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.

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.

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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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