Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Chef Is A Four Letter Word

Anthony Bourdain on bad rice, Rocco DiSpirito, and why ya gotta love Howie.

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This week, Chef Anthony Bourdain continues his guest-blogging stint, filling in for Chef Colicchio:

What is a "chef"? A chef is a cook who leads. A chef is someone who knows how to cook and who can also run a kitchen. Leadership skills are required. Management skills. The ability to execute a vision with consistency. Doing these things means that you are constantly making decisions large and small. The ability to make a brilliant, creatively-dazzling and delicious plate of food is near worthless if you can't do it again and again--exactly the same way--at high speed, under the gun, hung over, after a night of fierce Negroni drinking...while listening to Mexican thrash metal. And you can't do it alone.
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So this week's challenges were illustrative of not just the real strengths--and serious weaknesses--of the contestants, but of the general principles of good decision making--the ability to make mistakes, learn from them, and make corrections.

Lia, last week's winner and a very strong cook from a great restaurant, showed us the terrible potential cost of a bad decision. The challenge was to cook for the cast of the Latino soap, "Dame Chocolate". Latinos, many of whom, presumably, have been working far from home for some time. The implied challenge was to cook food that would bring them right BACK home. Authentic flavors and ingredients, or at least flavors and ingredients that would evoke home, connect them in a powerful way with their culture and their culinary history. This was not a challenge. This was an OPPORTUNITY. There are few weapons more powerful in the chef's armory than the ability to make people homesick in wonderful ways. NOTHING brings people back to their childhood, to their family, to earlier, happier, simpler times than the senses of smell and taste (other than music).

One need only see the "Anton Ego-Ratatouille Epiphany" in Ratatouille to understand (as all good chefs do) how happy you can make people with a few simple, familiar flavors. An animated rat got this. Lia, temporarily, forgot. This was no time to start getting too creative, adding one's own spin, or dicking around with trout and polenta.
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When looking for examples of GOOD decision making, one need look no further than at the resurgent tag team of Howie and Joey. In a shocking reversal of fortune, the much-maligned (by me) Joey stepped up and got it just right. Like a boxer, waking from too many punch-drunk early rounds, he finally saw his opportunity, identified his target, and executed flawlessly. I suspect I have underestimated the man. And may I say that he was much more likable in this episode. There is--I think--plenty of good reason for Joey and Howie to get along--this act has legs. They're freakin' adorable together--an even more dysfunctional Martin and Lewis. They play their cards right, there's a long television career in keeping this double act together.
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Who, of all people, AGAIN demonstrated the finest in chiefly qualities? What unlikely journeyman once again stepped up and out of his weight class to show the more gifted (but less mature) how it's done? What's REALLY important? Tenacious Bulldog Howie!

You GOT to love this guy. He repeatedly has time issues. He's clearly no bundle of fun. He's as serious as a bad chest X-ray. He looks like a fireplug. But I gotta tell you, when he cracked a big, much-deserved grin in the winner's circle, I smiled along with him and might have even pumped a fist in the air and shouted "YES!"

Alone among the contestants, Howie shows extraordinary analytical prowess. He has the ability see things as they are and to accept the reality of the situation. He owns his mistakes. He learns from them. In this Elimination Challenge, he analyzed the situation and his audience, and made some basic decisions. When his prep time was cut drastically, he made a VERY hard choice (to stick with his original decision), stayed the course--while making minor adjustments--and executed. More impressive, he recognized what was great about Joey's dish. He may not like his frequent adversary. He may be in competition with him. But these factors did not prevent him from seeing things as they were--that Joey's was the better dish--and saying so.
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A realistic assessment of the situation is exactly what Howie's good at--and what talented but increasingly delusional Hung seems utterly incapable of. When a pastry chef of MANY more years experience practicing their trade than you've got out of diapers tells you your chocolate mousse is crap? It's crap. When you've got to resort to the transparently desperate measure of lining your saggy-ass wedge of chocolate tart with strawberry slices (to keep it from leaking all over the table like baby puke)? It doesn't MATTER if you think "the flavors are there". "Flavor" counts for very little in a competition for "Top Chef" if your dish looks like something you'd find circling the bowl after a whiskey binge. Hung's look of utter incredulity and contempt when being advised of his deficiencies, his seeming total inability to receive or accept or understand criticism is dismaying. It seems almost...pathological.

His racing around the kitchen like a methedrine-jacked lab rat (for Arroz Con Pollo, no less!), knife out, is the sort of thing a first-year culinary student does. His dishes are often inspired, his skills unquestionably there in abundance, but he seems incapable of the economy of movement that all professionals learn EARLY, and which even Martha Stewart has in spades. And when the majority of your Latino guests, all the judges, and Tom Colicchio in particular agree that your RICE blows? That's not anybody's "personal opinion". It's a fact.
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As a final tip, I'd advise Hung in particular to be cautious next week. Do NOT underestimate guest judge Rocco DiSpirito. It's easy to be dismissive of Rocco's limelight-loving ways, or to have been appalled (as I was) by the horrifying circus of bathos that was his reality series. And he DOES have that curious Nicole Kidman "shock and awe" expression on his face these days; but Rocco--when he wanted to-- could COOK. Brilliantly. Even his detractors (like me) know that. He's a truly gifted cook with a great palate. In a head-to-head competition with Hung? (Similar cooking styles.) He could cook him under the table with one hand tied--on roller skates. If HE tells you your Arroz Con Pollo sucks? It's time to take a long look into that cold, cruel merciless mirror.

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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