Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Questions? Answers!

Tom responds to some very harsh critics.

Before I post my next blog entry, I promised to answer a bunch of questions from the message boards. It seems that most of the comments you wrote in this week are some variation of the following, which I'll paraphrase:

Dear Chef Tom (you hypocritical smug bastard): You like to rant on about taking risks but when Sam took a risk with his watermelon/blue cheese dish you let him have it. Also, you let Marcel skate by with uncooked chicken, which, hello, could have killed somebody. And last, honest, likeable Michael's only sin was not buying olive dishes with his leftover wine glass money, and yet he was let go! You always tell us it's about the food, but clearly it's not. Love the show, despite your obvious anti-Michael, pro-Cliff, anti/pro-Elia (choose one) bias. Keep up the good work, Top Chef is our favorite show, although in protest, we plan to never watch again."

As you may have figured out by now, most of the judges' reactions and comments end up on the edit room floor due to the time considerations of cutting together a cogent episode. Understandably, this leaves viewers with numerous questions about our decisions, some of which must seem inconsistent or nonsensical.


I feel you are all owed explanations, so I'm going to break this one down: "At least Sam was willing to take a risk with his watermelon & cheese dish..." Without question, watermelon and cheese can work brilliantly together (I ate a delicious hors d'oeuvres of watermelon and feta at my friend Brad Farmerie's restaurant, Public, in downtown Manhattan) but for the dish to work, I feel the watermelon should be cold, so that the refreshing quality of the fruit works against the sharpness of the cheese. For some reason Sam felt the dish would benefit from being heated. In my thinking "hot" and "watermelon" just don't work together except possibly in the following sentence, "It was so hot outside, we each inhaled three slices of cool, refreshing watermelon." While Sam's warmed-up watermelon just didn't work, we did appreciate that he showed leadership, took a risk and used his imagination. For this reason he wasn't sent home.


"Marcel served raw chicken which is a health hazard ... he should have been sent home." Marcel's chicken wasn't great, but he had actually made a stab at chicken confit -- a preparation often used with duck leg, in which the meat is cured in spices and slowly cooked in its own fat. If the chicken confit had worked, it would have been unusual and delicious. Most likely Marcel cooked the wings at a temperature high enough to make them safe, but the faulty execution gave the dish a soft, undercooked texture and appearance. And though the judge's confit discussion did not make it into the episode, we discussed it and agreed that, like Sam's unsuccessful watermelon dish, Marcel's chicken showed a stab at doing something interesting.

Also, Marcel was responsible for the vegetable tempura, which all agreed was delicious. For these reasons, he too was spared.


"Mikey may not be the best chef, but he's a great guy and you let him go for reasons that had nothing to do with the food. Is Top Chef all about the food, or isn't it?" Frankly, when the Elimination Challenge is about creating a successful dish, then yes, it's all about the food. Last week's Challenge was about creating a successful restaurant, so we looked at the overall picture including front-of-the-house, purchasing decisions, hospitality, etc. Once upon a time, chefs were hired by restaurateurs. Today, they are restaurateurs, responsible for a lot more than just the food. The judges analyzed which chef seemed to add the least to his or her team in terms of imagination, skills and overall added value, and settled on Michael.

An example of how Michael dropped the ball: When we questioned him about the money he had left over after buying the items on his list -- a full 20 percent of his budget -- Michael told us he used it to buy extra paring knives as gifts for his teammates. A nice enough gesture, but we felt a more ambitious competitor would have asked himself how the money could have been spent to win the challenge -- was anything missing from the mis-en-place (like dishes for olive pits) or was there something that could have enhanced the overall experience -- bread plates, flower vases? How about challenging Sam and Marcel's ill-considered idea not to serve wine? Instead, Michael lapsed into a passive, list-following mode and then even failed as a mere line-cook, needing Sam to show him how to do some very basic tasks. I liked Michael. He was good-hearted, funny, and great to have around. He added levity to the mix, without mean-spiritedness.

But, as many of you have pointed out, this contest isn't designed to reward personality, it's designed to choose the best chef. And at the end of the day, chefs have to do many things like lead, imagine, purchase, prep, design, welcome, and yes, cook.

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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