Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Case Of The Purloined Lychees

Did Otto steal the lychees? Tom looks into the case.

As an avid (ok, obsessed) fly fisherman, I feel a reverence for fish -- the fresher the better. One of my favorite things to do as a young chef was head down to the Fulton Fish Market in the pre-dawn hours to choose fish for my first NYC restaurant, Mondrian. The market was a rough-and-tumble place, but I learned from the experts how to judge the freshness of a fish (look for unclouded eyes) and to distinguish fish that has been well-handled from fish that has been thrown about (bruising the flesh) and fish that was caught only hours ago from fish that has lived for weeks packed in ice while the boat was out at sea. I felt bad waking the chefs up before dawn -- especially because my forays down to the fish market usually happened after a night in the kitchen (and subsequent pub crawl), while I was weary but not yet comatose. Our chefs put on a brave face, but after only a couple hours of sleep, they were clearly hurting. When our chefs were asked to create a sushi dish for their Quickfire challenge, we knew we were asking most of them to step outside their own cultural milieu. That said, I think it was a worthwhile challenge -- especially for this early in the season -- because it would give us a chance to assess the chefs' adaptability, their knife skills, and their knowledge of other cuisines.

I wasn't there during the Quickfire, but watching the footage I was impressed by Ilan's precise work and use of the scallop in its shell. I thought Elia's introduction of olives into her dish was risky, but Chef Hiroshi Shima appreciated the kick of unexpected flavor they provided. Cliff's dish of hamma oysters with ginger, soy, mango and jalapeno showed knife skills and a good grasp of presentation. That he also prepared prawns with hamachi, sisho leaf and daikon shows that he was ambitious, and willing to undertake a lot in only 30 minutes. I was glad to see that he won. Virtually every chef I know spends hours each week supporting charities that are meaningful to him or her. My own causes include hunger relief, through Share Our Strength, and Children of Bellevue, where underserved children receive desperately needed care and social services.

My good friend Kerry Heffernan introduced me to Project by Project, an organization based in NY and L.A. that partners young professionals with community organizations to help them realize their goals. Each year Project by Project chooses a different cause with whom to partner. This year they are raising money for Visual Communications, an organization that promotes media works by and about Asian Americans. One of Project-by-Project's most successful fund-raising events is their annual Food & Wine Tasting Benefit, in which various chefs and vintners prepare tasting plates and tastes of wine for charity-minded individuals. This year, we decided to lend Top Chef's contestants to the cause: Divided into two teams, representing two different Asian cuisines, their task was to work together to dazzle 1,000 guests at the tasting benefit, and raise money for a good cause.
Los Angeles is home to a diversity of Asian cultures, and so our chefs were divided into teams that focused on two that aren't as well known to many Americans -- Vietnamese and Korean. Vietnamese cuisine, like Chinese, relies heavily on seafood and vegetables in stir-fries with rice or rice noodles, but Vietnam's French Colonial past is seen through the use of consomme-like bases in their soups, and subtle herbs such as lemongrass. There is almost always some fresh vegetables and herbs served with a Vietnamese meal, and dipping sauces served alongside the main dish. Korean food, on the other hand, relies heavily on the strong flavors of red chili paste, garlic, and fermented soybeans. Kimchee (spicy, pickled vegetables) and banchan, numerous side dishes, are presented alongside spicy stews of fish, meat and tofu and steamed, short-grain rice. For Americans more accustomed to the delicate flavors of Japanese cuisine, or the careful balance of Thai food, Korean food can be an acquired taste. For those who know it and love it, good Korean food is something of an obsession. I was eager to see how our teams functioned together, and to see how they incorporated what they knew (or learned) about these different cuisines into their event food. I was also eager to see their "game face" -- how they presented themselves among civilians, since this is a big part of being a chef.

Team Vietnam had an advantage in that Josie had worked in a Vietnamese restaurant. She naturally fell into a leadership role, and her knowledge of the cuisine served as an important anchor as the team formed their plan. And while Michael eventually had an issue with Josie's authority on the project (she had a problem with his sloppy knife skills, and rightfully so), the group came together and immediately got to work. The resulting food wasn't perfect, but it was solid and good. Ultimately it was Team Vietnam's overall organization and professionalism that carried them through. They also understood the value of presentation and hospitality. They put affable Betty up front, serving a delicious cucumber and aloe refresher, and she turned out to be a huge asset to the team by connecting with guests and making them feel welcome. Team Korea, on the other hand, started out with a more lackadaisical approach. They opted not to follow anyone's lead, which meant that decisions and planning took a long time. Elia in particular was frustrated at the team's raucous tone and the absence of any direction in the planning. Now let me just say that I've done my share of partying over the years. Chefs are known for their healthy appetites for fun, but the best ones pull it together when the time comes to get serious. Unfortunately, Team Korea seemed hung-over and disorganized right from the start -- a pretty big breach of professionalism.

And then there was the lychee debacle. A case of lychees were loaded onto the bottom rung of Team Korea's cart in the store. When their items were rung up, the team was over their spending limit and some things were returned to the shelves. The cashier never spotted the lychees, and so they made it out of the store with the other ingredients. Without question the lychees would have pushed the team over their budget and would have had to be returned if spotted. It appeared that Otto knew this, because he mentioned it to his teammates as they were loading the car. When the others learned of this breach, they resolved not to use the lychees in the challenge. When I learned of it, I pressed Otto to explain. He acknowledged that allowing the team to make off with a free ingredient showed poor judgment "in the heat of battle." He agreed to return the lychees to the store. Unfortunately, this put Team Korea down a chef as they scrambled to complete their dishes, and their early disorganization came back to haunt them. They opted for a few traditional items -- spicy braised pork, kimchee, sticky rice and lotus chips. I was skeptical about their ability to brine the kimchee in the limited time available, and yet they pulled it off -- it was refreshingly acidic and tasty. Judge Ming Tsai agreed that their kimchee worked, as well as their braised pork. Unfortunately, their rice wasn't great. But the team's real problem was dessert.

Marisa, a professional dessert chef, opted to make a panna cotta -- an odd choice, given that it is a classic Italian cream-based dessert you'd be hard-pressed to find in Korea (they compensated for this by flavoring it with Jasmine tea.). But the real issue was that her proportions were off and she used way too much gelatin in the recipe. Panna Cotta should be smooth, creamy and delicate. Hers was rubbery and hard. On both concept and execution the dessert was a failure. Our decision was clear -- the winner was Team Vietnam. When we brought Team Korea to the judge's table, Marisa quickly blamed Otto's ethical lapse for throwing the team off, because she knew her neck was on the block. Elia, who had also worked on dessert, felt the same. The men, on the other hand, were reluctant to slam Otto because they all knew that his indiscretion with the lychees wasn't the full story behind their loss. When the chefs left the judge's table, Ming Tsai, Gail, Padma and I sat and debated. Which was the bigger issue -- Otto's willingness to score free ingredients, or Marisa's poor execution of dessert?

While we thought that what Otto did fell short of actual stealing, it was clear that there was a moment where he knew the lychees weren't paid for and was willing to use them to his team's advantage. At the judge's table I had one question for Otto: Would he have used the lychees if he could have gotten away with it? Rather than answer, Otto made the decision to leave the competition. I think all good people lapse on occasion, and a competitive headspace can unfortunately get in the way of ethical thinking. Overall, Otto was a good guy, but he made a poor choice. He redeemed himself by bowing out, and saved Marisa in the process.

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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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