Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

It Takes A Smurf Village

Harold Dieterle on Malarkey, Howie's exit, and guest judge Dana Cowin.

This week's Quickfire Challenge was pretty tough. I''m surprised they had this one so far into the game. I would've liked to have seen what else was on the kitchen pantry table. It was very vague. I saw some cornstarch and I saw some limes and eggs. But I didn't really get a feel for what they got to work with. This challenge was kind of on the same tune as our convenience store challenge, and when they had to cook out of a little vending machine last season. With this one, some of them I thought had tougher aisles than others.

Specifically speaking, I was just thoroughly amused watching Hung put his dish together. I can't remember who it was, Brian or CJ, who said it looked like a Smurf Village -- it was really funny. His dish and Frank's "Mushroom Fantasy" from last season have by far been the two most entertaining dishes I've seen produced. I was just cracking up. He was just having fun with it and laughing, and I just thought, "This is what it's all about." The guest judge, who I'm not familiar with, clearly wanted to take everything a lot more seriously than was necessary. I would like to see him put under those parameters and put something together.

Brian cracks me up. Anybody that refers to themselves in the third person, I personally think highly of. Everytime he calls himself "Malarkey", I laugh to myself. I thought he did a good dish. It looked good, it made sense, and I'm a fan of the Spam. So I thought he did a nice job.

Casey's parfait? That looked great. It looked sharp. It was layered really well and it looked like she knew what she was doing. It was really well-made. She mentioned that she has some pastry experience. She definitely goes the sweet route a lot more than anybody else, but she looks like she has come prepared to do some desserts when she gets there.

Howie's decision not to present anything -- well, it's a double-edged sword. You want to talk about integrity and the fact that you're not going to serve something because it's not up to par -- that has to be your bread and butter move throughout the competition. We've heard him say in the past that he serves stuff that he wasn't crazy about. I don't really know what to think about that.

I think that Brian's decision to make himself leader was the right move, especially after the way we saw things go down with CJ picking Tre and how that all worked out. I think if you're going to be the go-to guy, you're going to be the No. 1 guy, then put yourself in the position to run with it. As far as Tom's comment about Brian "splitting hairs", it's one of those things where it doesn't really matter how it goes down. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't -- you don't' really know how it's going go down. They get beat up a lot for trying to do too much of an assortment of canapes when they all should have focused on doing one thing. If each person does one canape, that's seven canapes for 60 people, which would have seemed a little light to me. I'm not so sure I completely agree with the judges on that fact. If I went to a canape party and there are 60-70 guests on a boat, I'm looking for a little bit more than just seven canapes. I'm probably going to be a little disappointed. So I think that they had the right idea with that.

But I though Casey did overall a really great job between the two challenges. From an elegance standpoint, her canape really had the most refinement. I can't taste it, but the flavors sounded great. Sara M's tomato bread pudding definitely sounded good. I wasn't impressed with the seafood sausage on a baguette. Seafood sausage? Brian has already done it twice. I was looking for something a little creative.

I was especially looking for Hung to bring it because I know that kid can bring it. He was all "Everybody's doing some really classical stuff, so I'm just going to fall in line." I don't really think it was a cop-out. I think it's one of those things where Hung looked at it and he just wanted continuity among what everyone else was doing. If you're going do something his style and off-the-wall and a little different, and then everybody else is making crustinis and whatever other old-school stuff people are doing, it doesn't really fit in. But, they were on a boat, so you're looking for some trend-setting stuff.

Howie knew he was going down and he wanted to go out on his own terms. I think it was pretty obvious the way the whole day played out -- that it really wasn't working out for him. I think that kid fights tooth and nail. He doesn't come across as a quitter at all. I just think from a strategic standpoint, if he could save face on his own he would. He thought, "I'm pretty sure I'm going home and if I can send myself home on my own accord then I'll take that route." But the judges were making it clear, and Tom made it a no-go on that one. Howie deserved to go home. It was kind of rough to watch how he was rolling. His stuff just didn't look that tight.

And finally, for the special guest judge, Dana Cowin. I'm a big fan of hers. She's been into Perilla. I really respect what she thinks about food. She eats at the best restaurants in the world, so when she comes in, I want to pick her brain apart because I really value her opinion. I guess we'll see what goes on next week.

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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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