Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Coming Full Circle

Gail Simmons imparts some wisdom about the basics of cooking

Just back from a whirlwind weekend in Los Angeles for the 59th Annual Emmy Awards. Top Chef was nominated for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, an incredible feat in itself, and we were all so honored to be there and celebrate. Tom, Padma, Ilan, and I were overwhelmed by the incredible outpouring of enthusiasm and support for the show, not only from the fans we met along the way, but also from some of the very actors, directors, and producers whom we revere for their own television accomplishments.

Never in a million years could I have imagined the likes of Patricia Heaton, Rex Lee, Judith Light, and the producers of Ugly Betty or The Sopranos telling me how much they love watching each week! It was the thrill of a lifetime and an experience I will not soon forget. Even though we did not win in our category (Amazing Race has taken the title five years in a row!), we partied the night away with our producers and friends, knowing Top Chef will only get better and we will be back to kick butt next year!
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Now, on to this week's episode. I do not normally discuss Quickfire Challenges, but can't help but touch on a few details this time around. I know I railed against Hung a few weeks back when he did not pick up the crawfish he dropped on the floor in the Seafood Quickfire, and I must tell you I seethed again when he spilled a bottle of oil on the floor last week during their challenge to make breakfast for Padma at their apartment. Well, this time I will happily defend his choice to not answer his fellow contestants' questions on how to replicate the Paupiette of Sea Bass at Le Cirque.

I too must remind myself on occasion that most challenges are not meant to be team efforts, are not meant to prove your ability to play nice. They are meant to be competitive, to test each chef's skill and speed. It drove us crazy at times how lovey-dovey the cast could be and how easily they forgot that, at the end of the day, there is only room for one winner. But not Hung. In this instance especially, I applaud his choice to keep his secrets to himself, even if it meant frustrating the others. He worked hard to execute that dish well and it paid off with a win.
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Another notable issue in this Quickfire was that of gender. Casey touched upon it when she entered the Le Cirque kitchen and I have to add my point of view. Many years ago, upon graduating from culinary school, I was sent out into the world of New York restaurants and decided my first stop would be Le Cirque, in its previous location at the New York Palace Hotel. I was just an apprentice and was initially assigned to the hot appetizer, pasta, and risotto station. Although I learned an enormous amount, I was the only female in a kitchen consisting of well over 40 people, from dishwashers to sauciers. It was a very difficult place to work. Along with the obvious physical stresses that any kitchen imposes, there was an undercurrent that made me feel as if I had to prove myself just a little more than everyone else because I was a girl. Could I have imagined it?

I used to think so. But now I know Casey noticed it too. It appears as though not much has changed since I was there, judging from her experience. And do not think I believe this is by any means an anomaly. It pains me to think that even in 2007, most top kitchens in the country are still heavily male dominated. I did not keep in touch with any of the people I worked with at Le Cirque, but I do remember the young cook who led my station. He had recently graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He was very talented, and confident enough to let you know he was willing to do whatever it took to succeed (sound like anyone we know?). His name was Jason Kallert, and watching the Quickfire Challenge I discovered, after all these years, that he is still in fact at Le Cirque, although now in the role of Executive Sous-chef. How far we all have come!
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And how fitting that this week's episode took us from that temple of classic haute cuisine back again to culinary school to taste a humbler side of the classics, in an Elimination Challenge requiring the chefs to showcase three kitchen staples: potatoes, chicken, and onions. Surprisingly, our esteemed guests, the deans of the French Culinary Institute, were just as modest and approachable as the ingredients our chefs had to prepare. But what they lacked in self-importance, they made up for in attention to detail and knowledge of their craft. Even Tom felt awe-inspired by their collective presence.

It is always at this point in the competition, when we know the remaining chefs well and understand that they are all strong contenders, when we can really begin to appreciate their individual cooking styles, and this challenge was no exception. Hung's finely focused Sous Vide Butter-Poached Chicken,Crisp Chicken Skin, and Pommes Dauphin echoed the astuteness and precision he has brought to our table from the start. Although his potatoes could have been lighter in texture, his dish was beautifully prepared and presented. No one could argue with that.
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Dale's Honey Truffle Duet of Chicken with Potato Puree may have failed in concept, but it still showed the creative and fun-loving nature that has made his food so appealing all along. Brian's Peasant Spring Harvest Pie tasted of the strong, risk-taking flavors we had come to expect from him. His charisma and passion came through with each bite. Casey's Coq au Vin, while not a traditional version from the books of the French masters, was her own tasty spin on a piece of her past. It had a rich, complex flavor that told me it had been made with attention and care.

Even Sara's Fricassee of Chicken with Couscous was in its own way a classic. It had all the signature elements of her very own style -- couscous being integral to almost everything she made. I am sorry she felt I was mistaken when I said the chicken was undercooked. I promise I would never have mentioned it unless I was sure. Chefs Jacques Torres and Andre Soltner were witnesses, and even if you cannot trust me, you can surely trust them.

That was one, but not the only reason, we felt her dish was the weakest and sent her home. I believe she is on the brink of a very successful career and can't wait to taste her cheese, wherever she makes it. What disappointed me more than anything about her departure was that it left us, once again, with only one woman in the kitchen. Next stop, Aspen, Colorado for our finale. See you there!

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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