Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Two Orders Of Insipid, With A Side Of Dull

Tom isn't happy with Restaurant Wars. He explains what went wrong.

Tonight's Elimination Challenge was one I can relate to -- the Chefs were asked to come up with a restaurant concept and menu, and then help "create" the restaurant in the raw construction space of a soon-to-be-built Shopping Center, serving dinner to about two dozen guests. Our six remaining contestants were divided into two groups of three, with Sam and Marcel getting to choose their teammates as a reward for having aced the Quickfire Snack Challenge. tomsblog_sam_320x240.jpg

Now, while I say I can relate to the challenge, let me clarify -- in the last fifteen years I have opened six restaurants and a slew of sandwich shops, but obviously I have never been given only 24 hours, and a single design professional and server to pull this off. The demands posed by the challenge meant that the Chefs had considerably less time and resources at their disposal than even the most modest "real world" opening. Typically when I open a restaurant I spend months mulling the concept and the menu. Many more months and many highly skilled and talented people are involved in the design and construction. So before you hit me with the angry emails, know that I am well aware that this was a unique and daunting task.
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But here's some things that the Chefs didn't have to do in those 24 hours: Design a full menu with multiple appetizers, main courses, side dishes, desserts and seasonal specials (they were asked to create one appetizer, one entree, and one dessert).

They weren't asked to work closely with an architect on design and lighting and to choose beautiful but affordable building materials or shepherd the construction along, sticking closely to a budget and managing costs at each turn. They were spared the task of raising capital, the skittish eye of investors and the reams of paperwork -- permits and licenses -- opening a restaurant demands. They didn't have to design a kitchen that promoted efficiency and communication while cleaving to exacting standards of safety and ventilation. They didn't have to navigate the unions and health codes, or hire cooks and teach them to execute food exactly as they would. They didn't have to interview dozens of front-of-the-house staff and train them for weeks to convey the type of hospitality that seems effortless but requires hard work and deep commitment to getting it right. They didn't have to develop relationships with farmers, fishermen and producers to get artisan ingredients that are only obtainable in small quantities. They didn't have to work out the timing of dozens of dishes and then plot out the nightly choreography that allows a table with a well-done order of beef to touch down at the same instant as a rare tuna, to repeat a variation of that ballet for dozens of other diners, to pair wines perfectly to each, and make sure guests feel nurtured, not intruded upon. They didn't have to design menus and stationary and matchbooks that elegantly convey the restaurant's mission, design computerized ordering systems, or manage the press that inevitably accompanies the opening of a restaurant.

And they didn't have to do it from dawn -- when the first farmer's truck rolls up and stocks must be started -- until the last guest leaves late at night, and all over again every day of the week.


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So yes, our chefs were given a very stringent 24 hours to nail this restaurant challenge and yes, that's hard. But in that 24 hours what they really had to do was create a concept, plan a three-course meal that illustrated that concept, purchase the raw materials and accoutrements to successfully execute that concept and work with a designer and a waiter to carry the concept through in the appearance and "feel" of the service. That, and cook the food. tomsblog_cheftest_320x240.jpg

In my opinion, the most important thing they were being asked to do was to express something personal and evocative of the chef and restaurateur they hope to be. A sketch, if you will, of the oil painting to come. And even though it was just a sketch, it had to have good lines and clear promise of the talent and vision they would ultimately deliver if given a chance. Do I think they did this? Sadly, no.
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I was truly disappointed to see that none of the chefs stepped up with a deeply personal vision of their food, and the environment that could showcase them to the judges and to the world. We're down to only six chefs, and its safe to say that each of the six hopes to win and use the victory as a stepping stone for their own culinary career. Here, at last, they were given a chance to show who they were. If even one of the three on each team had done this, and the other two had provided support, it would have been a revealing window into the soul of these chefs and a chance to see who led and who followed.

But for reasons I can't even fathom, Lalalina, Sam, Ilan and Michael's "rustic Italian" restaurant and Marcel, Elia and Cliff's M.E.C. Diner seemed like theme restaurants -- each representing an idea devoid of the personal connection that a real chef needs to bring to his work to make it unique. And on top of this, neither one was done particularly well.
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I could go on and on about the disappointments -- the uncooked barbecue chicken wing, the dispiritingly meatloaf-esque burger, the misguided and distasteful watermelon and cheese gnocchi. The pit-without-a-plate, the missing wine, the morose and awkward service. But I won't. You've seen the episode, and I won't force you to relive it here. But I won't pretend I didn't hope for better. Some cool ideas, a bit of vision, a soup of soul. Didn't happen. tomsblog_tc_320x240.jpg

I continue to be amazed and heartened by the hundreds of insightful viewer comments that pour in each week after this blog is posted. I genuinely try to read them and wish I had the time to respond to each with the same care and thought that went into their writing. To compensate for the lack of interesting analysis in my blog tonight, I'd like to offer readers a chance to post their questions about the show or tonight's episode and I will choose ten to answer in upcoming days. Hopefully in this way I can show my appreciation for your continuing interest and enthusiasm for the show and the remaining chefs -- even on the nights when their imaginations were sorely lacking.

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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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