Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Late-night Snack Equations

Gail Simmons on what makes bar food tasty.

Three nights before this challenge was taped, Tom and I stumbled into the new Table 8 Restaurant in South Beach (the original is in Los Angeles), exhausted after a long day of shooting a previous episode. It was probably around eleven o'clock and we were famished. It may surprise you to know that despite all of the eating you see us do on the show, filming of the Judges Table takes so long that we are usually very hungry and tired when we are done.

Luckily, Chef Govind Armstrong was in town and immediately made us very comfortable at the bar. While his bartender plied us with a slew of creative and potent cocktails, he instructed his kitchen to bring out a series of fabulously decadent snacks for us to try. The few I remember most were rich Kobe-style beef sliders, quarters of grilled cheese sandwiches with a plate of buttery, lemony, broccoli rabe, and zesty arancini (fried risotto balls) with cheese and tomato. These treats really hit the spot and, coupled with our drinks, made the perfect end to the day. When I discovered that Govind would be judging the "Top Chef" late-night snack food challenge a few days later, I knew he was the man for the job.

To me, late-night snack food, especially after a night of drinking, needs to be very savory and very easy to eat. It is no coincidence that most of us crave salty, greasy, fatty foods to coat our stomachs and sop up the alcohol we have consumed. Spicy flavors also seem to do the trick, perhaps because the fire in your mouth and belly help you forget whatever else you put in there earlier in the evening

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For the most part, I thought the menus each of the teams chose for this challenge read appropriately. I was eager to see how they would work together to pull it all off in the cramped kitchens of their food trucks, or "roach coaches," as they are often affectionately called. Interestingly, many of the items they came up with were variations of bar snack recipes FOOD & WINE created in January 2006, when we declared it the Year of the Cocktail, including quesadillas, chicken wings, grilled shrimp and a killer burger with Stilton and sweet-potato fries. Check them out and let me know if they satisfy your late-night appetite!


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I knew as soon as Sara N. began complaining about her outfit that the Orange Team was doomed. Cooking in a low-cut shirt and heels, while obviously not ideal, should have been the least of their problems, with hundreds of drunken mouths to feed. It became increasingly apparent, as well, that no one on their team was happy working with one another and that this spurred significant tension in the kitchen. Then, there was the Black Team, who seemed to embrace the challenge with a sense of humor and fun, quickly rising above the disappointment of discovering they were not going to spend the night partying in the club themselves. I know it is easy for me judge from the comfort of my living room after the fact, but from the very start of this preposterous night, I could not help but feel that the Black Team's energy and cooperation enabled them to produce better food, more efficiently. It also gave them the confidence to promote their dishes so well.

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I found one portion of their offering questionable: Brian's raw bar. I have to agree with Tom that it did not sound very appetizing. Don't forget that texture plays a serious role in late-night eating (slimy food = very bad). It certainly is not what I opt to eat on my way home from a club on a Saturday night, but I guess he charmed his audience enough so that it did not seem to matter. And once Brian lured the clubgoers over, Tre sealed the deal. His Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp and Grits sounded like the ideal late-night dish (creamy food = very good). It was smoky, creamy, and salty, with just the right amount of sophistication to please the judges too. It was almost as satisfying to see him win with that dish as I imagine it was to eat it. I, for one, ended my night after watching the episode, completely satiated by the outcome.

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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