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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Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Richard Blais congratulates Doug Adams on his admirable run and knows (from experience) this is just the beginning for this talented chef.

Doug Adams is not Top Chef.

Doug Adams is, however, the poster chef for what this competition is all about. A jumping off point for unrecognized or yet truly discovered talent.

Mr. Adams, yes I'm saying Mister because it pays respect to the man, and also because that's how The New York Times goes about things, came on to this season touting his resume of being a working class sous chef from Portland.

Doug Adams is not Top Chef. Doug Adams is, however, the poster chef for what this competition is all about.

Richard Blais

Sous chefs are on the line everyday (sous chefs from Portland I imagine are also butchering whole animals and foraging for botanicals, buts that's for a different blog). They are hands-on, blue collar grinders and early on Doug uses this statement to separate himself from the contestants who maybe are clipboard surfing, or worse, not even really in a restaurant at this stage of their careers. And although this is a part of his strategy or drive, and a very honest personal understanding and awareness of self, I have news for you...

Doug Adams is no longer a sous chef.

Sure, he may actually, technically still carry the title tonight, I'm not certain to be honest, but by his performance this season on Top Chef, he is now ready for the next stage in his career, and this is what can happen and should happen after Top Chef.

I can't imagine someone not taking a chance with giving Doug the opportunity to run a small restaurant. I can't imagine that someone out there tonight, hearing about Doug's goal of operating a Montana restaurant, connected in some way to hunting and fishing won't contact him. I can't imagine it; because it happened to me... My restaurant Juniper & Ivy in San Diego is a direct connection from my performance on Top Chef, and my gut tells me it had very little to do with "winning."

The fact is, winning is overrated.

Winning is fun. It may get you some cash or secure your ego, yes, but really, six months after this thing runs out on television, we are all just "that guy or girl from Top Chef.

Throughout this season, Doug has demonstrated everything one looks for in a great business partner. He cooks delicious, relatable, soulful food. He does it with a smile on his face. He cooks with a sense of authorship and knowledge of place and time. And perhaps most importantly (no, not his epic beard), most importantly, he communicates with his colleagues professionally and with integrity. I'd guess every cheftestant likes him. I know every judge likes him. He takes risks, like roasting a whole lobe of Foie gras, or say, blending up an aioli of ant eggs. Which, by the way, are you kidding me? Maybe he takes these chances because it's part of the game, but I think more so because Doug is a curious cook, which is a sure tell sign of a chef ready to do their own thing.

Doug, it may seem like I never had anything positive to say about your food, and maybe indeed that's how it played out on television, but it's not the case, Chef.

Congrats on an amazing run, one for all future contestants to take note of. And when rooms become available at your resort in Montana, I'm booking...

@RichardBlais (Instagram & Twitter)

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