Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

My Hero

Who inspired Lee Anne Wong? Her mentor Andre Soltner.


Most of you know that I work at The French Culinary Institute in New York. I was super excited when I found out we would be filming there. Not only did it make it easy for me production-wise, but I was so happy to be back amongst my coworkers and friends after being in Miami for two months.

The Quickfire was great fun. The same day I flew into Newark (the day before the actual Continental challenge happened), we scouted a bunch of locations and then I drove into the city with one of our producers to meet the chefs at Le Cirque. The initial idea was that the chef in the kitchen (the oh-so-nice Jason Kallert) would show the contestants step by step how to make Sirio's favorite dish. Before we made any decisions, Jason and the chefs cooked Margit and me several courses, including the bass en papillote. I didn't know what I was eating at the time having not read the menu, but as a chef, whenever I am trying something unfamiliar, I tend to take my time and try to dissect the flavors, textures, and actual components of the dish. Slowly I discussed the techniques with Chef Jason and talked about the flavors and ingredients, many of which I was accurate in identifying.

I deemed that that would be too easy for chefs of their caliber to have show and tell with the chef and we should make the challenge more difficult by letting them eat it, and then asking one question a piece about the dish. Not all of the questions made the edit but I remember that some were smarter and more to the point than others. Either way, we filmed on a Friday night in one of New York's most celebrated restaurants. Sirio, should you ever meet him, is quite the charmer. One by one, the contestants cooked under the watchful eyes of Sirio and Padma as they both sat at the chef's table in the kitchen. So that you all know, Dale was the only one who washed his leeks before cooking them. They all did a great job, though, considering the task. I did feel slightly bad for Sara at the end because she had to cook her dish as the second seating landed around 8:30 p.m., which meant the kitchen was at its busiest. All things said, even with a quiet kitchen, I am not sure she would have made it anyway as the fish was completely raw in the middle and would have needed close to an extra eight minutes of cook time. Hung won through technique and speed, deservedly so.

We had discussed in Miami what the final challenge would be to get the last four to Aspen. Under the assumption that we would be at the FCI and one of our deans would be the judges, I thought very carefully about this. In past seasons we had given the contestants the most luxurious ingredients to work with. Considering that we would be at one of the premier cooking schools n the country, I thought it only fitting that maybe we pare it down and make the challenge entirely about technique and flavor, hence the chicken, onion, and potato. Having graduated from the culinary program at The FCI, these three ingredients were one of the cornerstones of learning classic French technique, and how to coax the best flavors and proper results from these deceptively ordinary ingredients.

As the Executive Chef of Events at The FCI, one of my jobs during the past five years has been to coordinate the chef demonstration program. I have always admired our deans, and it has been my privilege and pleasure to work with all of them on a regular basis, assisting them with their demonstrations and special events. Alain Sailhac has been with the school for over 20 years and actually used to be the head chef at Le Cirque. Jacques Torres, otherwise known as Mr. Chocolate -- and with good reason -- is our Dean of Pastry Studies and an absolute delight to work with (and also used to be the pastry chef at Le Cirque). I refer to him as "the Magic Man" regarding his amazing talents and pastry skills. Chef Cesare Casella is the newest member of our family, as the Chef/Owner of Maremma in NYC and our Dean of Italian Studies, the newest program at the school. Then there's Nils Noren, our VP of Culinary, who actually used to be my chef at Aquavit. He's the man who taught me much of what I know, and I am thrilled that he now is heading up all of our Culinary Programs. Dorothy is our fearless leader and owner of the school. She is a visionary, with a true love of all things food. Having been part of celebrating of our 20 year anniversary back in '04, I hold a true sense of pride with our school and what we are doing. Cooking has become immensely popular as a career, and young chefs need the proper training and techniques to succeed in this vicious business.

All of this leads up to one of my very favorite chefs of all time ... my hero ... a mentor ... Andre Soltner. For those of you who have never heard of him, Chef Andre successfully ran Restaurant Lutece in NYC for over 30 years and brought classical French cuisine to the forefront in America. This man is like the grandfather I never had. I absolutely love cooking side by side with him, and he cooks like no other. Whether it's Salmon en Croute or Alsatian Potato Pie, there is a rustic yet sophisticated and heartwarming way about his food, and every time I work with him I am his apt pupil. Not only is he over 70 years old, he actually still does all of his own work when cooking for a demo or event. What is so great about him too is sometimes I'll be cooking next to him and making something else for an event and he'll ask me what I'm doing and we'll discuss various techniques -- bottom line being that he is one of the greatest chefs of our generation, but he is still inquisitive. It serves as inspiration for me, as I too hope to be still cooking as actively when I am his age. Best part of my day is when he asks me to cook lunch for him. He loves Chinese food and I once taught him how to make fried rice, which he now makes all of the time.

So enough gushing, let's talk about the challenge. We took the contestants to the Union Square Greenmarket, one of my favorite places. They had an hour to shop and managed to get some great ingredients. Hung had an extra 30 minutes of cook time, which he took full advantage of. His dish was near perfect, outside of the heavy pommes dauphin. Sara, for some strange reason, went with another couscous dish. Her chicken was very pink (at least the camera plate was), and though the dish was pretty to look at it was definitely under-seasoned. Dale's dish, while tasty, suffered from too much going on, and he forgot his sauce. Ambition gets the best of us at times, but Dale narrowly missed getting the ax. Brian's dish was extremely unattractive, but very tasty. My main beef with it was that all you could taste was the pheasant sausage. The chicken was completely lost amongst the strong flavors of the sausage. Casey's dish was also good, and I won't hold the technicality of the name "Coq au Vin" against her. Andre knows all there is to know about French Cuisine so I am sure that is why he made the point about the chicken and the rooster. If you get the chance to try real coq au vin with the old bird, definitely do. It's got a much gamier and flavorful quality about it and is absolutely delectable in a red wine braise.

I'm glad Hung won this challenge. Hung is one of the stronger contenders for the title of Top Chef and the sheer simplicity of his dish really won over our deans, who've probably had chicken a thousand different ways by now. Sara had unfortunately reached the end of her rope, and there's really no way the judges could ignore the raw chicken. Last I heard, Sara wanted to move to NY and I hope to see her soon. I'm in Chicago about to start filming Season 4, so seeing this episode was a nice reminder of home and all of the wonderful people I work with. Hope you all enjoyed the episode as much as I did. Until next time!

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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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