Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Breakfast Of Champions

Tom Colicchio's thoughts on why Frank blew the breakfast challenge.

I get a kick out of the notion that our producers manipulate the action on Top Chef in order to create drama. The truth is they don't need to. For one thing, by now our remaining chefs may look fine, but appearances are deceiving. The weeks of very long hours and too little sleep are taking their toll. I know what you're thinking: Big deal, I work long hours, too, and I'm no drama king/queen. But a number of other factors are starting to push the group towards the edge. For one, they have been removed from their usual support networks of spouses and loved ones and are thrust into very close living quarters with virtual strangers. In addition to the stress of having their work judged, they are also subject to the unending scrutiny of cameras and crew (except for bathroom jaunts) which creates its own form of performance anxiety.
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The chefs have few pressure outlets; they're allowed limited internet access in order to research food, but they aren't allowed to disappear for a long walk, or hole themselves away with headphones, etc. since the show depends upon their engaging with one another. They can't even listen to music, since this would interfere with recording dialogue! One of the only ways the chefs can blow off steam is by drinking -- which only contributes to the exhaustion. To top it all off, they have been, by necessity, divested of their money to discourage independent forays out into the world and are kept isolated from other people (except the judges, crew, and the people they feed) which gives their world a surreal, hermetic quality.

Is it any wonder that they flip out when someone touches their toothbrush? But the most obvious effect of all the stress and exhaustion is that it seems to compromise the chefs' chief asset -- their imagination. That amorphous place from whence springs ideas, inspiration, solutions, sense memory, and innovation. True imagination can be nurtured, but not taught. It can manifest through an intuitive understanding of how to juxtapose taste and texture, or through wild flights of fancy. Some chefs' imaginations give them a unique understanding of the emotional value of food -- the way in which it can provoke or comfort. For others, imagination leads them into arch, whimsical interpretations of culinary classics. Regardless, when people get stressed out and tired, imagination is often the first thing to go.


The result of this is a tendency towards inflexibility, an inability to adapt or handle curveballs. This was definitely the case when we brought the chefs to the beach in Malibu. After too little sleep, and without a chance to psychologically gear up for the challenge of cooking over a fire pit, some of the chefs' imaginations simply shut down. Frank was perhaps the best example of this -- he had planned to bake a quiche, which was impossible over an open flame, and he lacked the ability to recover in style. Sam, with his (burnt) toad-in-the-hole eggs and bagel combination seemed more rattled by the lack of sleep than the fire-pit, but the result was the same. Cliff was thrown by the environment enough that he got sloppy -- of all the food prepared, his was the only dish that featured sand as an ingredient. So many of my previous blogs have rambled on about a chef's need to adapt that I'm not going to go there today. But I will bring up a quick anecdote to illustrate how a chef can use imagination to override a difficult situation:


About eight years ago, I donated a private, home-cooked dinner party to a charity auction. A very social New Jersey woman cast the winning bid, and we made arrangements for me and a couple of my cooks to come to her house and prepare an elegant tasting menu for twenty or so of her close friends. The day of the event we carefully prepped the ingredients and packed them, in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, into my truck. En route to the party the turnpike flooded, causing a number of cars to spin out of control and skid off the road. Entire swaths of highway were shut down and rerouted, and the result was total gridlock. Although we had left extra early, it made no difference -- we were stuck, so I called our hostess to explain. At first she was calm about it, but soon she was calling me every few minutes, increasingly hysterical, as her guests started to arrive and we still weren't there. When we finally pulled up at the woman's house my cooks and I immediately kicked into high gear. We skipped the hors-d'oeuvres and plowed right into dinner, churning out the first two courses, while the hostess grew steadily calmer. Soon the guests were happily enjoying the food and all was forgiven. We prepared to launch into our third course -- a spectacular lobster with green onion chutney -- when suddenly we realized we had a problem: No lobster. Somehow we'd left it behind in the restaurant.


I exchanged a look with Johnny Schaeffer, my long-time right-hand at Gramercy Tavern, and without a beat, we got to work. We reached into our unused prep for hors-d'oeuvres and pulled out a lobe of foie-gras. We quickly roasted it off in tasting portions and plated it with the original green onion chutney which we turned into a sauce that nicely cut the unctuousness of the liver. We tasted and seasoned as we went, and reworked the presentation so that it made sense with the new dish. The course was a hit, and our hostess came back into the kitchen to compliment us before rejoining her guests and getting good and drunk. I mention this not to toot my own horn (though Johnny deserves some credit for unflappability) but to illustrate just how important it is not to be locked into one single idea when cooking. When I teach cooking classes, I always ask my students to put down their pencils and papers (they hate this) because if I've done my job well they will be able to replicate the dish I'm about to teach with just about any ingredient they like. I am teaching techniques, not recipes, and I want them to substitute the elements that they most enjoy when the time comes to cook on their own. Not a salmon lover? Use sea bass instead -- the important thing is not the fish, but to know how to test for doneness. In other words, I refuse to let them shut down their own imaginations and take safe harbor in a single, fixed recipe.


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Of all the cooks, Mia seemed most comfortable with the setting (as she reminded us, she used to cook for cowboys,) and Elia and Betty also did a good job making their dishes work on the fire pit. All three made sure that their presentations were clean and attractive, which made the dishes even easier to appreciate. Mia's Crab Cake Benedict seemed to be the surfer's favorite, Elia pulled off an unusual combination of sweet and salty flavors with her waffle and eggs, and Betty surprised us all by managing to cook the eggs in her egg/ham/leek bundle like the delicate ingredients that they are; unlike some of the others, she didn't resort to a mindless scramble, but kept the egg yolks intact, and then cooked them gently and perfectly. tomsblog_betty3_320x240.jpg
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Elia's dish was Guest Judge Raphael Lunetta's choice for winner. Interestingly, this was one of the few occasions this season when Elia didn't take issue with the judge's opinion. With the exception of Mike and Marcel, the remaining chefs made mistakes with their eggs -- overcooking them, or presenting them in visually unappealing ways. The eggs in Ilan's Spanish tortilla dish were a bit brown for my taste, but he was saved by the rest of his dish, which tasted great. As I mentioned earlier, Sam and Cliff weren't so lucky.
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But it was Frank who really blew it. If he could have let go of his quiche idea, he would have realized he had all the ingredients for a great frittata, easily pulled off in a pan over the open fire. Instead he opted for a zucchini salmon scramble, but his distraction got in the way of good technique and his eggs were way overcooked. The little side of cannoli cream with strawberries tasted good, but wasn't connected in any way to the larger dish -- I would have rather seen him put al his focus into getting the eggs right. Of all the misses, his was the worst, and on that basis the judges chose to let him go.

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Frank was a good guy, and I know most of the other chefs were sad to see him go. Frank's got plenty of ambition, experience and heart, and I wish him well. I'm sure he'll be a success in whatever culinary venture he undertakes ... just so long as no one messes with his toothbrush.

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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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