Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Summer Soups And Barbecues

Padma Lakshmi spills on what went wrong in the BBQ challenge.

After such an intense elimination challenge in the first episode, the Quickfire should have been a relief for the contestants with the focus on something more simple than wild game -- Florida citrus fruits; however, many of the chefs had some difficulty executing dishes of a high caliber.

The standouts were CJ, Hung, and Tre. Hung's slow roasted sea bass with citrus crumble, watercress and radish salad was a creative play on the citrus theme with three different variations that worked really well together and that is why he won this challenge. I particularly liked Tre's dish of salmon served cold and hot. The variation of textures and flavors in Tre's dish were unique and his use of macadamia in the pesto gave it a richer, buttery flavor than the traditional pesto with pine nuts. This complimented the high fat content in the salmon.

Some other highlights that were unmentioned were Howie's vanilla butter poached lobster tail with blood orange citrus salad, as well as Brian's Alaskan halibut with pomegranate blood orange molasses, which was a beautiful dish. By contrast, one of the most disappointing dishes was Micah's avocado "soup," which was more like a runny guacamole. Chef Van Aken's remark about her dish was an understatement at best.

I don't really care for summer soups that have been turning up on menus these days. Chilled fruit soups, for example, are a real turnoff. I just have no desire to ever order them, preferring to leave the pureed fruit to Jamba Juice. Sara N. should have checked her ingredients before she began, as this is the number one rule in cooking: always prepare your ingredients, or mis en place, before starting the cooking process, especially in the case of a time-tight situation such as the Quickfire. Organization and forethought become crucial in a hot, crowded kitchen.

Sara N. lacked focus and this showed in her presentation to Chef Van Aken. Meanwhile, Casey's twist on the classic s'more was decadent and delicious. What you didn't see in the editing was that she incorporated citrus in the chocolate sauce in the s'more and orange and chocolate is a very classic, old school combination. But it's hard for a dessert to stand up to the might of a main course and that really was her big downfall.

I love summer barbecues so I was really looking forward to seeing what the chefs would come up with in this elimination challenge. I was impressed by Camille, Casey, and Micha's efforts since they made cohesive dishes that had a successful balance of complicated flavors, which is difficult to do in a BBQ setting. The prep work and timing was perhaps the "make or break" aspect of this challenge.

After the grills were fired up and the chefs got to work, I could see the confidence levels rise or fall. Hung and Brian seemed to be having a good time and looked at ease. Unfortunately, not all of the chefs had such an easy time at this challenge. Tre seemed to be struggling in balancing the salt and acidity with his peach glazed salmon. Why do salmon again for a BBQ challenge especially when you're from Texas?!?

Joey's drumsticks were tasty but they were really not groundbreaking or upscale enough to impress the judges or meet the challenge requirements. Sara N's Vietnamese BBQ beef lettuce wraps were delicious and compact which made them easy to eat. The crisp, fresh, cool crunch of lettuce complimented the spicy Asian chili sauce, which was doused over a perfectly grilled succulent piece of meat. It was indeed the perfect bite. Hung's dish was surprisingly simple compared to his previous feats, but I did love the watermelon and champagne spritzer. In fact, I went back for several shots of it.

Brian's Chino Latino seafood sausage was delicious, light and sophisticated. It was perfect for that audience of body conscious sun worshiping fashionistas. I loved how he combined so many types of delicate seafood, a high-end concept that really addressed the challenge.

Keeping in mind that champagne was being served, Brian's dish was the winner for me hands down. The chefs did a fantastic job overall and I can't say I disliked any of the dishes but the most disappointing performance was Sandee since she did not actually grill anything and sadly this cost her the competition. I was sorry to see Sandee go, she seemed to have a lot of heart and great enthusiasm and I believe had she had a little more experience as a chef and listened to the requirements of the challenge more, she wouldn't have risked serving something that wasn't actually grilled or barbecued. I am sure she will continue to be interesting to watch wherever she lands.

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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