Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Free Ride: Hard Landing At The Soft Open

Anthony Bourdain's take on Season 3's Restaurant Wars.

It was a fine and fortunate thing that the hapless crews of "Restaurant April" and Le "Garage" got free passes this week -- as a good argument could be made that any number of cheftestants would have been a prime candidate for the chopping block.

The elimination criteria, as I understand it, runs along the lines of "What Have You Done For Me TODAY." You may have been terrific yesterday -- and the day before -- but if you screw up big time today -- bigger time than the guy who's been skating along all season (not winning but not losing), then it's you that gets thrown over the side. An unfair and unrealistic decision making process? I don't know...

If you've been performing very well as a novice sous-chef at Daniel Boulud's Restaurant Daniel, and then, suddenly, make a horrible botch of even one Saturday night, you're probably not going to be around next Saturday. Restaurants of Daniel's caliber aren't allowed to have a "bad night". The food at a "top" chef's establishment is expected to be exactly as good, day in, day out, every day and every night, whether the chef is there or not. At that level, at those prices, with that level of expectation, where customers have booked months in advance, often traveling hundreds (if not thousands) of miles, it takes only one bad dish, one messed up plate, for people to start buzzing about the place going downhill -- particularly in this era when half your customers seem to be food bloggers.
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With that kind of cold-blooded, cold hearted math at work, I'm afraid to say that the otherwise worthy contestants below might well -- under ordinary circumstances -- have found themselves facing the executioner.

TRE: Yeah. Tre. Can you believe it? I know ... I know ... I like him too. But he had an awful, potentially terminal night. After missing the point of the Burger Challenge with what was essentially a steak sandwich tarted up with lobster, he completely fell down with his Elimination choice of Wild Mushroom and Gorgonzola Crusted Filet with Chernobyl Potatoes.

Let's put aside that I personally hate the dinosaur era idea of "crusting" that blandest of beef cuts (filet mignon) with seasonally inappropriate wild mushrooms and overpowering roquefort cheese (It's so ... TGI McFunsters and so ... '70s!). That in the sweltering summer heat of Miami, Tre could come up with nothing more imaginative than filet mignon? Let's put that aside too. Tre stepped into "Pack Your Knives" territory with his awful, over smoked and butt-ugly potatoes. And he KNEW they were unservable. NO potatoes are always better than seriously screwed up potatoes that blow out the palate and ruin the whole dish. It's the kind of decision chefs have to make all the time and Tre made a bad one, ruining, in one swoop, his whole offering, and putting himself in the line of fire. Tre should take comfort, however, in the fact that he was by no means alone out there.
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Brian, Restaurant April's headless chicken of a maitre de, looked like he'd been stealing meds from Hung. Running around in a flop sweat, his eyes rattling around in his skull like pachinko balls, it took him just minutes to define that beloved French expression from the annals of gastronomy, "dans le merde" (roughly translating to "in the weeds"). At one point, the beleaguered host even suggested that all the cooks abandon their stations to help HIM on the floor!

A thorough, complete, and total meltdown: Dirty, unwashed plates, straight out of the box, forgotten silverware -- all of that can be forgiven of a guy with no front of the house experience -- but Brian cracked under pressure and "lost it" so completely that he, too, was lucky to not be tying up his knife roll at show's end.
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Sara M., on the other hand, after trying to pass off a classic Maryland Crab cake presentation as her "unique take on a hamburger", demonstrated as "chef" of the Garage, a dismaying lack of leadership skills, complete obliviousness to the season, the locale, and even the all-too painfully obvious fact that it was bloody hot. First mention of Howie's utterly boneheaded idea for a Wild Mushroom Risotto with Foie Gras should have been met with peals of derisive laughter and comments like, " No WAY!! Are you OUT of your MIND!!?? That's about as heavy and wintery a dish as you can find on the planet! It'll sit in their bellies like quick drying cement in this heat. Now un-**** yourself and think of something light and seasonal!"

Not that her braised lamb shank was such a bright idea either. Especially not when it's tough. Especially not when it's sitting on top of a heap of "sun choked mashed potatoes", immediately following an ultra rich mound of foie gras, butter and cheese-loaded risotto. Did two unseasonal offerings on her watch make Sara deserving of the rotating knives? Maybe. Maybe not.
If anybody could be said to have warranted elimination on the basis of one, isolated error, it would have to be Dale. In perhaps the single worst (and truly epic) decision of three seasons of "Top Chef", Dale figured that the customers of his start-up restaurant don't actually want to taste or smell their food, they want their clothes and every pore and follicle of their bodies to be permeated with the unholy stench of vanilla candles. They want to leave the restaurant smelling like a whorehouse or a peep show.

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Fortunately, Dale made an otherwise excellent front man; the perfect, professional mix of competent, friendly and energetic host on the floor -- and hard-driving Queen Bitch in the waiter's station. Other than his jaw-dropping insane urge to make his dining room smell like Grandma, he did an outstanding job, didn't get flustered, held things together and restored some degree of honor to his clan. That might, and arguably should, have saved him.
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Does anything penetrate Howie's shining, ballistic missile of a head? That his bullet-resistant exo-skeleton can deflect the slings and arrows of his competitors is a good thing (though an asset with diminishing returns since Joey's departure). But it appears as well, that neither logic, nor the criticisms of chefs as great as Daniel, nor the passing seasons -- nor even blunt objects -- can infiltrate the inner workings of his space-age polymer nose-cone.

"The risotto is overcooked", says Daniel freakin' Boulud, one of the best chefs in the country.

"No", says Howie, who knows better.

And if it is overcooked (which he's not admitting it is, by the way), well ... it's not his fault. It must have "sat there." (This was a nice variation on the popular murder defense of " I didn't do it but if you think I did -- well, the other guy made me do it"). You shouldn't put cream in risotto, says Tom Collichio (correctly, BTW) but here, too, Howie Knows Best. He has come to learn, he suggests, since "becoming an executive chef" that risotto is better with cream. It's not.

Of course, observant viewers and horrified Italians could CLEARLY see that Howie's risotto was sitting up like day old spackle. And while dumping on Howie, I should point out that anytime you see a cook loading up something as potentially simple and beautiful as risotto with too many "money" ingredients like black truffles AND foie gras AND wild mushrooms, you're seeing an insecure cook, temporarily bereft of ideas. Howie's dish was unimaginative (he's done risotto before), over-killed with the garnishes (pick one, numbnuts), completely inappropriate to the climate, location, season and the progression of the rest of the meal. It was also badly executed. His "defense" of eating heavy braised and stewed dishes out of season (cause he likes to) --particularly considering WHO he was talking to -- bordered on the unhinged.
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Brother Hung, by contrast, had a very good day. His burger was looked upon with favor by Daniel, inspiring Hung to giggle and blush like he'd been asked to the prom. He finally found something to do with those damn tempura flakes. And it was nice to see him encounter a chef/judge he clearly respects.

Whatever you think of "bad guy" Hung, you have to admit he rose to the challenge with his much admired "tuna tartare", which was not a tuna tartare at all -- but a cleverly inspired deconstruction of a beloved bistro classic, the "Nicoise Salad". Pretty, playful, modestly proportioned, beautifully conceptualized, creative, yet perfectly familiar in its components -- which is to say, perfect for a "bistro" themed meal. Also, apparently, delicious. It was the dish of the night. Hung, for once, used his strange and terrible powers for good and not evil. And I say, give the man credit.

Richard: "Gregory Had the Better Ideas"

Richard Blais explains why Mei Lin won, and why we'll definitely be hearing from Gregory Gourdet soon.

The finale of Top Chef is the one absolute every season. Make the best meal of your life, in a multi-course tasting format for a room of the "who's who" in the culinary industry.

If you get to the finals, it's the type of thing you can prepare for. Every finalist should have a few four to five course menus floating around their heads, including a dessert, and all complete with options and Plan B's transcribed to their moleskins. And although the knowledge of what's coming is helpful, the format does not play to every chef's strengths.

There aren't too many restaurants committed to such meal services. Which means less chefs experienced with how to "write" and execute them. A progressive meal has to have a certain flow about it. And even the stereotypical versions of the "menu degustation" could force a contestant into cooking a dish that's not in their wheelhouse, for instance a straight forward fish course because "it belongs there."

Tonight, Mei Lin has a slight advantage. She cooks in a restaurant every day that showcases a tasting menu. Her food has been the epitome of a modern tasting menu all season. Many previous times, to a fault. Mei's food is small and precise. Beautiful to look at, and intellectually stimulating to discuss. Cold sometimes, every once in a while a shaved radish plated with tweezers heavy. It's not for everyone. It's not for everyday. But it's the type of food that when done well, can win Top Chef. Win James Beard Award noms. Win Best New Chef honors. Win Michelin stars.

Her future could indeed be bright.

What struck me most about Mei's food tonight however, wasn't technique. Technique and presentation often can get in the way of flavor. But tonight Mei delivered a few courses that were deeply satisfying. Soulful, delicious food that also was presented at a high level and cooked with surgeon's precision. That congee though...combined with a simple dessert that took yogurt and granola to another planet, won her the day. Her other two courses were fine, but suffered from the strains of modernity. Overly plated (the duck) and technically overwrought (the fried octopus).

Gregory on the other hand, it's just not his finest work. You can hear it in his voice as he's explaining his food. He's cooking improv, an ode to Mexico. The problem is, this isn't a jam session at a local cantina. This is a studio session where the chefs should be cooking practiced and refined pieces.

His octopus was a highlight and featured the unusual combination of passion fruit and avocado. It was an explosive start. The following two courses unraveled a bit, with the soup being good, but way too unrefined for the moment and technically problematic (the crispy shrimp heads), and the fish course bordering on dessert with the sugary carrot purée.

The mole was authentic and delicious, the rib cooked perfectly, but the dish felt a little incomplete. I believe Gregory had the better ideas, but just needed to think them through a bit more.

His sadness after the fact, I can attest, is profound. Tearful. Absolute emptiness. Close to the feeling of the sudden loss of a loved one. This may shock some of you, because it is indeed just a game. The mere thought of feeling that way over such silliness is well, silly. But not for us. This isn't the Super Bowl where an athlete loses and they can shake it off. Jump in their Bentley and start thinking about next season. There is no next season. There is no guaranteed pay day for the runner-up. The ten wins you had before don't matter. It just ends. Suddenly. And it's rather sad.

The good thing is, this is certainly, 100%, not the last time you will hear from Gregory. I waxed last week about Doug's professionalism, all of which is very true. But Gregory... Gregory is a special talent. His food (and I can say HIS type of food, because it's unique to him), is a study in refined, exotic comfort. What the man can do with a one-pot meal of braised anything, some chilies, sugar, vinegar, herbs, and spices is beyond impressive. Rarely do I taste food that makes me jealous as a cook. Rarely do I taste food that makes me start thinking about a new restaurant concept. The word inspiring in cooking competitions is sort of like the word "love," when it gets used too much, it loses it luster. Gregory's food however. I love it. It is inspiring.

Congrats to Mei and Gregory! Tom was right, I can't wait to one day say I saw you two way back when, in Mexico, in a little kitchen, before the bright lights, fancy kitchens, and big stages that lay ahead for both of you.

See you next season. I hope!

Richard Blais
@RichardBlais - Twitter and Instagram

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