Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Taking The Lead

Gail Simmons on why restaurant wars took 2 episodes to perfect.

Before delving into this controversial episode, I wanted to respond to those who have been asking where I've been the last few episodes. Thanks so much for your interest and support. Rest assured I will be returning to the show in two weeks for the duration.

The season was taped during the month of April, a very busy time at Food & Wine magazine. It is not only when the annual Food & Wine Best New Chef awards are announced at a splashy gala celebration in New York, but is also just weeks away from the biggest event of our year, the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen -- the production and management of which I am largely responsible for. At the same time, Bravo was looking for more ways to incorporate other judges into what is already a limited panel of only four seats. Putting Ted Allen in my place for a few weeks provided this opportunity, and allowed me to get back to New York and catch up on work at Food & Wine.

Now, on to Quatre (formerly The Garage) vs. Restaurant April and our friend Tre's unfortunate departure. Trust me when I tell you I was just as devastated to learn about it as I am sure many of you were. He was certainly one chef I had my eye on to win this whole competition. His impressive cooking talent and positive relationships with fellow competitors made him a favorite of everyone in the cast and crew. I am sure people are going to be outraged that someone so competent, accomplished, and clearly worthy of the title could be cut at this stage of the game.

To this, I can only stress again the complicated, but ultimately fair nature of the judging process. The judges must choose who wins and who loses each episode based on what is on their plates, as well as what they learn from the contestants at Judges' Tables during each individual challenge. It would be impossible to base choices simply on the knowledge that someone has done better in the past, even if we know they are capable of more. If that were the case, there would be no common standard on which to base our decisions and no consistency to the process. It would also negate the point of the specific challenges, which measure the different skill sets necessary to be a top chef.

As the outcome of the Restaurant Wars demonstrates, we as judges must put ourselves in the place of a restaurant diner, who is not there to read the chef's bio or be sympathetic to problems behind the scenes. To illustrate, consider a time when you have gone to a restaurant and had a bad meal. Did you care if the chef who cooked it was having a bad day? Did you take into consideration that he or she may be an incredible talent but was not demonstrating the leadership necessary to ensure the kitchen carried out his or her vision? When was the last time you told your server it was totally fine that your food was overcooked or poorly seasoned and were sorry to hear that the chef was not working up to their potential?

I am quite sure that most of us dine out, we are not overly concerned with the dynamics behind the kitchen door or issues with the chain of command of those who work there. I do not mean to sound callous, but the truth is that when we dine out, we expect to be well served and well fed. Chances are, we will not return or give the restaurant a good review if the experience proves otherwise. For better or worse, the responsibility for success or failure falls on the chef. That is simply the role of the leader in a kitchen.

Sara won this challenge because her entire team worked together to give the diners a superior experience. As the chef in that kitchen, she gets the credit for their improvements since the soft opening. Unless directly at fault for a specific failure, the front of the house, the sous-chefs, and line cooks can't be held responsible for mistakes resulting from poor direction or decision-making. It is the price you pay for being the boss, and holds true for any industry. In the case of Restaurant April, the menu had a few serious flaws and the team made a few fatal mistakes. Ultimately, Tre knew the time had come for him to stand up for his team and take the hit. I believe he did so with grace and will return to his own kitchen a better leader.

On a positive note, I just returned from the Russian River Valley Winegrowers' Grape to Glass Weekend in Sonoma, CA, where Top Chef Season Two winner Ilan Hall and I were guest speakers. It was the first time since his appearance at the Classic in Aspen that we had the chance to spend time together and I was thoroughly impressed by his charm and knowledge. I think Ilan has officially become full-blown grown up since we all saw him last!

Together we gave a wine and food pairing seminar, matching Sonoma Valley wines with some of his favorite Spanish ingredients, such as Manchego cheese, jamón, piquillo peppers, membrillo (quince paste), and marcona almonds. Ilan was a hit with festival attendees. His passion for these flavors and his stories of their significance to Spanish culture were very interesting. I was also excited to hear what he has been up to since we were last in touch. He has used his winnings on some incredible epicurean travel (Spain, Romania, London), put a down payment on a home and is slowly, secretly planning his dream restaurant. Pretty fantastic for a 25-year-old.

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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