.

Gregory steps up with a brothy octopus with cashew milk, fresh prickly pear, and also xoconostle, which is the dried version of prickly pear, kind of like a prickly pear fruit roll up. It is a strong dish, and may be the winner in the Octopus Olympiad. His second was a strange soup that was redolent with flavor until you choked with a shrimp head lodged in your gullet. Strange and a little unrefined for me, and pretty much everyone else. It was a wanted textural element, but made a rustic soup weird. The whole dish needs to be compared to the comfort food of Mei’s congee, and in that context it is no contest.

Third course from Gregory is a bass with carrot sauce, tomatillo, vegetables, and pineapple. It is a strange dish. I am worried for Gregory at this point. It is not like the dish was bad, but the dish was just not a winner winner. Well, let’s not rest on that notion, because his next and final course is a stone cold stunner. Simple short ribs in mole with sweet potato. It is purity on the plate and equal to the idea of Mei’s congee in nailing comfort food. Kudos. He’s back on track. This is a close contest.

Judges' Table comes and we deliberate. I am not going to mince words and hold off on this: It is really close, but this season’s winner is definitely Mei. Well deserved. Gregory is the consummate pro in placing second and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in this restaurant world. His win versus addiction and his success in cooking shows one tough person with oodles of talent.

Mei. Mei. You rock. You are a chef’s chef. You make food that excites and makes us ponder. You are a leader and a super cool person. You are the winner and will always be a winner. Onwards.

Until next season. I loved this season. Thanks BOSTON. And thanks San Miguel di Allende. You are awesome places to work.

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