Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Finale Part 1

All food and no drama makes Tom a happy judge. Tom Colicchio explains why this was his favorite episode so far.

This week's episode -- in some ways, until the final Judge's Table -- was my favorite episode to date.

Why?

No drama.

From the first moment that we all sat down with Chef Alan Wong for the celebratory lunch (one of the most delicious meals of my life, by the way) through the end of the evening -- there was a palpable excitement in the air, all due to the amazing ingredients, the spectacular locale, and the sight of four motivated, talented individuals cooking in a beautiful outdoor kitchen, for everyone to see. I really got a kick from seeing how each of the contestants interpreted the challenge -- their choices spoke volumes about them as chefs.

Ilan decided to mix Hawaiian techniques with Spanish flavors. Elia was aiming for a fusion of Mediterranean and Hawaiian flavors. Sam seemed bent on modernizing the Hawaiian dishes with a lighter, sophisticated touch, and Marcel chose to deconstruct the Hawaiian dishes altogether, and apply his molecular gastronomy to recreating them in his own, unique, wacky Scientist way. I strolled the kitchen a number of times and, aside from the minor tension that comes from chefs working busily in the same space with shared equipment, I didn't notice anything awry. I was practically giddy -- I could see how carefully Sam, Ilan, Elia and Marcel had prepared in the two months since our initial shoot. They had worked on a variety of ideas, researched Hawaiian cuisine, and carefully selected and brought along some of the ingredients they had grown to rely upon as chefs. Honestly, it felt as though it was finally about the food.
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And what of the food? It was all really good, but two dishes stood out: Marcel's deconstructed Hamachi Poke with Pineapple "Poi" was terrific. Finally, Marcel had found a context for his molecular gastronomy that made sense. Nowhere was there a foam-for-the-sake-of-foam, rather his esoteric techniques allowed him to accomplish things that couldn't have come from straight cooking, but with a clear respect for the Hawaiian flavors and textures. Witness his clever use of an aerator and xanthan gum to thicken raw pineapple into a light, airy "Poi" (a pineapple custard would have been a more conventional choice, but would have sacrificed the flavor of the raw fruit that is so prevalent in Hawaiian cooking).

Overall the dish was playful but focused, the flavors clean, and the presentation beautiful. The other clear success was Ilan's Morcilla and Squid Lau Lau. The dish truly borrowed from both Hawaiian and Spanish cuisine successfully; at lunch the day before, Chef Wong had emphasized how important cooked Taro leaf is to Hawaiian cuisine, and of all the chefs only Ilan attempted it -- Taro leaves are not easy to work with, and they have a strong and distinctive flavor. Ilan's chopped Morcilla (a Spanish version of blood sausage) and Squid was flavorful enough to stand up to the Taro's flavor and actually enhance it. All in all, a great dish, and one that fully embraced the challenge.
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It felt to me that Sam played it a bit safe with his Poke with Sea Beans and Yuzu juice, and his Macadamia Coconut-milk pudding, delicious as they were. While I have no complaints about his food, neither of the dishes stood out for originality or seemed particularly personal to Sam, and he certainly took no risks by trying to cook using an unfamiliar Hawaiian technique. In fact, neither of the dishes were actually cooked. I'm not saying that a raw dish doesn't have merit -- it just was a safer route than attempting to cook something -- that's one less (major) thing to screw up. Elia, on the other hand, did utilize an unfamiliar Hawaiian technique by steaming snapper in Ti leaves, and we gave her props for that, but unfortunately she chose red bell pepper and peas (evoking neither Hawaiian or Mediterranean flavors) to accompany the fish, and the dish was bland. If Elia was determined to use peas, I would have like to see her connect the dots between peas and Taro -- both are starchy vegetables -- and use them to create her own "poi."

Eli's Poke of raw tuna was also a nice enough dish, though I found the olives a bit overpowering. The problem was, I didn't feel it retained anything of the Hawaiian vernacular the chefs were charged with interpreting. The flavors -- olives, capers, and tomato -- could have evoked Italy or the South of France just as easily, and the fact that the fish was raw wasn't enough of a link to Hawaiian cuisine. One of my favorite dishes to prepare at the raw bar at Craftsteak is crudo -- an Italian iteration of the same dish -- super-fresh fish, sliced and dressed with flavors that enhance the qualities of the fish itself. I felt Elia had given us a lovely dish of crudo, without a clear sense of place or Hawaiian tradition.
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We had more or less made up our minds, when Ilan and Elia suddenly piped up about Marcel's behavior earlier that day in the kitchen. The judges struggled to understand exactly what Marcel had done to provoke the other three -- to elicit a charge of cheating, no less.

The only example of untoward behavior Elia could come up with was Marcel moving her steamer on the stove, so that he could use the burner underneath. Now, for the record, I've worked shoulder to shoulder with other cooks in many busy kitchens. There is never enough time or enough room, frankly, and everyone does their best to complete their work without stepping on someone else. It's not a violation of protocol in a busy kitchen to move a pot -- provided it isn't actually cooking -- to make way for one that needs fire. It's good manners to point it out -- but every professional chef understands the need for a working burner, and every cook has been there. There's no such thing as "reserving" a cold burner for later, at least not in any of the kitchens I've been in. And when Elia admitted that Marcel hadn't caused any injury to her dish by moving the steamer, I pretty much hit the end of my rope.

Now I'm not naive -- it seemed clear that Elia was alluding to other behavior that may have transpired. Marcel, as has been pointed out ad nauseum -- rubs people the wrong way. He's quick to needle, pontificate or toss out unwelcome comments that may have been better left unsaid. He's fairly uncompromising in his vision, and views mundane ideas with contempt. All of this makes the guy more of a social maladroit than a villain. Jokes, insults, and tough banter are part of every kitchen I've ever been in, and most people just let it go. My sense is that by this point, Marcel had already tipped the scales of his competitor's tolerance so far away that anything he said or did, regardless of how harmless, was going to be interpreted badly by the other three.
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At another time I'll be happy to ruminate on how important popularity is to the role of a Top Chef. Sure, it's important to have the support of your troops as you head into battle (or at least their respect). And I know there will be plenty of people who believe that Marcel can't be a Top Chef -- no matter how good his food is -- because of his failures on an interpersonal level. But when Elia stood up and accused Marcel of cheating -- a charge I take very seriously -- I wanted actual examples of malfeasance, or I didn't want to be bothered. Neither Elia, Ilan or Sam could come up with one. And by then I was sick to death of it all. Marcel's annoying -- I get it -- now let's get on with the food.

Ultimately, Ilan and Marcel went at tonight's challenge with the most imagination, creativity and personality. Both adroitly did the thing they do -- applying Spanish flavors and chemical wizardry -- with flair and respect for traditional Hawaiian cuisine. And on that basis, these two were chosen to go forward into the next, and final phase of the Top Chef Finale.

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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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