Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Restaurant Wars Part 1

Gail Simmons tells all about Season 3's restaurant wars.

In January 2003, the New York restaurant community went to war and -- for better or worse -- I was on the front lines. I was working for Daniel Boulud's empire of acclaimed French restaurants, which included New York's DANIEL, Cafe Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne, and others set to open in Palm Beach and Las Vegas.

I managed special events, cookbook projects and publicity, making me one of the first to learn he would be adding fresh black truffles to his already famous $29 DB Burger and charging an unprecedented $50 for the dish. This may not sound like a reason to get out the battle armor, but let me explain: To begin with, this was no ordinary burger. It comprised an exterior of ground sirloin with a filling of boned short ribs braised in red wine, plus foie gras, black truffles and a mirepoix of root vegetables. Its homemade bun was topped with toasted Parmesan and layered with fresh horseradish mayonnaise, tomato confit, fresh tomato and frisee lettuce. The extra layer of black truffles sliced and placed on top of the patty doubled not only its cost, but also its glam factor. Chef Daniel called it the DB Burger Royale.


Within hours of the Burger Royale having been added to the menu, the "New York Post" published an article about it and what followed was a literal feeding frenzy. Press from across the country and around the world descended on DB Bistro to taste the phenomenon, critique it, and get in on the action. Never before had someone charged such a high amount for something otherwise so ubiquitous. Enhancing the excitement, Old Homestead, a downtown landmark steakhouse, had just added a $41 burger -- made of Kobe beef -- to its menu. With the DB Burger Royale on the scene, the battle for the best and most expensive burger was on. For weeks, all we could do to keep the press and public at bay was make as many burgers as possible and answer the call to flip that burger for every celebrity and media outlet in town. No one could get enough of what had come to be called the New York Burger Wars. In fact, Daniel's PR Director, Georgette Farkas, and I had to cook many of the burgers ourselves to keep up with the numerous press requests at all hours of the day and night. We even joked that one day we should write a book called "Flipping Burgers in Four-Inch Heels". So to all those who commented on my blog last week about Sara N's dismissal performance -- yes, I have been in her position before and managed to power through by focusing on the intense job at hand. I do commiserate with her, though, knowing how much pain my feet were in by the end of each day in the most inappropriate cooking shoes.

Only when the commotion died down did we realize that a serious trend in upscale dining had taken root: the idea of creating a luxurious version of a very traditional, all-American dish. It was extraordinary to witness the nation's reaction. From coast to coast, high-end burgers began popping up on menus everywhere. And the rest, as they say, is history. gail_308_02_320x240.jpg

As you can see, Daniel Boulud knows a thing or two about burgers. So when I discovered he was the judge of a "Top Chef" Burger Quickfire Challenge, I knew this would be a thrilling episode. I was glad to see that CJ's seafood burger won. It seemed well thought out and looked appetizing, a definite departure from the regular beef burger, without stretching the definition of what a burger should be. (To me this means a cooked patty between two halves of a bun.)
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As for the Restaurant Wars, I am sure viewers are frustrated that no one was eliminated this week, but I believe it was a very smart way to end the night. Giving them another chance to prove themselves, and perfect their separate visions, more closely resembles the process most restaurants go through when they are opening. Even the best restaurants go through a period of trial and error in their first few weeks...even months. All aspects of running such a tightly orchestrated machine must be practiced and analyzed in order for it to run smoothly. Having the opportunity to learn from their mistakes will only enable both Restaurant April and The Garage to make enormous improvements their second time around. gail_308_03_320x240.jpg

Clearly, both teams were not at all equipped to handle what the challenge required in the time they were given. Building a restaurant from concept to service, with a full menu, in 24 hours is no easy task, especially because attention to detail in the front and back of the house must be an absolute priority.
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I was just as miffed as the diners when I saw Dale place scented candles all over his dining room. I was also completely confused by Howie and Sara M's heavy menu of wild mushroom risotto and braised lamb shanks, which appeared far too rich for the heat of an April night in Miami. I cannot imagine how any of their guests could have gotten through it. Why didn't they create a restaurant that fit their location?

Did seasonality get thrown out with the dishwater? In addition, Tre's smoked potatoes were the perfect example of a dish that worked in theory but should have been altered or removed when it did not work in practice. He knew those spuds burned in the smoker but sent them out anyway. Knowing how the judges feel about all these elements will hopefully allow the contestants to put out a truly excellent product next week. Until then, I guess we'll all have to stay tuned ... And as for the book about my adventures flipping fancy burgers, you never know what the future may bring, so stay tuned for that too!

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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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