Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Two Orders Of Insipid, With A Side Of Dull

Gail: Mei's Menu Was Almost Flawless

Make Top Chef Mei Lin's Winning Dessert!

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

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Hugh: Mei's a Chef's Chef

Richard: "Winning Is Overrated"

Make Mei's Sushi Style Guac!

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Get Doug's Masterpiece Brisket Recipe

Gail on Innovation (and George's Failure to Push It)

Make Melissa's Seared Duck Breast Dish

Make Melissa's Mom's Egg Custard

Hugh Worries About Scurvy and Foie Gras

Make Mei's Inspired Duck a l'Orange

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

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.

Gail: I Wasn't Surprised Doug Stayed on Top

Gail dishes on Doug Adams' flawless return to the competition and why Melissa King's dish failed to hit the right artistic note.

Bravotv.com: This week we had the Last Chance Kitchen finale between George and Doug, and Doug ended up returning to the competition.

Gail Simmons: It looked like a really close battle -- Tom was really happy with both of their dishes. I will say if I had to put money on it, I would have guessed it would be between George and Doug at the end. They really are two of our stronger competitors. Obviously George was just coming off of his elimination, and it didn't surprise me that Doug stayed at the top of Last Chance Kitchen since being eliminated. I was thrilled to see him in Mexico with us.

Bravotv.com: Great! So he comes back, he wins and then onto the Quickfire Challenge. Any thoughts on this part of the competition?

GS: I'll just say that I’m a big, big fan of Chef Olvera, and I’m so glad we were able to get him on the show. His main restaurant, Pujol, is in Mexico City, but he has Moxi at the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel, where we were  lucky enough to eat the night that I landed, and a new restaurant here in New York that I am really excited about called Cosme. His food is very much rooted in Mexican ingredients and Mexican cooking, but his food is so modern. He really is one of the most talented chefs in the world at this moment, and I’m glad he judged the prickly pear Quickfire. They filmed it right in the center square of San Miguel; it is an amazingly gorgeous place. It was a really great setting for our first challenge in Mexico.

Bravotv.com: Then we have the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a dish inspired by an artist's piece of work, and Doug won with his brisket.

GS:  This challenge is interesting, because San Miguel is such a mecca for artists; it’s an artist colony that has produced incredible work for years. The city itself is so visually inspiring, as are the artists that work there. Their work is so varied, so vast. What was unique in this challenge was that it forced the chefs to take inspiration from an unusual source and think about their dish in a different way. All of the artists are very different, from a graffiti artist to someone who does more abstract landscapes. It was truly exciting to see what the artists did with the canvases they were given and what they shared with the chefs.

I tasted Doug’s dish first and understood it in an instant; it needed no explanation. But when he did talk about it, I realized it had so much depth not only in flavor, but in its purpose. He had an immediate connection with the artist he was paired with -- they were both from Texas and she reminded him a lot of his mother. There was a deep sense of home and comfort between them, which I think allowed him to cook so purely, so simply. The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not "chef it up" too much, he kept it pure. He modeled the presentation of the dish exactly off of the painting itself with those colors from the Mexican landscape -- the deep reds of the earth, those dark greens and browns -- which made perfect sense. His brisket obviously tasted like Texas, but it definitely had an air of Mexico. It had the tomatillo, the masa, and even the red brisket itself was reminiscent of Mexican flavors, since Mexican cuisine has had such an influence on Texas to begin with. The dish was about his roots on a lot of levels. I devoured all of it, it was so hardy and comforting, but it had an elegance and finesse to it in the plating -- the ingredients he chose to put side by side as opposed to stewing them together -- made it special.

The greatest thing about what he made is that he did not 'chef it up' too much, he kept it pure.

Gail Simmons

Bravotv.com: And then we had Gregory's grilled strip loin with ancho chile, beets, cilantro puree, and valencia orange sauce.

GS: Gregory’s dish was excellent too. He did a perfectly grilled strip loin. He was worried about it before we tasted it, but it came out perfectly. He made three incredible sauces to go with it, which drew a lot of inspiration from his artist's painting. The first was this ancho chile sauce and then this beautiful green cilantro puree. The ancho chiles were reminiscent of the peasant farming, the green cilantro tying into the earth. Then there was the orange sauce, which completely changed the dish. When you first tasted it, the dish was earthy, it was deep and complex, it had the Mexican chiles that really shone through with the beef. Then you got a splash of that orange sauce, and it balanced everything out in a way that surprised us. It was so inspired, you could tell that it echoed the sunshine in the painting. It conveyed the artist’s vision of this peasant toiling in the soil through this glorious sunshine, and that’s exactly how the dish tasted.

It was a really close battle between Gregory and Doug in this challenge; both of them did such a great job. Ultimately we chose Doug, because we thought there was an unmistakable depth to his food and it was completely flawless.

Bravotv.com: Let's move on to Mei, who had the snapper and bass crudo with chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles.

GS: In true Mei fashion, her dish was completed beautifully and precise. It was very tightly conceptualized -- every drizzle, every piece of fish, every garnish was perfectly placed, and it was a gorgeous plate of food. I loved her relationship with the artist she worked with, Bea. They had a lovely conversation, which was great to see, and the dish clearly reflected Bea’s work. The chicken skin, the fish, the splashes of color were all inspirations from the painting. Every bite of Mei's dish had a little surprise; there was a little spice, a tiny bit of salt, and a beautiful splash of sweetness, which made it so fun and so playful.

My only criticism of Mei’s food comes from a presentation standpoint. Because Bea’s art was so outrageous and so loud and loose and free in a way, we had hoped that Mei’s food would’ve reflected that. We thought it would have allowed her to loosen up her presentation a little bit. Of course, I respect that she stayed true to who she is and how she presents her food. It was a dish that took a lot of technical skill and was really enjoyable when we ate it, we had just hoped to see more playfulness.

Bravotv.com: And then we had Melissa's smoked eggplant ravioli with shrimp, chorizo, and cotija.

GS: Melissa’s dish was absolutely decadent, delicious, delightful. We all agreed that her smoked eggplant ravioli was perfectly made -- it was smoky, very rich, and the pasta was well cooked. That alone was as good as anything else we had eaten that day. Where we thought she fell short, relative to the other dishes, was that there definitely was less cohesion between the artist's work and her dish. Shrimp, chorizo, cotija cheese, and eggplant can go together, but in the way she plated them, they weren’t really talking -- the shrimp was over here, the sauce was somewhere else, then there was the eggplant ravioli. There didn’t seem to be a line that connected them all. And when she described it in relation to the artwork, we really weren’t sure it conveyed that dramatic splash from the graffiti art. We needed more from her. There was such a direct conversation between Doug and his artist, and it really felt like they were working on the same piece of artwork together. Melissa’s dish, although tasty and very pretty, did not have that same depth. I’m not just talking about flavor; it’s really about the inspiration and the connection, not only between the ingredients on the plate, but between the chef and the artist. His work was really beautiful (and watching the show I regret not buying a piece from him at the time). But it can be hard to translate art, because it’s something so personal. In the end between the four of us we decided that on that day it was Melissa’s dish that did not measure up in terms of the inspiration and connection like the other dishes did. So she was eliminated.

Bravotv.com: It seemed like one of the tougher eliminations this season.

GS: Yes, it was. It always is at this stage of the season. But it was a really great challenge too. I think regardless of winning or losing, Melissa really loved the process and that was so great to see. It was an intellectual challenge that was hard to interpret, and I think they all did an incredible job. I’m really going to miss Melissa. I honestly think she is a huge talent, and I know she is going to do well wherever she goes next.
 

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