Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Marcel Vs. The Mob

Tom's take on the group's animosity toward Marcel.

Welcome back and Happy New Year. I was pleased with this week's Quickfire and Elimination Challenges because I thought that, by forcing our remaining chefs to start with an idea unrelated to food, they allowed a window into the creative process. We got to see the starting point for each chef, and to follow them through their execution and representation of that idea -- be it a color or a deadly sin -- on the plate. In the process we got to learn a bit more about each chef's personality -- are they a glass half-empty or half-full kind of person? tomsblog_eliA_320x240.jpg

Take Elia in the Quickfire, for example. My mind reels from all the possibilities one has with "White" as a starting point. Fresh ricotta cheese, cream, cauliflower, root vegetables like turnip and parsnip, the radish world -- jicama and daikon. You've got egg whites and lardo, an extravagantly flavorful form of bacon fat. Sour cream, goat cheese, mozzarella, every white fish in the book, and don't even get me started on potatoes. While Elia's dish turned out fine, her initial reaction to the challenge -- "what the hell am I supposed to do with white?" -- was telling. For others, the challenge, rather than providing a springboard for ideas, seemed limiting and pushed them in a very rigid direction: Witness Ilan's red on red beef tartar with beet chips. "Red" overtook his creative process and lost him the critical eye he needed to use negative space effectively on the plate.
tomsblog_tom_320x240.jpg The other thing that was interesting about these challenges was they did a great job of illustrating people's different work styles. I remember being asked to participate years ago in a mystery box challenge for New York magazine staged at my good friend Alfred Portale's restaurant, The Gotham Bar & Grill. Three other NY chefs cooked alongside us. I don't remember what was in the box, or even what we all came up with. What I do remember was that the five chefs in the room had five very distinct styles. Alfred was methodical and detailed -- he sketched out his whole dish ahead of time and then created lists. Another chef was noisy and talkative, trying one thing and then scrapping that idea and trying something else. I tend to work in a pretty focused way, without the final, completed dish in mind. For me cooking feels like sculpture. I dive into the ingredients and once I start working, the dish begins to reveal itself. Each step inspires the next step until a completed dish emerges. I also taste as I go, and let that guide me as well. The important thing is that there is no wrong or right way to go about this. Alfred's work style -- while completely different than my own -- produces some of the most delicious food I've ever eaten. That said, when people with different work styles are asked to collaborate, it can be tense. Witness the group's frustration when Marcel asked for time to deliberate in coming up with his "deadly sin" dish; the rest wanted to brainstorm as a group, but that simply isn't Marcel's style. When I nose my way around the Top Chef kitchen, I see different work styles at play and I don't judge anyone who seems to be verbal, or actively darting about while working -- I recognize it for the personal style that it is (disorganization is another thing altogether -- that's not a style, that's a liability). Cooking can be a very solitary act, so I do my best to ask questions that will open it up for the cameras and the viewers. I recognize the time pressure our chefs are under, though, so I'm never offended when someone says, "I can't talk right now, chef, I'm cooking." Believe me, I've been there.
With a couple exceptions, I was impressed with the results of the Seven Deadly Sins Elimination Challenge. Sam's Wrathful Ceviche with popcorn was a great choice. Ceviche is fish that is literally "cooked" by the acid and fiery spices in the dish, and popcorn implies explosion -- I thought this was an example of concept and execution coming together nicely. Elia's prideful dish of Roast Chicken and Vegetables was delicious and a crowd pleaser. Her presentation -- displaying the chicken's puffed out breasts and carving them tableside -- matched the sin, and there was pride and confidence in its simplicity. Cliff's Seafood Bouillabaisse was tasty, but his concept -- a soup "overwrought" with shellfish and vegetables -- didn't scream "greed" to me. Some at the table took issue with the stew itself -- the broth was a bit thick, almost a sauce, and there wasn't enough of it. Marcel's Cherry Tarte Tatin with cherry foam and chocolate was too precious and contained to truly represent "lust" (and the foam thing is getting old). haroldsblog_dessert2_320x24.jpg Ilan's Chocolate Cake with Nut Brittle suffered from his inclusion of the funnel cakes. They may have been delicious when they were first fried up in the Top Chef kitchen, but deep-fried foods are a poor choice for serving later -- they become limp and soggy. Saturating them in sweet syrup and crisping them in the oven didn't remedy the problem. If "warmed over" was a deadly sin, then Ilan would have had a chance.
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Betty's slothful Trio of Slow Roasted Soups was a disappointment. I can't argue with her idea of serving something that required no effort (or even teeth) to eat, but her execution was poor. The soups weren't strained correctly, leading to unappetizing lumps, and the flavors failed to excite. I thought the dish lacked imagination, so in that one sense I guess she hit the nail on the head -- her creative process and technique seemed as lazy as her deadly sin. tomsblog_mike_320x240.jpg

The real surprise for me and the others was Michael's "envy" dish. His idea of presenting two ingredients on a plate with one that could be "envious" of another was nothing short of brilliant. When he ran it by me in the kitchen I had doubts about whether he could pull it off, but he definitely did; the fish was cooked perfectly, the lemon-thyme beurre blanc was simple and offset the fish beautifully, and the presentation was tight and skillful. My first reaction was that Michael -- who was taking heavy-duty painkillers after an emergency wisdom tooth extraction -- should cook on Vicodin more often (just kidding, spare me the hate mail). But when I thought about it, I realized that Michael has no doubt spent the last few weeks watching and listening to the cooks around him. He's been picking up good habits and learning that there is a lot more out there than the food he'd been exposed to in the past. I think of this in terms of a basketball metaphor -- a minor player on the team is bound to improve more among stronger players, rather than among people at his own level. And while I would never advocate a professional chef cooking on any kind of drug, in Michael's case, he was a bit out of it from the dental work and medication, which may have helped him escape the petty Marcel-baiting that seemed to bog down some of the others, especially Ilan. Which leads me to my final thought: Now that we're down to only seven chefs, the tension and stress levels are rising. This is to be expected, but it seems to be playing out especially in the group's growing antagonism towards Marcel.

Marcel is the kind of guy who has probably pissed people off his whole life -- dating back to the playground -- without really understanding why or how. Faced with people's negative reactions he lashes back in even more annoying ways, creating a cycle. Under ordinary circumstances, the others may have been willing to brush off Marcel's irritating behavior, but with little sleep and mounting pressure, they're regressing instead into a group of petty sixth-graders. This reached a head for me when I saw the group decide not to serve his dish during the dinner party (Elia was the lone dissenter in this). I replayed the episode to see what Marcel had done to spark this little mob mentality, and realized he hadn't done much, other than speak forcefully. Obviously, the group was primed to be angry with him over the slightest infraction. I wanted to see some leadership -- someone who would step up and say, "Marcel may be the most annoying guy in the world, but the show must go on. Let's put our heads down and get this meal over with." Imagine if a restaurant line came to a screeching halt every time some cook pissed off another? Trust me; it would be the end of restaurant dining as we know it.

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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