Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Restaurant War One

Lee Anne Wong gives her take on what went wrong with restaurant wars.

 

I was thrilled to hear we got Daniel Boulud to judge this episode. If you haven't heard, besides being one of the greatest chefs in the world, Daniel was responsible for the super shammy gourmet burger, which started at $48 and could go as high as $200 (I think). I've eaten the DB burger many times. It's a juicy patty of premium ground sirloin, the center comprised of soft and tender braised short ribs and foie gras, studded with black truffles. It comes on a perfectly sized brioche bun, with fixings like tomato jam, lettuce, and onion. Salty herbed frites and aioli come on the side. While it has been less satisfying at various times, depending on who's cooking it in the kitchen, it's still one of those things you would never kick out of bed.

I used to be an honorary guest of a burger club (honorary and not a member because the club usually met at all hours, when I was working). Time Out magazine comes out with an issue every year that talks about the Top 100 burgers in NYC. Some friends of mine decided to put that list to the test, creating their own scorecards and everything. They met at least 3-4 times a week. While I love burgers, I can feel my arteries clogging every time I think of eating that many burgers in one week. I did manage to sit in on some pretty spectacular and a few very craptacular burgers. Things we judged: quality of meat and flavor, texture and juiciness, how appropriately cooked it was, the bun, the size, and the garnishes.

Either way, I was shocked at all of the seafood burgers. Brian admittedly took the same ingredients from the BBQ challenge and transformed his sausage into a burger. I always find it strange when contestants can't let go of a certain ingredient or dish, and repeat themselves. Just because there's a different judge doesn't mean you should make it again (small repertoire). I got to sample all of the camera plates, and I have to say that Howie's burger was delicious. Big gooey flavors, though the strength of the Taleggio did linger, but he was one of the only ones who made a real beef burger. Dale's tuna burger was also tasty (I love fried eggs on anything), but I found the truffle oil all over it overpowered the tuna. CJ had a very tasty shrimp burger. The wheel of citrus he added as garnish added not on moisture to each bite, but refreshing acidity.

We considered what sort of prize the quickfire winner should get for a while. When we decided that the winner should be able to pick his/her own team for Restaurant Wars, I thought it would throw an interesting dynamic into the rest of the contestants. It's like dodge ball....now you know where you stand with certain individuals. I remember "Restaurant Wars" like it was yesterday. One very entertaining episode. This time around, the contestants got a lot more money for food and decoration, and most importantly, they got to cook out of the Top Chef kitchen.

I was pleasantly stunned with how well each team decorated and set up their space. The food was another story. Dale and Brian took on front of the house and learned the hard way just how difficult this challenge was. Even with 2 servers on each team (in past seasons each team has only gotten one server) they had difficulty expediting orders and keeping their back waiter station organized. I say this because this may have been the one thing that angered me; part of service and running a successful restaurant is cleaning up.

As both teams cleared courses off their tables, they piled up the glassware and dishware on the floor in their back waiter station, which they shared. I got a call over walkie that production needed me and my team to go in and bus their waiter station while they were in the middle of service and clear all of their dirty dishes and glasses to the dishwashers (we had 4) in the TC kitchen.

I had given each team bus tubs. Neither Brian or Dale, nor any of their servers bussed their dirty wares to the kitchen. I almost flat out refused to do it, had it not become a safety issue because so many dishes were piled on the floor. I had to speak to both teams later during deliberation about the situation. Both Brian and Dale argued that they were too busy. I told them that every single time they and their waiters went back to the kitchen to get food, they should've had dirty dishes in their hands to give to the dishwashers. Two hands in, two hands out. I waited tables for over 10 years, I should know.

There were plenty of faults on both sides. I thought the food was hit or miss with both teams. Only Hung's tuna tartare was delicious, subtle and seasoned perfectly. I found the rest of that teams' menu to be heavy with the mushroom risotto and braised lamb shank. Brian's team had a slightly more appealing menu, but nothing that really knocked it out of the park. We gave them the opportunity to listen to their criticism, and do it all over again the next day.

I think "Restaurant Wars Part Deux" is great, which you will see next week. It's great because rarely in this game do you ever get the opportunity to go back and fix the mistakes you made the first time around. I actually don't have a copy of next week's episode, and I am on a plane to Mexico right now. My blog will be from memory, but either way I am looking forward to writing it. Til then.

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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