Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Mango Gang!

Carlos' thoughts on upscale BBQ.

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Go Sunshine State! What a thrill to see Chef Norman Van Aken. He is one of the original kings of the self-dubbed Florida "Mango Gang" - a terrific group of local South Florida chefs that includes Allen Susser, Mark Militello, Pascal Oudin, Doug Rodriquez, Robin Haas and Jonathon Eismann. They're known for focusing on local, indigenous ingredients as well as the stellar seafood that our state has to offer. Eating at Norman's restaurant in Coral Gables is always a thrill - one of his signature dishes, yucca stuffed shrimp, is a must. One Monday night, Chuck & I were dining there (the only night we can get out of our restaurant), and Wolfgang Puck was filming a segment in Norman's kitchen. Afterward, both Wolfgang and Norman came to our table to chat. I was blown away!

Sadly, his Coral Gables location has now closed, and the only Norman's restaurant is in Orlando, which is a bit too far for our Monday night soiree! However, I hear that he is opening a new branch in Key West, which will be a return to his roots, as Norman spent part of his early career at the legendary Louie's Backyard restaurant there. Since we travel down to the Keys at least two or three times a year, we really look forward to his opening there. carlos_302_02_320x240.jpg

Quickfire Challenge - Florida Sunshine

What a great challenge. As soon as I saw those beautiful blood oranges on that citrus table, I was craving a blood orange Mojito - tall, cool, and refreshing. What an amazing table of locally grown citrus. I got a little nervous when I began to see all of those salads - "Beware of the Salad Curse" LOL! Unfortunately, I couldn't taste these dishes through my TV screen, but my favorite was Lia's. I love citrus and crab, the flavors naturally balance beautifully. Sadly, there was a little shell in the mix - oops! It's funny: most local laws state that if you chip a tooth on a shell or any natural component of a dish, you are not entitled to compensation (So you can call off your lawyer Padma...HA!).

However, a stone or other foreign matter is a different story.

I must say that I am quite impressed with Tre's clean plating style - it is impeccable. And

Hung...OMG...he is taking no prisoners. carlos_302_03_320x240.jpg

Elimination Challenge - Upscale BBQ

Sara, Sara, Sara. Gloves, Gloves, Gloves. Oh, those raging Scotch Bonnets. They look so cute, but ouch. You're lucky it was only your hands that were burning! Hey now, I was thinking eyes, lips...Come on people, get your minds out of the... Stay with me. I still have to talk about the sausage... the seafood sausage, that is! Great idea for a BBQ, and a great way to eat healthy. CJ: salt packing the pineapple is way cool. Now you've got me salt baking every fruit in sight...thanks!
This episode has really opened my eyes as to how difficult judging can be. I was just as shocked as the cheftestents when Sandee was sent home (You go girl. Your dish sounded sensational, even if perhaps you should have been more generous with the lobster). The fellow contestants are usually good barometers as to who should go home, since they have the opportunity to taste each other's food. It can be hard for the chefs, as there are so many contradictions (i.e. 'you played it too safe' or 'you are too far outside the box'). And this brings us back, once again, to the difference between greater sins and rules. The choice, to me, was between the boring drumstick or the dried pork, since both were a matter of execution.

However, this time the rules won out. In the judges' opinions, they felt Sandee didn't so much BBQ as re-heat her food on the grill, and she was sent packing. An all around difficult decision. What won out, however, was the simple, straightforward, and elegant. The aforementioned seafood sausages were a great idea all around, from execution to service. I also really loved the way Brian sold his dish. Because when it comes down to it, we are all sales people. Sara's dish looked a lot like Bulgogi - a refreshing Korean dish of marinated beef, grilled at the diner's table, and served with romaine wraps and dipping sauces. Very inspired and I really wish I could have sampled that. Micah's lamb looked succulent, and cooking it with the Greek cheese was a stroke of genius. Perfect to tame the gaminess of the lamb and add a contrasting texture.
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Congrats, Brian, on a well deserved victory. I cannot wait to recreate that sausage next Wednesday during my morning gig on "Cada Dia" on Telemundo. You can tune in to watch me at 8:35am eastern time. Hope you get a chance to catch it. Also, check out this week's Miami Spice webisode for my tequila flambeed shrimp and corn recipe, which will go great with those BBQs many of you will be preparing for the 4th of July. Until next week...stay tuned!

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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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