Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Guest Blogger: Rocco Dispirito!

Rocco DiSpirito takes on Top Chef and Anthony Bourdain.

Padma graciously asked me to guest blog for her. So I said, "sure, why not?" I had such a wonderful time being a guest judge on Top Chef that I want to, foremost, thank the folks at Bravo, Magical Elves, Tom, Padma, Gail and Ted. I want to congratulate them on their well-deserved Emmy nomination.

I have been a fan of Tom's work since I trailed at his three star NYC restaurant Mondrian about 15 years ago. As far as I am concerned, any work with Tom is work to be proud of. I met Padma 7 years ago at a photo shoot; lovely then, lovely now. Ted and I are friends from the Bravo/NBC world and Gail is a new friend. I wasn't sure what to expect when I agreed to appear on Top Chef. It's a thinking person's reality show about cooking that transcends both reality television and cooking. Very clever.

The first thing that struck me was that these were serious cooks. With the exception of one or two people there were no scrubs in this kitchen. The second thing I noticed was that this is a tough competition. You may disagree, but the truth is that the "culinary bee" quick-fire challenge was no joke. Admittedly Howie got an easy one to start with, tomato paste, and when Joey mistook yucca for taro root I felt his pain.

It wasn't until l I worked with my friends at their Terra Chips factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn long ago that I could tell the difference between the two by eye without hesitation. Yucca is always covered with wax; taro never is and has a hairy outer skin.

Sara gulped down the raspberry vinegar like it was cold beer on a hot day. Poor thing, she should have smelled it first. Dale actually got the real taro root, and called it water chestnuts. So what. He's got style and makes a mean pesto. CJ thought daikon radish sprouts was pepper cress, and truth be told, they are nearly identical in taste, poor guy. Hung quickly identified oats like he works at Quaker and Tre, didn't taste the rice wine vinegar in the mirin, which is what makes it mirin and not simple syrup.

I like Tre a lot; he can do little wrong in my book. He is the kind of chef chefs love to work with. He is talented, mature and powerful. When Casey took that big mouthful of fish paste I could feel the bile rising up in my own throat. Hung too quick for his own good, foolishly thought celery seed was anise seed because he didn't taste it, even though Padma kept telling him to. It turns out he came very close to needing the immunity. Luckily for Hung, Joey rightfully threw himself under the bus. I know Hung's attitude wasn't the greatest,and I believe he probably would have done a better job without Joey, but this isn't what this particular challenge was about.

Bing, bam, boom, Brian gets miso right. Casey gets chayote right. very impressive. I haven't used chayote since the CIA. Brian loses on Thai Eggplant. He's a good guy. By the end of this challenge I was just glad I wasn't standing up there swallowing fish paste, gulping vinegar and losing a chance at immunity on celery seed.

When Padma explained what the elimination challenge was, I saw smirks, eyes rolling and heard snickering as if to say this was a silly challenge. I tried to impress upon them that this wasn't going to be an easy thing to accomplish and to pay careful attention to how the product is frozen, as in IQF (individually quick frozen) and packaged. Once they started cooking it seemed few took this seriously and the outcome showed this.

Well, I took the job of judging very seriously. I knew that the process of eliminating a chef wasn't going to be fun no matter who it was or how badly they performed. Even Joey's (who thinks I am an "asshole, douche-bag sellout and the reason he was eliminated") departure was sad because I know he can cook. It's naïve to think that I have that much influence over Tom, Gail and Padma, but it just isn't so.

When it came time to taste the dishes at the fresh market I made sure I looked at each team's food separately. I listened to their presentations. I smelled and tasted each team's dishes in exactly the same manner- not to inadvertently give one team an advantage over another. But as you know, the cream rises to the top. It wasn't long before I saw that Casey & Dale and Tre & Brian were the teams with the best dishes. Howie & Sara M. and Joey & Hung's dishes were so bad they got an automatic D.Q. in my mind.

The team in purgatory was Brian and Sarah N. Their dish should get special mention for including a delicious flavor packet in the bag. It was very good dish, but just not as good as the two top teams.

It would be difficult to write a list of skills a cook should possess to become Top Chef. The challenges are so varied and the parameters so random in many ways it reminds me of what its like to run a restaurant. You never know what's going to happen. Clearly, one has to know one's strengths and play out each challenge with that in mind. This challenge seemed easy enough; open a bag of Bertolli frozen dinner, look at it and duplicate it. The only team that did that won the trip to Italy. Kudos to them. I know Tre and CJ will benefit tremendously from the Italian sun and fun once this is all over.

The teams of Tre & CJ and Casey & Dale both found synergy in their respective partnerships and that's the name of the game when you're teamed up. This clearly wasn't only a challenge about frozen food, it was also about how well you can collaborate on the dime. Cooking is so difficult, so full of challenges you need to stack the deck in your favor every chance you get. So alienating your partner is a bad idea. I know this first hand.

Both teams chose ingredients that freeze well, like kale, and chicken, meatballs, orecchiette and pesto, all great choices. The meatballs were so happy to be frozen it seemed like they refused to defrost (I tried to tell them because I really liked their dish.). In addition to individually freezing the elements of their dish, Tre and CJ did what cooks have been doing for years. They reduced flavored liquids into concentrated bases and froze them in little blocks. Glace de veau, case in point. This ultimately was the key to their success. As for the other dishes, who wants to eat over cooked unscrewed-corkscrew pasta in 3 drab colors with bad tomato sauce? Apparently nobody. Not even for free. Or how about burned fusilli with a fennel vinaigrette? Its pasta, why a vinaigrette?

Despite how masterfully insulting Anthony's Blog  is, I was oddly compelled to read it. He is a funny, funny man even if it is at my expense. Some final comments, corrections and realizations.

Contrary to popular belief, I have not had botox, ribs removed, nor rhinoplasty. I have, after much work, lost 30 pounds, no more, no less.

Apparently, I have a long road ahead of me before I am forgiven for my behavior on "The Restaurant." Mea Culpa already.

Some in the Top Chef blogoshpere consider strategic partnerships and brand alliances "shilling". I don't agree. I'll address all this with more detail later; got to save something for my next blog.

Oh, and as for my cooking Anthony, consider yourself invited for dinner anytime. I promise to do my best not to serve anything "cheesy." I'll open my finest wines and I might even take up smoking.

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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