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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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. 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. 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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