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!


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.


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.

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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