Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Playing It Safe

Sam Talbot introduces the 3 C's of good Top Chef cooking.

Sorry I missed last week. I was in Aspen for the classic, and it was a great time. We raised some money for Juvenile Diabetes, and I met some great people, but I also had a little mix-up with my blog. Also wanted to say that if I can, I'll answer any questions that might come my way, so send 'em. Alright... let's talk about the quickfire challenge:

Hung: Blatantly leaving food on the kitchen floor? Really? Where did you learn that? Per Se? Aureole? Guy Savoy? Tre: Did they give him his own soundtrack? I'm digging it. Hung (again): Did he say, "MY monkey could do that" ?! Does Hung actually have a monkey? If he does, Bravo, please give us some "Hung and his monkey" footage.

CJ: I like what I saw in your dish. But even more, I really like how you approached it. (I'll call it the 3 C's) You took a minute and concentrated, you conceived the dish, then you created it. And it's reflected on the plate. While I'm on the topic of what I liked, I also like how the other contestants interact with you. Early on, you seem to be the glue of the group. Dale: That dish has Ilan written all over it. Time to move on to the Elimination...

"Nasty"??? What's nasty about stuffed cabbage and tater tots? That's good stuff! Really though, I think this would be a fun challenge (The difference between watching and competing is that when you're competing, "a fun challenge" is an oxymoron). A lot of young cooks pride themselves in taking their favorite childhood classics and having fun with them, so this should be interesting. There's a lot of ways to interpret this challenge, so I'm expecting a wide array of dishes. In the back of their minds, they must be wondering how the Elks Club opinions will factor in to the judges' final decision. Two very different groups to please. Howie just mentioned not caring if he makes friends. I gained a lot of professional value from this experience, but even more than that, I gained a lot of friends. And not just the judges, the contestants, and people from season 1 but the people you guys at home never see are the producers, the PA's, the camera crew, the gaffers... the list goes on and on. There's a big family behind the scenes that you get to know in a short amount of time and they're all really good people.

Okay, back to the cooking: CJ: Again, I'm worried. You're taking the "healthier" and "lower" fat part of the challenge very seriously. I commend you. That's actually the hard part of the challenge. And there's honor in what you're trying to do. But no one else is watching exactly what people are putting in their dishes. So you might end up suffering from this. And about the oven drama: Sara acted the way any trained chef would. In a restaurant setting, where burners and ovens are shared, you would never, not even for a minute, think that your oven would be turned down by another chef. It just simply wouldn't and shouldn't happen. End of story. I'm a little baffled that boxed potatoes and rotisserie chicken is okay and in an Elimination Challenge!? The chefs in Season One strategically made the decision to use boxed cake mix during a wedding, and were chastised by the judges for it. I'm not saying the dish didn't taste great, but I at least expected the judges to question going there in the first place, especially so early in the competition when the chefs are trying to define themselves.

Micah: Everyone has their day when they're just not feelin' it. Hung said she shouldn't miss her daughter (or something like that). But we all have different things going on in our lives. You guys at home might not know this, but from the minute you step off the plane, you have no interaction with the outside world until you're back home. They take your cell phone, your credit cards, your money—you're not allowed to make or take any calls whatsoever unless it's an emergency... and they don't really tell you this beforehand, so it comes as a shock. You did some interesting things early on, and it's too bad you didn't stay long enough for us to see some more. Hope your daughter loved watching your wins. I know I did. As for everyone else: an okay-ish week. I think  everyone played it a little safe. I'm looking forward to it being kicked up a notch (and I know it will).

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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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