Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Hung Solo

Sam Talbot dives right into Season 3's Restaurant Wars.

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A few things before I get into this episode: A little gratuitous self-promotion. I'm in a contest for Glad SimplyCooking Microwave Steaming Bags. If I'm voted the "steamiest" chef, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation will get $30K. It would be amazing if I could win them this money (just don't tell the JDF that I love Cold Stone ice cream.) Vote here.

What I learned about the reality genre, blogging, and human nature is this: criticism (AKA snarkiness) is easier, funnier, more provocative, and more entertaining than empathy. Just ask New York Magazine. That doesn't mean it's always the right way to go--or the only way to go (more on this later. Bourdain's blog is a perfect example of striking the right balance--can he just be made a judge already?

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Chef Daniel Boulud. Wow. I know exactly how these chefs felt walking in and seeing him. When I saw Chef Eric Ripert it was a mix of awe, excitement, adrenaline, competitiveness, and respect. Not only was Daniel Boulud the guest judge, but they got to make a burger for him--the guy who serves a burger consisting of ground sirloin filled with boned short ribs braised in red wine, foie gras, black truffle, and a mirepoix of root vegetable, horseradish mayo, tomato confit, fresh tomato, and frisee lettuce on a homemade bun with toasted parmesan. Yee-haw!
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Hung. Finally! Yeah, man. That's what I'm talkin' about! You can cook! I want to eat Hung's burger now! I liked CJ's confidence and his food---congrats, man. But enough about CJ, back to Hung's burger.... Ah ,yes, good ol' Restaurant Wars. I'm glad these chefs were familiar with the challenge. I wasn't. (La La Lame-o.) This challenge is hard to say the least. To get four people competing against each other to agree on a restaurant name, concept, decor, menu and execute it in 24 hours?

Consider these numbers from Time Out New York:

1 year How long a restaurant typically takes to turn a profit. 222 Number of buzzed-about restaurants that opened in 2006. 102 Number of noteworthy restaurants that closed in 2006. And these include restaurants that have experienced people behind them. Restaurants with millions of dollars and years of thought. And yet, they still made mistakes. Besides the scented candles, the mistakes these TC chefs made are being made in restaurants all across the country:

1. The name. Naming a restaurant is harder than naming a child. And with four people, I think they tried to find something they all agreed on so they could move on to what they really needed to spend time on--the food.

That brings me to my next point:

2. The decor. Last year, we had a designer who was supposed to execute our vision. This year, one chef is designated as the "designer". I wished Tom would have said to the producers, "It's called Top Chef, not Top Design." Maybe they should have combined shows and let Top Design contestants work with the chefs to design a restaurant. The chefs should be called to the carpet on their food, not for how well they can shop for wall hangings. And to the criticism of black tablecloths--I'm not quite sure Dale would mind eating off of Billy Idol.

3. Menu choices. I agree with the seasonality complaint. Though if you walk into a restaurant tonight, you'll see the exact same mistake at some pretty well-known places. 4. Teams. CJ picked an MVP squad, not only in talent, but in teamwork. Hung and Howie expressed two totally different ways to win. Hung believes that they're not competing against each other on the team--but they're all working together to win (couldn't agree more). Howie believes it's a war of attrition, and he's going to do what he has to do to do to stay in it. I feel bad for Hung and Dale. The other team seems to have camaraderie, compassion, and a "no chef left behind" mentality.

What I thought was lame about this week:

1. Chef Daniel Boulud or Guest Blogger Andrea Strong--whose comments would you rather hear on the Judges' Table? Before the Internet, you could only get reviews from critics in papers, Zagat, and magazines. Now, everywhere you turn, people can post their opinions. And because the Internet is mostly anonymous, you don't know if the person commenting is the chef, the recently fired sous-chef, Frank Bruni, or someone that orders their steak extra well done with a side of ketchup. But on the Internet, it doesn't matter because all opinions are equal. The World Wide Web is 2007's version of the water cooler. And in the blogging world, snarkiness rules. But let's face it--without bloggers the reality genre might not be as popular. (The point that I'm writing this IN a blog is not lost on me.) So a blogger's opinion on this show certainly has its place. Don't believe me? Restaurantgirl.com was just named the food critic for the New York Daily News. So I thought a blogger as a secret guest judge was an interesting twist--I just thought it should have been done earlier in the contest, or on the Web site, but not when you have one of the sickest chefs in the culinary world there to talk about the food.

2. Madonna's brother. A little confused about him. Was he using the cameo as an audition to be a judge next season?

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3. Howie's Risotto. He says he's been making it that way for 10 to 12 years. That sounds more like a prison sentence than an endorsement. I didn't taste it, so I can't say for sure, but cream in risotto is like adding cream to a beurre blanc. (To quote Bourdain, "There is no, I repeat, no, cream in a real beurre blanc.... You see any mention of cream in there? No...you put cream in there, it ain't a beurre blanc." Same goes for risotto.

What impressed me tonight:

1. Hung. Both dishes looked great.

2. The chefs learned from our stupid mistake--they didn't just have wine, but both red and white!

3. Casey. Once again she's the coolest under pressure.

4. Malarkey's energy.

5. Letting the chefs do it again instead of sending people home for something that isn't their specialty. Bring it on! Next week should be good. Will there be multiple knife packing?! I wouldn't be surprised.

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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