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.)

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.

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!

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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