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.

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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