Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Frozen Dinner

Gail Simmons talkes TV dinners and Joey's narrow-mindedness.

When I was about eight years old a new food company sent my mom --- a food writer and cooking teacher -- a large crate of frozen dinners to write about in her weekly newspaper column. Opening that crate was a true revelation for my older brothers and me. Until that moment, we never knew food could come broken into four separate compartments: for green beans, mashed potatoes, roast turkey doused in gravy and, finally, a small cherry crumble -- all ready in less than 20 minutes.

How it all tasted (synthetic and terribly overcooked) was beside the point. What mattered to us was how fun it was. Now, without supervision, we could prepare dinner ourselves without relying on Mom and eat it right in front of the TV! For at least a week, my poor mother had a hard time getting us to eat anything else.

The frozen food industry has matured a great deal since then. The choices available are a far cry from those classic TV dinners of my childhood. Bertolli is just one of many food companies that, in recent years, have mastered the technology of Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) foods. The process, which freezes each individual ingredient of a dish separately before packaging them together for sale, not only prevents excess moisture from accumulating and creating large ice crystals on food (otherwise known as freezer burn), it also preserves the integrity of each ingredient, allowing it to maintain its freshness and flavor longer. This results in a much higher quality frozen product than previously available.
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Bertolli has taken the technology one step further by creating a product that gives its customers the satisfaction of finishing the dish on the stovetop with a quick stir and the addition of a garnish or two. This creates the comforting illusion of preparing a home-cooked meal. The re-creation of this sense of accomplishment, combined with the convenience of a 10-minute pasta dinner, was what we had in mind for this episode's Elimination. It was the first challenge I can recall where several of the contestants actually failed to understand what was required of them and, in turn, were unable to complete the challenge properly. I cannot tell if this was because they did not pay attention to the instructions and the time allotted, or if they were so worried about getting the task done that they forgot to do it well. Either way, I loved watching this episode after the fact. It really gives us all a sense of our contestants' personalities

. I really enjoyed sampling both CJ and Tre's Black Truffle & Parmesan Linguini with Grilled Chicken, Tuscan Kale and Tomato Confit, as well as Casey and Dale's Turkey & Pork Meatballs with Orecchiette, Vegetables and Spinach Almond Pesto. The question of whether or not all their ingredients were found in the Mediterranean region did not bother me.

At least they were from the general vicinity. You could tell that these dishes were cooked by individuals who were able to work together toward a common goal. That, to me, is what matters most.


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Both dishes were well prepared. The ideas behind them were apparent; the ingredients tasted fresh. You could see that this team understood how to make a frozen pasta dish. Food always reflects when the kitchen it comes from has direction and focus. CJ and Tre won this challenge not just because their food was delicious, winning the vote of many Fresh Market customers, but also because they were able to cleanly execute the idea of IQF cooking. The still-frozen meatball issue Rocco had with Casey and Dale's dish definitely put CJ and Tre in the lead. Furthermore, CJ and Tre were the only team that had enough insight to take advantage of the hour they were given on the day of the challenge for re-assembling and packing their individual ingredients. They had every right to be as confident in their meal as they were. I hope they are able use their winning trip to go to Italy during truffle season!

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It was no coincidence that the two teams that failed to get along served the weakest food. Howie and Sara M's Mediterranean Shrimp Pasta with Fennel & Sundried Tomato Vinaigrette suffered not only from including too many competing flavors, but also from overcooking. Since they did not use the IQF method, it went into the pan in one big chunk, which they cooked on far too high a flame, and therefore could not control the doneness of their ingredients. They also could not control each other!


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Hung and Joey's Tri-colored Fusilli with Chicken and Garlic Sun-dried Tomato Sauce had many of the same problems. It went into the freezer in one frozen batch and came out of the pan a muddled, overcooked mush that lacked flavor and originality. Joey was sent home because he could not comprehend what was required of him in this challenge. Regardless of what Hung may have intended for their food, the end result is what we are forced to judge. Their dish's failure was obviously due to Joey's narrow-mindedness. I was sorry to see him in such a state at the end of the episode, as I thought he brought a lot to the show. That night, his passion seemed to get the better of him. I am sure Cafe des Artistes was happy to have him back, and I wish him well with whatever he chooses to do next. Let's just hope he stays away from the frozen food aisle.

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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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