Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Spring Fever

Lee Anne opens up about her love of spring.


One of the highlights of living in New York City is the fact that we experience all four seasons. I am down in Miami right now, and though I am quite satisfied with the temperate weather here, I am missing one of my favorite times of year in New York. It's funny, because we had an unusually warm early winter this year, and I remember one of my friends remarking around New Year's how strange and wonderful it was that it hadn't snowed yet. I said, "Ohhhhh....don't you worry. Old Man Winter's not done with us yet." Sure enough, bone chilling winds coming off the Hudson and East Rivers were enough to make me begin an official countdown for my trip to Miami. What I find hilarious year after year is the fact that the first warm day in NYC (and we're talking 50 degrees, not exactly sun tanning weather) everyone comes out in shorts and t-shirts. I get a good chuckle, "Idiots." After an entire month with bronchitis in December, I stayed nice and bundled up because days like those are just teasers.

Anyways, top two reasons that I love Spring? The greenmarket and my birthday. As a chef and food lover, seasonality is not only important but thrilling and inspiring. The most bountiful time of the year is Summer, obviously. Juicy ripe tomatoes in every color, fresh sweet corn, wild strawberries, ripe peaches, and vegetables, herbs, and greens that make my culinary wheels spin. Fall is also a great time of year, as the last of summer's flavors fade into the debut of other great ingredients, like crisp apples, a wide variety of squash, and hearty braising greens. Winter makes me want to cook rich, comforting foods like short ribs and cassoulet. To be honest, the greenmarket is relatively bare in the first quarter, with only a few root and cruciferous vegetables, apples, and cold weather items. Once Spring hits though, some of my favorite ingredients start to appear in the market: morel mushrooms, wild asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, nettles, peas, and ramps. I get so giddy just thinking of all the possibilities. Spring signifies the melting, and the introduction of all things green. And yes, eventually it gets warm enough that the winter gear can be left in the closet and everyone begins to get their "outdoor" on.

I love going out to eat. I especially love going out to eat this time of year. It's always fascinating to me to see all the different ways that chefs incorporate these ingredients onto their menus. I think some of the best preparations are the simpler dishes that let the ingredients shine. Be sure to try out some of my favorite Spring recipes listed below. Science says that we associate certain tastes and smells with memory. Throughout the seasons, all the tastes, textures, and flavors mentioned before remind me of where I am and what time of year it is.

Spring is like an endorphin rush to me, and I know that the Summer bounty is around the corner. Second reason I love Spring? All of that going out to eat is because of the month I spend celebrating my birthday. Many people I know make their resolutions around New Year's. My calendar is based around my birthday. Birthdays are important to me and I believe all people should celebrate accordingly. I like to take time to assess what I've accomplished and learned in the past year, and then set goals for myself in the coming year.

29 was an exciting year for me. 30's going to be even better. It's a time when I can get together with all of my friends I haven't had a chance to see much. We eat. We drink. We make merry. The weather is usually perfect and the air has an invigorating quality to it. I was born on a Sunday in the middle of May and have yet to have a crappy birthday (eat your heart out Molly Ringwald). In any case, I hope to get back to New York in time for a little spring fever. I'm seeing the deep freeze up north on the news every morning so Miam i's not a bad place to be right about now. For all you cooks and food lovers out there, Spring is one of my favorite seasons, and I hope you are able to take advantage of all the fresh flavors it has to offer. To my friends and family, I'll be home soon. Keep the pork buns warm for me. To tide us all over, here are two recipes to keep your mouth watering: English Pea and Morel Mushroom Risotto Roasted Asparagus Salad, Poached Egg, Parmesan Crisp, Truffle Oil

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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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