Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

8 Miles High

Anthony Bourdain discusses CJ's big mistakes.

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Holy crap! Who was that vicious bastard on the judges' panel last night? That angry, mean-spirited snake in the grass...that chained Rottweiler in an ill-fitting jacket, leaning forward on his elbows ready to lunge?

Oh, right. That was me.

So far this year, I've had the dubious honor of helping to boot off the show an extremely likeable, open-hearted orphan with a lilting Southern accent, and now, last night, I got to be part of the hunting party who smashed the hopes and dreams of a cancer survivor. Short of biting the heads off kittens while dressed up as a storm trooper, I don't think I could look any less sympathetic.

Believe me, I'm...I'm not like that in real life. Right after this, in fact, I'm going in to cuddle my adorable baby daughter under the butterfly mobiles in her pink-painted room. Baby talk -- and possibly even singing -- will be involved. And then, I will take my beautiful wife out for brunch and somewhere between multiple mimosas, remind her sincerely that I love her.
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It was not a happy week for me on Top Chef -- nor, I suspect, was it good for most of the contestants. New Jersey may be my childhood home and the cradle of American culture, but who wants to spend more time than they have to at Newark Airport? While I like the fact that I can climb into a big, winged metal tube and be carried anywhere on earth I choose, eating on planes is, for me, most of the time, only marginally preferable to a colonoscopy.

I take a lot of airplanes. Many tens of thousands of miles a year in the air. Reluctantly, I have become, I'm afraid, something of an expert on the subject of air travel. And I have, to say the least, low expectations of what to expect when the slop gurney comes rolling down the aisle -- even when in business class.

Some carriers try harder than others. Singapore Airlines (from whom I receive no compensation or consideration, by the way) actually serve edible food -- and seem to bend over backwards to make the dining experience as lavish and enjoyable as possible given the constraints (thus proving it is indeed, possible).

Most other carriers -- one American outfit in particular -- blithely carry on operating vomit comets -- contemptuously depositing their indifferently prepared droppings on passengers' trays knowing that the only reason people are eating their crap is to break up the stultifying boredom of the pressurized cabin and the inevitability of yet another Will Ferrell film on the main screen.

So the contestants this week were, on one hand, looking at a "compared to what?" situation. Almost anything would be an improvement on most in-flight meal experiences -- and the fact that they'd have to make only a limited number of them -- as opposed to thousands at a clip -- offered real opportunity to impress. On the other hand, they were at a considerable disadvantage. A huge, unfamiliar, airplane hangar kitchen with pre-portioned proteins of indeterminate origin. Notoriously murderous on-board "ovens" in which to "finish" their dishes. A plating area that made Barbie's Malibu beach house kitchen look roomy.
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What the contestants were looking at was a situation not unlike off-site catering. When not cooking or staging on familiar ground, you don't know what the ovens and refrigeration and food holding facilities or the space is going to be like -- and you have to assume the worst. Faced with the very real possibility that standing at the edge of a wedding reception on a windy lawn, your portable propane stove might not get you the dark, caramelized sear you'd ordinarily like to see on a saute item, you plan around that likelihood. You know there might well be problems with the sterno-heated warming cabinets should the bride turn up late -- or a fistfight breaks out at the altar. If there are ovens, you anticipate completely untrustworthy calibration. So you don't plan on serving Dover sole.

The same kind of Worst Case Scenario thinking HAD to go into this challenge. The contestants should have known one thing for sure about what was going to happen to their food the second it left the production kitchen: It would get no better once it boarded the plane. In fact, it would begin to die. Like properly stocking a buffet, one can only hope, under such circumstances, to control how fast or how slowly the food expires.

I was never among those who signed on to the conspiracy theory of Tre's departure and CJ's survival. I never believed that CJ calculatingl threw Tre "under the bus" during the Restaurant Wars challenge. Judging from what I've seen on the show -- and what little I've seen of the man in person, he seems like a decent guy; humble, funny, personable, quick to stick up for others. I believe that when put in charge of a kitchen, he chose Tre as chef not to put him in harm's way, but for very straightforward and sensible reasons: he looked in his own heart, took a hard look at his own abilities and recognized that he himself was not the best man for the job. This was not a tough call. Anyone marginally associated with the restaurant industry need only have quickly compared their two resumes before deciding which of the two should be running the kitchen. Pick one: The experienced chef of a popular restaurant kitchen? (aka a proven leader) Or the "private chef".
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Rightly or wrongly, in the steamy, sweaty trenches of the restaurant kitchen, the private chef is usually considered...well...how shall I say this? A non-entity. So far out of the line-dog's world that they don't even appear on the radar screen. Relegated to the culinary margins along with country club chefs, yachties, nursing home cooks, corporates, and food stylists. The prevailing attitude is "We like you fine. But don't be callin' yourself a chef. Not where we drink after work, anyway. "

Egregiously harsh? Cruel? Elitist? Snobby? Dismissive? Hey, I'm just bein' honest here. And surely, nobody is more acutely aware of this industry-wide attitude than CJ himself. CJ's a good cook. He went far in this competition. I hope -- should he choose to -- that he'll be happily bumping his head into the range hoods of many fine restaurant kitchens in the future.

But let me tell you; CJ's last offering for the Elimination Challenge was...mind-boggling . The camera did not do justice to the spectacular ugliness of his "roasted" broccolini. My fellow passenger Collichio and I gaped, unbelieving at the blackened, twig-like, half-dry, half-sludge Petri-scrapings in our side dishes. I believe I said something like, "This looks like something you'd find in Bob Marley's closet." I meant NOW -- like years and years after the great man's death. Not trusting our eyes, we even saved a portion, putting some in one of the "Glad Family of Bags" -- only reinforcing the impression of dried out ganja. But by judging time, when we had planned on offering the exhibit into evidence, it had degraded so badly as to be so prejudicial that it would outweigh any probative value. No matter. The halibut, too, was overcooked -- and, left unmentioned in the final edit of the show, the minty fresh sauce on top of it tasted like toothpaste. To his credit, CJ, at least, knew. He knew he'd screwed up. He knew why he was up there and he knew, I suspect, long before the judges' final decision was announced, that he'd soon be spending all the time he wanted in New York City.
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Not so, Sara and Brian. Sara felt that while her salmon "might' have been a little overcooked, her dish was otherwise worthy. Wrong. While it is understandable that a first time user of an airplane oven might overcook their fish filet, my salmon had been cooked halfway to oblivion long before it boarded the plane. The accompanying fig cous-cous was flavorless, pointless and unpleasant to eat. And the leek, crabmeat concoction under the fish was so overwhelmed by anise flavor that everything in proximity tasted cloyingly, insipidly sweet -- like melted licorice stick. If you've ever been on an ouzo bender and woken up the next day with your head in a bidet, burping up licorice? That was pretty much my in-flight meal on Air Sara.

Over at Air Malarkey, Brian seemed even more clueless as to why he faced the judges' wrath. " I served a HUGE portion of damn STEAK! There was LOBSTER involved! ... What's not to like?" appeared to be his attitude. Allow me to pose again a question I've asked before: "Do you really think that Tom Collichio of CRAFTSTEAK is going to be impressed by a freakin' SIRLOIN?" Especially a cryo-vac airline sirloin? And serving a Jabba-sized portion, draping over the side of the plate, might impress someone dining on a budget at TGI McFunster's, but treating the judges like size-queens frankly offended rather than helped.

And think: a sirloin is not the most tender of cuts. Did Brian really -- in these troubled times -- expect that cutlery ON AN AIRPLANE would be up to the challenge of sawing through this redwood-sized slab of meat? And the lobster... The frozen lobster tail he scored from the airline larders. What did Brian think was going to happen to his nubbins of already tough lobster tail after ten or so minutes in an airplane oven?

Steak and lobster (and plenty of it, pardner!) may be the expressway to happiness for those to whom a complimentary buffet at the Dollywood Sizzler is a dream come true, but for the chef judges, it felt like Brian was holding up a sign saying "All You Can Eat Jumbo Shrimp" and expecting us all to get insta-boners. I don't know about Tom, but my feelings were hurt.
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Regular readers might have noticed that I am bored by -- and generally unimpressed with -- filet mignon. But if there's one piece of steak perfectly suited for a business class in-flight meal, it's this tender (yet relatively indestructible), flavorless, fat-less cliche. Dale, while hardly reaching for the stars, played it safe, smart and conservative. Fearing the worst, he went with an easy crowd-pleaser, compensating for the blandness of the filet with a wild mushroom/au poivre hybrid. He was very aggressive with the crushed black pepper (which I liked), but the dish still went over well with the flight attendants.

And it worked. The meat emerged from the oven cooked perfectly, the plate looked good, and you could -- if called upon to do so -- easily cut the thing with a plastic knife. Only problem was, he came up short on the count. One of the flight attendants didn't get his beef. Thinking about it; it would have been funny if the flight attendants had been served Sara's salmon -- with CJ's broccolini -- but with Dale's attention to portion count. That would have been a truly perfect re-creation of my usual dining experience on American Airlines.
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What's going on with Hung? Whatever happened to "Chef of the Future"? Last week, he lays back and drills out the ego-free Good Housekeeping mainstay, "salmon mousse on cucumber rounds" and this week he comes up with an homage to a centuries old classic! His "seared Chilean sea bass" was, in fact, a faithful and perfectly executed adaptation of the iconic, ultra old-school Basque war horse, "pil pil". In the original, salt-cod is cooked slowly in olive oil, while swirling, so that the fish's albumen both thickens and flavors the sauce. It was a sneaky "insider" choice, with a built-in appeal to any chef who's been to Spain or who is a fan of Spanish or Basque cuisine. Where Brian treated the judges like rubes, Hung assumed a certain worldliness.

What else did Hung get right? He picked a dense, forgiving protein -- less likely to dry out in the far from optimum conditions. His fish was cooked as fish should be. You might have noticed he set the on board Suzy Homemaker oven to ten minutes -- the absolute minimum required -- having wisely accounted for only that much in his pre-cooking and assuming, correctly, that the more he relied on the equipment on the plane, the less good the finished dish. There was nothing about the dish -- once prepped and loaded for the plane--that a flight attendant couldn't finish. Little was left to chance.
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It wasn't entirely a born again Hung we saw. Earlier in the show, there was some griping that, though he'd finished his work early, he didn't volunteer to help other contestants. Hardly the behavior of an aspiring Mr. Cuddlesworth! But this attitude strikes me as a little disingenuous. At this point in the competition, the contestants should probably stop pretending they're all gonna be co-workers and pals forever. There are now only five left. Ultimately, there will be only one winner. So, really, it's a matter of "Do I cut your throat now? Or do I cut your throat later?" Hung's not running for office. He's there -- like he said from the beginning -- to win. At least he's honest about it.

Casey was again, the big winner. Pleasant surprises are all too rare when you fly as much as I do, and I think any business class traveler, no matter how jaded, would be absolutely delighted to have Casey's veal medallions show up on their tray. It was an unusual choice -- and a daring one, to offer veal. More daring yet to match it with creminis and apple. It was cooked right, looked elegant, and tasted absolutely delicious. Her cauliflower side dish was a smart, durable pick, and unlike the others' veggie selections, it neither stuck out like a sore thumb nor distracted from the main event. Indeed, every element, ingredient, color and texture that Casey put out complemented the others beautifully. She not only gave us the best dish, but also showed the biggest balls of the lot.
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It's down to five. Casey, in spite of the dismaying "onion incident", continues to come on strong. The talented, mercurial, possibly jacked-on-Fresca Hung remains entirely unpredictable. At this point, it's impossible to tell which Hung will show up on any given day: the Crunchberry Kid, Elroy Jetson, or the mature classicist. Whether knocking others down like ten pins in his rush for the tempura flakes, laughing goofily like some character from an old Warner Brothers cartoon, or sneering at the guest judge, he's still a triple threat. Dale's competence and intelligence continue to serve him well. Behind somewhat in the creativity sweepstakes, he'll need some Ilan-style luck to go all the way (meaning someone else will have to screw up.)

Sarah, something of a dark horse candidate, hangs on. Her offering this last challenge was a disaster -- but not an entirely disgraceful one. She was, at least, referencing Provencale and Moroccan flavors -- albeit with an inappropriately oily, cold water fish. If she'd dialed way back on the anise, leaned heavier on the garlic, completely re-thought the cous-cous and swapped a less oily, white fleshed fish for the salmon, her dish could have been quite nice. So she is hardly without hope. Brian, though, is leaking blood in the water. He can no longer run. Nor can he hide. Your seat cushion may no longer be used as a flotation device.

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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