Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Low Spark And High Heels...in The Roach Coach

Bourdain takes a closer look at the challenge that eliminated Sara

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Two questions screamed for answers after last night's challenge: bourdain_307_01_320x240.jpg

1) If you're a Miami chef, how, how, HOW can you screw up a Cuban sandwich? More to the point: WHY would you?

This week, Howie -- who is perilously close to becoming Mr. Know-It-All -- seems to have been caught transfixed in the headlights of an oncoming snack wagon, and for reasons known only to his phrenologist, decided that the beloved Miami classic, the Cuban sandwich, is not good enough. Worse, after much experience (he says) working in Miami nightclubs, he came to the shocking conclusion that what drunken hordes of clubgoers really want, immediately after spilling off the dance floor, is his creative riff on a classic. Crustier bread! "Better" raw ingredients! An "homage" sandwich, roughly manhandled onto a griddle between unevenly heated sheet pans. No, Howie. No.

What anybody who's even been to a nightclub understands is that drunk people want hot, cheesy, greasy, and familiar food. They want it fast. And they don't want to be challenged to think. They're done thinking (at least until tomorrow, when they turn over in bed and see what they went home with). A cheap-ass deli ham, roast pork, cheese, and gherkin on the same bread everybody else uses -- properly mashed down flat -- and you would have had some happy customers. Post-nightclub customers are the dream of every late night diner and snack bar operator in that they are oblivious. Howie chose to rudely wake them up. If this crowd was going to notice anything in the interlude between the ear shattering, molar-shaking thump of the dance floor and whatever ill-considered coupling or porcelain bowl worshiping lay in their near future, it's that there was something...wrong...and...different...about this thing they were being told was a Cuban sandwich.

2) Speaking of oblivious: If, in spite of your superb technical skills, excellent training and fine, creative mind, you are consistently ending up on the bottom of the dog pile -- and you are presented with an easy lay-up of a Quickfire Challenge, why, why, WHY would you choose to step forward and proudly push your head -- once again -- into the meat grinder? Lab rats and domestic pets, after sticking an appendage into a light socket, usually refrain from doing so again. Yet Hung, week after week, after taking a full dose of house current, jams his nether regions directly into the fuse box.

How hard was it to win this challenge? Dale won with the very sensible -- but hardly genre-bending -- peach cobbler ice cream. Had Hung stuck to sweet stuff and stayed away from CAULIFLOWER(?!!), I have a hard time believing he couldn't have, at very least, avoided being the very worst. Who EVER finds themselves yearning suddenly for cauliflower in their ice cream sundae? Who has ever -- in recorded history -- thought to themselves: "Gee...this ice cream would be so much better if only there were tempura flakes on it"? Or yearned, while spooning vanilla ice cream into their face, for FOAM?

Hung was absolutely right when he said, dismissively, "any monkey can go with fruits and berries." But any monkey also knows better than to make the same mistake over and over and over again. Learn from the wisdom of Krusty's trusted consigliere Mr. Teeny, Hung. He has all the answers. In the above examples, we find two excellent examples of how to fail in the kitchen before you even start to cook. Bad decision-making doomed Hung in the Quickfire and Team Orange in the Elimination. Both Howie and Hung neglected to ask themselves the most fundamental of questions; ones that every restaurateur has to ask him or herself before even opening for business: " Where am I?" and "What will people like here?" A little soul-searching might have indicated that they probably don't like bogus Cuban sandwiches in Miami and that nobody likes cauliflower on their ice cream -- anywhere.

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Compare and contrast with the winners of the Elimination Challenge, Team Black: Brian, when asked how his team chose their menu and divided up responsibility, answered with pure, textbook good sense. They looked at the space and the facilities in which they would have to work -- and worked with that, designing a very clever and appropriate menu to both situation and environment. Crispy fried stuff from Hung on the fry station...Sara M. playing to her strength with jerked soft tacos...Tre working the bacon-wrapped shrimp with grits comfort food angle...and Brian shrewdly staying out of the way of potential gridlock inside and instead, working out front, where he could serve as raw bar guy, expeditor, and carnival barker. A good plan, knowledge of the terrain, and efficient deployment of forces equals good execution.
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Team Orange couldn't get out of each other's way. The only thing that saved Howie from being dropped down the greasy chute this week was Sara N.'s abysmal performance. Being bummed out, depressed, pissed at Howie, or in uncomfortable footwear does not excuse falling behind on sliders! There are drunk people out there! They want sliders! They want them now! They don't even care if they're all well done -- as long as they're hot...and here! This was an opportunity to win the day (as drunk people love sliders) but for God's sake: Cook them ten at a time! Twenty at a time! You're being compared to nothing more elevated in the annals of cuisine than White Castle for God's sake!

I can only imagine that the never-shy Howie was looking to thin the herd by allowing Sara N. to twist in the wind. There's really no other explanation that neither he, CJ, nor Casey stepped in to forcefully tell Sara to unscrew her head out of her fundament and start loading up the griddle. Not that it would have helped. Sara N. seemed to have decided to lose as soon as she realized she'd be working in heels. I gotta tell ya; I've worked with women cooks who could crank out a hundred fifty meals off a very busy grill station in freakin' stilettos and still have the energy to give Howie the beating of his life -- so that don't cut it as an excuse. And putting ice in a vanilla shake, by the way, was a very bad idea.

After finding out she'd have to pack her knives, Sara N. suggested she might have been "too nice" for the competition. Maybe so. Howie, on the other hand, suggests that he might well be an asshole and that he doesn't apologize for that. I'd suggest he reexamine his position here. It might be okay to be a buttwad in the cause of victory, but it's not okay to be a buttwad when what you've got to offer Miami is a bogus Cuban and bad leadership.
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In the end, Sara N. didn't lack for talent. She lacked fire in the belly. All chefs, at various points in their career, must reach an accommodation between what lives in their hearts and the requirements of the marketplace, and of the situation on the ground. They must choose every night between head and heart, compromising in ways large and small according to circumstances.

It's interesting that some of the most compelling struggles to watch on this season's show are not between contestants. It's the struggle between experienced, "principled" Howie and his own darker, more pigheaded side. Howie's got plenty of heart. Last night, he simply fell down when it came to using his magnificent, sweat-slicked, battering ram of a noggin. It's the struggle between Hung's big talent and his even bigger ego. Here's a guy who should cook more with his heart and less with his overloaded brain. He should think about the things that gave him comfort as a child, his very first ice cream cone; what ice cream did to him. Not what he can do to ice cream. That's something I'd like to see.

***A Final Note: Concerning Rocco DiSpirito's typically gracious and good humored response on this site to my torrent of abuse: It is natural, as some have suggested, to assume that I'm jealous of Rocco. In fact, I am. I'm jealous of Rocco's talent in the kitchen. He had an extraordinary proficiency with food -- one most cooks would cheerfully have sawn off a finger or an arm to replicate -- and an ability to "envision" (and then execute) truly delicious and original creations. That he chose to turn his back on this rare and unique gift does indeed stick in my craw.

Watching Rocco's trajectory in the cause of the bitch-goddess fame is like watching a young Eric Clapton put aside his guitar for a career as a mink rancher. You just want to scream, "Play, damn you! PLAY!!" (Or in Rocco's case, "Cook! Cook!!"). Two years cooking in his own 40-seat restaurant, in even a crummy neighborhood of NYC, and Rocco would shut snarkologists like me up forever -- and restore a "gravitas" to his reputation he should never have lost. I'd be the first guy trying to scrounge a reservation, and -- if he offered anything like the food I had at Union Pacific -- the first to loudly sing his praises.

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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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