Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Food, And Nothing But The Food.

You think judging is easy? Gail Simmons dispells that myth.

I was so excited to read about your comfort food favorites on the blogs last week. Thanks so much to those who contributed their thoughts and stories on nostalgic foods. I've always found it fascinating how food, especially paired with childhood memories, can be a window into our cultural heritage. It amazes me how different our taste buds are, depending on where we were raised. But no matter what we choose to eat for comfort, one thing remains true: these old-time favorites nourish not only our stomachs, but also our souls, providing a sense of place and of memories of home.

This week's challenge was far from comforting. Our contestants were split into four teams of three, and asked to cook a four-course dinner, with each course created in the form of a trio. The overall purpose of a trio is to have a chef demonstrate three different techniques using one common ingredient, allowing the diner to taste how varied the results can be. I appreciate the idea behind this, but more often than not, I prefer to eat one complete dish, rather than three small ones. Trios often leave me confused and hungry, especially if the dish doesn't have a connective rationale for its presentation on the plate.
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Since I was not in the episode, I cannot really speak to how the food tasted, but it did seem that the winning and losing choices were justified. Lia's shrimp looked beautiful. It was well conceived and well communicated alongside the dishes of her teammates. Camille, Sara and Dale definitely had a hard time under the circumstances. Their predicament was the trickiest of all, and one we have seen before on the show, as very few contestants have professional pastry training. They could either choose not to do a dessert and risk being penalized because the meal would seem incomplete, or attempt a course none of them had real experience in executing.

Unfortunately, in the restaurant industry and therefore in this game, no points are awarded for effort. We must judge on the product set before us -- and, in this case, it was clear that their pineapple trio did not make the cut. Camille is a lovely and talented chef, but the judges agreed that her upside-down cake was a failure. I wish I had been there to say a proper good-bye. I know everyone will miss her. This particular challenge, including Camille's dismissal, is a perfect example of how we must focus only on the food, regardless of who is cooking. The questions of what we base our decisions on, and whether or not a contestant's personality comes into play when we're deciding who wins and who goes home, were asked by viewers on my blog last week. As I have explained before, none of us have any significant contact with the contestants off-camera, and we do not see their interaction in or out of the kitchen until long after it all takes place. In the course of shooting the show, we learn a little about each of them through a question and answer session at the Judges' Table and through their food. But our job is to judge the food set before us, based on how well the chefs have followed the rules of the Challenge, and how the food tastes and looks.

Of course, there have been times when we wished someone had done better so we could keep them on longer (I imagine Camille's departure was one of those times). On the other hand, there have been moments when we have wanted to eliminate someone based on their attitude when they've come before us. However, this does not happen, as we all realize that bringing our personal feelings to the Judges' Table would compromise the integrity of the show. At times, it can be a difficult thing to do, but that is the job -- and what an exciting job it is!
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What I love about having a blog is the chance to voice personal opinions about the show. In order to remain as unbiased and objective as possible, we can't discuss them at the time. When I mentioned how disappointed I was in Hung for dropping the crayfish last episode, I said so purely as a viewer, since I was not a judge on that episode and had not seen his disappointing actions until the show aired. My blog gives me the opportunity to talk about all this stuff now, as the show has been filmed, taped, and the outcome of each episode determined.

Speaking of objectivity, I've also been asked if, in the course of my job, there's ever any food I don't like or if, as a rule, I eat everything. Everyone has their own food associations, and I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys everything put before them. I could talk about this subject forever, as I find really picky eaters and people with long lists of food issues particularly fascinating.

What I will say is that there are, of course, a few things I prefer not to eat, namely veal and black beans. Both are irrational aversions and by no means do they constitute absolute restrictions. I may never order them at a restaurant, but if someone cooks them for me I will always try them, out of respect. I do, as a rule, try to be objective with every dish set before me and will try anything once. Even if it is not a dish I think I will like, I believe I owe it to the chef who worked hard to cook it to try their food with an open mind. Regardless of whether I really like it, I still appreciate the thought and skill that went into preparing it and try to understand what that person was thinking, what they did wrong and/or what they could have done better. Sometimes during the course of deliberations I come to realize that something was in fact a great dish, even if not suited to my specific taste.
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Another question I wanted to address is that of timing: how long each episode takes to shoot, and what happens that does not make the final cut. The short answer is: LOTS and LOTS. The longer answer: Each episode usually takes about two full days -- one day for the Quickfire and one for the Elimination Challenge. Taping the Quickfire Challenge usually takes a few hours. The Elimination Challenge runs longer and comprises cooking (sometimes over a period of several hours) serving (often the length of a multi-course dinner party), deliberating, questioning, and finally judging and dismissal. Plus, there's the setting and resetting the eight or so cameras and sound crews, transporting the cast and crew to and from each location, etc.

So you can imagine how, if we plan the Challenge to take place at dinner time, shooting can often go well into the early morning, based on everything we must do afterward. Our producers always try to avoid this -- since we're shooting in Florida, you would think they could slip us a few Early Bird Specials! -- but sometimes it just can't be helped. We usually debate our decisions for at least three hours, and what you see is boiled down to only a few minutes. As far as editing is concerned, at times I certainly am shocked when I see the final episode.

The magic of television makes our decisions look swift and easy, when in fact they are, more times than not, prolonged and difficult. I guess that is where our judging ends and the work of those who judge us begins.

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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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