Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Sympathy For The Devil

Anthony Bourdain reacts to Howie's departure.

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There was rejoicing in TV-land last night, as designated bad guy Howie whiffed on three pitches and was sent home for good. For many who have posted on this site, offended by his petulance, his obstinacy, the veritable Niagara of sweat that flowed freely from his brow, it was none too soon. But...but... what do we do now? With no bad guy?

And was Howie all that bad?

Did we judge Howie too harshly because of his less-than-matinee idol looks? If he sweated less profusely, and looked like a young Brad Pitt, would his words and attitude alone have made him such a compelling target? When I look at Howie, short, bald, pants looking two sizes too big on him, built like a small tank and with an expression on his face like a closed fist, I sense the end product of a long line of tormentors.

Knowing nothing about him, I'm guessing that this guy has experienced, in his time, more than his share of insult. The Howie we've come to love -- to hate -- cannot, I think, have made it through the school system -- much less the early part of a cooking career without soaking up a lot of punishment. What has evolved is a tough, hard-shelled little bastard who just refuses to give an inch. I may not want to work with him. I certainly don't want to be marooned on Gilligan's Island with him. But I admire his toughness.
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Which is not to say he didn't richly deserve to get the chop. Absolutely unwilling to "lose", Howie, reaching the bottom of his limited bag of tricks, positioned himself as "choosing" to fall on his sword. Knowing that his Quickfire offering was an embarrassment, he trotted out the high-minded principle argument again (as he did in Episode One). He "chose" not to submit a less-than-the best offering -- cause he's just so exacting and his standards so high, you see.

His upturned martini glass was a defiant "Screw You" to the judges, but to me it smacked of Roberto Duran's famous "No mas" end to his bout with Sugar Ray Leonard. The tough, proud, and previously unbeatable Duran, after a few short rounds with the much faster, more polished Leonard, looked into the future and saw nothing but many more rounds of swinging at empty air and a humiliating loss on points. So he quit. Better, he figured, to walk out upright than allow anyone the satisfaction of watching him be a punching bag in the last round.

It's the old "You can't fire me! I QUIT!" exit strategy, and Howie was workin' it from early in the show. "Who gives a **** what the judges say? " he was saying -- even before he lost. In the bit from his exit interview, Howie was already at work on his revisionist version of events -- that he'd "made the right choice."

In truth, there was no choice about it. He gave the Elimination Challenge his best shot -- and it wasn't nearly good enough. In fact, it was light years away from adequate. Asparagus "cigars" wrapped in phyllo? Mushroom "Duxelle" sitting on puff pastry? Are you kidding? You go to any Midwestern Association of Insurance Adjusters conference at some airport convention center, and before suffering the "choice of chicken or salmon" sit-down dinner in the banquet room, there will be the grim gauntlet of hors' doevres (along with the jug Chablis and the sparkling wine). Alongside the curling carrot sticks and unripe brie will no doubt be passed greasy, phyllo wrapped objects and mysterious sludgelike substances festering atop pre-cooked hollows of puff pastry much like Howie's. Monochromatic. Oxidizing into even more extreme ugliness with every passing second. And ubiquitous in the Annals of Mediocrity. About as "stylish" as baby quiche, devilled eggs -- or remaki.
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I was never a creative genius as a chef. Far from it. I was a journeyman. God knows, back in the day, I ran to the freezer many times during the Christmas party season, looking to bail myself out with frozen spanokopita, the case of Durkee bits, the frozen baby quiche -- or made a quick retreat to curried chicken salad on Belgian endive leaves -- when extreme measures were called for. But I never deluded myself while doing it that I was Escoffier. I wasn't "Top Chef". I was "Desperate For Something Else to Feed the Hungry Mob Chef".

Howie, I think, is also, a journeyman chef. Which is why I retain no small measure of respect and even affection for him. To be honest with myself, for a lot of my career -- if not most of my career -- I cooked more like him than like some of the brighter lights among the contestants. If cooking professionally were simply an endurance sport, Howie would have the world by the balls. When talking top tier cooking, though, toughness and endurance just ain't enough. Howie, eventually and inevitably, I'm afraid, simply ran out of gas in the creative and finesse departments. Believe me, I know the feeling.
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And what of former bad-guy, Hung? The other contestants seem to be softening towards him, more amused than appalled these days by his frenetic wierdness. The spontaneous applause at his "Homage Aux Smurfs Sauvages" Quickfire entry was a great "Aww shucks" moment. He's much more the puppy that eats your sneakers these days than the viper in the woodpile.

And look at this significant difference between Howie and Hung: Both were screwed by "difficult" supermarket aisles. But Hung, who was arguably faced with mission impossible, went ahead and enthusiastically had FUN with the situation, embracing the silliness and futility of his predicament by creating a totally loonie tunes collage of crushed up breakfast cereal, a pediatrician's wall mural of powdered crunchberries, booberries, and Lucky Charms. It was haute cuisine for six-year-olds -- and while it had no chance of winning, neither did it lose. Instead of smashing his toys and sulking in the corner, Hung actually revelled in reverting to his childhood.

And I'm thinking he might have been among the smartest of the bunch with his shrewdly pedestrian salmon mousse with caviar on cucumber round. It ain't dumb, faced with the challenge of feeding 60 "stylish fashionistas" on the SS Minnow, to keep your head down and aim solidly for the middle ground. The dish -- as was accurately pointed out by the wise and wonderful Dana Cowin -- is indeed as 80s as A Flock of Seagulls and a Mannitol drip . Thing is, people LOVE that shit. It's colorful. It looks "light" and "healthy" and if you're a recently tightened "fashionista", you don't have to open your mouth too wide, distend your cheeks unattractively or wipe crumbs or sauce off your lipstick when you're done. It may be "over" to people who cook food and write about food or even eat food professionally. But as Hung, in acknowledging its retro legacy said, "People will still be eating it in 50 years".

Truer words have never been spoken. Those little pink and green discs of goodness are the Caterer's Best Friend; a perfect fallback position when looking to stay in the game without getting injured. I suspect Hung heard the words "stylish" and "fashionistas" and assumed, not unreasonably: "models" and "dumb as a board" -- and chose his dish accordingly. Even the bitchiest of customers could hardly muster much scorn beyond an extravagantly jaded sigh.
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Why am I humping Hung's leg with such enthusiasm? Cause something really interesting and important happened this week. Hung PUT ASIDE HIS EGO in the shared interests of the mission -- and his personal strategy. He knew with certainty that salmon mousse on cucumber was yesterday's news. And he HAD to know he'd be facing an unimpressed -- even incredulous panel of judges. Yet, instead of trying to look like Wonder Boy, he let pride take a back seat for an unchallenging, utilitarian crowd-pleaser, gambling confidently that someone else would go into the dumper. Howie quickly vindicated that faith.

Winner Casey reminded us why she's still around and still dangerous after last week's slow motion Demolition Derby of a Quickfire Challenge. She may wield her knife like a medieval pole-axe, but she's clearly got an extraordinary palate and a good eye for presentation.
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CJ wheeled out ye olde seafood sausage and can't be faulted for it. Perfectly suited for the venue, tasted good. And it worked before,for others, so why not again?

Brian, on the other hand, did not -- as in previous weeks -- manage to sneak through the crowded outhouse unsplattered. This time, he emerged fully covered in ordure. Had Howie not so proudly extended the middle finger in the Quickfire -- and rushed so enthusiastically to embrace the Pillsbury Doughboy in the Elimination, it would surely have been Brian hitting the high-jump. No contest. I'm beginning to agree with some of the commentators/observers on this site who have pointed out that Brian seems to have managed to avoid cooking altogether for the last few weeks. And this week, as "executive chef" with dibs on the "money dish", he again dodged anything resembling a heat source. Colicchio looks like he's ready to lunge across the Judges' Table and take a jagged bite out of the next uninspired, knucklehead who DARES serve him tuna tartare. I feel his pain. Let us, by all that is holy, be done with it.
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In spite of his mealy-mouthed buck-passing and blame-diffusing at the end, Brian didn't fool anybody on the judges' panel. The "I wasn't really in charge and therefore am not to blame because they're all chefs too" defense was pathetic. As a chef, to complain that your crew "just won't listen" doesn't get you any sympathy. It gets you unemployed.

Bottom line: Brian blew every aspect of the challenge. He presided over a boring menu (where bread seemed to feature obtrusively in nearly every course), he spent his budget unwisely, and deployed his crew poorly (choosing variety over quality), shrank from responsibility at every turn (not killing off Howie's craptacular vol-au-vent idea in its crib -- or stopping it before it left the kitchen), and once again, seemed to busy himself doing everything BUT actually cooking. Do you really need an expediter for a cocktail party of finger food for 60? I think not. Lately, Brian seems AWOL without even being gone.

I should point out, by the way, that I'm guest judging again next week. Which means I know what happens. And while I am precluded from discussing future broadcasts by a confidentiality agreement rivalling the NSA's in the severity of its penalties for unauthorized disclosure, I can reveal this: There will be a SlaughterFest of Horror, an Orgy of Bloodletting, Partial Nudity, Flammable Liquids, Unspeakable Misuse of Power Tools and Small Woodland Creatures, and the Plaintive Wailing of the Doomed. It will make Altamont look like Lilith Fair.

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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